In The Middle
of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s
has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don’t ring. One day I look out the window,
green summer, the next, the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail, a metronome, 3/4 time. We’ll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
About a week into Lent every year I have to come to terms with time because writing a thousand words a night that make at least some sense takes so much of it. I started writing last Wednesday determined to write in the morning so I wouldn’t face the empty page when I got home from work at ten or ten-thirty. I kept that routine for about three days and ended up back in nocturnal mode because late at night appears to be where I can find the space and silence to write. The tradeoff is I don’t get to sleep as much. I think that’s why the first couple of lines resonated so much:
struggling for balance, juggling time
Some years back, one of Ginger’s colleagues from her doctoral program taught them how to juggle with scarves. The mechanics were easier to teach because the scarves floated more than they fell and, as Ginger pointed out, they looked pretty, too. It was my first encounter with kindler, gentler, juggling. At Quincy Market in downtown Boston, a tourist area, I watched a street performer juggle a bowling ball, an apple, and a chain saw that was running at the time. I wondered, first, how he learned to compensate for the differences in shape and weight as he threw the items up and down; I wondered second how he practiced. There had to be a first time, a time when he had no idea how it was going to go when he threw the chainsaw into the air and lived to try it a second and third and forty-fifth time. How long do you have to practice to be able to do this?
I’ve tried to learn to juggle and done OK at it, but both the prospect and the reality that I can’t always catch the balls makes it more stressful than satisfying for me.
When I was in sixth grade, my grandfather taught my brother and I how to build our own kites out of newspaper strips, flour paste, and wooden dowels. Once we had our masterpieces, he gave us each a mile of string, coiled up on a stick and ready to use. One appropriately windy afternoon, I went out into the big field beside our house (I think it was actually the back of a railroad yard) and set my kite sailing. I don’t know how long it took me to get the kite all the way out to the end of the string, my masterpiece flying a full mile away from me, but I remember getting to the end because it was then I discovered my grandfather had not tied the string around the stick. I stood in the field and watched my kite go on its own adventure.
That story popped into my head because I was about to write this sentence: life is a little like juggling with helium-filled balloons – sooner or later they’re going to get away. I told the kite story instead because, the reality of the juggling metaphor notwithstanding, the feeling I had watching my kite sail away wasn’t mostly about losing it. I felt pretty good about standing out there and working the kite until it had flown a mile away from me. As many times as I’ve told that story (and I repeat my stories, just ask Ginger), it feels somehow hopeful. I just stood there till the string ran out, flying my kite.
Today was going to be one of those days that I went all J. Alfred Prufrock on Durham and measured out my life in coffee spoons. I was to meet a group from the church for breakfast to plan our upcoming men’s retreat, then I was to meet Chef for our weekly coffee to talk about how things were going at the restaurant, and then I was to meet Ginger at the house of one of our church members for coffee with some of the other UCC ministers in the area. I suppose you can tell what I didn’t give up for Lent. What any of this has to do with juggling or kite flying begins with my sleeping through the alarm and missing the breakfast gathering. There just was not enough night for me to write and sleep and make it to Elmo’s. My choice was to see it as struggle and juggle or surrender.
Crooker traded in her timepiece to “caught between the mesh of rope and the net of stars” that was her backyard hammock where she could run out of time by lying still. I found moments in my encounters today when we were far more aware of the lines that connect us than we were where we needed to be next. I wasn’t juggling. I was being. As another of my favorite poets, Patty Griffin, wrote and recorded “The Kite Song”:
Little sister just remember
As you wander through the blue
The little kite that you sent flying
On a sunny afternoon
Made of something light as nothing
Made of joy that matters too
How the little dreams we dream
Are all we can really do
In the middle of the night
The world turns with all of it’s might
A little diamond colored blue
In the middle of the night
We keep sending little kites
Until a little light gets through
It is the middle of the night and I am letting my words loose like little kites before golden slumbers fill my eyes. How can I help but wake up smiling?