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By Sarah B. Cahalan

Considering the topic of our current exhibit in the Marian Library, it seems awkward to admit that I can’t juggle. I can’t do a cartwheel either, nor am I very good at braiding my children’s hair — I think I’m missing some important hand-eye coordination gene. It’s fine. I have other strengths! But when we started planning the current Marian Library exhibit about a humble juggler who performs for a statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, it was hard not to go all in on the juggling metaphors. Rushing to a planning meeting, which happened to be my fifth meeting of the day:

  • “Sorry, I have a lot of balls in the air.” 
  • “We’re spinning plates.” 
  • “It’s a circus around here.” 
  • “I dropped the ball.”

In the centuries-old story, a traveling performer decides to enter a monastery; however, he feels out of place due to lacking what the community considers appropriate skills, such as thorough knowledge of Latin prayers. On Christmas Eve, when everyone else has a fancy gift to offer a statue of Christ and the Virgin Mary, he is empty-handed. He experiences imposter syndrome avant la lettre. On impulse, he offers the only gift he has available: a performance.

The juggler performs himself into a frenzy via juggling but also acrobatics, tumbling, dancing. In some versions, he dies at the end of his performance. In others, he collapses, exhausted, and the Virgin Mary wipes his sweat-drenched forehead. I think we can all identify with his exhaustion. It has been a difficult few years. My family includes four young children, one with significant special needs, plus we care for my mother as well. Remember the pandemic? There were stretches of days I barely slept due to anxiety about work and home. Sometimes the only places I could breathe were in nature or in church. I know I’m not the only one who is still recovering from that period. I have wished for Mary to wipe my brow, too.

As time passed, however, I came to identify less with the juggling metaphors in the story than with the juggler as an example of a holy fool. These traditions, which vary significantly across cultures, often come down to the fool doing something ludicrous, absurd, bizarre, inexplicable to the rest of society. Juggling for a statue is one example. The juggler was doing what God wanted him to do, despite his behavior seeming scandalous and/or trivial to onlookers. It’s a bit how I felt when I started telling people I was leaving the workforce; not just leaving the workforce, but leaving behind tenure, a good salary, a fancy title, and (most importantly) wonderful colleagues. But vocations change, and I find that God is calling me to a different kind of life these days, however strange the decision may appear from the outside.

I will miss the University of Dayton; in particular, I will miss the people and collections I work with in the University Libraries. I have one of the best jobs at UD — and I am excited to see all of the great things that will happen when Kayla Harris, associate professor and assistant director of the Marian Library, takes over as director in May. For those of you with whom I have worked, and who have read this far, thank you! I will still be in Dayton, still researching and writing about old books and the people who made and used them, the history of natural history, religious material culture, the history of illustration practices, and the places where those areas connect. I hope we can remain in touch.

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