I lost a friend last week. Joanna battled a deadly form of cancer, mesothelioma, for more than three years, with incredible courage, strength, pluck, and humor. She survived a high risk research trial this past spring that initially seemed to shrink her tumors, only to have them rage back within weeks. She had just begun another research trial, but the cancer had progressed too far. She died, surrounded by loved ones, Wednesday night. She was only 47.
When I learned the news from her husband’s heart-wrenching post on her Caring Bridge journal Thursday morning, I felt gut-punched. As her rabbi said at her funeral on Sunday, how could someone with such a powerful will to live be gone? It made no sense. It felt so wrong. A friend wrote in the comments to her husband’s message that a light had gone out in the universe. I felt the same.
I met Joanna nine years ago in a Jewish text study class. We were exploring Mussar, teachings and practices about different “soul traits,” such as compassion, patience, gratitude, order. As is the way in Jewish text study, we each had a study partner, and Joanna and I became a pair.
One afternoon in November, the two of us went to the local art museum to dig into the week’s soul trait, balance, which involves moderation, finding the middle path between extremes. Being not only a ballerina, artist, and yogi, Joanna also held a PhD in astronomy. As we wandered through the galleries, seeking ways to understand the meaning of balance, she brought a unique set of ideas to our conversation. Fortunately, I had written everything down in a journal, which I found Sunday after returning home from her funeral.
Rereading those notes, I felt as if she were still there, telling me just what I needed to hear after days of feeling so off kilter—that balance is not a static state. When you balance on one foot, it’s a process of constant readjustments, minuscule shifts in muscle and bone. Maintaining balance requires the offsetting of opposing forces. Physics dictates that both are necessary. Gravity, explained Joanna, causes all planets to be spherical, because gravity pulls mass toward a central point. And, we concluded, centeredness is essential for wholeness.
My notes of our conversation also reminded me that balance does not mean moderate amounts of everything. Achieving balance is different for each individual, a little of this, a lot of that, a combination of all factors in their proper relative proportions. And it’s not, by definition, symmetrical. The best example: a Calder mobile.
Unlike Joanna, who could balance so gracefully en pointe and hold perfect yoga poses, I can barely stand on one foot without falling. But I know exactly what she meant by all the tiny muscular adjustments that my foot and leg try to make to hold still. Balance is most certainly not a steady state. Even Calder mobiles flutter and twirl with the slightest movement of air.
In the weeks and months to come, when I think of Joanna, I’ll be thinking of all that I learned from her as I try to regain my sense of balance. She was a great teacher, at heart. She still is. May her memory be for a blessing.
Image: Colton Sturgeon