A short while ago, I wrote about the Work-Work balance here. But one element of that idea which I didn’t address then is the persistent fear of dropping the ball.
Those of us who meditate know that the so-called monkey chatter of our brains is constant – at least it would be if we didn’t find ways to occasionally still it. Sometimes those thoughts are about other people, about future events, about holes we have dug for ourselves. I have discovered that most of my anxious brain waves have to do with my fear of not doing something, or forgetting what I needed to accomplish or wanted to say. I often discover myself in the middle of conversations unlikely to ever happen. I often imagine how I will perform a particular act which may never need performing at all. To me, these are all manifestations of the same fear – dropping the ball. What would happen if I forget to have that conversation or didn’t say everything in the way I imagine needs saying? What will happen if I forget to write that email, or that blog post, or make that phone call? When there are so many different parts of our lives all vying not only for attention, but for specificity of detail, it is easy to become overwhelmed with that fear of what if I don’t………
Avoiding all this worry might be, for me, one of the greatest joys of writing novels. When I write a novel, I create a world full of characters and events. The characters react to what is happening to them, real or imagined. They can dive in or they can avoid. Their fact-heavy explanations can have all the correct facts remembered. They can express their deepest thoughts and feelings in just the right way. If they forget to take some action, I – the writer – can discover it later and go back and fix it, seamlessly, so that the reader will never know what was forgotten. If I have called a character by the wrong name, or set her in a scene which she could never have experienced, then I can edit her out, retyping her name while I’m at it. Writing a novel is like living a life without the fear of forgetting or making a mistake.
I know some people who live their own lives without that fear of dropping the ball. They believe that every mistake can be fixed, and if they have forgotten to do something, they apologize and shrug their shoulders knowing their forgetfulness is not a problem. Even if it is a problem for someone else, it isn’t for them. Every problem has a solution. Their lives are lived as if they are writing their own novels – their own skillful editing can always restart the plot, revise a bit of dialogue or even introduce a new character.
Alas, my editorial skills don’t seem to apply to life as they do to literature. I can’t seem to rely on the editorial process to smooth over whatever mistakes my forgetfulness might lead me to make. And so I fear that one or more of those balls suspended hopefully in the air will drop.
Watching many people in the generation ahead of me navigate the turbulence of aging and the various levels of forgetfulness it brings has inevitably turned my focus onto my own forgetfulness. Although I am an inveterate list maker, I can no longer rely on my to-do lists to ensure that balls won’t drop. I know they will drop from time to time; of course they will. But perhaps, if I’m lucky, the most important ones will stay aloft, gracefully moving through the currents of air around my head. And the other ones? Maybe they don’t really matter. Maybe the lesson is not that you need to keep all the balls in the air, but rather you just need to maintain enough focus to understand which ones are the most important to keep juggling. If you can be sure of those, then picking up and re-tossing the other ones may not be such a problem, after all.
If you have read to the end of these musings, you deserve a treat. My treat to you is this wonderful poem by Billy Collins called Forgetfulness. Please read it. It will make you smile and perhaps laugh, as so many of his poems do. But then you’ll shake your head in the recognition of a truth and of yourself.