I was raised to fear and shun extremism. Extremism led to wars, terrorists and eccentricity. In my family you didn’t need to join a cult to be an extremist, merely to be fanatical about certain ideas to the point where you lost sight of other parts of life. My parents were raised in times of conflict, which meant that trepidation and sacrifice were a daily occurrence. My father, a loner geek by disposition, was conscripted into the army for two years and at the end of my mother’s school yard was no-man’s land.
In peacetime, the counter to fanaticism and dogma was balance, the juggling of complementary parts of life, never straying too far in one direction. I interpreted this juggling of opposites as an ideal, both in terms of activities and politics. Here are some contradictions in point: I’m vegetarian apart from the fish I eat 2-3 times per week and the occasional piece of curried chicken katsu swiped from a fellow diner’s plate. However, I cringed when an ardent vegan soberly declared that she never ate anything ‘that had a mother’; I gave money to the homeless beardie by Warren Street Station, but walked past Andrey at the Wellcome Collection, keeping my remaining pound coin for the chocolate that would get me through teaching; I’m spiritually open, but balk when someone gives power to their God or makes Richard Dawkins their prophet. Does this make me a chameleon or a fence-sitter with a splintery ridge up my backside? I’m not sure, I only know that I want to live ethically without cutting off my curiosity.
Once I was extreme: a peacetime fanatic. It was during my final year as a literature student, when I dropped all the balls that weren’t relevant to getting a First in my degree. I explicated sonnets in quantities of 50, the way a gym-goer might do sit-ups. I dreamed in blank verse, when I wasn’t awake thinking about Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady. I cancelled a date to read Keats and was only interested in sex when Thomas Hardy was writing about it. I went to one (Alice in Wonderland-themed) party, that I still remember. The difference between 69 and a 70, a 74 and 75 was everything. I had less of the juggler’s busy equipoise and more of a dancer’s vertiginous tilt, where every muscle strives towards the realisation of a particular shape. My mother worried that I had lost my mind – it was true- I was on edge all of the time, but it was also strangely thrilling.
My dedication to my PhD, on the other hand, was quantifiable – I had a limited salary and libraries and archives had finite hours, Monday to Friday, 10-4, or something like that. Recognising that the research stopped, meant that I could juggle part-time work; off-topic projects and sightseeing after (or even two hours before) the archives closed. I claimed it was all broadly related to my project, but a friend was unconvinced and nicknamed my PhD ‘The world and everything in it’
As my upbringing and the juggle-touting self-help gurus would have it, the PhD years with their clear boundaries around work and play were healthier than the literature year, which was weighted heavily in one direction. I’ve been challenging this idea recently because there’s no question about which made me feel more alive. A life balancing many things to the point that you can’t fully immerse yourself in anything, resembles my old P.E. teacher’s idea of choreography. Miss Waters, who led our Year 7 class, demanded that all dances should incorporate a turn, a twist, a jump, a step and a pose. Though she wanted to assess our ability to perform various techniques, her rule countered the aesthetics of dance, where the most memorable sequences are lucid shapes in motion.
I did abandon the juggling act from time to time, when some guy came on the scene. (He’d mean more than this phrasing implies!) From the outside, it looked like I was juggling work, friends, my new relationship and even yoga, but internally it felt like my life had tilted towards another. He would be the prime object of my thoughts and feelings, an imbalance that was actually heightened by socialising, because some people only asked about him, as though ‘we’ had displaced ‘me.’ So I unconsciously moved towards the fullest expression of that shape, the couple. The obsessive focus didn’t feel entirely dissimilar to the literature year.
The difference was that when things changed and I fell out of the tilt, the old juggling act was less palatable. I found myself missing the extreme, the liberal dropping of assets because I felt rich enough with my life’s bias. The question, ‘what or who can I be passionate about next?’ followed every loss. I juggled, or rather alternated, anxious thoughts – one worry provided temporary relief from another. The ‘Exciting-Life-Changing-Scheme’, which of course I wasn’t ready for, would dissolve in importance by a ruminating on a lost love; the heartbreaker’s sting could be neutralised by planning said ‘Scheme.’By keeping my mind absurdly busy, I tried to avoid the emptiness of loss and disappointment. What I needed to move on, was to temporarily drop all striving, feel everything I wanted to avoid and take a more grounded balance- to be exact, a mild pelvic tilt, a child’s pose, with my hips bent back to the ankles, head down and arms extended. I had to trust that my vitality would return, unfurling organically.
In the grandest scheme of all, tilts, extravagant and humble are themselves part of life’s juggling act. Moderation and extremes are equally necessary. The juggling act enables us to have varied, multi-faceted lives; self-care, earning a living and the different loves one may have, can all be accommodated. But I confess, I live for the tilt, the thing that drives me and keeps me rooted.