This I Believe

Jon - massillon, Ohio
Entered on March 31, 2007

I believe that juggling is a metaphor for life…for with nothing more than flying objects and a lifetime of practice you can make the impossible appear effortless…just like life.

It’s ironic that an art form normally associated with jesters and buffoonery can teach more about the spirit of existence than a lifetime of sitting on a mountain top. If juggling is your practice you will learn patience, perseverance, breathing, relaxation, it’s all there to be found in the tumbling spheres of a simple three ball cascade. It trains you to control your throws while staying relaxed. But most of all juggling teaches you to live entirely in the moment.

Like life juggling is more interesting when put to music and most spectacular when the objects are different sizes and colours. Juggling, like life, is learned in stages. Each phase requires infinite attempts and countless failures in order to become proficient. Both juggling and life are more about timing and rhythm than we ever give them credit for. For you see in life our successes are a result of being in the right place at the right time and then reacting accordingly…just like juggling.

I started out learning to juggle when I was twenty-nine and trying to quit smoking. I needed something to do with my hands that didn’t involve killing people. I needed to throw some things and not break others, and juggling seemed so apropos. I learned the basics using three discarded tennis balls and a book from the library. It was cheap and easy and it kept me from committing genocide. That was twenty years ago and, though I’ve only been tobacco free for seven, I’ve been a mediocre juggler for the entire time. I’m not great, but I enjoy it and it’s taught me everything I know about the art of living.

To learn juggling you begin with one ball, playing catch with your self, tossing the ball back and forth between your hands. You are learning juggling at its most basic level. Toss, catch toss, drop, its mind numbing boredom and an aerobic workout. You appear retarded to anyone watching and yet, try as you might, still you cannot do it with any regularity. You spend more time and energy cursing as you stoop to retrieve the ball as it shoots for its favorite hiding place under the couch. It is life in its most base form. How much of our days are spent accomplishing the mundane? How much the incredible? And yet it teaches us that through repetition we can improve, we can drop fewer and catch more. Our throws become more consistent and controlled and, even when we miss, we learn that most errors are not fatal. Through this mastery of the most basic of skills we learn that our failures are really just an opportunity for growth and that with practice shall come perfection.

Then, after only weeks of tedium, comes step two, incorporating a second ball. Pick a hand, any hand, and throw the ball in your now perfected arch. Then, just as the ball hits its imaginary peak, toss the ball in the other hand underneath the first and catch them both! The left ball goes to the right hand and the right ball to the left, throw, throw, catch, catch. In short you are multi-tasking and multi-tasking is a Mother Hubbard. While a single ball was too easy (in your mind at least) two is too hard. You throw the first, you rush, the balls collide and go careening in opposite directions. You curse, you hunt them down, you argue with yourself over whether or not you’ll ever be able to accomplish this task, and then you try again. Over and over, a thousand throws, a thousand misses, a million more, aaaaargh! Whatever motivated you to think you might want to juggle? Oh, yes you wanted to quit smoking…well, maybe after this cigarette…and maybe a narcotic cocktail chaser…

It takes untold months of attempt and then finally, miraculously, you do it! Not once, not twice, but repeatedly, as though you’d been doing it your entire life! So you run to the book and read that the next step is to do the same thing, only backwards. Where you once threw left right, catch catch, you now must throw the right one first and the left one under it! Oh Jeeze Louise! I just spent a micro-eternity programming my mind to accomplish a series of movements and now I must reverse the process and do it backwards! But you can’t, because your brain says (or rather screams) left right catch catch not right left catch catch and you, having suddenly been reduced to a mental ameba who cant do it any other way than the way you originally learned! You cry, you use bad language, you throw the balls away, buy new ones, try again and repeat the process. You take a break, have a smoke, join a support group, convince the police (who were called by your neighbors) that you are not insane or rabid, but merely learning to juggle, and you try again. To summarize steps two and three are a lot like child rearing (or baby “making”/sex or pregnancy for that matter) in that there are moments of elation surrounded by a lot of sweating and grunting and the making of ugly faces.

Step four is a bit of a secret, in that step two and three when incorporated and done simultaneously, left right, catch right throw right, catch left throw left do it again, is really three ball juggling, only with two balls. You see what most people don’t realize is that in three ball juggling there are only ever two balls in motion at any given moment. The third ball is always in your hand. So step four, adding the third ball, is nothing more than steps two and three with a little bit more height and slightly faster tempo…or at least that’s what the book said. I tried for months, and couldn’t do it. I thought for sure I was going to be the worlds only two ball juggler and nothing more. Then it occurred to me that maybe the key was to not try and master this, but rather to just do it once. Throw throw throw, catch catch catch, stop. Throw throw throw throw, catch catch catch, stop. I quickly learned that I could do that, then I could do it twice, then three times and before long I was juggling!

I was amazed! I was so proud of myself! I had accomplished what I set out to do…except for quit smoking…and I now juggled between cigarettes.

In fact for the next thirteen years I practiced and practiced. In the course of things I invented new moves, added finesse and took that beginners book out of the library enough times to dog ear it all by myself. I don’t think anyone else ever borrowed the book as it was always there whenever I went to retrieve it. I learned many tricks, added music and patter. I became a legend in my own mind and learned to amuse children of all ages with nothing more than three pieces of fruit in the produce isle of the local grocery store. I wasn’t doing kids parties (thank God) or working in nite clubs (too bad) but whenever life got dull I could snatch up three objects of similar size and weight and lighten the mood of a room. And I learned about life…

In twenty years juggling has taught me to relax, to have fun, to live in the moment, to watch not just with my eyes, but all my senses. It has taught me to breath, to pay heed to the rhythms of life, to trust myself and the forces of the universe as well. Juggling has taught me about God, in that A. I do my most prayerful meditations while engrossed in the throw throw catch catch and 2. God made gravity and without gravity juggling truly would be impossible. Juggling has taught me that with practice you can do anything and yet all the hard work in the world would be nothing if it did not put a smile on the face of another. Juggling has taught me that anything worth doing is worth working for and that anything worth working for is only good if given away freely…and that I believe is a metaphor for living, wouldn’t you say?