Watching Plovers Stand on One Leg

Years ago a writer friend asked how I kept my balance in a life with so many demands. She was worried and upset because her life felt off balance, and she felt overburdened, and torn in multiple directions and like so many of us, she had less time left to write than she liked—which was, like so many of us, her great love. She even said she admired my calm. When I stopped laughing—who was she talking about?—I told her I identified with her. Balance—gosh, is there such a thing?

I do not live a balanced life. I’m bad at what I consider criteria for a balanced life: knowing what’s important, prioritizing goals, deciphering what I want, setting clear boundaries. I work too hard, and then blow it by procrastinating on the last stages of projects. I’m poor at resting, at letting my mind do the work of replenishment. Sometimes I’m disciplined, sometimes I’m obsessed; sometimes I waste too much time, sometimes I drink too much wine. Though I trust process, it’s unpredictable, and changes for every project and every deadline and every cell in my body. I sometimes self-sabotage my time, and often give away with both hands the hours when I might have been able to sustain that art-teaching-recuperation-socializing ratio. And Lordy, how can you maintain balance if most of the time you aren’t sure who you are? My being is a shape-shifter. Often I live in an unbalanced way that I mask with enough pleasantness to get through a day without alarming my husband, friends, or the dog—though sometimes I think the dog knows better.

But the idea of balance remains alluring, all grace and poise, an ideal we should strive for and in the ideal, attain—like the dancer, that perfect statuesque equilibrium on one leg, utter composure in her lace tutu and toe shoes. That’s the embodiment, and it’s also total illusion. The dancers at Interlochen Arts Academy who sometimes took my writing classes once explained that balance is not an equilibrium; it’s certainly not calm. For them, balance was a tightly-held flexing energy, a highly transitory point of tension, a brief and muscular fulcrum. It might appear as stillness, but only to an audience, because to sustain balance took the engagement of every part of their bodies and minds. That tight-laced serenity merely veneered an electric pinpoint, taut and always on edge, full of tiny calibrations of one’s place in space. And because the edge could not hold, it also meant learning to fall, then falling with grace. Thus, balance was a miniscule moment embedded in the momentum of action, a controlled but “non-balanced” (as opposed to off or “un” balanced) intersection. Whew. Who knew? Not me. But doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound (almost!) like a metaphor for living? And equally, for writing?

Instead of looking for balance, what if I look at the arc of a writing project in that light? What if I don’t expect so much? What if I think in terms of surges and sequences that demand attention, that embrace both applied discipline and friendly uncertainty, but then resolve in what may or may not resemble the launch vision, but are complete in and of themselves—that arc of action? Add a suppleness in the medium, malleable goals unique to the project, a practice that welcomes discovery, an adaptable product, and hopefully, fun people who are tolerant of change. And when (if) it comes together, I can celebrate with gratitude, though the landing point often leaves me with that mix of relief and longing. I realize I enjoy that “working” arc of momentum. I don’t like being off balance, but this nonbalance? Maybe that’s all part of it.

What I’ve come to: balance is not a myth, but our associations with it may be. I think it’s hard to see because it takes up less space and time than we hoped, and also, we are inside it, managing the tension and release. But maybe if we are more tolerant of the flux of living, our uncertainty, and even less self-critical, we could get some good work done. And even as I write this, I’m recalibrating, using the writing brain to access how you will read this. That torque of your readership—another adjustment, and on and on. All is plié and pirouette.

I make that claim, thinking I’ve got it right. Then one day, while walking the beach— trying to maintain balance—I spot a flock of shorebirds. Plovers, sanderling, willets, and all these sweet birds are standing on one leg in the sand. A few have tucked their heads under their wings and are sleeping, perfectly still for long moments, letting the warmth lift into their bodies, resting together as a flock, each standing on one tiny talon. So I’m wrong, it does happen; birds do it. They’re the ones who really get that hard-won calm. For just a moment, I envy them, but not for long.