Heart balloon and Virginia
Ahh, spring! Always a season of bloom. And this year, for me, a season of lessons, too.
Take last Saturday: when I went out on a group hike in one of the largest concentrations of blooming trilliums in North America; when by lunchtime I found myself so annoyed by my fellow hikers’ superfluous applications of DEET and alacrity for watching YouTube videos on smart phones while surrounded by trilliums that I wondered if I could have made more of the day by staying at home to write; and when by dinner I was enjoying a freshly fried trout that had been swimming in Lake Thompson, Virginia, even as I was rolling my eyes at lunch.
Oh, universe! There you go again, teaching me how much loveliness, beyond any possible scope of my imagination, you are capable of offering up. Especially when I least expect it—and only when I am open to it, letting go of my insecure impulses to plan, predict, plot, and control.
The discoveries of Saturday kicked in just after lunch, when I decided to break away from the main group of hikers and mosey on by myself. Instantly the day was better. I was ten minutes out from our lunch site, weaving through a corridor of green (lush in that way that only Eastern forests can be in springtime), when my eye caught on a brilliant spot of red: twenty yards off the trail, something glistening. I crunched my way through the underbrush to investigate.
What’s that red over there?
A balloon! A shiny, Valentine’s-Day-red balloon. In the shape of a heart. And not quite deflated—weirdly animate and hovering just above the ground, a bit of helium oomph still lingering.
Suddenly I was filled with questions—the most fascinating kind, the ones you know you will never know enough to answer with certainty. Where did this red heart balloon come from? Did the ribbon escape someone’s hand on Valentine’s Day? Is it really over two months old? Maybe it was part of someone’s anniversary celebration? Or birthday party? And how on earth did it come to rest here, in the middle of a densely wooded wildlife management area?
Well, I thought, I guess everything comes to rest somewhere.
I considered leaving the balloon where it lay so other hikers might also enjoy the droll red sight of it, but then I thought of how my mom always picks up conspicuous pieces of litter when she’s out for her walks. I had no choice.
The balloon’s red ribbon was still in perfect condition, so I wrapped it around my hand. From there on out, I was the girl hiking with a red heart balloon. One person on the trail asked, “Where’s the birthday party?” (I said, “If only I’d found some cake and ice cream, too!”) Another said, “Someone must have brought that up here with a ring, to propose to someone!”
All the possibilities. Who knows? All I could do was smile and think, oh curious, fascinating universe: why this discovery? So weird and so delightful! There you go, surprising me again.
A few miles away, the trail drew up along a small lake behind an earthen dam. I couldn’t remember the last time I was at a lake; to be near this tiny human-made reservoir on a sunny spring day made me equal parts glad and sad. Just last week, one of my cubicle daydreams was about going fishing.
Then I noticed a bench on the shore of the lake, a bench where a man in a blue and white plaid shirt, khaki fishing vest, and jeans was sitting with a fishing pole.
“Watcha catchin’?” I walked up and noticed a small opened package of cheese-filled crackers on the bench beside him.
“Just one, today,” he said, pointing to a fish moving slowly in the shallows at one end of a stringer attached to a branch on shore.
It was a brown trout, he explained. Nice size. (Indeed!) They stock ‘em here twice a month, until it gets too hot, when the fish go out deep, where it’s cool. They bite best at dawn and dusk, when the whole lake seems to dance with them rising, but it was too nice an afternoon not to spend fishing.
I asked if he was going to eat the trout. “Oh, sure, my wife and I eat trout three times a week. Course, I have a hundred of these in the freezer.”
I told him I’m from Wisconsin, where I grew up fishing, and I miss fishing on lakes there. He told me about his wife’s sister, who lives near a lake in Wisconsin, and asked me why I live in Washington.
I asked if I could take a picture of the fish. Sure! Then he said, “Say, you want it?”
There you go again, universe! What a gift.
Gift of trout
He lifted it from the water, looked me in the eye, and said, “Now, you’re going to eat this.” Half question, half order.
Yup! My dad usually cleans the fish, but I’ve cleaned a few in my day, and if I remember one thing, it’s that trout are easy. He pointed along the fish to show me how he’d go about filleting it. I thought to my kitchen utensils and tried to remember whether I had a filet knife with me in DC…
He led me to his pick-up truck and took out a one-gallon plastic milk jug full of water. He withdrew a pocket knife and slit a hole in the top of the milk jug, dumped some of the water out, and slid the fish into it. “There. Oughta keep it fresh till you get back to Washington.”
We exchanged contact information, he invited me to join him fishing out there any time—he’s retired and comes out every other day or so—and I thanked him. “This will be my best dinner in a long time.”
From that point, four miles remained between me and the hiking club bus: girl hiking with a red heart balloon in one hand and a trout in a milk jug in the other. What a day!
After the hiking club bus dropped me off in DC, I had to catch a city bus home. There must have been a special event along the bus route somewhere, because the bus was jam-packed—very strange, for a Saturday. It was standing room only in the aisle of the bus, and I was fortune to have a seat. I hunched over my backpack, a bag with my hiking boots and wool socks in it, and the milk jug.
I was busy trying not to let the blood-tinted fish water slosh on the fancy suit of the man sitting next to me and hoping he hadn’t seen—or smelled—the dead trout floating beside him when a soft little voice rose from a few feet away.
I looked up and made eye contact with a little girl. She was standing in the aisle and holding a bar on the seat in front of mine. She stared with big eyes. She looked down at the milk jug and then back to me, suspicious; she wanted me to know that she knew something about this scene was peculiar. Thinking I should say something reassuring, I smiled at her and opened my mouth to explain.
But then I realized there was nothing I could possibly say to explain.
How to explain the trout in a milk jug on my lap on a city bus? How to explain the unexpected kindness of a stranger? The delight of serendipity? The random resting point of a shiny red heart, once lighter than the air we breathe?
Perhaps the only explanation is the lesson that this season has shown me again and again: as much as I might feel more secure if I try to make strict plans or control things happening around me, the most interesting things happen when I let go of those impulses, when I loosen my expectations and open myself to being surprised. My need to plan and control and plot are ultimately products of insecurity, and the products of insecurity are almost never good.
When it comes to the plans I make versus what actually happens, more often than not, I’ve been bested. And I will continue to be bested. The universe is full of discoveries richer than the ones I go out seeking. It will deliver events more fascinating than anything I could orchestrate. When I stand open, it stands ready and offering, full of a great big loveliness I could never anticipate, even if I tried.
When the universe is leaf-possible