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February 13, 2008

Previously on the balance blog chain:

Mr. Unfocused talked about his return to writing as a way to regain balance in his life. Auria Cortes has weighed in on the possibility that balance is not necessarily imperative in a given moment, but may be best accounted for over the course of a lifetime. Arachne Jericho adds that balance is not always the best way to proceed, that sometimes taking a risk of being out of balance can lead to great things. Kelly M. gets back to the roots of the very definition of balance and looks at the way in which it applies to her life at the moment. Rebecca Laffar-Smith asks the questions, “What does life out of balance do to our writing” and “What do you do to restore balance to your life and to your writing.”

* * * * *

My sophomore year in college, I dragged a couple of friends to see a midnight screening of Koyaanisqaatsi at the local one-screen movie house, where the movies cost 99 cents and you paid with a dollar and collected your penny change yourself out of a big bowl on the ticket window counter. The night we went to see it, I hadn’t been feeling very well. But it was winter and we all had cabin fever and I was dying for a change of scene. We had all been sitting around in our pajamas, so we just pulled on our winter coats and boots over our pajamas and set off down a deserted Main Street to the theater, skipping all the way to stave off the Arctic chill.

Whether it was my fever or the film itself, I will never be sure, but my experience of the film was hypnotic and transforming. As I leaned back from the third row and the looming images, listening to Philip Glass’s mesmerizing score, I was stunned by the images I saw of the world, the images and sound. It was all familiar and yet amazingly new. I felt like my very body chemistry was changing and knew that somehow the film was responsible.

Afterwards I stumbled back to my dorm, exhausted. It was two a.m. and I wasn’t feeling any better. Two days later I was diagnosed with pneumonia. I spent the rest of the school year struggling to catch up. I slept for days at a time, getting up only to go to class and get the books I needed to work from the library. I spent more and more time alone, as my coughing kept me indoors and drove my roommate to seek another living situation so she could sleep. The balance of my life was completely thrown off. But by the end of the year, I had healed and had, miraculously, improved my grades. I took home my first college report card with straight As.

Today, the word “koyaanisqaatsi” is scribbled on a piece of yellow paper and tacked to the bulletin board next to my desk. It means “life out of balance” in Hopi and hanging in my office, it serves as a reminder of the way in which art can — and maybe should — throw you for a loop. It hangs next to a picture of a butterfly that my son drew, a list of Sanskrit mantras, a strip of old photo booth shots of my husband and a twenty year old ticket for the Paris metro, remnants of the balance of my life.

I’m learning that I don’t love balance, but I love to achieve it. I love balancing. I regularly hurl myself out of balance for the apparent thrill of regaining it. I do this in any number of ways. Sometimes I feel like the star in my own screwball comedy, the one where the heroine hurls herself into ever more hair-brained, ill-advised situations while the audience thinks, “How’s she going to pull herself out if it this time?” But I do. Because being able to save the day, to return chaos to order, is powerful. Most often, though, I seek literal balancing in yoga class. Of the three principle skills of yoga – flexibility, strength and balance – balance is the weakest of my abilities and the slowest to improve. Much of this, I know, is mental. I do not fully believe that I can stand on one leg, making my upper body parallel to the floor, opening my limbs into a jubilant X in ardha chandrasana, half-moon pose. And yet I have done it when no one was watching and it is exhilarating. It is people who throw me off balance. Being able to regain the balance gives me a sense of control over myself, my life that I otherwise tend to lack. I feel less at the mercy of others and solid in my own self-knowledge.

The film Koyaanisqaatsi wordlessly (or nearly so) meditates on the way in which people are fundamentally unbalancing. Scenes of factory machines turning out row after row of identical things are spliced with time lapse photography of clouds scudding across the sky over an open field with no signs of humans in sight. The implication is that people throw the whole world out of balance and nature gets it right. And yet the most moving component of the film is the mechanics of it, the syncing of the images with Philip Glass’s minimalist score, music that mimics the repetition of the images. If ever there is a film about technology, this is it. Technology enables the precise balance between film and score, sight and sound, and makes it breathe.

Like Mr. Unfocused, I came to blogging seeking balance and a reconciliation between my life as an academic and my life as a parent, which at the time seemed like different planets to me. In yoga, the three things needed for balance are proper alignment to optimize gravity, enough strength to hold the pose, and mental focus. When any one of these things falters, you fall down. The same is true of writing. You need to align yourself, to create order in your writing life. You need the strength to write what needs to be written. And you need the focus to make sense of it. And yet to write something powerful, I find that I have to throw the whole balance off. The blog post that I was most satisfied with as a piece of writing is a perfect example. It was, like most of my posts, the story of something that had happened to me the day before. But the event itself happened because I made the choice to act totally out of character, to throw myself out of balance. In turn, my writing style changed completely and I cared much more about the way the story was told than I usually do in my blog, because the story served a purpose – to explain my step into chaos, to tame it, to balance it.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen Koyaanisqaatsi, but I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot lately, even naming a post after it a couple of weeks ago, before the emergence of this blog chain. I’ve been wanting to watch it again, to see what the experience is like now, 20 years later, when in general, social expectations keep my life more balanced than it used to be. I don’t go to movies in my pajamas anymore. I don’t sleep all weekend or work all night. I get up and make breakfast every morning. I help my son with his homework. I wash the laundry, vacuum the living room carpet. But every now and then, I need to throw it off, to do something radical, at least to me. To take the chance of driving with strangers through a snowstorm, not knowing where I’ll land.

* * * * *

Next up in the blog chain is Williebee, so please follow it along in a day or two. Meanwhile, check out the rest of the chain below.

The Unfocused Life

Auria Cortes

Spontaneous Derivation

Organized Chaos

The Writer’s Round-About



Even in a Little Thing

Spittin’ (out words) Like a Llama

A Thoughtful Life

Life in Scribbletown

My Path to Publication

For the First Time

Green Diva

Polenth’s Quill

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2008 2:13 pm

    I love the Hopi tradition. For many years I visited the reservation to collect Katsina dolls. The Hopi are people beautiful.

  2. February 13, 2008 4:36 pm

    I love your idea of throwing life OUT of balance. There is an adrinaline rush and sense of excitement when chaos surrounds us. It makes it challenging to focus on anything else. This consumption is why it is dangerous for me, as a professional writer, to be off kilter too often. I need to be able to focus on the work, regularly, or my freelance business begins to crumple around me.

    That sense of taking action to pull the threads of life’s weave into place and seeing the twirl of color that is left behind in the design is a powerful rush. Suffering Bipolar, I have an acute understanding of how important balance is for my sense of mental health. Manic highs feel wonderful but are dangerous. When life is in chaos and I’m working overtime to restore balance it is like being manic high, running on emotion and doing more than is healthy, making poor choices, etc. The rush is lovely, but living in balance (as much as possible) sustains me.

    Rebecca Laffar-Smith
    The Writer’s Round-About

  3. February 13, 2008 6:50 pm

    Hi, another AW blogger here. Your post flowed nicely. I’m afraid I might not have much to add by the time I have to post because you and the others have done such a good job explaining about balance. I, too, can relate to the need to throw things out of balance and then put them back again after gaining whatever it was I needed before. That’s the way it goes for many I think.

  4. February 13, 2008 8:41 pm

    When this blog chain is done, I vote that we all meet to see a midnight movie wearing our pajamas, but without the whole getting pneumonia and being sick for four months part. Most of the midnight shows I’ve seen, however, have been considerably less edifying than your experience.

    I like the concept of testing the equilibrium of the system (i.e., your life) by giving it a good, hard shove in a new direction every now and then. If you don’t, you risk wearing a rut into your path. So to speak.

  5. freshhell permalink
    February 14, 2008 8:15 am

    I second Unfocused vote. Just as long as its not Rocky Horror Picture Show. Been there, done that.

  6. February 14, 2008 9:26 pm


    I’ve been wondering if anyone on the list felt like I did. A life out of balance doesn’t mean a life on the edge. It’s just the next direction in the journey.

    Thanks! Ok, off to do my duty….

  7. February 15, 2008 4:33 am

    Too much to think about – it hurts my brain. It also hurts my brain to agree with you. Life is about striving to achieve and maintain a balance, not being in a perfect state of unchange.

  8. February 15, 2008 2:37 pm

    I wanted to go to school in my pyjamas once as a child, because I thought they were cool pyjamas. My mum stopped me. It was probably for the best, as I don’t think the other kids would have understood.

  9. February 16, 2008 3:52 pm

    “And yet to write something powerful, I find that I have to throw the whole balance off. ”

    Speak it! That’s the truth.

    Systems in balance don’t have much energy. Getting a system off balance requires putting energy in. But what energy you put in, you get out—as the system swings back and forth and around and about.

    Like those little metal doodad things with the stick figures… uh… yeah, those.

  10. February 16, 2008 7:52 pm

    “To take the chance of driving with strangers through a snowstorm, not knowing where I’ll land.”

    This is a notion I love, and it sums up my decision to start submitting work in the first place. I have no idea where or if it will go anywhere, but throwing yourself out there is the first step.

  11. February 16, 2008 9:25 pm

    I’m impressed. I’m out here trying to find balance, and you knock yourself off balance on purpose. Makes me a little jealous. Your last line is a great metaphor; good luck with the snowstorm. 🙂

  12. February 18, 2008 8:50 pm

    Thanks for all the comments, especially from all the new readers!

  13. February 19, 2008 9:29 am

    I find it amazing how having children can tame life. Each day, I structure my life around what my children need and grab little bits for myself when I can. Gone are the crazy days of my youth, when each moment was less about what was expected, and more about what was wanted.

    It doesn’t mean my life is any less than before, just very different. My crazy times are gained moment by moment, snuck in between the structure.

    Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing it.


  1. Blog Chain Links « The Unfocused Life
  2. AURIA CORTES » February’s Blog Chain Comes to an End
  3. Blade off the Feather | Spontaneous ∂erivation

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