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Lessons Learned on a Trapeze

A brief flight forced me to confront both the chicken, and the hero, within


(This article previously appeared on MidcenturyModernMag.com.)

It seemed like a great idea at the time. I booked a weekend retreat far off into the future at the Omega Institute, a place that always restores me. I enrolled in a leadership workshop and did it because I wanted to step up in a bigger way, but also to get the chance to fly on a trapeze — a centerpiece of the course.

It wasn’t until the email arrived a few days before the event that I even contemplated the possibility I could pull a muscle or injure myself. No sunscreen on hands, arms or legs because they’d be touching the trapeze and you wouldn’t want to slip off. Socks to prevent toes from getting stuck in the net. An experienced friend who is older than me and participates in regular triathlons, recommended yoga pants to keep the backs of the knees from getting chafed. She’s the type who also sought out an indoor roller hockey club after moving to Los Angeles.

The ladder was narrow, the sides were thin, and it quivered with each step. I held on for dear life, doing the old lady two-step climb.

I’m a walker.

The last time I visited a chiropractor he sent me off with some exercises cautioning that my range of movement signaled the onset of frozen shoulder. The only yoga I practice these days is restorative. In the over-40 hiking group I participate in, I bring up the rear and that’s OK.

An Intro to the Trapeze

We gathered the first night, met the leader of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, and formed a semi-circle. The first step was to “own our age” so we were asked to organize from youngest to oldest. The youngest was 17, a competitive runner who had been sidelined her senior year by an injury. The oldest was 65, a mother accompanied by her 30-year-old daughter. She was transitioning out of a job where she helped mentor people and was planning her next phase.

At 57, I was the fourth from the oldest in the group. The woman one year older than me was the 17-year-old’s mom. She owned a flower business and also competed in triathlons. (The last time I had attended Omega was five years earlier for a mother-daughter workshop on staying connected during the teen years. I missed my daughter. She was 13 that year, drawing peace signs in the sand.)

Walking to the workshop the next morning, the trapeze was visible in the distance. It became clear the night before that flying was optional. No one would be forced to take the leap. But I love the high dive. I couldn’t wait.

After a morning spent focused on listening to our hearts and drawing our vision for the world, we broke for lunch then assembled back under the tent. It was hot. Pushing 90 degrees.

We met the instructors. All of them were circus professionals who took time between gigs for workshops like these. One of them was a woman who had her first trapeze experience 12 years earlier at age 36 and became hooked for life. Another was a hot little Brazilian guy with a dazzling smile and biceps to match.

We were belted into harnesses, pulled so tight it took the breath away. This must be what it’s like to wear a corset. Eventually, it became comfortable.

We would learn how to do basic maneuvers on a trapeze closer to ground, reachable by a three-step ladder. One-by-one the women climbed, reached, swung for momentum, then tucked their legs in, up and over the bar.

A Steep Climb

When my turn came, I was shocked at how uncomfortable it felt to climb the small ladder. Reaching for the trapeze, it was rough to the touch. I hung like a dead weight, attempting to swing back and forth. I wanted gloves. I was laughing  —  as I do whenever nervous. Then I dropped to the grass.

This was going to be interesting.

The 17-year-old runner went first and she was born to fly. The power she exuded as she jumped from the platform sent her soaring. Forward, backward, forward, legs tucked, up and over. Then back out, down and drop to the net.

One by one, the women climbed. Launched at the word “hut” and soared. Some took longer than others, but all were successful. Everyone was tethered to safety lines and there was always a net. A steady stream of cheers and support came from the tent. Even those who could not leap because of injury (a broken foot) would benefit by vicariously following those who could.

At the halfway mark, 10 or so in, I was ready. I strode to the ladder, got tethered and started the climb.

Oh. My. God. The ladder was narrow, the sides were thin, and it quivered with each step. I held on for dear life, doing the old lady two-step climb. One foot up, then meeting it with the other foot.

It took an eternity to reach the top.

The big ladder ended abruptly, lined up with the platform’s edge. To get onto the platform required letting go, grabbing another small anchor and pulling myself up. I did.

I was oblivious to any cheering from the tent. The Brazilian was coaching me to get to the edge, then finally pushed me there. I didn’t look down, but I didn’t feel good. I reached for the trapeze bar with my right hand, then let go of the cord I was holding to follow with my left.

“Lean in. Let go. I’m holding you,” he said.

But my body wouldn’t budge. From below, the lead trainer shouted for me to lean forward.

“What am I doing wrong?” I hollered, aware that somehow my body refused to cooperate but feeling a total inability to move as instructed.

“Ready! Hut!” came the cue for me to leap. I was frozen in place. What in the world was happening?

This was not me.

Finally, I jumped, and felt a small pop in my right shoulder. Nothing painful, but something to be aware of. I made no pretense of trying to lift my legs. I just swung back and forth and sought to create some momentum. I felt vaguely nauseous.

My dismount was respectable. I dropped and crawled to the edge of the net, then somersaulted off as required.

Back under the tent I was greeted with cheers of “Good job, Laurie!” But I didn’t feel it. I did not want to go back up and I knew the whole point was to conquer my fears, accept the support of the team, be confident a net would always appear, and develop some mastery.

But what about the shoulder? Was it wise to say “good enough” after one go-round with the trapeze, or should I push myself to try it one more time? I didn’t want to. So I didn’t. I was finished. But others did. There is always a safety net. You can get support. It takes time to learn something. So I felt bad about myself. Which, of course, is not the point of the exercise.

A New Outlook

I awoke early the following morning. It was still foggy and everything was covered in a morning dew. I walked to the trapeze and contemplated what I had done the day before. The bottom of the ladder was protected by a board that said “Danger!” Precaution against anyone high on life and deciding to take a flying leap in the middle of the night.

It was just me and the contraption. No one else to compare myself to. And then I felt it. That sense of accomplishment. That feeling of “I did it!” I knew it for myself, and I knew I could do a lot better.

Truth is, I did not prepare to fly on the trapeze.

I missed the opportunity to really let go, to trust myself and discover the wonder. As in other things in life, I held myself back, even as I witnessed others go up the ladder two, three, even four times. They got better on each round.

I watched one recent doctoral recipient in her 30s go from shaking mass to confident trapeze artist in an afternoon. She’d opened herself to the adventure with determination and no self-consciousness. I couldn’t get past the warm-up leap.

Still I had to accept that my body gave me a sign that what I had done was enough. But I want to fly. I left the Omega Institute that weekend with some new friends, wonderful new perspectives from being with a different circle than my usual crowd, and a resolve to take better care of myself by stretching and strengthening.

My goal is to return next summer and get my legs over the bar. This time I have a plan to get there. If I don’t, I’ll know I gave it my best try.

By Laurie Petersen
Laurie Petersen is a Hoboken, N.J.-based event producer, content strategist, editor and writer. She helps launch startups and can find the story in any company.

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