DID YOU EVER TRY TO KEEP A BUNCH OF BALLOONS IN THE AIR? We used to play at birthday parties, a kind of juggling where someone would pull back on the knot of a balloon to launch it. Propelled by its own elasticity and tension, it would rise quickly, maybe to the ceiling, and then slowly descend. The trick was to keep it from sinking all the way to the floor, and whoever was closest would bat it back up. The more the merrier—more people, more balloons, more colors. We would try to keep five, six, seven balloons in the air, a slow motion, rainbow hued juggling game. I think we called it, “don't let it touch the ground,” something creative like that. I can still see the translucent colors, hear the soft, musical plunk of the batting of the balloons. Sometimes we'd see a rhythm, an order—as one balloon rose, others would sink, but size and shape and power of the launch would each affect the speed of various balloons.
I think of those balloons these days when I have so many in the air. A couple of green ones, which are my home and my yard, a sunny yellow one for my friendships, a somber blue one for work (perhaps the most complex one, with smaller, multicolored balls on the inside for the separate rhythms of my working life: reading, writing, teaching, paperwork, meetings—all moving in different patterns and speeds), a red one for my family, an orange one for bills, a white one for exercise and health, a couple of luminous ones for special things like art and spirituality. If I consider just one balloon, the game seems easy. After all, the bills are each only due once a month; I teach one class three days a week, the other two days; I only clean house before major holidays, two—maybe three times a year. On its own, each balloon sinks slowly. But considering them all together, the pace becomes frenzied. Is it any wonder I lose track? I must think I exist in couple of parallel universes. Why else do I (embarrassingly often) find that I've double booked. “Sure, we can all paint the house on Sunday.” “Why yes, I'm free on the 20th. for dinner at your house. I'll bring dessert.” If I'm lucky, I will notice the double booking before Saturday the 19th. What's almost worse is when I hit a balloon into the air and simply lose track. Last weekend I got an email from my sweet friend, Joanne. Do I have time for lunch or a coffee visit? “Of course I do!” I typed back from my home computer. “I just need to peek at my conference schedule. I'll let you know when I can meet as soon as I get to the office tomorrow.” I even starred her message so I could find it easily when I opened my email again. I drove to town, doing my best to keep those balloons in the air—planning my week's assignments and my Monday lecture as I walked to campus. I made lists, reviewed concerns, and gathered colors and scents. I passed a small flock of fat, grey and white sparrow-shaped birds. They had collected in a leafless tree growing very close to a brick wall. I tried to take their picture, but they got suspicious when I stopped and fumbled in my bag for my camera, and I found myself focusing on empty branches. Moments later, in the amphitheater next to the retention pond, I saw a hawk tearing apart its prey—pulling pieces with its beak. It too, shunned an audience, and flew with its victim to another flat rock several yards away each time I pulled out my camera. In the end, all the pictures were blurry, and I went on to work. Mondays are always full of activity, and I was tired when I found myself walking back through the park at the end of the day. The hawk had fled.
Thursday I was making yogurt and happened to think fondly of Joanne. “It's a good thing,” I thought “that we're getting together soon.” I poured the heated milk into the yogurt maker. “Wait,” I thought. “I don't think I got back to her about when I had time to visit.” I went to check my email, and found the stars had long since sunk to the bottom of my inbox. I searched, and found her message from (gasp!) nine days ago.