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A friend asked how I was doing, and I replied, “I’ve got a lot of balls in the air.” I was juggling okay, managing it mostly, but nevertheless feeling the stress of having my attention in six places at once. She said, “In the air is a great place for them — they’re easier to move around that way.”

That was a number of years ago, but the exchange has stuck with me. It’s stuck partly because I have persisted in my mad habit of compulsive multitasking, so I often describe myself as juggling a lot of balls or spinning a lot of plates. It has also stuck because my friend’s assertion challenged (and continues to challenge) one of my fundamental assumptions about how I need to interact with all these balls/plates/flaming swords over my head.

For me, effective juggling usually means keeping everything going in a particular way, according to established patterns, and with precise amounts of speed and force. Too fast or slow, too high or low, too strong or weak — any excess or deficiency on my part could spell the end of everything. It’s an intense and high-stakes way of being in the world.

My friend’s remark, however, reminded me that having something up in the air can also mean that it is changeable. Its course is not fixed, it doesn’t have to go any particular way, there are variables of which we are not yet aware… Transformation is possible. Paradigm shifts are possible.

What if having a ball in the air meant freedom not only for the ball, but for me?

A couple of weeks ago, our set-up team was centering with a blessing before Sunday service. The image that came to me was, again, a ball. But instead of juggling the ball, I imagined that I myself was the ball. I saw myself a pinball, being paddled this way and that, bouncing off the sides of things, dazzled and disoriented with the flashing lights and ringing bells. Dynamic and exciting, for sure, but also frenetic and reactive. Racking up points here and there, perhaps, but also always on the verge of falling down the drain.

In my prayer, I remembered and declared that I wasn’t just the ball, I was also the paddles — or at least I was controlling the paddles — nobody was flipping those flippers but me. And I was able to relax a little bit into this idea that life isn’t just happening to me or being thrust upon me; I am participating in it and with it. I put the coin in this machine. I’m choosing how to play. And mostly, I’m making up the stakes.

Of course, I’ve got commitments and intentions, and I want to honor those and do things as well as I can. But in the end the pinball metaphor occurred for me a little like the serenity prayer. There are things I cannot change — physics, how my ball is going to ricochet off of that bumper. There are things I can change or do — when and how to apply the paddle, keeping the ball in play, in the game (in the air). And remembering that effective pinball playing is a sensitivity to the difference. It’s not expertise or wisdom to just keep hitting the paddles desperately and constantly, frustrated and victimized by gravitational forces beyond my control.

At the risk of mixing up my balls, I’ve got both of these images in mind this week:

  • First, the fact that having things up in the air can spell opportunities for freedom and movement, rather than being a relentless call for more control and extra pressure.
  • Second, that playing well doesn’t usually mean frenzied and furious overexertion and hyper-attention.  Most of the lights and bells and commotion are happening on their own.  Hitting and paddling hard and beating ourselves up in panicky reaction to all that hubbub sounds like a “tilt” waiting to happen.

So this week I’m trying to envision myself a juggler — but with the balls suspended perfectly in the air, all where I can reach them easily if I want.  These balls have got their own trajectories, their arcs, they’re moving in predictable directions at particular speeds.  But I can change any and all of that — I’m the juggler, after all.  I could catch that one and send it off in a different way.  I could drop that one entirely.  I could keep this one going how it’s been, or change the spin slightly.  It’s my choice how to participate.

And I’m envisioning myself a Pinball Wizard, like The Who’s “Tommy” — so perfectly attuned to the vibrations of the game that he has become one with it. Feeling and knowing the right moment to paddle with the perfect amount of pressure, energized by the buzzing-blinking-bumping life around, not depleted by it.

I can’t wait to be with you this Sunday, March 17. With the divine Patty Stephens. Happy Ramadan, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day, my friends. XO, Drew

©2024 Drew Groves

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