Stretch Yourself

The University of Chicago Magazine published “Stretch Yourself” by Harriet Heyman. I would love to hear your thoughts on the many possible spiritual metaphors inside this story:

Nearly 20 years ago, I enrolled my two toddlers in an acrobatics class at a hole-in-the-wall circus school in San Francisco. The boys stuck with it for a few years, but as they grew up, they moved on to soccer, baseball, and girls. I stayed, caught by the strange beauty that first attracted me. Since then, for more than 15 years, I have been training on trapeze.

For flying trapeze, I climb the ladder up to a narrow perch, grasp a 30-inch steel bar, and step into the air. Swinging like a pendulum, I let go, launch an aerial trick, and soar toward the outstretched hands of a muscled catcher who is twice my size and half my age. I also train on static trapeze. In static, the trapeze, mounted on long ropes, does not swing back and forth. It can, however, twist and judder and at times bind as tight as a tourniquet. I do a routine, choreographed to tango music, and work on tricks called dolphins, unicorns, Russian rolls, and meat hooks. Bruises and ripped calluses go with the territory. For me, now in my early 60s, trapeze has become a quiet passion.

Years ago, in this dilapidated gym, I reinvented myself. I was in my late 40s. With no more trouble than it took to change my diaper bag into a gym bag, I could walk out of my house and, minutes later, be among a different species. These honed men and women worked past pain at something so difficult, unusual, and stunning, and—from the perspective of the outside world—something that appeared utterly useless. I was hooked.

I read about acrobatics. I wrote about acrobatics. I took my family to every circus that came to town, from Cirque du Soleil to traveling mud shows. I flew to Paris and Monte Carlo to watch international circus festivals. I delved into the history and biomechanics of acrobatics. Mostly, I trained. And in the process, an infatuation grew into a deep bond.

In acrobatics, separate themes of my own life spiraled together: work and play, memory, friendship, solitude, discipline, frustration, risk and failure, love and desire, creativity and writing. Acrobatics became my North Star, shedding faraway light on matters close to home. Training challenged me, and not just physically. It made me question where I was in the arc of my life.

I first walked into the gym a middle-aged mom, resigned to gravity. But these athletes, amateur and otherwise, were so buoyant. They weren’t all young, but they possessed a defiant power. Being around them made me ask myself, “What does it mean to grow older?”

Somewhere along the way, I had donned the burka of sexual invisibility and passed through the marketplace unnoticed. I might have stayed cloaked and seething. But working on layouts and pinwheels, I reinhabited my body, entering a new phase that had nothing to do with seduction, mating, or procreation. Did my body disguise my self, or reveal it? Was acrobatics, late in the day, a last grasp at youth? No, it seemed more like the ideal traveling companion for right where I was now. I had found a new circle.

The circus school was a day trip through purgatory. Here we were—people of all ages, shapes, abilities, backgrounds—training, bundled up in a frigid gym that seemed two steps away from the wrecking ball, all in the name of developing skills in an art form that few in the outside world understood or cared about. Stilt walkers, jugglers, aerialists, hand balancers, tumblers, and contortionists practiced in self-defined spaces, oblivious of fliers doing tricks and plummeting into the net that stretched the length of the 80-foot gymnasium. Most students practiced in stoic silence: the same motions, hour after hour, day after day, before work, after school. Even for the youngest, strongest, and most athletically gifted, nothing came easily or without pain. Acrobatics was the great equalizer. Nobody was a star.

Every once in a while, I’d witness an instant that seared into my brain. It was an incidental motion or gesture. The acrobat wasn’t even aware of it. Unlike dancers, who rehearse in front of mirrors, acrobats can’t see what they’re doing. They feel where they are in space and intuitively make minute adjustments.

I wanted to capture these acts that defied age and gender and gravity. I started to write down these mental snapshots. These frozen moments of grace and intuition sparked the idea for my book, Private Acts.

Today few people run away to join the circus. There are more options and fewer circuses. But however expressed, the desire to break the ties that bind still burns. Who at some point doesn’t crave a new script? For most of us, it’s amorphous longing, the quiet desperation of those privileged with choices. Something about the proud defiance of the acrobat embodies that urge. Watching a body fly beyond its limits inspires hope.

I was lucky, stumbling on acrobatics. For me, it is both recreation and re-creation. It touches something that already lived deep inside me. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not. I don’t expect acrobatics to make me thin, young, or famous. All it gives me is something simple and wondrous. Every so often, after months of frustrating practice and backsliding, a trick works beautifully. I don’t know why. When it happens, it seems natural. Without fear, inhibition, or desire, the body moves fluidly in finite space and time. After years of training, I’m learning the art of letting go. Everything that went before is distilled into one defining moment that gives back joy.

Adapted from Private Acts: The Acrobat Sublime (Rizzoli, 2011) by Harriet Heyman, photographs by Acey Harper.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Stretch Yourself

  1. Here’s a comment from Stephanie:

    I had a lot of thoughts from that “Stretch Yourself.” Pretty cool thing, it was.

    “I read about acrobatics. I wrote about acrobatics. I took my family to every circus that came to town, from Cirque du Soleil to traveling mud shows. I flew to Paris and Monte Carlo to watch international circus festivals. I delved into the history and biomechanics of acrobatics. Mostly, I trained. And in the process, an infatuation grew into a deep bond.”

    By learning everything she could, going to every circus, and training as often as she could, she grew a deeper bond with acrobatics. We grow a deeper bond with God by reading every scripture and studying every word, by fellowshipping with others who share our beliefs. The more we immerse ourselves in God’s way of life the more it becomes a part of us, and the more we become committed to God and following Him.

    “In acrobatics, separate themes of my own life spiraled together: work and play, memory, friendship, solitude, discipline, frustration, risk and failure, love and desire, creativity and writing. Acrobatics became my North Star, shedding faraway light on matters close to home.”

    Acrobatics became a guiding point in her life from which she found answers to other situations. God’s way of life is our “North Star,” the guiding light for our lives. Satan often tries to trip us up by setting obstacles in our path, but when we shine the light of God’s truth we can find a way to overcome.

    “[…] the same motions, hour after hour, day after day, before work, after school.”

    Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” God does not easily reveal His truth (Matt 13:11), so it is up to us to learn His way and discover the meaning of a scripture. By constantly searching the scriptures God will bless us with knowledge and understanding, and from there we can apply that knowledge to our lives, just as 2 Timothy 3:16 states that the scriptures are there for “reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Just as she and her fellow students’ training is constant, our spiritual training never lets up. Whether learning a new skill or technique, training never ends; even after we master a skill we need to “use it or lose it.” This is shown in Matt 13:12. If we have knowledge yet don’t use it, we will eventually lose that knowledge altogether, but if we use our knowledge God will bless us with more. And by studying God’s word we learn not only how to live our lives but also His ultimate plan for us (Eph 1:17-18).

    “Even for the youngest, strongest, and most athletically gifted, nothing came easily or without pain. Acrobatics was the great equalizer. Nobody was a star.”

    We may come from different places and have different perspectives but we are all God’s chosen people. The most gifted student has to work hard to achieve the skills of acrobatics, and learning how to live God’s way of life can be just as difficult. No matter how talented or knowledgeable we may be, living God’s way is not an easy path (Matt 7:14) and with change there is pain. We all struggle and face difficulties, for Satan will do anything to keep us from salvation. We are all God’s chosen and we all need to work at it; there have been many who were strong in faith and knowledge yet fell away. Thankfully, we have comfort knowing that Christ is with us (Matt 11:29-30) and by His example we can learn how to overcome. It’s a humbling thing to struggle through a difficulty because we learn how weak we are without God. By being humbled in such a way we are able to draw closer to God, and He will strengthen, perfect, and glorify us (James 1:2-4; 4:10; 1 Peter 4:12-14,16; 5:5-7, 10).

    One thing that stuck out at me was when she mentioned doing something others outside of acrobatics saw as strange and useless. This made me think that as Christians, particularly with our beliefs, we are seen as strange, even to other “Christians.” A lot of people in the world probably see our commitment to Him and our work of spreading the gospel as useless. But she doesn’t seem to worry about how “outsiders” see this “companion” of hers, embracing the way it has changed her, so I think we should also have the same attitude in that we shouldn’t let others’ view of us and our beliefs get in the way of living according to God’s word. Furthermore, God and His word are our companions for where ever we are in life, to support us and guide us.

    “It touches something that already lived deep inside me. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not. I don’t expect acrobatics to make me thin, young, or famous. All it gives me is something simple and wondrous. Every so often, after months of frustrating practice and backsliding, a trick works beautifully.”

    This paragraph seems to give insight on what living God’s way does to us and what it’s all about. I think that we all have a part of us that’s connected to God, even those who won’t be called in this life. For us who are called, when we start to answer that part of us is awakened and when we fully embrace living this way we can go out in the world and not be ashamed of being God’s people. Changing ourselves from carnally-minded to godly is a hard change to make, but with perseverance and God on our side living His way becomes easier.

    It’s pretty cool how one thought can lead to so many others and connections between the points can start popping up. It was easy to get carried away and find more connections, but it’s also kind of fun, and I reckon all of that’s a good thing.

  2. I think how people live for everyone else, but themselves. They begin to feel life is “blah” and start searching for a deeper meaning. When the author states, “I stayed, caught by the strange beauty that first attracted me”, it reminds me of those that come in contact with a member of God’s church. The members personal example and genuineness to them can cause curiosity to stir within another person. That person may start with a few questions. They become wanting and the emptiness starts to be fill, and they want to know more. Over time they keep coming back for more and more!

    The climbing the ladder represents the question’s that finally lead that person to take the next step and the leap of Faith. The “Catcher” doesn’t have to be a seasoned veteran of the church, but can be anyone who’s faith and character is strong. The catcher is there to help, encourage, and extend the hand as Christ did when Peter stepped out on faith and began to sink. The routine represent’s learning God’s word from all angles, and we know that we must rehearse these daily to be perfected. Sometimes we fall, but God is always there to catch us.

    “I reinvented myself” brings to mind the scripture to put off the old man and put on the new man. If we truly want to follow God, how hard is it to change? “With no more trouble than it took to change my diaper bag into a gym bag, I could walk out of my house and, minutes later, be among a different species. These honed men and women worked past pain at something so difficult, unusual, and stunning, and—from the perspective of the outside world”, these represent the people of God. They are around. They don’t have “S” on their chests, wearing brightly colored costumes. Yet, they do go about mild manner. They have fought many battles, have many scar’s, but they press forward with their examples before us. They desire to change, and follow the example set before them.

    As the woman stated she read, wrote, and traveled reminds me of immersion of oneself in God’s way of life. Studying, taking notes, traveling to the feast .

    The “themes of my own life spiraled together” represents the evaluation of a person’s life. One may look at their life in the past, the present, and the future, and how change has been a wonderful thing when God has revealed his way of life. While “Watching a body fly beyond its limits inspires hope”, reminds me that God has show us that our potential far exceeds anything we could ever imagine. The author states, “…and re-creation. It touches something that already lived deep inside me. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not.” Resembles to me that we are a new creation in Christ, and we are to be pure and genuine.

    CLK

  3. Pingback: Time to get back to balance | The Power Within

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s