Constantly risking absurdity…
— Lawrence Ferlinghetti
When I was a young Catholic, I thought I was praying to the Father, the Sun and the Holy Ghost. I religiously crawled out through a small attic window onto a mother-forbidden roof in Jersey City and watched God the Sun sink into the oily contamination of Newark Bay. When, while walking to school, I mentioned this habit to an older neighborhood boy, he punched me in the arm and said, “It’s not the s-u-n stupid; it’s the s-O-n.” From then on, I gave lip service to correcting my mistake, but secretly preferred my version.
Watching the sunset is one of man’s oldest rituals. Some historians theorize that as the sun set and darkness approached, ancients started chanting in hopes of its return, and when the sun reappeared the next morning, it seemed the chanting had worked, and prayer was born. To this day the possibility of great sunsets influences my travels. My favorite trip started with watching the sun rise from the New Jersey Atlantic, then flying cross-country, and seeing it set in the Oregon Pacific.
The renowned Key West, Florida sunset had been calling my name for years, so yesterday, there I was at Mallory Square, advertised as the southern-most tip of North America, ready to enjoy a peaceful, Hemingway-haunted, bohemian experience. I should have done more research. My sunset-vision was shattered by thousands of loud spring-breakers, vacationers and hucksters. Bands played, boats roared, acrobats juggled cats, walked on stilts, and stood on their heads to the delight of the masses.
I love when poets use balancing act imagery to capture the high-wire, without-a-net, death-defying sense of living, and how the meaning of the word balance slides so easily from the simplicity of “physical equilibrium” to the complexity of “mental and emotional steadiness” to the beauty of “equipoise between contrasting, opposing, or interacting elements.” Balance is a slippery word used in a wide variety of contexts. We balance budgets, diets, and sanity. Doing Tai Chi and yoga, skiing, dancing, art, teaching, walking, thinking are all acts of balance that aspire to the state of stability. Yet many people seem unaware of how often they use balance, and how often balance is a solution, but it has become an essential understanding of how I make sense of time, and an important piece of my balancing act is quietly watching the sun gently split the day into night and celebrate the earth’s correlative, the turn from light to dark.
After a few après-sunset, post-disappointment beers in the Key’s Green Parrot Saloon, I demeaned the Mallory Square debacle to a local on the next stool. He had the thinning white-haired ponytail, beaten baseball cap, faded flower shirt, gently fatigued face of a Key West lifer. He was amused by my rant about how just as the sun broke through some low clouds and touched the horizon in full magnificence, a young guitarist decided to accompany it with an intense, amplified rendition of “Fulsom Prison Blues,” and I, abandoning my hoped for Zen-of-the-moment, considered choking that musician into silence. “Well, it’s interesting to see once,” my barstool buddy said between sips, “but there’s a park close by where you can see the sun set like it was happening just for you.”
So now I’m sitting on some rocks at the edge of Zachery Taylor State Park, with maybe thirty other people. We have an unspoken agreement to be separate and silent, to turn off the cultural cacophony and listen to a calm ocean rippling against a peaceful shore.
The sun is fifteen minutes from the ocean, and cloud patterns promise a big finish. When I take the time to get to the edges of what man-made, I find places that open my eyes and relax my shoulders. In my early twenties, when my parents’ Catholic answer to “Why?” no longer worked for me, I was overcome by an aching life-purpose void. I moved from an apartment on a boulevard in the city to a log cabin on a lake in the woods, where I experienced the rhythms of nature’s balance including sunsets that outlined clouds in gold as they passed through a veil of sunrays that stained my cabin windows orange. Memories of my childhood-rooftop worship and a new sense of feeling my place in the scheme of things filled the void.
The Key West setting sun is moving through a string of long light clouds. My brain responds with a full-body smile of appreciation. In the years since I replaced religion with balance, it made sense to have equal doses of beautiful and ugly. I know this is somewhat subjective: My mother once brought home the ugliest, stink-mouthed, nasty, little, half-alive dog and thought she’d found Lassie, and I know, too, that when some people wax eloquent about the preservation of a beautiful swamp, others see that expression as a puzzling love of disagreeable muck. Yesterday, in the Everglades, a seven-foot alligator was ten feet from my feet, and I wasn’t sure if he was beautiful, ugly, or beautifully ugly. But when I see the red rocks ablaze in a Sedona sunset, the golden glow of the Matterhorn awash in the early morning sun before light touches the valley below, and the morning sky mirrored in Crater Lake, they clearly offer a beautiful balance to some of life’s ugly events.
According to Darwin, man was not meant to walk upright. It is a balancing act that he learns, then struggles with from infancy to old age. When we have temporary lapses in sanity or in our sense of security, and someone suggests we are becoming a bit off-balanced, we have no problem with the metaphor, because our innate knowledge of the precarious nature of existence knows that when the mind loses touch with the middle ear, it feels like we need to catch hold of something to prevent the fall, something that keeps us upright and allows us to continue to step forward. My son’s mother died recently, and he, like all loving sons, was staggered — of all the things that suck about life, losing your mother might suck most. But last week my son’s daughter, Cadence, got to her feet, raised her arms, found her balance — which, in turn, restored his — and took her first steps.
For many years I taught high school literature to urban teenagers as a way to help them find balance. Being paid to impart what you know to others is fraught with dangers, and I recognized the potential for foolishness, and the possible delusion of grandeur, but the more I searched for sharable experiences and related readings, the more sense teaching made. The lessons were informed by my understanding of how authors perceived good and bad, beautiful and ugly, how poets determined the delicate balance of words and lines, and how essayists juggled I with us. I decided that if my inflated-guru-alter ego resulted in students like Ayaat and Hajrah opening their minds and writing, “Reason is a mythological compass” and “Questioning is what keeps the brain from becoming a graveyard of good ideas,” then my presumption of knowing was something I could live with. If balance is the foundation of your approach to making sense of your confusion, rationalization is a handy counterbalance to have. It allows you to put your finger on the positive side of the scale without getting caught.
I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak once at Patterson State College, and someone in the audience said, “Mr. Vonnegut, you once said that it’s all bullshit. Do you still believe that?” The question brought a big, face-filling smile to the author, and without hesitation he said, “Yes. I wish the President, the Pope, and the professors would all stand up and say it’s all bullshit. I’d like all of you to stand up and say, ‘It’s all bullshit.” Four to five hundred people in an over crowded college auditorium, there to participate in the most civil of occasions, the ceremony of intellectual exchange, a reading by a famous man of letters, stood and chanted, “It’s all bullshit. It’s all bullshit. It’s all bullshit.” The room came alive with a strange relief. Vonnegut believed that life was absurd and to write seriously about absurdity was counter-intuitive, so he created ridiculous situations that made his readers laugh in agreement. That night he created an interactive moment of real-life absurdity. We participated in a group performance of silliness, and the lesson had a gravity that continues to influence my thinking as well as my equilibrium. I believe that beautiful and ugly are always present, and there’s a way of finding a balance between the two. But I started and ended every school year by telling my students, “I believe everything I teach, but everything I say might not be true.” I teach to find a balance between knowing, and the recognition that what I think I know might all be bullshit.
If we only see what we think we’re seeing, are the balancing acts we see just illusions? Maybe, but it’s hard not to see joy and sorrow, love and hate, good and bad, sanity and insanity as a few of the many dualities we use as metrics to weigh experience. Both sides of each pair are equally important, because one cannot be understood without the other, yes doesn’t work without no, up is a puzzlement without down, and life means nothing without death.
We suffer sadness, but there are joys available to counterbalance the sorrows. The blues finds the heart of sadness, sings that heart out, and ends in relief. I once sat behind the opera star, Jessye Norman, at the 92nd Street Y, and she asked Toni Morrison, whom we had come to see, how she could write so beautifully about such anguish. Toni looked directly into Jessye’s eyes, genius-to-genius, diva-to-diva, and said, “If we can turn anguish into art, we win.” Jessye’s head snapped back, and we got lost in Toni’s word music that relaxes a stiffened spine and lets the body sway, which risks moving from side to side to secure a more graceful footing. A former student of mine, Cardeius, who channeled her saw-too-much-too-soon into poetry, wrote, “I have a biting need to hear / someone bitch tenderly about anguish. / The blues / is the afterbirth of pain. / An alto-sax slips its soulful wind / around my stiff hips; / the blues in motion; / the pain of feeling good.” Pain into poem helped balance out her scales.
Ten minutes till Key West sunset, to witness the joyful sadness of a beautiful end, to experience the sun-dying metaphor at the very edge of a state in which many decide to live out their sunset years. In the late afternoon of the day my father was buried, I was on a trail that meandered between a broad expanse of the Hudson River and the towering, basalt Palisades. A glistening-river, sunset silence let the sadness of my father’s death begin its permanence. After some time I felt a kind of emptying that was new, singular, final. It was an unusually warm spring day. Turkey vultures shopped the Palisades for remains. The Hudson hurried south. A chipmunk squirted across a log, froze, looked up, then disappeared. Time was a hawk.
The Key West sun has just touched the horizon. A sense of now warms my body and mind until the last glow of red-orange disappears. The reverie ends when a few applaud what they’ve witnessed. The ritual was a success. The connect felt honest. At critical times in our lives when we compare what we thought life would be against what it is, there’s often an uncertainty, an instability that makes us struggle for balance so that we don’t fall, don’t get lost in the confusion, and don’t feel victimized by the sadness. A wise man once told me that the hardest thing to do is to grow old gracefully. When dancers leap into the air and land perfectly still on one foot, the beauty is balance. That kind of grace is the strength to risk great movement without losing your equilibrium. I used to love hiking up and down roaring mountain streams by jumping from dry rock to dry rock, eyes down, mesmerized by the color changes of the rushing water. I still go to favorite streams, but the jumps, now, are careful steps that occasionally end with a boot full of water. Sometimes I see the dry rock path, put my foot on the first stone, feel a terrible awkwardness, teeter to one side, catch my balance, and laugh. Or fall, automatically check to see if anyone saw my graceless flop, assess the damage, and laugh. It doesn’t surprise me that so many senior citizens seek solace in Florida. They blanket themselves in sun-saturated colors and sit near aquamarine water to balance the darker realities of aging in the relative safety of a flat state.
The sun is down. I relax in an empty hammock on a little beach I found on the Gulf side of the Key. The stars do not disappoint. When I was eighteen, I stood in the middle of a nighttime Nebraska cornfield, and the Milky Way taught me a sense of proportion, that jolt of humility you get when you realize you are such an insignificant part of the whole. The stars in tonight’s Florida sky are clear from horizon to horizon. I stare and listen. Libra (♎) is the only constellation represented by an inanimate object. The Roman writer, Manilius wrote that Libra was the sign “in which the seasons are balanced.” It seems that when some of our ancestors experienced the night sky’s intimidating magnitude, they needed stories that made sense of what they saw, so they connected dots of light to form, in Libra’s case, a scale, and imagined that balance was a message written in the stars.
On my first day back from Florida, I went to the bank to cash a check, and the teller said, “Would you like to know your balance sir?” I smiled and said, “Please.”
Finding slippery feats of balance is one way of pretending to know how to live. But when two people climb onto a seesaw and love is in the balance, when justice is a blindfolded woman holding scales, and when the accumulation of balancing acts seems endless, my pretense of knowing seems less like an act and more like a solution.
Cannon, Cardeius. Word. (Jersey City: Renaissance Program of Snyder High School,
Saleh, Ayaat. “And So?” McNair Academic High School, 2014.
Jamal, Hajrah. “Dominoes.” McNair Academic High School, 2014.
Manilius, Marcus. Libra (astrology). En.wikipedia.org.
Don Delo was an award winning, literature and writing teacher in an inner city, multi-cultural, uniquely successful high school in Jersey City, N.J. He has published essays in newspapers and magazines, was associated editor of Talking Wood, a living-in-place ecology magazine. “Balancing Acts” is from a series of essays entitled, Into The Everything, which are based on lessons he learned and taught for more than four decades. His writing is informed by a secular spirituality and a fascination with our struggles to make sense of time. More of his writings may be found on Google under THEDELOMUSEUM.