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20 February 2007

Let go of the monkey bar

Trapezethumb_1“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” - Lao Tzu

Sometimes taking flight takes letting go.

Letting go takes faith.

Faith takes letting go.

It all requires wings.

And so it goes.

As Kierkegaard has said, “Without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk, the greater the faith.” Flying begins with a leap of faith. And with someone to catch you when you’re falling, perhaps?

At the end of each year, I ask myself two questions: 1) what do I want to create in this new year? and, perhaps even more importantly,  2) what do I want to let go of?

This year, I needed to let go of a project I had been holding onto, one that was lucrative but deflected my attention from my real work. I needed to really let go, not pretend to let go, or hold on to vestiges of it to keep me comfortable.

It was a letting go that sent me flying into that space between the monkey bars, the one where you’ve let go but haven’t reached the other bar yet, the letting go that has to happen before the next bar is in your hand. Just after leaping, a friend told me I reminded her of a trapeze artist, flinging myself out into the universe. Another sent me this excerpt from “Fear of Transformation” that also invokes the art of trapeze:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Trapeze_necklace“Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze- bar- of- the- moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I'm in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I'm merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It's empty, and I know, in that place that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness going to get me. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well known bar to move to the new one.

“Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won't have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn't matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on the unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of ‘the past is gone, the future is not yet here.’ It's called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

Trapeze_artists_in_circus“I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a "no-thing", a no-place between places. Sure the old trapeze-bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that's real too. But the void in between? That's just a scary, confusing, disorienting "nowhere" that must be gotten through as fast as unconsciously as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

“And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather withTrapeze8 giving ourselves permission to "hang- out" in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.”

I am enamored these days of liminal spaces, those spaces in-between. I am spending my days thinking about them, exploring them, talking to people who are living in them; airplanes create odd liminal spaces, and so does any transition, from life to death, from here to there.

Trapeze_1Do you remember monkey bars? The hot feeling in your palm, that squared off place where your fingers meet you fleshy palm, the heat that is generated by the holding on? It was hard for me to navigate monkey bars as a child; I dreaded letting go. I would hold until any momentum that my body had held up to that point was gone, a dead weight strung straight down from the bar, its metal becoming hotter in my palm. And then I would have to drop down, off the bars, not moving forward or back, but down, my palms smelling metallic the rest of the day to remind me. Marilyn Ferguson has written, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…it’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

There’s nothing to hold on to.

Trapeze12I was a young college freshman taking a first semester existentialism class that met at eight o’clock in the morning (that sounds like a bad sitcom) when I first heard of Sam Keen. I read his essay, “The Peach Seed Monkey” in his book, To a Dancing God, an essay now buried beneath a jagged display of hash marks, underlining that highlights almost every word. Perhaps now, thirty years later, there would be more reserved marginalia, more adult discretion—that’s what happens sometimes with age, that dampening down of enthusiasm. Reserved or not, I have a special place in my wizened heart for Sam Keen.

“To remain alive and vital we must be able to swing back and forth between seeming opposites,” Keen once wrote. Howard Thurman told Keen that “the hard thing when you get old is to keep your horizons open. The first part of your life everything is in front of you, all your potential and promise. But over the years, you make decisions, you carve yourself into a given shape. Then the challenge is to keep discovering the green growing edge.” To keep his green growing edge, Keen learned to fly on a trapeze in his 60s. He had always wanted to fly.

Trapeze6Sometimes letting go is shedding, it seems, like a snake sheds its skin in times of growth. I was struck by this description of that process, how like a snake our letting go can be:

“Shedding is the process by which snakes periodically discard the outer portion of their skin. This activity is associated with growth. Young snakes shed more frequently than older ones because growth is relatively rapid in the first few years of life. Healthy snakes usually have little or no difficulty with shedding and tend to shed their skins in one entire piece. The stresses associated with shedding can be substantial. The shedding process is preceded by a period of relative inactivity. The underlying new skin is soft and vulnerable to damage while the outer layers prepare to slough away.”

Trapeze9And so it is with humans.

“Do you know what it means to fly?” Brooke Stevens once wrote. “ To fly is to live. It’s the same thing…That’s your problem, you’re not alive. You have no life and that’s not an easy thing to find. First, you must learn to fly…Once you learn to fly, it’s easy.”

In May 1999, Vegetarian Times profiled Keen after the publication of his book, Learning to Fly: Trapeze—Reflections on Fear, Trust, and the Joy of Letting Go. “Two weeks before his 62nd birthday,” they explained, “the Harvard Divinity School graduate and former Psychology Today editor swung from his first flying trapeze and discovered freedom through flight.” 

Trapeze7_2“When it comes to attitudes about flying,” the article continued, “people fall into three distinct groups: those who don't believe it's possible, those who've soared only in their dreams and the rare few who have actually experienced flight. ‘On those days when my emotional life is in turmoil and I feel graceless, inept and impotent, I sometimes climb the pedestal, swing out over the chaos of the world and make one flawless move,’ Keen writes. ‘For a brief moment, a simple back-end uprise becomes a prayer in motion. My small gesture of mastery establishes a beachhead from which I launch an expedition to free myself from the dominion of incompetence, fear, panic and worthlessness.’”

"The aerial art,” Keen writes, “celebrates 'the passing moment, beautiful beyond belief'. That is every man and woman's story."

That moment when there is nothing to hang on to is the moment when we are most present, most alive, most vulnerable, most human, most catchable.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

FlyHere’s some advice from a veteran trapeze performer: Throw your heart over the bars and your body will follow.

Learn the fall before the trick.

Smile and point your toes.

And wait for the right moment, Keen tell us: “Waiting for the right instant—what the Greek philosophers called the kairos or fertile moment—is exactly what is most difficult…Anxiety makes us too eager or too reluctant and forces us to act too early or too late. It is difficult to believe that, at times, as T.S. Eliot said, ‘The faith, the hope, and the love are all in the waiting.’”

Let go of the monkey bar. Be a connoisseur of fear. Enjoy the space between.


[After you’ve learned to fall.]



Here's what I was writing about last year this time: Draw Circles



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A thought provoking passage. Hope society does not refer to the transition zones as idle or lazy times.

How wonderful it would be if people around can actually push you into transition zones and guide you. Why dont they clap before you catch the next bar with your name on it !!!

- Anitha

I just did, last week.

I gave notice to the judge I work for. I'm going to go into solo practice (as an attorney). I am terrified, and excited, and deep in that liminal space, at least for the next few weeks.

It feels like bungee-jumping. I did that once, a year and a half ago, and I still sometimes feel the rush of the wind and the fear when I close my eyes. Less often, now, than a year ago.

I finally made the decision to go solo (after considering it for a long time) when a friend said to me, "Jump. The air will hold you." And I remembered how it felt to fly.

What I mean to say is, this post is very timely for me.

You nailed the notion of transitions, Patti. I have chosen to live in that neutral space in my work life as an interim executive and transition coach. Flying is exhilarating but sometimes my back hurts when I either catch the bar or take a fall. Thanks for reminding me why it's worth the pain.

This is so eerie. I just got off the phone making reservations for a trapeze workshop. My heart was broken last week by a fly by night lover and I decided that since he ripped the ground out from under my feet, I need to be airborn. Thank you Patty for the validation!

Can it be synchronicity that today I was steered via another blog to this
YouTube short video of Joseph Campbell explaining about "follow your bliss" and then I read your blog ? In my early 40's, I went through great and difficult transformation. due to a divorce after 25 years of marriage (yes, I married at 17). During that time, I had a coiled snake design tatooed above my heart for precisely the reason you talk about here--to honor the process I was going through--"shedding my skin" like snakes do---I wanted to have a lifelong reminder of how coming out on the other side of "letting go" and growing a new skin felt good.

I never learned to fall- I learned without a net and no harness....
for me it was more important to know how to
catch and release
as well as fly.

Thanks for that, Patti. So appropriate for where I am right now in my life! I love this time of year for that very quality - letting go, inviting in, transition and change. I love how you have described it and encouraged me!

"I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched." Ain't that the truth... I'd never considered the trapeze analogy until now, but it's a great one. I always think of a river...and how hard it can feel to let go of that branch protruding from the bank that I'm clinging to. Several years ago we were kayaking with family down a river outside my hometown. J and I tipped over going over some rapids--I've always had a fear of rushing water--and as I clung to a rock, my brother (downstream) said, "Just let go...the water will carry you to where I am." But we'd tipped over once before and I'd gotten banged up on some underwater rocks. And in that moment, I wasn't fearing the rushing water--I was fearing getting banged around some more. I've thought often of that moment because although I've learned in many ways to WALK THROUGH the pain to get to the other side, what can often keep me clinging to WHAT IS is that fear of what might happen in that transition zone...that 'no-thing' place. Reading this post makes me realize that the 'pain' I sometimes fear in making those transitions doesn't exist in that in-between stems instead from the force from which I'm clinging onto that which I'm afraid to let go of.

P.S. You may not have seen my last post...Taylor moved her big toe a few days ago! :)

Wow. perfectly timely, inspiring and helpful. I wrote a post after reading this:

I could really relate to your metaphor as I think about retirement as well as other things in my life. I like my work now, I know I will enjoy retirement but letting go will be hard. Luckily I have a few years to wait before i get through the transition but I am saving this for when I get closer and get scared.

Darn! ...did it to me again!

Thanks, Patti.

This metaphor also works well when you've been standing on the bar for a little too long...

You are so awesome, I love how you write and the way you think. I have forwarded this post to people who are struggling with the unknown right now and it's perfect. I will print this post and refer to it many times this year as I unfold the unknown layers myself.

Magnificent post! I have missed your wisdom so much...and wow, you'll never know how timely this post is (and I know I am always saying that,'s true).

I did it 14 months ago and I finally feel like I've grabbed the other trapeze bar only in the last 10 days! 14 months in what felt like freefall - but it was worth it!

Great post!

What an inspirational post! It has really encouraged me to face the future with a more determined air, to have more faith in my decisions and to have more courage to follow my convictions.

Thank you for being so generous with your ideas.

this is beautiful and has such funny synchronicity for me. the night before i came upon this i had been drawing intuitively, whatever came up, and I drew trapeze artists, one on a bar reaching out and the other in mid-air, I intend to paint it. i came upon your posting and shivered a little and put it aside to read in a time when i could focus on it. i feel like i'm between bars right now and it is equal parts exhilirating and terrifying. i want to let go of the fear part a bit more, find more trust in my flying, i already know about falling. i want to trust i'll hit that other bar swinging free or perhaps do a flip in mid-air before i get there. :-)

Patti, as always your writing hits the spot. Synchronicity is obviously rampant amoungst those of us who read your blog... I am at the stage of feeling it's almost time to let go of the bar, and so your advice about waiting for the right moment, not too early, not too late is so spot on.

Last year, I sat on the ground and watched my son (then 16) learn to fly the trapeze in the beautiful Queensland sunshine... he had been suffering from depression and this was one of the first real moments of healing for him and the start of his total recovery. Now I think I know more about why that was.

thank you.

Your post reminds me of our monkey bars in elementary school days. We would line up at recess and take our turn traveling across the "great divide".

There were no rocks below, just a mud puddle most of the spring that threatened.

Images from now and then came a rushin' as I read your words.

Thanks for the nudge to get in the swing of things again.

Keep creating,

Thank you!

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