Mild weather and a sunny afternoon seemed tailored to my walk. My mood was not in the least aligned or tailored. I was cranky almost from the start. Everything was an irritant: idle chatter alongside a soccer game in the park, the usual panhandlers around Walgreens, stock bumperstickers (are there any original ones out there?), and motorists’ bad manners toward us pedestrians. The usual .
There was the rub of rubs: I’ve been bumping up against all this stuff before, long enough to develop psychic calluses. But this day I was raw, tender skin inside and out.
Toward the end of my walk, down in our Third Ward, my stew was stirred and the readiness to boil nudged. There, in another park, was a popcorn wagon with lamps alit and windows aglow. (Disclaimer: the Royal Lichtenstein Circus never had a popcorn wagon fashioned of decorated wood and glass and mounted on spoked wheels.) Unnecessary and only marginally useful. A luxury. Just there. And two blocks later, a horse, and then another drawing a carriage. (Disclaimer: our Third Ward is probably the most poetic of our districts.) Incongruous movement. More luxury. Just here going somewhere.
I felt transformed. The worn and irritant usual had been jolted by that extra leap (might it be a double somersault?) the human imagination so competently engineers. I forgot my crankiness except in the context of my need for rhythm. In forty-five minutes I had been transported from the stale and dangerously non-productive state of angry isolation to curiosity, outreach, and gratitude for my fellows and my surroundings.
My redemptive experience emerged from happenstance. I lucked out. But can I deliberately catch myself off-guard in order to get different patterns of synapses to fire? The etymology of the very word surprise is itself instructive. French, dontcha know: sur, above; pris (prendre) to take. If I want to get above the meanness of down-in-the-dumps preoccupation with everything that’s wrong, I need to trick myself into looking up beyond what fails to what might be possible.
It could be that setting such joyful traps for one’s soul is more difficult if your past has been in the service of the circus and the art of the clown. After all, those are the day-in and day-out businesses of surprise (like that popcorn wagon and the horse-drawn carriage). Sometimes it takes a downright wondrous trap to surprise the minister of laughs into just how blessed her calling is.—My partner came back to her place in the ring after her usual mug to a section of the audience. We’d done the “tablecloth pull” fourteen times a week for six months by then on the Carson and Barnes Circus route. But this night, when she came back to the table, she was noticeably sobbing, tears awash down her always so-careful makeup. I set myself for the yank of the tablecloth, but my own face, even through its makeup, must have insisted on an explanation. Her answer was far more healthy for us than the blow-off was for our laughing audience. “My son is in the audience! I haven’t seen him for years!”
But can you engineer surprises for yourself? Isn’t that contradictory? Maybe it’s enough to wholeheartedly accept them when they happen. Maybe the goal is a readiness for surprises.