I'm sitting on a thin metal bar. I'm holding onto two coarse ropes. I'm trying not to scream out of both terror and disappointment. Though I registered for this trapeze class, I am well aware I cannot return. Very simply, I am too scared. It is six weeks before my wedding, two months before my pregnancy and twelve months before the most harrowing childbirth changed the meaning of "scary" for me forever.
It wasn't the flying trapeze on which Russian circus performers sail in their sleep. It was a low trapeze, six feet off the ground, and only one of many apparatus available at the hipster Chicago aerial dance studio. I enrolled in the class for one reason: fun. Since witnessing slinky circus dancers at every high-end outdoor art festival, the aerial dance form swept my imagination and blended it with possibility. I saw myself spinning on the aerial hoop, climbing silk fabrics, swinging on the trapeze. I saw myself strong and capable, and in these visions I looked great.
The tiny instructor sauntered onto the gym mats, and though her arms were enormous, I still believed I was in for an hour of grace and delight. I was not. "Warm up with some handstands," she barked. "Do a few back bends." She pulled herself onto the trapeze bar with one smooth movement and demonstrated a simple looking sequence: a straight legged pike, a bent knee hang, a climb up towards the warehouse ceiling into a 'Star' pose. I tried to follow her model, once, twice, six times. She had made it look easy. I realized then where her arms had come from; somehow I had miscalculated the strength required to hold my own weight.
There were other miscalculations: vertigo, waves of nausea and panic. I tried to steady myself. I scanned the room. Even though the class flyer had framed 'level 1' as within reach, I was the oldest and most tentative among a dozen twenty-somethings. I was no longer willowy enough to fit into a size 6 or cram in gourmet hotdogs from the food cart. Rather, I was pushing a size 10 and second-guessing my vegetarian diet. What made me think I could do this? I climbed down discouraged, never feeling less like a 'star.'
The studio manager refunded me fully when I told him I was too scared to return. "We understand this dance form isn't for everybody," he said kindly. It was hard to hear. There's something about imagining yourself in a powerful way -- and then having to admit you are less -- that gives rise to, well, rage. I did my best to bury the experience of my one, sad little swing on the trapeze. As I moved through the wedding preparations, the wedding night and all three trimesters of my pregnancy, the aerial dance debacle fell out of focus. I called it 'the last big miscalculation of my thirties.'
It's funny how miscalculations of the past have the ability to haunt those of the future. In the next few months I wondered more than once if getting married was really as good a calculation as it seemed. When I got pregnant quickly, beating the odds of most women my age, I thought about how motherhood was a state where miscalculations would have major repercussions. With this in mind, I made a clear birth plan, followed a strict recommended diet and exercise for "older" mothers, and carried my baby to term as gracefully as the aerial dancer I wanted to be.
Then I went into labor.
Contractions were six minutes, then five minutes, then three minutes apart from Wednesday until Friday. According to the midwife, it was still too soon to go to the hospital. I accepted her assessment since I had planned for, and was devoted to, having a natural childbirth. Even 50 hours of close contractions wasn't going to change my mind. I had taken the class, bought the books, declined the free boxes of EnFamil. There was nothing worse than a medicated delivery in my mind, and nothing better than a birth that fit my renewed, healthy ethos. I saw myself enduring the pain, pushing that baby out quickly and cradling a bundle in my arms. I saw myself glowing and blissful, and in those visions I looked great.
When there was still no baby on Saturday morning, I agreed to one, small intervention. The nurse stuck a needle in my arm, pulled the synthetic hormone drip closer. "You'll have your baby by 5 p.m.," she said cheerfully, as if I had come in for a makeover. She was wrong. By 10 p.m. that evening I had run the gamut of labor positions. I had cried, screamed and vomited from the discomfort. I had had the induction machine turned on full blast and my water bag broken. Still nothing. Even worse, I couldn't take a break, go get a cup of coffee and come back later. I couldn't ask for my money back because I was too scared. I had to see it through to the end. It had been 79 hours of active labor, and according to the entire hospital staff, I wasn't even close.
At hour 82 I sensed real danger and got an epidural and a C-section. By hour 88, I was holding a bundle -- a beautiful, healthy bundle -- and, compared to the previous few days, I looked pretty great.
It took months to see this experience as a triumph and not a failure. All I saw, like the aerial dance debacle, was another miscalculation: an even bigger miscalculation of my thirties. No one in my life agreed with me -- my husband, midwife and surgeon all insisted a medical delivery was the right choice made in the nick of time. While I saw their reasoning, I never felt it in my heart. I never felt empowered.
Two years later, we moved to a nearby city that, much to my surprise, had aerial dance theater. Before I knew what I was doing, I had registered for a beginner class again. I showed up that first night to a new dozen of willowy twenty-somethings. Though still not a size 6, I suffered the grueling learning curve on the trapeze anyway. Panic and nausea still seized me. The skin on my hands ripped. My ankles were rope burned, and purple welts on my legs made cocktail dresses a no-no for weeks. But those were small prices to pay. Something in my heart had changed.
There is a world beyond miscalculation. It is a world of beauty and grace and self-forgiveness. Not everyone needs to wrap themselves in ropes or balance on a trapeze bar in order to see this world. But sometimes that's what it takes.