Saturday, June 25, 2011

juggle this

There will be time. There will be time.

-- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Most preachers are musical, but many of them keep it under wraps. During a party at his house, I learned that one of my pastors was an excellent sight-reading piano player. He claimed no lofty view of his abilities, but I've auditioned, or sung for my supper, with many who weren't as good.

I've learned from a third person that another preacher I know is an excellent juggler. I won't ask him to demonstrate. It's his gift to reveal or conceal. The point is, pastors often have a physical art that underlies their words.

I'll never be a juggler. I know this to be true because I tried for years. But I learned by trying.

I had my first physical education at the age of twenty-five.

Oh yes, there was gym class. Lining up to shoot baskets, under the eye of a disappointed jock who asked God why his life had come to this, watching nerds fail at what he could do but could not, would not teach. There was one of him at every school. My presence insulted him; his despair marked me.

But that is not what I mean by physical education. It's far too rare; nerds like me may go through a lifetime without getting any. I was lucky enough, prescient enough, to find my way into a training course for the theatre, and to find a master who helped me learn to live in my body.

It was, of course, too late. It's like languages -- there's a time of life, very young, when you can pick things up, easy as breath, but if you miss that time it will never be simple. When my teacher came round to his brief juggling lesson, many of the eighteen-year-olds within minutes had their three-ball cascades in the air. It took me three months of obsessive practice to do the same thing. I was by far the last, and by the time of my breakthrough the class had long gone on to other matters. Most in my situation would have given up. Note to therapist: I did not.

These are now my limits (I know this because I spent years trying to exceed them). I can keep two balls in the air with one hand. Or three balls in the air with two hands. I can do a few simple variations of the pattern. I cannot keep five balls in the air. Or four. I cannot pass behind my back. I cannot pass under my leg. I cannot juggle clubs.

Why should clubs be an absolute barrier? Because they move in two dimensions at once. Not only do they follow the arc from one hand to the other, but they rotate head over base, and the neck of the club must come round to your palm just as the clubs falls to your hand. I could never get this co-ordination. This crippled body, ostracized in the time when it might have learned, this body that spent months learning to feel one of the motions accurately, was permanently baffled by the task of bringing two motions into phase.

And yet despite these limits, in the few motions that have been revealed to me there is spiritual truth. Without this corporeal knowledge I could never have sung for my supper, nor could I preach.

It's the essence of juggling that you're going to have more than one thing in the air all the time. Each of these objects, for most of the time, is out of your control. But you must not panic. You have to let go.

Take a ball in your hand. Throw it into the air before you, about as high as your chin. Try not to watch yourself catch it.

Take two balls in one hand, and throw one into the air, in an arc that rises up your center line and falls out to your side. As it reaches the high pont, throw the other on the same path. As the second one goes over the top, catch the first and throw it again. You're juggling. (Three balls are actually simpler, because you have two hands to manage them, taking turns.)

Now here's the problem. As soon as you've released the first ball, you have to refocus on releasing the second. And I didn't want to refocus. I'd been taught, I had absorbed, I could not let it go of, the Protestant ethic of ceaseless hard work. When I threw the first ball, I had to follow it with the eye and mind all the way through its arc and into my hand. Anything else was dereliction of duty. The theology of a nerdly body assured me that the moment I thought of something else would be the moment of my failure: Satan and my gym teacher would then rejoice in my well-deserved humiliation, a failure not only physical but moral as well.

But now, in my master's juggling lesson, I faced a fruitful contradiction. I had to release each ball not only with the hand but with the mind. If I did not let go, if I did not derelict my duty, I would fail. I had to learn how to do what my body protested was the wrong thing, letting the object flung from my hand proceed unsupervised on its way. How could I ever find it again?

What was required of me was faith. The hand, the eye and the mind have plenty of wisdom to find each other: two hands are sufficient to keep three, five, seven objects flying, if each hand does its work at the right time. But faith had long left my body, flying from the eyes of despairing gym teachers, and it took months for me to start recovering it.

I learned to see the ball's complete trajectory in the act of releasing it, and then to forget, so that I could then turn my attention to the next event, even while the consequences of my previous throw revealed themselves. I learned to trust that things would work out even though I didn't know how; because if I did not trust, things would not work out.

The terrible thing about getting your physical education too late is that there are so many things you will never learn to do. The miracle of it is that you know exactly what you have learned.

I learned that there was time enough. Time enough to rest, and take the next action. Time enough, if I would make the time. Time enough, if I turned with empty hand from the already past event, toward the future as it came to me. I learned to detach because if I did not detach I would fail. I failed a thousand times before I began to succeed. And then the mountain of my doubt began to move.

They say that if a thing is yours you should let it go and, if it belongs to you, it will come back. Juggling is like that. Also love. Love of children, or lovers or friends, poems or songs. The beauty shines back on us from things we give up.


tkjaeger said...

I teach my first class today with a new group of high school and college students who are here in Lenox for an eight week training cycle. There is not a moment in my teaching when you are not present, gently reminding me to let go. Thanks, again and still, for being my teacher.

My Word said...

Thanks for the lovely circle of thoughts about juggling.
We are indeed all juggling, sometimes frantically ... so thanks too for reminding me today that indeed there will be time ... and all manner of things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be very well.

My Word said...

Thanks, Hollis, for a beautiful reminder that we are always all juggling, and that indeed there will be time.
Cheers, Lisa