March 11, 2015

Learning to Fly

I took my first flying trapeze class on a warm Saturday morning in August 2013 at Trapeze School New York in Washington, DC. It was my second visit. Two months prior when I came for the same class, an instructor asked if any students had injuries he should know about. I raised my hand and told him I had been in physical therapy for several weeks recovering from a shoulder injury but wasn’t in pain.

To be safe, he asked me to hang for ten seconds on a trapeze fly bar. It was suspended high enough that I could start with my feet on the ground then bend my knees to feel my full body weight hanging from the bar. I immediately felt a twinge of pain in the injured shoulder during the test hang.

We decided I should wait and see how it felt after I finished treatment and got clearance from my doctor for the activity. I rescheduled right then. Disappointed and relieved, I stuck around to watch the class I originally registered for.

When I returned to TSNY DC a couple of months later, I had an idea of what to expect. I intently observed others take their turns. I felt somewhat prepared and every bit as nervous as the first time I was there.

The instructors tightly strapped each student into a trapeze belt. They explained the rig, showed us how to attach the safety line to the belt, climb the ladder to mount the board, then take off from the board on the fly bar. We practiced take-off a few times on the ground before the first student in line approached the rig for their first turn.

Climbing the ladder was easy and I climbed quickly. Looking down from the board and gauging the height from that point of view was humbling. With my feet planted on a firm surface, I felt comfortable enough to take in the view.

It was an outdoor class on a clear, sunny day. I heard traffic buzzing in the DC streets to my right. Across the parking lot ahead was a five-story condo building. The Nationals’ baseball stadium wasn’t far behind it. In the far distance on my left, I saw cars moving across the Woodrow Wilson bridge joining Maryland and Virginia over the Potomac River. Below me, I saw the safety net on the rig, the line operator, instructors, and fellow students on the ground. A nervous sensation rippled and reverberated through me.

The take-off position felt counter-intuitive. I stood at the edge of the board, left arm stretched out and slightly behind me, left hand holding a rope secured to the board. I stalled. The instructor standing behind me said, “Now lean forward, reach out, and grab the fly bar with your right hand.”

“Say what now?” I thought.

“It’s OK. I’ve got you. See?” the instructor said as she tugged the back of my safety belt.

The belt is so thick and tough that it takes a deliberate tug for you to physically feel someone is actually holding you and has your back. Feeling comforted, I reluctantly leaned forward, reached out and grabbed the fly bar with my right hand (it was a lot heavier than it looked). The next step was to bend my knees, place my left hand onto the fly bar, take off from the board, and swing when the instructor gives the cue, “Ready! Hup!”

Paralyzed with fear, I hesitated. I stepped all the way back onto the board and took a pause. “I don’t think I can do this” I said out loud, looking around and down. The instructor gave me a few moments to myself before coaching me through how to get off the board from the fly bar. I had a brief conversation in my mind. “Don’t think about it,” I said. “When she says go, you go.” Then I prayed.

I tried again. I heard my cue. I felt an intense sensation of anxiety rise in my hands, arms, chest, ankles, and feet. It was as if all the blood in my body rushed to just below the surface of my skin like a wave crashing the shore. Next thing I know, my feet separated from the board in what seemed like slow motion, followed by an instant realization that there was nothing beneath them anymore. The wave of anxiety receded. All of a sudden, I was in a vertical hang from the fly bar. It’s hard to explain what it was like. During the drop it felt like the bottom fell out of my stomach. I let out a little scream. The upswing from momentum felt better. Good, even.

I had five turns remaining to try more advanced moves. On my fourth turn, I did a knee hang with back tuck dismount. It was liberating to remove my hands from the fly bar, reach out, and arch backward when the instructor called, “Hands off!” That was the closest I felt to flying.

I immediately signed up for another class, wanting to improve my technique and nail a knee hang catch. My take-off was more like rolling from the board. I was ambitious and wanted to plunge from it with aplomb, with practice. But something shifted when I came back. I was up on the board again and would not move. When it was time for take-off, my visceral response was, “Nope. Not today.”

The instructor did her best to convince me otherwise. I wasn’t having it. I was indoors this time and thought flying would feel safer, and be easier. I was stumped when it wasn’t. I exchanged the session for aerial silks, a physical and mental challenge that was more palatable to me. It involved great heights without having to jump from the edge. But lessons have a way of coming back around.


I had a similar experience to take-off in flying trapeze when deciding how to spend my second term at Ei. I invested a lot of attention to securing an apprenticeship with a new host company, but either the opportunities didn’t work out, or the timing for interested companies didn’t align with my needs. I started considering other things I could do, relevant to my learning goals and interests. My classmate Olenka Hand gifted me the book Forever Paris: 25 Walks in the footsteps of Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso, and More for the holidays. It suddenly occurred to me I could use it to design my version of a Monastery experience, like founding student Dane Johnson did during his second term at Ei.

My first (and last) trip to Paris was in November 2010. I felt connected to the city right away. There is an ease and belonging I feel when I find my right place. I came alone on that trip and didn’t talk much. My French speaking proficiency was limited (I got by on the reading comprehension I gained from classroom study). The long periods of silence helped me tune in, listen to and trust myself.

Soon after the idea to return to Paris for independent study with Ei blossomed, I knew I needed to do it. I benefited from the power of Ei’s network through well-timed conversations with people who previously were strangers and, with no preconceived notions about me, encouraged me to follow my own compass, shared an inspiring clue to help me decide, and introduced me to people they met and places they went while working on projects in Paris.

Taking action on the idea felt much less certain. I found a reasonably priced flight online and kept staring at the screen, afraid to make the purchase. It was the same feeling I had when standing on the flying trapeze board, looking down from on high, terrified to take-off. Except on the board, I could see the safety net below, see the security line attached to my belt, and feel the pull from a hand that wasn’t going to let me fall. This time there was no backup in sight.

The airline’s website timed out a few times while making the reservation because I kept stalling. Enter the self-talk, “Come on, babygirl. It’ll be fine. I got you. Buy the ticket.” I did it and felt so much better. Like I did during the upswing following take-off from the trapeze fly bar. Next steps became clear. I felt lightness after taking action on each one.

Two days after booking the ticket, I found out Paris Fashion Week takes place a few weeks after my arrival. I originally came to Ei to explore how I might fit in the business of the fashion. Paris, the fashion capital of the world, is as good a place as any to explore this while also documenting the activity surrounding the event.

Victor asked me to write aspirations for what I wanted to learn, do, become, share, and deliver from the experience I was designing. I called them my intentions. The exercise helped ground my decision and create meaning for the experience.

I’m writing this post from a studio apartment in the Bastille neighborhood of Paris. Fresh off using a tool gravitytank prototyped for planning self-directed learning leaps, I completed and photographed the first of many footstep walks I’m completing using the book Olenka gave me. Yesterday Coco Chanel, tomorrow Yves Saint Laurent.

I’m answering questions to capture what I’m learning and choosing my own adventure. I believe this is what it means to learn to fly. In doing so, I hope to become a person who consistently trusts herself and builds self-confidence through self-directed learning. I hope to loosen my grip and allow a meaningful experience to unfold.

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