Life’s a Circus
By Sylvi Stein
The personal narrative of how my journey to learn to juggle taught me about life.
The summer when I was fifteen years old, I learned to juggle. There was no particular “why.” I had never been to the circus before, and I had no ambitions to become a clown, or one of those performers in Central Park. I wanted to learn to juggle as a skill, the same way some other kids can read sheet music or wiggle their ears. Why not? I could picture myself at a fancy restaurant, dressed to the nines, juggling the complimentary rolls to the amazement of whatever esteemed guest I was dining with. I would defy expectations.
So, I sacrificed my free time to the juggling gods. No after-dinner card games or canoeing races for me; I spent my summer camp activities periods engaged in the thrilling pursuit of chucking beanbags up in the air and trying (and more often, failing) to catch them. None of my friends questioned my motives; they just shrugged and sighed when I told them that sorry, I couldn’t come with them to arts and crafts, I had to get in another hour with the juggling balls if I wanted to be ready by the end of the summer.
Juggling is mostly muscle memory, but it requires practice. Fortunately, one thing I’ve learned from high school study sessions is that repetition is your friend. My palms memorized the weight of the beanbags, the circular catch and throw, the exhilaration of the toss and the wrenching moment of the drop. Barefoot on the rubber mats in the gymnastics pavilion, I practiced until I could juggle balls without my tongue between my teeth, without holding my breath. Then I picked up the rings and the clubs.
From this period of practice, a time of sweat, blood, and tears (those clubs can really hurt when they hit you in the face), I certainly was learning to juggle, but with every dropped ball, and every black-and-blue bruise, I began to realize I was also learning something else, something much more poignant—the reason for my determination. Learning anything from scratch is a struggle, but this was the first commitment to a skill that I had undertaken completely of my own volition. But why? In the way tossing a pinch of salt over your shoulder is supposed to ward off evil spirits, I was learning to juggle to forestall a bleak future of cubicles, nine-to-five office hours, and the soul-crushing inevitability of “a realistic career.” Stock market advisors on Wall Street don’t know how to juggle; waiting-room secretaries can’t flip juggling clubs through the air with just the right flick of the wrist; corporate CEOs surely don’t know the difference between a diabolo and a rolla-bolla. No amount of money could entice me away from the promise of a life of chaos and adventure, a life filled to the brim with excitement. I don’t have to conform to our society’s model of the ideal, rational adult; I can be an eccentric artist, a reclusive writer, a circus clown for hire. If I could juggle, I could preserve my fiery, determined enthusiasm for the bizarre and the unexpected.
On the last day of summer we had the circus and gymnastics show. As twelve little girls did cartwheels and somersaults next to me, I juggled for the audience. During the performance, in front of all the eager parents, bored younger siblings, and proud counselors, I dropped the clubs no less than seven times. Barnum and Bailey would not exactly be knocking down my door to offer me a job—but that didn’t matter. After hours of practice, I can miraculously make the balls dance through the air, teach them to defy gravity. I might one day be a newspaper columnist, or a divorce lawyer, or an accountant, but I will never be just that; there will always be a part of me that remembers how to embrace the extraordinary.
I wrote this essay for the college applications prompt “Talk about a meaningful talent you have,” and labored over it with my mentor for many days.
Sylvi Stein is a senior in New York, NY and a lover of poetry, prose, art, photography, the ocean, sunsets and the moon. Her biggest pet peeve is when someone judges a book by its cover or its width. Sylvi considers herself a writer because, plain and simple, she loves writing (and reading). If she were a superhero, she would love to be able to fly, but mind-reading would probably be more practical.