Thursday, May 8, 2008

On the Bongo

November 2003

When I was a kid, my friends and I embraced a new fad at school every few months. Collecting stamps briefly held our interest, but it was too sedate. We moved on to pogo sticks, rendering recess a wild, kangaroo affair. I’m pretty sure that fad ended by virtue of school decree, (too dangerous, too loud! All of that leaping and sproinging!) but Bongo Boards were quiet and a case could be made for their benefit in enhancing coordination.

A Bongo Board was a flat wooden plank resting atop a solid wooden cylinder, as awkward and heavy as an overweight Labrador puppy. Once aboard, once we’d mastered the thing, it was goofy fun, imparting the same galumphing joy as that smiley dog. With arms out straight and feet planted on black rubber treads at each end of the plank, we'd calculate the spacing to spread our weight evenly on either side of the cylindrical roller. We'd practice at home, our spastic tries leading to giggling tumbles and floor-shaking crashes that brought Mom to the foot of the stairs to call, “What was that? Is everyone all right?”

But eventually we were up to stay, knees bent just so, adjusting with the cylinder’s movement, gyrating our hips, increasingly Elvis, as we became confident with the rock and roll.

It was all about balance, and that did not mean standing grimly complacent, square above center. Balance was wrested from those first clumsy attempts and the learning gave license to move, to adjust even while directing the roller into some tricky new position.

Life at age fifty-one is still about balance, but I just don’t seem to have the hang of it. I feel fragile and overwhelmed. How much of my angst is hormonal? How much a flawed personality? How much this troubled world?

I spoke to my cousin Julie today and she recently suffered another bout of colitis, leaving her afraid and weak with pain. Jules and I share the same head and heart; we quail at life’s daggers, even when none are specifically directed our way. She was weepy with worry about her debilitating illness, conflicts at work and the blunders of the Bush administration. In seeking to buoy her, I dragged myself from my self-stirred quicksand and, through the phone lines, we held hands – steadying each other on the sliding board, trying to find the center of the Bongo.

Tearfully she said, “Everyone has hard stuff - illness, nasty clients, dismay about Bush - but they all seem to deal with it. What’s my problem?”

Tweak the words a mite and I heard myself, "You have a dear husband, great kids, and a wonderful life. What’s your problem?"

It seems like everyone else is up on the Bongo Board, smiling broadly, rolling easily from side to side, making adjustments and staying on top as I lie weepy on life’s floor. My friend Gail would say. “You see other people's public faces. You know nothing of what goes on inside.”

I told my cousin of Gail’s wise words, “Don’t judge your interiors by other people’s exteriors.”

“Say that again,“ said Jules. She knew truth when she heard it.

I said it again and we conceded that balance is key. But we live in the Northeast where “balance” is a four-letter word, and aspirations to “busy” earn honors. The corporate model of life-to-the-fullest means efficiency, production and profit. Those of us who harbor a yen for peace, creative expression, and only occasional exercise feel terribly out of step. As I consider a job change to allow more writing time, I think about the innocuous question that is sure to come my way, “So tell me, what do you do?” I remember the reactions when my kids were little, when I’d answer that I was a stay-at-home mom. “You are! How wonderful!” Genuine as margarine.

As Jules and I chatted, she laughed sheepishly in relating her vision of being forced to sell her house to move into a two-room apartment as trade-off for jettisoning a mean, but profitable, client. She loves her work as a graphic designer, but has a hard time when people are nasty.

Is balance a luxury few can afford? Is balance a state to be afforded? Does money enter this picture? How much did those Bongo Boards cost?

It is a surprisingly difficult internal dialogue. Do I have to buy into the whirl? Am I a wimp if I want to withdraw?

What do I say if someone asks what I do? “Um, I’m doing a little writing…” I can picture the stretched smile and pitying eyes in response to my negative when they ask, as of course they will, if I’ve published any books they might have read. Is that worrisome enough to continue a path that makes me feel crazy and vulnerable? Old lessons – old, old lessons - rear up as I fight off my concern about what others might think.

I must stand, feet planted on the Bongo’s rubber treads, knees bent to absorb surprises, then take deep breaths and roll.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I love the bongo board metaphor. And, when others ask about your writing, you may say that you' ve been told that your short pieces reach your audience, people who crave some authentic reflection and shared humanity as nourishment for the soul. I am among them, and that is exactly what you provide!

Love, Kristin