Rope Walking into the Future

Image by Richard Haughton

We are nearly there. 

But not. 



We have – as anyone who regularly reads these blogs will know – been moving towards moving house for about a year. At long last we are ‘under offer,’ and last week we went to see it – the house which we hope to make a home. We all liked it – the kids too (phew!). It’s big, old and, from the outside, rather grand – the sort of house in which truly grown-up grown-ups live, proper parents. This month my husband, Phelim, turns 60 and next year, I will be 50 – maybe we are grown-up enough by now to own a house like this. Maybe. Though at present my confidence in this is none too high. 

You see, I was sure I would feel a tremendous sense of relief and jubilation at this point in the process, where we are weeks away from moving – nothing but paperwork and packing, between us and the holy grail of a home. But instead, I feel quite the opposite: an odd mix of tension and grief.

Because what if it is all goes horribly wrong at the last minute? I have heard tales of this – not only of gazumpers and sales falling through, but eerier stories too in which people on the brink of a new life – all that promise ahead – have a terrible accident, disappear, die, as if there is genuinely something more perilous, or fragile, about life during days of momentous transition. Our vulnerability is starkly revealed when packing up boxes of paraphernalia, dismantling furniture- all those heavy objects which usually give the illusion of permanence. I think it is in part this undoing of everything solid, which leaves me with a sense of loss, and nervous tension. And then the survey on the house comes back, naming the roof, walls, floors, windows, electricity and gas as all being in need of urgent repair, and then the chain in the sale of my mother’s house collapses, and we are relying on this, and my mother’s generosity, to enable us to afford the grown-up house that is really beyond our means, so we may still be months, and not weeks away, from a home – none of this helps to soothe. 

Meanwhile, my son – ever the atmosphere barometer – is, at present, terrified. His fears used to come on in the evenings, as the light was fading. Now, at any hour of the day, he will come up to me, white-faced with worry. I won’t list his worries out loud here – he can barely say them to me, must refer to them in code, with acronyms, as if naming them might bring them to pass. And although I know it is useless – a temporary fix that may even feed the vicious circle of anxiety – I reassure him. “No love, we are fine. It won’t happen. Yes, we are safe. Yes, you are well. Please stop worrying.” Stock lines — recited by rote – which are what he wants to hear, and which soothe him for a total of about ten minutes. But what else can I do?

 I wish I knew….

So, despite our great good fortune, right now we are scared and sad. Anxiety high, mood low. At a loss. I keep thinking of a rickety rope bridge across a canyon, or of inching along a tight wire. Last month it was the uncertainty of how long we would be in limbo that felt hard. Now suddenly it’s the certainty – the precise, difficult distance to traverse to reach safety: a taut horizontal line of rope or wire, an aching drop beneath. Ropes and wires, daring acts and dangerous drops – the circus chapter of my life has been on my mind of late, as I look forwards into the next. I made my first aerial solo, Lifeline when I was 25 – seven ages of woman on a rope, in movement in 20 mins – and I am curious to revisit this work as I approach 50. The version I made at 25 was elegant and naive – a simple, single line. I’ve been wondering if I can re-imagine it to include some of the tangle and the fray – the knotty, ragged complexity of life as I look at it now. And I’ve been wondering if I’ll still be able to get off the ground, up a rope, at all. 

Lifeline was performed on a vertical rope – a corde lisse. Back then, friends and relations outside of the circus world would often ask, “So how’s it going up there on the high wire?” It used to rile me – this conflation of the different skills. Because I was never any good at balancing, arms outstretched- my skill was in holding my arms bent tight, hands gripping, and then letting go with care. But as I remember this, I realise I am now being similarly imprecise, cliched in my thinking, when I reach for the tight wire image, when I write about us all teetering across a precipice on a spindly line. Because, although I was never a tightrope walker, I know enough to recognise that ’teetering’ is not how the job is done. Not at all.

There’s an interview of Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the twin towers, to which I remember listening long ago. He was asked why he never used a lunge. He replied that a lunge represented doubt, and that when he stepped out on that wire, he could have no doubt. I love this. And I understand it. I didn’t use a lunge in my cloudswing act. It would get in the way, make me feel less safe, as if I couldn’t trust myself. Petite said he has trained in what he calls ‘open focus’ – being completely intent and totally open at the same time. And this in turn reminds me of the Rumi poem I recited to myself every day before I began to write my novel: “You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground, yet you’re the wind…. You’re the diver’s clothes lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish.” 

And slowly – as I sit in the bedroom at 1 am, helping my anxious son to sleep at last (yes, the front door is bolted, yes, I locked the back door too) – it dawns on me that this is it – an answer of sorts….

Crossing the tight wire, or the thin rope, is the right image for this time, but I must take the image seriously. Be precise. Be as I would were I walking the wire for real. Be like the wire, as well as the person walking it – taut enough to cross a chasm, relaxed enough to step out into sky. And this helps. It helps not just with the tiny window of weeks ahead, but with the coming years, during this whole precarious era on earth, into which I am walking, my children beside me. My reassurances to my son are like a lunge – they imply doubt: “Don’t worry – it will be okay,” suggests that one day it might not be. And he knows this. We all know it. But somehow, I also know we have to set our intent and walk out onto it, into mid-air. Focussed. Open. 

‘Giacomond’ by Quint Buchholz

There is an image – a surrealist picture – that has recurred throughout my life, meaning different things at different times. It’s of a figure stepping along a rope, off a rooftop. The rope slants down from the roof, as the figure walks it, into a night sky, towards a full moon. But the end of the rope isn’t attached to anything- it is in the figure’s hands, lifted up, slightly slack, above their head. They are making their path, as they walk it.

I was first given this image when I was 22, just before I went to Circus school, before I knew I was going to specialise in rope. I used it in when I made Lifeline as inspiration for one of the sections in the piece. I took that image and framed it, and it has sat on my bedroom shelf these last five years, while I have been writing my novel. And then the image appeared again, unbidden, on the day on which we received my son’s autism diagnosis. That evening my husband was reading the book Uniquely Human- a different way of seeing autism by Barry Prizant (highly recommended). I was in the children’s bedroom, when Phelim came through to me, wide-eyed, handed me the book, and pointed at the paragraph he had just read:

“My friend Barbara Domingue…once gave me a framed print I hung in my office. It’s a surrealistic picture of a man on a tightrope…only one end of the rope is secured – the end behind him…In Barbara’s interpretation, the man represents a family just after receiving an autism diagnosis: the parents realise they are beginning a long journey, but it’s one they will have to invent with every step.”

A little thing, but it felt like a miracle that night – that the image named in the book was already on the shelf in my bedroom, on the day of the diagnosis, that my husband was actually facing the picture as he read the words above.  An affirmation, which is different to a reassurance. And I feel it again now – yes, that’s the gig. You take the next step and the next, with utter conviction, out into open sky, the end of the rope in your hands. It’s your own foot coming down upon the rope that pulls it taut. It isn’t weight-bearing, until your weight makes it so. I know this from teaching aerial – the trick, if there is one, is to let go, in order to hold on- in order to be held. The affirmation is this: yes, you must be that vulnerable; yes, you must be that brave, and yes, that absurd too, that surreal- a word that will forever remind me of a joke my son made up:

Qu: What do you call a knight that paints strange pictures?

A: Sir Real.

Which in turn makes me think of a quote from Ursula Le Guin, when she was speaking about Science Fiction as a kind of realism:

“It is a strange realism, but it is a strange reality.”

And when I remember this- strangely- I feel less scared and sad, and a little more of the relief and jubilation for which I was looking before. 

Because it’s good to remember that even if we manage to arrive safe inside our grown-up house, even once all the furniture has been screwed together, the roof repaired, and we are surrounded again by our stuff, that will still be the gig: we will still have to step out, every day, with absolute focus, into the complete unknown. I am not sure I will say this out loud to my son, but if I hold the thread- the rope – of this thought in my mind, I believe that he will feel it.

And so, my question for the month? It could be about how you navigate anxiety and fear – your own or those in your care. But actually, what I am most drawn to ask you, is this: 

Are there any images that have recurred for you through the years, accruing new meanings each time they appear? 

What hangs in the gallery of your life? 

What are – not your desert island discs- but your.desert island drawings/ photos/ paintings? 

I’d like to see them. Thank you for witnessing mine. 


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