Last night I had two conversations about love. The first over chicken soup at the home of two of my most bananagram-savvy friends, Lauren and Megan, the second between midnight and 2am in my kitchen, accompanied by small cups of potent potables and Fe Fox, who was dressed head to toe like a dancer from the movie Moulin Rouge, complete with a towering red hair-feather. In both conversations, I said that lately I’d been asking myself what it means to love something. In this case, I was referring specifically to circus. I’m currently enrolled in a 10-month program in Vermont to learn the foundational skills for physical performance (so basically I work my ass off to pay for other people to kick my ass on the days I don’t have work). When I think about how I got here, it all feels...blurry. It feels like a long blurry story, like still don’t know how to synthesize the last years into a sentence or two to take myself from then to now. So I guess I’ll use as many sentences as I need.
I started dating someone in my last year of college who wanted to be a circus teacher and performer, and who introduced me to basic partner acrobatics, handstands, and other odds and ends. I took some recreational classes for most of that year at a local studio, then applied to the NECCA Intensive Program, mostly because I thought there was very little chance of getting accepted, and because several of my newfound circus friends were applying. I had zero idea what to do with myself, but I found this new way of talking to my body exhilarating.
Despite growing up on a farm and being active for most of my life, I never considered myself athletic. To my mind, athletes were faster, stronger, and more competitive than normal folks- I didn’t have an interest in proving myself against others. Athletes, I was taught, were slender and toned- I’ve always joked that my body was built for comfort, not speed, appearing more suited for a 40s pinup poster than I do for Fitness Today. By the time I was a teenager I’d been told by various adults that I didn’t have an athlete’s build. In one particularly absurd instance, I was told that I’d never amount to much as an athlete because, as a coach once said “I can’t exactly see you running up and down the hockey pitch,” (way to make a 14 year old feel like shit about her body).
So when I signed up for beginner circus classes in my 20s and found myself more capable than I had imagined, it was thrilling. So I sent in my application to NECCA for a lark, then promptly signed up for a desert survival course in my native Utah, and, having completed two weeks of sleeping on dirt, busting fires with a bow drill, and the slaughter and process of a food animal, I jettisoned off to Central America with my girlfriend for a 6-month shoestring backpack tour. While away we learned we had both been invited to NECCA auditions, which we wouldn’t make it back to the states in time to attend. We did phone interviews with one of the directors and hoped for the best.
We were both accepted- me for Intensive, her for Protrack. I started the program feeling very much out of my element, and even more out of practice- what was I doing here, anyway, with all these people who had performed or taught circus for years, who had taken gymnastics and dance since childhood, who already had skills it would take me years to achieve, if ever?
Then, three weeks into the start of the program I tore my ACL in one of my classes, doing a barrel roll, of all things. I did several successfully, then went in for one more with a different person as my base. Due to a failure in communication, I had no idea this person would thrust their back up to give me a massive “pop,” since none of the other bases had been doing this for the beginner flyers. I don’t really know what happened- just that when I landed I heard a pop, my left knee seized up, and I went into a sort of mild shock. Unfortunately, in an effort not to be seen as weak or dramatic, I didn’t listen to my own body. I waited another two months to get an MRI, despite the fact that my leg felt completely unstable and would collapse under me if I so much as shifted my weight too quickly. Five separate coaches told me that, based on their experiences, it was extremely unlikely to be a serious injury, because I wasn’t in that much pain and I still managed to participate in most of the program activities.
When I finally got the results I was devastated, but also relieved- at least I hadn’t been making it all up- the instability, the pain in my joint, the fact that it wasn’t getting better no matter what I did. I left the program to get surgery, followed by months of recovery, during which I also ended my three-year relationship. There was a lot of couch-time, and I’m thankful for the discovery of Parks and Recreation, which got me through the the pain more effectively than pharmaceuticals.
Nearly a year later, it’s still not the same knee, but it’s getting closer. During PT I discovered I have hypermobility in my joints, which makes them less stable to begin with- yet another aspect of myself I have to consider as I move through the world and engage with it in ways that push my physical boundaries.
I thought about not coming back to the program. I’d spoken with one of the directors before I left, who told me I could have a place in the next year’s entering class, if I felt it was right for me. I said of course I wanted to come back, but it wasn’t always clear to me if that was true.
Mostly, I wanted to come back for the people. I felt so close to these brave, remarkable artists who supported each other through some absurdly difficult times, be it a dying family member or a pulled hamstring. I couldn’t bring myself to give them up. Did I really want to be involved in a lifestyle with so much physical risk, so many days of feeling like I was worthless as a human being because I cannot do a press handstand or a standing backtuck or ten pullups? Often I thought it might be better to quit right there, before I got too invested; clearly everyone had been right about me, and I wasn’t cut out to be athletic. There must be something fundamentally weak about me, or bad, or wrong, or cowardly, that I could be hurt so badly doing something so simple.
On the other hand, could I bring myself to give up the friends I made in the program? Could I give up the small gains in my body awareness I’d made despite my injury? I felt that if I gave up now, I would be afraid of my own body for the rest of my life, and that I would regret giving up the chance to learn if circus arts, if being artistically physical, could have a place in my life, a place where I could feel at home in my movement. I have always wanted to feel like I could use my body to say something- I ache inside every time I watch dancers, but had always thought I possessed neither the talent nor the body to be one. Here I had, by some fluke, been accepted not once, but twice into a program that could give me the tools to begin touching on that. And I would be surrounded by some of the most incredible people I’d ever met. So, I went back.
If this were a fairytale I might tell you that my second try at circus has been nothing but success piled on success, that the coaches are blown away by my hard work and natural talent, that I know now I was destined to be a circus artist from the start, that I’ve found my calling.
But, obviously, this isn’t a fairytale. Or even a heartwarming story of achieving one’s dreams against all odds. I don’t know what kind of story this is, but I’m open to editorial suggestions.
I’m a little over three months into the program. My knee feels strong most of the time. I am often sore, hungry, and too tired to make food. I’m working three jobs plus trying to keep up with a writing career and my duties as an editor. I only get to sleep in on sundays, and it’s a chore to keep on top of cooking, cleaning, and attempting some shadow of a social life. I’ve had it with the East Coast winters, and the proliferation of mold in my bathroom, which seems to resist all attacks with cleaning products. Every day I do at least one thing that terrifies me (sometimes I think there must be a better way to get over a fear of heights than hanging from a bar or another person several feet in the air), and I feel unskilled and uncoordinated most of the time. I have stress dreams about a duo trapeze piece I’ve been cast in, and wake up at 5am convinced I’m falling out of a shin-to-shin or missing a bar to foot catch. I have bruises all over my body. I absolutely cannot seem to keep my clothes off of my bedroom floor. I am getting used to crying, in public, for no apparent reason.
There are moments when I can hold a handstand and move my feet around. Sometimes I do a move correctly on the first try (and then it often goes away until I attempt it, flailing, several more times). There are days when I feel strong and coordinated, like my body is starting to understand some of its intelligence. My friends are the funniest, most loving, generous people in the world, and when one of us cries, no one acts like they are broken or weak. I can finally do the splits on both sides, and my joints feel stronger and more stable. Several times a week, I laugh so hard my face hurts and my eyes water. My callouses grow thicker every week and when I look at my hands they remind me that I can use them, that I choose to use them.
So when I sat at two different kitchen tables at two different times last night, I told my friends that I wasn’t sure what it meant to fall in love with circus. It seems like a common experience to try an apparatus and then say “yes, I love this and I want to do it all the time and become amazing at it,” and that’s that- you throw yourself into it. There are several such people in the program, and part of me wishes I knew what that kind of certainty was like. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that. I’ve felt moments of joy, absolutely, but never complete and unfettered devotion.
In my experience, I don’t so much fall in love with a thing as I find that it begins to feel necessary; I write because it is necessary, essential even, to how I process the world and my experiences within it. Strangely, things that feel necessary are never the things that feel easy.
I wondered out loud if this might simply be a function of the way in which I experience or express love, since the word, idea, and state of love is so different from person to person, or if that act of acknowledging that I love something, that I want something, is too loaded, too frightening. Because then there is the possibility of failure, of not achieving, of falling out of love, or getting hurt by what you love.
Megan revealed she had thought about using “I want” as one of the writing prompts, but decided against it. Maybe that is part of what makes performance, in any medium, so potent- the laying bare of some aspect of what the performer wants, of what they love. High stakes.
Flash-forward several hours and layers of tulle and corsets to Fe Fox and I drinking in my kitchen, where we are talking about what it looks like to love something so singularly that you want to pursue it at any cost. Then, she says something that makes perfect sense: “I’m a polyamorous person, so why shouldn’t that be the same in my relationship to my art as my relationships to people?”
Yes, why indeed. I’ve known for a while that monogamy in relationships isn’t working for me at present, so why should I expect myself to be monogamous in my other pursuits? I’ve never been the kind of person who can go after one thing and one thing only- I’ve always had many interests, which is difficult to balance, but makes me feel whole. I’ve never liked that phrase, “jack of all trades, master of none,” because I feel it discounts the experiences and expertise of people who choose to learn broadly, and falsely implies that one cannot be both capable and knowledgeable in many areas of interest and highly skilled in a particular field. Which is a steaming pile of buffaloshit, because of course you can. Furthermore, what does it mean to master something? The better I get at something, the more I realize that what I know is so very, very tiny, that the idea of mastery seems...a little overblown. Inaccurate. Unrealistic. Like a steaming pile of buffalo apples.
So maybe moving forward I can try and remember to live in the mystery a little more, to be open to love in strange shapes, to tune in to what I find myself drawn towards- new challenges, new thrills, new failures. I don’t have the same relationship to circus as I have to writing, which is different from my relationships to working with animals, scuba diving, singing, knitting, you name it. There are so many things to try, that to limit myself to only one feels impossible. Who knows, maybe that’s what love looks like for this human, for now.