Your Turn: Thoughts on a balanced life

I grew up in the 1950s and '60s before the idea of balanced living was invented, at least in our family.

I don’t remember my parents speaking about needing more balance in their lives. It probably seemed an impossible goal. Both working, with four children, their days were packed with endless child raising, working and caring for extended family members.

My mother, a nurse, sometimes came home after an eight-hour shift at the nursing home she owned only to sleep on the couch in her white uniform and then go back on duty for another shift. She might make something in a free moment. Perhaps she’d model a small replica of a desert island with plaster of Paris, or cut out a dress pattern on the dining room table.

Meals were composed of the New England trinity: meat or fish, potato and vegetable; mashed potato, codfish and cauliflower. The need to balance the composition with green beans or red beets was irrelevant. I might have tried, after worshipping at the altar of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, but it’s a faint memory except for the pages of bright, colorful meals.

My father, a builder and a fixer of all things, could be called out at midnight to unthaw a frozen water pipe in winter in the mobile home park he owned, or spend days rebuilding the engine of a car or a lawn mower.

On a quiet evening, he sat in a rocking chair by the bookcase reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. Once he built a grandfather clock in the middle of the living room on a long table. Sawdust lingered for months on every cobweb.

Life was a circle of work, preparing bland meals, raising children and the occasional craft project.

If balance is related to the relationship between work and play, or the midpoint between to have and to not have, balance would not be feasible in our house until leisure time became possible. That’s when my folks decided to cram the four of us kids with them, and a cousin, in our turquoise and white Ford station wagon in 1956 and drive eighteen hours to Florida for a week’s vacation.

But, what is it to be “balanced?” What is a balanced relationship? Must yin have yang? Today, the notion pervades our language where it seems to imply the additional pressure that we must or should strive for balance.

We balance our checkbooks. The balance is due. The unbalanced individual is advised to take medication or seek counseling to bring their psychological state back into balance.

Even people who are apparently normal may find it difficult to automatically balance a demanding day with a calming activity. Perhaps a glass or two of wine will help. After all the paperwork, children chasing, letters posted, or rooms vacuumed, a need to even the score emerges.

Perhaps a healthier, more direct path to balance might be through the imagination. If I can imagine myself taking a walk through the park after hours at a desk, I might feel more relaxed, more balanced physically and emotionally. If I act on my imagination and actually do it, then I’m on my way to that great cocktail of experiences that represents “balance,” a state that is dynamic rather than static and lop-sided.

High wire artist Philippe Petit carried the art of physical balance and imagined possibilities to fantastic limits when he surreptitiously arranged a 450-pound cable between the top floors of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and performed on the high wire between the buildings for 45 minutes. Behind this seemingly outrageous defiance of human limits was a man with a deep sense of confidence, focus, attention to detail and stamina. He was clear about what he needed to do – to balance alone in dangerously high places – and allowed nothing to stop him.

He achieved his balance through concentration. He knew what he wanted.

Perhaps balance is about being able to look within yourself to understand what you need. Such internal prospecting in search of authentic desires challenges the rules by which we live. Petit could balance fear with a desire for the unimaginable – because he could imagine it.

Even a balanced life on solid ground can require great stretches of imagination. Anne Morrow Lindbergh described her difficulty achieving balance in the midst of contradictory tensions related to being a wife and mother in the 1950s. She yearned for the ideal life of the contemplative, artist, or saint, those with the luxury of having a “single eye.”

“With a new awareness … I begin to understand why the saints were rarely married women … [it had] nothing to do, as I supposed, with chastity or children. It has to do with distractions … how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center.”

Lindbergh tried simplifying her life by taking uncomplicated retreats, such as daily walks on a beach. She shed material possessions and scaled down her housing requirements.

All of this pointed her inward where she attended to her inner life. She found it easier to concentrate, to have creative ideas and to feel “whole” and balanced between her outer and inner world.

Virginia Woolf advocated a “room of one’s own” for women writers as a place to establish the boundaries needed to balance the inner creative self with outer world demands. She suggested an empty, simple place to avoid the unbalancing effects of visual and auditory distractions.

But what if our distracting outer life is completely whisked away? Navy pilot Robert J. Flynn was shot down in Vietnam in 1967 and held prisoner until 1973. Much of those six years was spent alone in solitary confinement. Flynn told reporters in 2008 that the most terrible part of his confinement was the solitude, the endless solitude.

How does one compose a sense of inner and outer balance in all those hours, days and years? Flynn said he was saved by his imagination.

“I’d think of my family,” he said. “I’d plan parties, birthdays, anniversaries for everyone. And I would imagine that Kathy [his wife] bought some land in Alaska and gold was discovered there. And I had the biggest gold mine going. I had all kinds of people working for me – people I knew. And I ran an imaginary corporation. That’s what I did.”

Balancing the light and the dark of our lives, the outside and inside, seems to be not so much a physical condition as it is an inner willfulness to find that which is pleasing and satisfying at any particular moment.

Perhaps my parents did know something about balanced living even before it entered their vocabulary. I can see the scraps of paper and cloth falling to the floor as my mother, still in her nurses’ uniform, carefully cut through the tissue paper pattern pinned to blue dotted-Swiss fabric. I imagine that she saw herself in a beautiful dress at a picnic on a summer day, relaxed and happy.

She was acting on her dream, alone and busy in the sweet spot between work and play, between lost and found, right in the midst of her daily life; her balancing place.

Ruth W. Crocker is a freelance writer and author living in Mystic. Visit her website at ruthwcrocker.com.

Your Turn is a regular feature in The Times. To contribute, email times@theday.com.

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