Recently I wrote an article for a local publication about unusual Mother’s Day gifts, suggesting that instead of flowers or brunch, one could give Mom a new experience, like a motorcycle training class, or belly dance lessons, or a gondola ride on Lake Merritt. Or, I don’t know, a stint on a flying trapeze.
So there I was one Friday morning at Trapeze Arts in West Oakland, interviewing co-owner Lili Gaudreau about how she and her husband Stephen got together at Club Med Ixtapa and decided to start a circus school. (People do this kind of stuff. Crazy.)
I watched as participants for a 10:00 am class began to trickle in. There were five that morning, all women, of every age, size, and shape. They sauntered over to the gear area of the gym, next to the flying trapeze setup, with its 30-foot high platform, its bars, its wide bouncy net. They adjusted their harnesses and chalked their hands and bounced on their toes in anticipation. These chicks were ready to go.
Lili caught me staring. “You should give it a try,” she said, a sly expression on her face. “It would help you describe it better for your readers.”
My stomach flipped over and I had that push-pull sensation I get sometimes when presented with a compelling but scary opportunity. “Oh, I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I have to get back to my office — ”
Lili rolled her eyes. “Just try it,” she said. “I guarantee you’ll love it.”
I didn’t think I really wanted to try hanging from a flying trapeze but underneath that initial response I knew that I actually did. “Okay,” I said.
The buzzing started in my ears, the noise that kicks in when I feel like I’ve stepped into the surreal. I stowed my purse under a bench and accepted a harness from Darrel, one of the instructors on duty. There was a relatively brief internal tussle over how I looked in the harness. Not important, I whispered to myself, staring up at the platform. I didn’t feel particularly nervous about climbing the ladder to perch there with Herdland (Instructor Number Two), who would grab the bar with a hook and help me take hold of it. I was more concerned that I wouldn’t remember the information Emily (Instructor Number Three) had given me. The directions were simple, really: Darrel would be on the ground, and I was to listen to what he said and do it.
Staying out of my own way, not getting bogged down in my thoughts, is challenging on my best days — never mind a day when I’ve agreed to swing from my knees on a metal bar, 10 yards up. But there it was: I would step off the platform into the air, holding on to the bar with both hands; at the exact right moment Darrel would cue me to lift my legs towards my chest, I’d hook them over the trapeze, and then I’d let my hands go.
I climbed the platform and stood there waiting, sweat seeping through the chalk on my palms. Herdland hooked the safety cable to my harness, brought the bar within arm’s reach. He helped me position my hands and lean out into space, my feet on the edge of the platform. “Go,” he said. And I jumped.
Thrill, dismay, fear — a cocktail of adrenaline surged through me and I could barely hear what Darrel was calling out, much less do it. Instead of allowing momentum to pull me to the top of the arc before bringing my knees up and over the bar, I tried to make the movement happen at the bottom of the swing, when gravity was at its most intense. Darrel told me how to dismount properly but still I ended up in a face plant on the net, bouncing hard against the rough fibers.
Oooh, I wanted to leave. I hadn’t succeeded, right? There was no point in trying again. But Darrel, Herdland, and Emily had seen this response from trapeze newbies many, many times before and they practically marched me back up the ladder. Two more times I tried, and by the third I hooked my knees at just the right moment, aligning with the physics of it all. (Couldn’t improve my dismount, though. “You seem to want to land on your face,” Darrel said.)
I was euphoric. I had persevered — even if I’d only swung three times and hooked my knees once. I had to restrain myself from shaking everyone’s hand. I’d been able, at least briefly, to move past my thoughts to a wordless place where it was just my body, in motion. And my body understood the metaphor of the thing immediately, that principle of act-then-let-go that has come to signify courage for me. With the motions – climb, jump, wait, hook, release – I was experimenting with bravery, finding again that so often it looks a lot like surrender.