10 March 2013


I know where this starts but I don't know how it ends. Let's find out together.

I've been thinking a lot about balance. Not conceptual balance, as in endless discussions of life-work balance, but literal balance, as in how gravity and conscious or unconscious action combine to change walking up the stairs into falling up the stairs - or not. My balance has never been great. I have a reputation for being clumsy and have the stories and constant unidentifiable bruises to support that assumption. 

After a few incidental falls on the ice this winter (Wisconsin, your weather never ceases to haunt me for four to five months per year), those close to me kept reminding me to be mindful. They would say, "Stay in the moment, be conscious, be alert, and your mindfulness will keep you safe." I'm no stranger to the concept. I have taken a mindfulness-based stress reduction course and read a handful of the key texts and written about how Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place supports the concepts of mindfulness. I believe in it. It's the type of meditation I can actually practice because it's waking and moving in its intentionality. I can't say I do so a lot, but I can pull it out of my tool belt when I want to. Though I've never considered it something that can keep me safe.

And then, a few weeks ago, I ushered a show by the Golden Dragon Acrobats. It's not generally my kind of live performance but I love trying out new shows when I'm ushering.  The stunts were impressive, the costumes sparkly, and the mood light until one of the performers began building a stack of chairs. He stacked and climbed, stacked and climbed; each time I thought, Surely he's done now, he kept going. The picture above shows the trick on a smaller stage. In Overture Hall, he pushed forty feet without breaking a sweat. All this just a few inches from the edge of the stage (and the first row of patrons). It is safe to say that in watching this unfold, I mildly freaked out. I backed up into the corner of the doors I was staffing and crossed my arms tightly. As the performer asked the audience if he should add a chair, then another, I quietly squeaked, "No! That's high enough." I am not generally roused by even the most impressive of stage tricks. I also knew he did this every night. It didn't matter. He had succeeded in generating a strong emotional reaction from me through his performance. In other words, he did exactly what great theater should do. All the while I clenched and worried about his safety, our patrons' safety, and how the hell he was going to get himself down.

I can't help but think all of these ideas are connected. That finding physical balance requires presence and focus and care just as great performance requires presence and focus and care. Which means that physical balance and mental balance are linked much more strongly than I ever gave them credit for. And perhaps that "mind over matter" is not so much about pushing through or controlling everything (the way I'm inclined to) but rather being present, conscious and mindful, and slowly, deliberately stacking the pieces until you get where you want to go. In art and in life.

By the way, the performer was just fine (of course). He finished building his tower and then spun himself around on top of it by one hand as you see above. Despite the fact that I couldn't figure out how he would get down safely, he did so seamlessly, and took a long bow with a proud smile to a standing ovation when he reached the ground.