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It’s a few weeks before my birthday. My partner and I are planning Rosh Hashana dinner—brisket, challah, three kinds of roasted vegetables, two different cakes—for 16 of what we fondly call the Hoch-people.
I’m in that chapter of life where the object of my worry toggles, depending on the hour, between my medically fragile mom and my just-sprung-from-college daughter.
Oh, also, I recently learned that a staple of my work life, my long-running Parent Trip column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, was being cancelled, a casualty of the company’s “content review strategy” and a cold assessment of digital metrics.
It’s almost fall. Paint spirals off our long-neglected shutters. My bones need medicine to keep from breaking down. A Monday evening. I am standing in a field in Germantown, under bruise-colored clouds, trying to juggle it all.
Bring your own beanbags
This is not a metaphor.
It is a class taught by actor/juggler/colleague-of-a-friend Joe Ahmed, an ingenious fundraiser for his solo Fringe show. I signed up because I want to support his art, because my pal encouraged me, because life has been a little grim lately, and I need more play.
I’ve come BYOB (bring your own beanbags) with three lime-sized lumps sewn from a pair of old jeans and plumped with rice. My partner made them for me the first time—half a life ago before our daughter was a shadow on a sonogram—that I tried learning to juggle.
In the two decades since, I’ve attempted the same feat with the tutelage of my sister-in-law’s brother, my niece, my best friend, and a variety of cheerful YouTube videos.
So far, no go. For five, 10, 15-minute increments, I’ve stood in front of the couch and tossed just one of the beanbags from hand to hand. I imagine a rectangle resting on its short side in front of me; the idea is to throw toward the opposite corner.
I do this over and over and over. Left hand toward right corner; right hand in the opposite direction. I try to make my throws consistent, neat parabolas. I stare. I breathe.
Then I add a second beanbag. Throw, throw; catch, catch. The aim is to keep a steady rhythm, to toss a bit higher than my head, to avoid snatching beanbags from the air, but let them fall into my hand with a soft whump.
I palm a third sack, snugging it behind its mate in my left hand, and try the same routine. Throw, throw; catch, drop. Throw, throw; drop, catch. Throw; retrieve beanbag #2 from the puppy’s mouth. Throw, drop, sweep under the couch with a broomstick for beanbag #3 … or is it #1? Begin to sweat. Start to wonder if there’s a juggling gene and I don’t have it.
Finding a way to let go
When juggling is figurative, I excel. Years of being a self-employed writer and teacher have taught me to shift easily from project to project: drafting an article on rheumatoid arthritis in the morning and planning a poetry workshop for second-graders in the afternoon while simmering chickpeas for dinner and showing the repair guy the blitzed light fixture in the basement.
But this hands-on juggling is a whole different ballgame.
“Don’t think of it as throwing and catching,” Ahmed counsels after watching my beanbags whump into the damp grass. “Think of it as receiving and redirecting.”
Uh-huh. That’s beautiful, kind of poetic, but how do I translate that to the fingers that want to grasp and keep whichever ball comes near? How do I resist the impulse to clutch, focusing instead on graceful, smooth release?
How did this thing turn back into metaphor, after all?
Isidore the juggler
At Rosh Hashana dinner, somewhere between the gefilte fish and the apple cake, my mother asks why I want to learn to juggle.
I think about Malcolm Gladwell’s declaration in Outliers: The Story of Success: that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach expertise. I think about my fourth-grade teacher giving me a B-minus in handwriting because I gripped my pencil so hard my knuckles paled. I think about my habits of accrual and my resistance to change, how I kept the same backpack for 18 years and can’t bring myself to recycle day planners from the 1990s.
I don’t say any of that. Instead, I say, “One of the few things Dad ever told me about his father was that he could juggle.”
That is not the whole truth, but it is true. My father rarely spoke of his own father, who died before my parents met. I’ve seen photos: he was cinematically handsome, with a swoop of ink-black hair and deep-set eyes.
His name was Isidore—Israel in Hebrew, feminized to Azraela, my own Hebrew name. Azraela, granddaughter of a first-generation, Brooklyn-born fur-cutter who died of multiple sclerosis and knew how to juggle before the illness gnarled his hands.
Ahmed has us try tossing just one ball way above our heads while gazing upward, an exercise in trust that the orb will fall, because that’s what gravity does, and meet our hands. He invites us to pair up, standing side-by-side and juggling as if we are one person—my left hand, say, and my partner’s right, keeping the balls in play.
He vows that practice will make—well, not perfection, but slow progress.
There’s still light to practice by
Here are things I do not know: how did my grandmother, my father, and his brother endure Isidore’s diagnosis, his fragility, his death? How does a loving parent toe the wire between involvement and detachment? Can a person, at 61, learn to loosen her grip?
I keep the denim sacks upstairs. When I run up for pee breaks, I grab them. There are 24 hours in a day, 168 in every week. Ten thousand hours is more than an entire year. The world’s on fire, we are mortal, those blue-black clouds are scudding in, but there’s still a bit of daylight left. It’s not too late to practice letting go.
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