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first person

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

About three months ago an unusually fierce windstorm blew through our neighbourhood. I went to the second floor of the house to look out at the valley below. The giant blue spruce in the neighbour’s yard on the right was swaying perilously, its branches dancing and swinging, as if possessed by a demon.

To my left was a tall elm tree, anchored firmly in the middle of another neighbour’s yard. Blasts of wind were peeling away the few leaves that still clung to the branches. Within seconds, all the branches were bare.

I was about to step away when a white bag caught my eye. She had been caught in a whirlwind, swirling around the trunk of the elm. She was an ordinary plastic shopping bag from the large grocery store down the hill, white with a green logo printed on one side. I was captivated by her beautiful movements, like those of a graceful bird circling the trunk of the tree. Just as it looked like the wind was about to gently set her down on the ground, she was caught in another powerful gust and propelled upwards, into the tree’s long, spindly branches.

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White bag fought valiantly, weaving her way through the branches, desperately seeking the freedom of the open sky. But the branches taunted her, with one letting her go, only to be tossed into the arms of another. The branches worked like a team, swaying in unison, never letting white bag have more than a second or two of freedom.

A strong, thick branch in the centre of the tree grabbed hold of one of white bag’s arms. She frantically dipped and swirled but her frenzied movements were in vain. She had formed a knot at the top of her captive arm, tying it securely to the triumphant branch.

I watched as white bag flailed helplessly until the windstorm finally died out. She hung by her trapped arm, limp, wrinkled and still. Something about her lifeless form made me incredibly sad. The fact that the world had been plunged into difficult times was no doubt a factor. Did white bag represent the restrictions and confinements that the pandemic had imposed on my life?

I had been wallowing in a COVID-19-induced funk, sad that the approaching Christmas season would lack the lively festivities and happy gatherings of other years. Why bother decorating when visitors couldn’t go beyond the front door? Why prepare trays of appetizers when friends wouldn’t be gathered in the kitchen?

I was starting to check on white bag several times a day. Her captivity fed my feelings of self-pity, validating a general state of malaise. I was becoming obsessed with white bag’s state of helplessness. If she could somehow break away, did it mean that we could once again roam freely outside the confines of our homes? Was my happiness dependent upon a flimsy piece of plastic trapped in a tree?

But one sunny day in early December, as the white bag was making her usual attempts to free herself, my perspective changed. It struck me that her movements were somehow different. Instead of flailing and struggling, she appeared to be swaying gracefully, perfectly in sync with the branches during this light breeze. Could it be she liked being among the branches? Could she be content, happy in her perch?

I considered what white bag’s fate would be if she were to break away. No doubt she’d enjoy a few minutes of glorious freedom, soaring with the wind currents and climbing high into the sky. But eventually, she would fall to the ground, landing on a road, or maybe pinned up against a fence somewhere. Soon she would be picked up, limp and dirty, and deposited in the nearest garbage bin. Within days, a city truck would transport her to the landfill and she’d be buried under grimy household waste.

White bag jolted me out of my self-indulgent funk. There was still time to decorate for the holidays. Boxes were brought down from shelves in the garage, outdoor lights were strung up in trees and a festive wreath was hung on the door. When we had online visits with family and friends, our brightly decorated tree glittered in the background.

I was grateful that white bag had helped me find joy in the Christmas season. We went into the New Year with hope and optimism, buoyed by advances with vaccines and hopes that life would become less restricted. After a few weeks, however, with the news of virus variants and the realization that things would be moving slowly, we felt our spirits dampen.

January brought cold, dull days and I felt myself slipping back into the grips of the COVID-19 doldrums. It was easy to find excuses to skip daily hikes with my pup. The trails were icy. My pup was getting old, her fur was thinning and hikes in frigid temperatures had to be uncomfortable. The couch beckoned with new Netflix series and leftover Christmas goodies.

In late January, a strong westerly wind prompted me to check on white bag. Her free arm had been captured by another branch and her body billowed out, like a spinnaker on a sailboat. It was clear she was under considerable strain. Then, as I watched, white bag was ripped down the middle, with just the lower portion of her body holding together. Her two upper portions, plump and rounded in the breeze, came together to form a narrow base. I realized that white bag had taken on the shape of a heart, a slightly ragged and lopsided heart, but in my eyes, it was perfect.

This heart symbolized so many things: love, spirituality, courage, compassion and, of course, life itself. Valentine’s Day was not far away. Was white bag again giving me a prod, reminding me that there’s still so much to be thankful for – so much to look forward to – so much to love?

Within a few days, my online order arrived at the door – a pair of traction cleats that fit over my hiking boots and a red quilted coat for my pup, guaranteed to keep her warm. We’re back to our daily hikes, noticing that the days are getting longer and warmer. By Valentine’s Day, we’ll be ready for a long trek, with a picnic at the top of the trail. From that perch, we’ll look down on the elm tree that became white bag’s new home. I hope it will be a sunny day and her heart will be full, fluttering in the breeze.

Ann Diehl lives in Kamloops.

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