Juggling, Like Life, is Nonlinear

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

The aspect of retirement that I found most attractive was the shift in the nature of my time — from one that was fractured into scheduled chunks, to one that seemed to be just a wide open vista that I could fill as I saw fit. I wanted to have days that were entirely mine, and mine alone. I had the same eagerness for the approaching wave of time that I felt in childhood, as the days grew warmer and summer vacation approached.

Now at last I have time, and so I’m free to indulge once again in a hobby I enjoyed many years ago: juggling. When I was in my early thirties I was laid off from my job, and I filled the time in between job searches by learning to juggle first 3 balls, then 4 balls, and then clubs. During my unemployed period I became proficient in simple, basic patterns, and I found I loved the flow of it, the bliss of feeling your hands hum with motion, and seamlessly respond to, and set right, small deviations in the stable pattern that held things aloft.

I’ve maintained that joyful hobby over the years. A few times a week I’d come home from work and spend a few minutes losing myself in the flow, forgetting the stresses of the day, feeling like a silent observer as my hands — all on their own, with no direction from me — kept the dance of the balls going. I was never one for silent, motionless meditation, I’ve always been drawn more to the Zen-like exaltation of simple, repetitive movement.

During those years, no decades, I maintained most, but not all of the skills I’d learned., And now that I’m retired I can apply myself to learn new patterns, and also tighten up some skills that I had in the past. In my mid thirties, I could juggle 5 balls for as long as 20–30 seconds, but now that I’m in my sixties I’m struggling to get more than 10 seconds. 5 balls was hard to learn — it took me a full year of steady practice when I was much younger. It’s hard, but also fun, and the effort has reminded me of a truth about life that juggling taught me.

Learning is not a linear process. Many jugglers have remarked on this — you can struggle for weeks getting a new pattern to remain stable, and maintainable, for even just a few seconds. You don’t seem to be making any progress at all. And then, quite unexpectedly, you’ll find a new rhythm emerge, a syncopation that magically holds the balls aloft for far longer than ever before. It’s sudden, and always quite unexpected. It took me a full year back in my thirties to learn to juggle 5 balls, but for 11 of those months I was only able to manage 10 or 15 throws and catches before a drop. And then, one day, my body seemed to be moving all by itself as I realized I had gone more than 30 throws without a drop.

And so learning is not linear in the sense of slowly accumulating gains, No it’s fits and starts, and frustration, facing the seemingly impossible until, quite suddenly, a new skill is born.

I think life is like that too. All hard skills rely on patterns that are laid down among our muscles and neurons. It takes time, and countless repetitions, for new motions to become self directing. To juggle, or to play an instrument, or to hit a baseball requires extraordinary mathematics gathering light through our eyes, organizing a map, and then rapidly compressing and extending muscles to move an object towards a goal.

Juggling has taught me patience. I was frustrated all those months trying to master 5 balls — the factor that kept me going was the pleasure of movement, of indulging in a sort of dance as I focused on the pattern, enjoying the music I always had in the background for the few short seconds I was able to keep the balls aloft. It wasn’t progress that kept me going, but the fun of losing myself in motion. Now when I learn a new juggling pattern, I have the combined enjoyment of the present motion, together with the anticipation of the breakthrough to a new skill level. And even in my sixties I’ve experienced the blissful pace change when the body I’ve patiently taught unveils its new capabilities.

As I juggle, I realize we’re all just riding a wave in the world. The world is hurtling along far too fast to be snared by conscious thought. When a jungle primate leaps from one branch to another, any thought it might have is fixed on the goal, not the mechanics. It flings itself, living in the confidence that its body is a faithful servant able to accomplish what its mind never learned to do.

Retired software developer, husband, father. Student of history. Met Fan

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