Sample text for Learning to fly : trapeze--reflections on fear, trust, and the joy of letting go / Sam Keen.
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Prologue: A Philosopher in Midair
I didn't begin practicing the flying trapeze until two months before my sixty-second birthday.
But I always dreamed of flying.
The world I inhabited as a boy living in Boaz, Alabama; Maryville, Tennessee; and Wilmington, Delaware, was divided into quadrants--home, school, church, and woods.
Our home was rich in love, filled with music and biblical religion of a Calvinistic nature that made us more concerned with church and righteousness than with secular learning or success. Bible and prayer were daily bread, and on Sunday we sat together in the oak pew and listened to the preacher talking about the second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the chosen of the Lord. Ours was a three-story universe in which Heaven and Hell were more familiar than New York City. We lived in expectation of the apocalypse, had faith in the mercy of God, but worked diligently at being both orthodox in our beliefs and scrupulous in our morality.
School, I knew, was necessary but was not an arena in which I experienced either excellence or joy. It was only when I could escape to the woods that my spirit soared and I was free.
Trees, as every boy knows, are for climbing and getting high, and my brother, Lawrence, and I made every effort to break the bonds of earth and live aloft. Even before we saw Tarzan or Kipling's Jungle Book, we knew that we were meant to be airborne. We searched out the trees along the creek that were hung with grapevines and learned to swing from tree to tree, finally falling into a thick mass of what we called pig-vines. When we tired of vines, we climbed to the top of nubile pines and rode the crests to the ground, hoping our weight would not snap the bowed trunks. I spent spellbound hours looking for indigo buntings and lying on my back watching changing cloud pictures. When it was time to go home we checked in and out as quickly as possible, took a supply of peanut-butter sandwiches, and adjourned to our tree houses in the far reaches of the backyard. When the rival neighborhood gang--the Long boys--began to threaten our castles in the trees, we spent our scarce dollars for hemp rope that we could climb, pull up, and be secure from attack. Once we found a large warehouse that was filled with cottonseeds, and before we were discovered and thrown out by the watchman, we climbed onto the highest rafters, jumped and fell into the gentle sea of seeds so many times that we began to feel at home in midair.
One mythic day in a time before I was counting my years, my father took us to the circus. I would like to tell you that I remember the big top, the peanuts, the balloons, the parade of elephants, the lion tamer, and the pratfalling clowns--I know they must have been there, but the truth is, I retain only one memory from that day, a single image so vivid that it has cast all others into an obscure background. I can see it still--I am sitting slightly to the left of the center ring, at an angle where I am looking up through the net. My hands are sweating as I watch the trapeze artists warming up. Then a flyer swings out over the crowd, reaches the high point of his arc, releases the trapeze, and . . . remains poised in midair. Logic tells me he must have been airborne for only a fragment of a second before he reached the hands of the catcher, but in my memory all action stopped and he was freeze-framed--a winged creature, a man in flight, free from the bondage of time and gravity.
The flying man soared into the center of my imagination and remained there. At the time, he seemed to be the furthest extension of everything I loved--trees for climbing, soaring birds, freedom from restraint--and I began to fantasize that someday I would be a trapeze artist. The day after the circus my brother and I went to the hardware store, bought a length of pipe and some rope, and rigged up our first trapeze from a tree in the front yard. Before the day was out we had swung so long that we developed mysterious pains in our stomachs, which Dr. Ellis assured our parents were nothing more than an occupational hazard of budding trapeze performers.
My first childhood ended in 1943 when the rope swings, the trapeze, and the life in the woods all disappeared, and we moved from Tennessee to Wilmington, Delaware, a city dominated by DuPont's promise of better things, for better living, through chemistry. My heart sank when I saw block after block of neat suburban houses and the mammoth high school in which I was to be incarcerated for six years, with its endless halls and rows of anonymous, olive-drab lockers. Even today I dream that I can neither find my locker nor remember the combination of the lock.
I felt imprisoned in the city. To the north, the oil refineries of Marcus Hook held high the eternal flame of modernity--the petroleum torch that burned off the excess gas and spewed noxious fumes into the surrounding air. To the east, across the river, a DuPont plant vomited a cloud of unknown particulates high into the air. Later, we discovered that the fallout from the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night caused the emphysema from which my father died. Only westward did there seem to be any evidence of wilderness and freedom, and I found a thick woods with a stream where I could camp on weekends and sleep under the open sky. On the day I was to have attended my graduation, I loaded my camping gear into my Model A Ford and, with a friend, took off for the Wild West and the adventure of working on farms, ranches, and carnivals.
At summer's end in 1949, I returned and enrolled in Wesley Junior College. I didn't know what else to do. I got slightly better grades than the gentlemanly C+, but it was not until my senior year when I began to read philosophy that my mind caught fire. The spark was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard whose playful ways of thinking and writing about the great religious and ethical questions intrigued me. The tinder was my troubling questions about God, freedom, death, and sex, not necessarily in that order, and what I was to do with my life.
My questions led me to Harvard Divinity School where I began to experiment with different disciplines of mind, spirit, and body. I read the great philosophers and theologians, as if each might contain some secret message and speak directly to my condition. My mind became a symposium where I engaged in rich dialogue with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Nietzsche, Sartre, and the modern French philosopher Gabriel Marcel. Twice weekly I traveled across the Charles River to Boston University to take a course entitled "Spiritual Resources and Disciplines" with Dr. Howard Thurman, the philosopher and mystic who was to become my mentor and friend for three decades. Although I was immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of Harvard (where, one of my colleagues said, "We come to study religion, not practice it"), I was interested in experiential mysticism. In Dr. Thurman's class we experimented with prayer, poetry, silence, meditation, music, chanting, and the reading of inspirational texts. Twice weekly, I traveled to the Cambridge YMCA where I practiced the art of Olympic wrestling.
In retrospect, it is easy to see the schizophrenic assumptions that governed my life and my practice. One discipline for the mind, one for the spirit, one for the flesh--one labeled intellectual, one religious, and one sport--and never the three did meet. I was tough-minded in my studies, pious at prayer, and profane on the wrestling mat. It never occurred to me that the education of muscle, tendon, and sinew might be necessary to teach the spirit to soar. I was a captive of the prejudice against the body that has infected Western religion from its inception. Whereas the Eastern religions cultivate the marriage of flesh and spirit through the practice of yoga, aikido, tai chi chuan, archery, judo, and kung fu, the Western tradition has largely ignored bodily disciplines and divorced the quest for transcendence from sport and the muscular realm.
Although I did not understand it at the time, what appealed to me about the examined life and religious mysticism was not very different from the lure of the trapeze. All promised freedom, release from the mundane--a winged existence. It didn't take me long to discover that cultivating a questioning mind helped me break many of the chains of identity that had been forged by my parents and society, and that a playful imagination allowed me to explore a wide range of alternate lives.
One thing led to another in the long chain of my middle years. Graduate school led to a Ph.D., the sweet captivity of family life, a professorship in the philosophy of religion at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and a brick home on a shaded street. When an excess of homesteading began to do violence to the gypsy in me, I became troubled. Why was my spirit so heavy? Why was I so frequently depressed? So earthbound? So grave? So much of a somber Calvinist in spite of myself? I had worshiped long enough at the temple of Apollo. I longed for the freedom, the excess and ecstasy of Dionysius. Upon occasions I drank too much Kentucky bourbon, experimented with psychedelics, and danced out of control.
My inner journey led to new kinds of freedom, not all of them happy. When I went on sabbatical leave in 1969, the montage of normality exploded. On the spur of the moment, I resigned from the routine world of the professor and moved to California to pursue a career as a freelance writer and leader of workshops in Personal Mythology. A year later, for better and worse, the bonds of my marriage of seventeen years dissolved.
And, so it was, after emerging from the wilderness of the 1960s, that on a summer evening in 1976 I was swimming alone in a friend's pool, ruminating about my past and pondering the path ahead. I had recently remarried and my adolescent children were soon to be living with me. After a chaotic dozen years, things finally seemed to be settling down to something approaching orderly satisfaction. For the time being, I was tired of Dionysius. As I turned somersaults in the water, the flying man--whom I had not thought about for years--soared into my mind and I felt happy to have him back from the exile of deep memory. I laughed and addressed him. "Well, my young friend, you have come too late. I am too old for the circus. I will never fly through the literal air with the greatest of ease and know the joy of weightlessness. But I have learned something just as fantastic--the mind may become weightless and free. I have learned to think, to do all kinds of mental gymnastics--backward somersaults, passing leaps. I can contemplate daring possibilities and fall from high places without injury. I can consider most anything from multiple perspectives, jump from one side of an argument to the other with great dexterity. I can escape from ideological prisons and find my way out of blind alleys. I can destroy the systems erected by tyrannical authorities and dispel the illusion of false mysticism. I can wend my way into the secret places of a friend's heart and conjure up healing possibilities."
It was with a sense of quiet joy that I left the swimming pool that evening, having realized that I was content to be an artist in the circus of the mind . . . or so I thought.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Keen, Sam, Aerialists United States Biography, College teachers United States Biography, Acrobatics Psychological aspects