Friday, September 22, 2006


It used to be, when I heard the phrase “life is a balancing act,” I would picture a tightrope walker, tottering precariously on a wire with a long pole and slippered feet. In some ways, this image still fits my life, especially if you add a pile of dirty dishes, scout badge requirements, a stack of ungraded essays, and a grocery list on one side of the pole and a soccer schedule, math homework and hungry baby on the other. While you’re at it, grease the pole. There. That’s about right.

But recently I’ve decided the balancing act that is my life looks more like this Vermeer painting.

Thanks to my trusty etymological dictionary, I know that the word balance comes from bi (two) and lanx (plates). A balance consists of a central beam with two plates suspended from its ends. It began as an ancient tool for measuring weight. Somewhere along the line it also became associated with judgment.

The ancient Egyptians spoke of the weighing of the heart after death to determine one’s worthiness to enter the afterlife. If the heart – on the left side of the scale – weighed more than the feather – on the right – then it was deemed too burdened with bad deeds and cares of this life and was devoured by the croco-hippo beast crouching hungrily beneath the scale.

Another famous “life weighed in the balance” image is above the portal of the Autun cathedral in France.

Here Michael the archangel weighs a soul in one basket while demons climb on the other, trying to tip the scales in their favor.

When I say my life is more like this kind of balance, I don’t mean that demons are after me or that beasts sit at the ready to eat my heart out….although some days I do wonder….

What I really mean is that my life continually requires weighing things in the balance – not exactly JUDGMENT DAY!s but lots and lots of judgment moments. The woman in Vermeer’s painting stands in front of a traditional painting of The Judgment Day. But her expression and gestures show that she is contemplating something far more personal. She holds a balance – empty on both sides – and cocks her head slightly as she studies it. She’s thinking about something. Weighing a decision out in her mind. Nothing in the painting implies that the moment is monumental. Her face looks thoughtful but not worried; her hand gently lifts the balance with a delicate pinky extended; the light bathes her softly from the side just like every other Vermeer painting of ordinary women pouring milk or reading letters or tatting lace.

I see myself in this woman. In addition to the fact that my clothes also make me look pregnant, I do a fair amount of balancing. I don’t usually get to stop and contemplate before each one, but I make a million small, day to day, minute to minute decisions. And I believe my life and my character are defined by those decisions. Do I put in a video for my 4 year old to watch so I can take that nap I so desperately crave or do I pull up a floor and spend some quality Lego time with him? Do I let that snide remark escape my lips or do I refrain? Do I eat that butterscotch chip cookie or do I just. back. away. from. the. counter?

I’m not so sure that we’re going to need a big line ‘em all up and sort out the good from the wicked kind of Final Judgment. Maybe the weighing of the souls is already in progress.

Tags: balance, art, Vermeer, last judgment

1 comment:

Loralee Choate said...

I adore Vermeer, as does my best friend. I managed to score entrance 10 years ago to the showing at the Smithsonian and I will NEVER forget the beauty of it.