What color are your balloons?

An interesting thing about the human mind is the occasional instance where a particular word gets lodged in it for some reason. For me, and considering the times we live in today, “juggling” has been such word. Arguably, the terrible pandemic we’re faced with these days has forced us to rethink what “juggling” means to us.  

For example, with the spread of COVID, many parents are having to juggle work schedules to accommodate virtual teaching of their young ones. And many are having to take turns with other family members to take aging parents and grandparents to medical appointments. And the stress can take a toll. To wit my recent conversation with “Matt,” a local attorney.

“Hey Terry, got a minute?” asked “Matt” as he stood waiting for his pizza. The strained look on his face, a face that I was accustomed to seeing with a broad smile, was clearly different this time. We pulled up seats at a nearby table in the restaurant. 

“Man, it seems as though my life is falling apart lately, “he whispered. “Although my family is in good health despite the pandemic, we’re going through some financial challenges these days, let alone caring for my aging dad on top of the increasing demands on my day job caused by COVID-related staff shortages. “

For the next ten minutes we talked about the challenge of having to juggle life priorities these days and the fear of some things falling through the cracks because we have so much on our plates. 

Humm, “juggling priorities”? Where had I gotten some useful advice on that before? Ah, it began with a trip to Germany I took years ago. You see, during the short walk from my hotel to the business site, an unfamiliar voice shouted out to me from a passing car. 

“Hey Terry, welcome to Germany. I look forward to seeing you at this afternoon’s meeting.” 

That voice? Anelise Sacks, a Brazilian-born engineering manager at the site. I joined her and her family for dinner the next evening.  A year later Sacks, who speaks five languages, accepted a high-level position at the company in Dallas where we both worked. 

         Anelise Sacks

I stopped by her office one afternoon to get caught up on her transition from to the United States. What caught my eye as I walked in was a silver tray on a small table opposite her desk. In it were five balloons – two red, one yellow and two green – each with a single word scribbled on it, each appearing to be filled with water. 

“Anelise, what are the balloons for,” I asked. 

“Growing up in Brazil, my dad taught me how to juggle. I started with ping pong balls and early in my career I started juggling balloons filled with water,” she explained. “Here, let me show you my juggling dexterity.” 

I watched in awe as she juggled those balloons. After a minute one balloon dropped and burst on her floor. Then another. And soon another until the only two remaining were the two green ones. 

At that point she handed me the green balloons and asked me to read the words scribbled on the side of each. They read “family” and “health.”

“You see,” some things are replaceable, others aren’t. But if I lose my green balloons, I may not be able to replace them. Now read what’s written on what’s left on the other balloons on the floor.” I leaned over and picked up pieces from the remnants; “Promotions,” “Bonuses,” “Stock options,” they read.  I got her point.

“You see, if I lose any of the other balloons, I can always replace them,” she explained. To drive home her point, six months later over lunch she shared that she was offered another promotion for a position in China but decided to turn it down. 

“Although I was initially inclined to take the job, I decided not to once I took my family there for a site visit. Unfortunately, we were overwhelmed by the smog in the air and decided that we did not want our young son to be exposed to it.”

Now it comes as no surprise to those who know her that today the Harvard-educated Sacks is Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer at Analog Devices. When we spoke by phone the other day, she said with a laugh that her silver tray with balloons is the first thing people see when they walk into her office, and she starts every meeting with a demonstration on how to “juggle.”

So, yes, perhaps “multitasking” is today’s synonym for the word “juggling.” But words aside, I argue that we don’t have to look too far for valuable lessons in how to juggle. 

Just recall how “momma nem” manage to do it.  

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The Douglas County Sentinel, The American Diversity Report, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award.

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