Yesterday I was driving through Berkeley with my husband and son and we stopped at the light at Shattuck and Haste. To our right, in front of the Dollar Tree store, a man stood with his little daughter. I guessed she was about five years old. She was wearing a pink skirt and a t-shirt and her hair was all done up in colorful plastic barrettes and she and her dad were looking up at something. When I followed their gaze I saw another man, perched in a tree a couple of yards away. He was leaning out from the trunk toward an arching branch, reaching for a yellow smiley-face helium balloon caught in the leaves, its white ribbon trailing.
The three of us watched in fascination as the man in the tree leaned out over empty space, holding on to the trunk but also extending his arm to try to grab the ribbon. The balloon danced just out of range, floating on the current of air he’d created just by moving, and I held my breath. Was the effort worth it? And then just as I started to worry that he’d lose his balance and fall the balloon drifted closer and he grabbed it. He centered himself on the tree again and as the little girl’s father stepped forward he handed the balloon down, rescue complete.
The windows of our car were open and we were in the far right lane and I couldn’t help it — I started clapping and cheering. The father looked up and into the street in surprise, trying to locate where the sound was coming from; he waved in our general direction and gave the balloon to his daughter.
I embarrassed my husband and my son, though. “Okay, Kate,” my husband said with a nervous laugh. “The light’s green, just go,” and I glanced up and he was right, the light had changed and I was holding up traffic. “Mom,” my son said, with that particular corrective inflection only an 11-year-old is capable of. “Go.”
Irritation flashed through me. What was embarrassing about celebrating a small human success on an a beautiful spring afternoon? “You two,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Who cares if I clap?”
Right then I could feel the choice point between letting go of their response – just letting it be part of the texture of the whole thing, rather than its essence – and attaching to it so that the luminous quality of the balloon, the little girl, the man reaching out from the tree would be clouded. For a second I wanted to choose to be hurt, to drop into a story about how I was misunderstood and unsupported and how my husband and son were too uptight. But the moment was so interesting and hopeful, a flash of theater created by a handful of strangers, that I found myself veering toward something different. I was free to clap, they were free to be embarrassed, and the girl got her balloon back. Amen.