Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends, and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends, and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.
Brian Dyson (b. 1935) CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises
In my twenties, I lived with my husband about 50 miles from New York City on a gorgeous estate in a garage apartment. Really – it was in the garage. The landlord complained that our cat got paw prints on his Jaguar. (Seemed appropriate to me.)
Every day I commuted two hours to work in the city and two hours back again, except for the days when the trains broke down and the commute took longer. My routine was to get up at 5:15AM, somehow dress for success on my starting pay, leave the garage before 6:00AM, drive to the local train station, and catch the 6:20AM train.
Back in those days the trains had diesel engines, and they would come roaring into the station trailing black smoke that filled all the train cars. Amazingly, it was a challenge in the morning to find a seat amidst all the people who had gotten up even earlier and who lived even further away from the city than I did.
The train would lurch toward New York, picking up more tired commuters until the aisles were full. Outside the window, the view would become increasingly urban and ugly until the train chugged through the burned-out buildings of Harlem and finally entered the blackness beneath the city.
The trains had neither heat nor air conditioning, and were prone to problems like “leaf slip” in the fall, ice on the power lines in the winter, lightning strikes in the spring, and people jumping in front of them all year long. One morning a woman showed up at the station stark naked, knowing only that she had to catch the 6:20.
From Grand Central Station I would pick up a bus to the Lincoln Center area. On the rare day when everything went correctly, I could be unloading my briefcase and drinking my first cup of coffee by 8:30AM.
When I started out, I worked for the editor-in-chief of a publishing house. My boss was a tyrant, the workload was inhuman, and from time to time throughout the day I would realize that I was so stressed I had stopped breathing. Injustice was swift and sure. As I gained more responsibility, I started to wear only New York black so I would always be dressed for my own funeral, real or imagined.
By 6:00PM it was time to reverse the whole commute – leave the office, catch a bus back to Grand Central, catch the 6:27PM train, and watch the landscape through the window change from dark and crowded back to bucolic and beautiful. After the train passed a few open fields I would get off at my station, find my car, and drive the final twenty minutes home. With luck, I might make it home by 8:30PM – a typical 15 hour workday.
One evening in the winter I turned on the engine of my little VW and realized I couldn’t take it any more. I leaned my head against the steering wheel and started to sob. Until a Good Samaritan knocked on my window, I didn’t realize that with the engine running and my head on the steering wheel, I looked like I was killing myself. The glass ball for “spirit” had crashed to the ground. I had become the poster child for work/life imbalance.
Eventually I quit working at the publishing house and went freelance. I found myself gasping for air, taking long, deep breaths in my kitchen as I learned how to breathe again. I contacted every editor I had ever known in the publishing world and asked if they had any manuscripts that needed to be edited. They did. I kept the rubber ball for “work” in the air.
My husband is an artist, and we never had enough money. So now I was freelance, but I worked all the time, one year even through Christmas. I worked through two pregnancies without taking any time to enjoy them. I went back to work immediately after the kids were born, and never stopped to appreciate their infancy. In the freelance world, out of sight is out of mind. However, I knew my children were the meaning of my life, and I kept the glass ball for “family” in the air as best I could.
I started getting migraines, and they started lasting longer and longer. I started taking strong medications and steroids. Eventually I developed Cushing’s syndrome from the steroids, and the glass ball for “health” broke. I became fat, and exhausted, and unable to keep my obligations, and the rubber ball for “work” landed with a thud and rolled away.
We could not pay the medical bills, we ran out of money, and we lost our house. My husband lost his teaching job and went on unemployment – something previously unimaginable. We moved away. When I developed cancer, people disappeared from my life. I think our problems were just too much for them. The glass ball for “friends” fell with a crash.
I had to get off the steroids and recover from the cancer. For a long time I was mostly in bed. I developed arthritis in my back, so today I can’t stand up long enough to cook dinner. All the imbalance of the previous 30 years caught up with me. The only ball that remained in the air was “family” – which for me means my husband and my children. I decided to move closer to the kids.
We found a lovely rental house on — I am not making this up — Hope Street. Within weeks I had to have emergency gallbladder surgery and I wondered what the gods wanted from me – but for some reason, removing my gallbladder made my brain sharper than it had been for a long time. I have a new doctor who does not have a tantrum when I mention the word “Internet.”
I still can’t walk, but my brain is OK. I went and found the rubber ball for work and gave it a bounce. I am now engaged in a new book project.
Along the way, I have found great kindness in unexpected places. Today we have interesting, friendly neighbors. My husband has found a little teaching work. Money is always a problem, but our lives are pared down to the essentials. The kids, who are 23 and 27, are busy, but they stop by when they can, and I will shamelessly do things like order their packages delivered to my house so they need to visit in order to pick them up.
With the new house, and the new friends, and the new job, and the new proximity to my kids, I have just recently picked up the glass ball for “spirit.” I turn it over in my hands, looking at all the cracks from years past. I still look at other people and wonder why their lives are so easy. But now I can look at my own life and see it not in terms of so many losses, but so many gifts.
I launch the last ball into the air and look up. It catches the sun as all five balls – work, family, health, friends, and spirit – rotate slowly above me. And it only took 57 years to get here.
Your turn: How do you juggle your 5 balls? Do you let the rubber one bounce?
Image credits: Image 1 – negosyongmaypuso dot blogspot dot com, Image 2 – happyfamilies dot blogspot dot com