Why I Didn’t Run Away With The Circus


Quick catch up for new readers awelcome!:  upon returning unexpectedly to the U.S. in June 2015, I took a hard look at my bucket list as I thought,

“What’s next?” 

Answer: finally learning new acrobatic and aerial skills!

The expression on the author of top travel blog Half the Clothes' face when she decided to go to circus school.

Someday is now!  My lifelong spinning-flipping-handstanding dream is coming true… can I get a “what what?!”  photo: gratisography

After a summer of seeing family and traveling with friends, I used my New England house sitting job as a base to check out the only aerial and acrobatic school I could find that wasn’t in a city.

How Graffiti Tipped the Scales

After dabbling in aerial classes all over the U.S., I attended a workshop weekend at NECCA – a school I slowly discovered was sort of a big deal.  During the final hours of the weekend, I still wasn’t sure the institution was for me.

Information overload from too many workshops, plus the reality of how much time and hard work it takes to be a good aerialist or acrobat, had me wondering if it would be worth it to train in Vermont for just three months.

Top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Patterson participates in a trapeze class in Kansas City at

Of all the classes I took while house sitting my way around the U.S., trapeze at Lucia in Kansas City was my favorite!

Before I left the building, I paid a visit to the unisex bathroom.  There I saw the most heartwarming graffiti of my life.  Sentences like “You’ve got this!”  and  “Keep going – remember why you started” peppered the stall alongside positive remarks about beauty ad love.

My trepidation disappeared and my resolve solidified.  I would definitely spend at least one ten-week semester at this place!

What Are You Going To Do With That?

When I told friends and family I was going to an aerial and acrobatic school, everyone wanted to know why.  To those who had clearly forgotten that learning is my addiction, I explained I was studying for the sake of studying.  For the same reason one might study martial arts.  Also, novel environments catalyze neurogenesis, strengthening the brain – especially when physical skills are involved.

top travel blog Half the Clothes discusses how circus classes helped fix her posture

Pretty sure 99% of people reading this are guilty of at least one habitual, poor posture.

Additionally, I wanted to pay some of my “body debt.”  We all take and take from our bones and muscles, hunching over computers, slouching on couches, crossing our legs, standing with a hip cocked in the air, spending hours a day behind the wheel, lifting with our backs, etc.

Years of compounded poor ergonomics cause most of us bodily suffering during the final decades of our lives.  My hope was to undo a few years worth of sitting, unkind use of my shoulders, poor posture, and a lazy stance habit.

Who Needs Real Clothes?

I built slowly from strength training, handstands, german wheel and flexibility into more german wheel, trapeze, parkour, and some acrobatics.

German wheel on ice - a far more professional scenario than ever attempted or even dreamed about by top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Patterson

I never played on a German Wheel on ice.  Or wearing an evening gown.  Also, I earned a pretty gnarly battle scar from my first partner move, so I mostly stuck to solo fun.  photo: wikipedia

I spent so many of my waking hours in leggings and a sports bra that putting on jeans and a t-shirt felt like dressing up.

I learned to engage abdominal muscles I didn’t know I had.  I learned to make my core so solid, I squeeze my own lungs. bI also met the first other-Jemma of my life!

Over-Achiever Consequences

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In April, I overdid it a teensy bit.  Thinking myself superhuman, I added a few things to my normal training regime – namely a 45 minute, non-stop cardio swim and a four-hour climb up the tallest peak in the region.  cIt’s worth noting that I hadn’t gone swimming for exercise since early 2015 when I was attempting to survive my unintentionally domineering Australian boyfriend with a goal of placing my body in the Indian Ocean five days a week because I read the minerals are shown to have roughly the same effects as anti-depressants. After the swim and the hike, I went ahead with the original plan – train trapeze for an hour, then attend at 90-minute parkour class.  NBD.

Jim's Junction at the top of Mt. Monadnock as seen when visited by top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Patterson

Almost to the Mt. Monadnock summit. There I was, happily discovering Maine Appalachian Trail trip opportunities, oblivious to the fatigued intercostals that were on their way to long-term sadness.

Two weeks later, I was still “sore” having trained through the “soreness” as well as attending workshops to dabble in new skills (Chinese pole and partner acrobatics).

Luckily, a house-sitting job removed me from the opportunity to train on apparatuses.  I decided I would drop down to “just” my strength training and cardio routine so my body could catch up and quit being “sore.”

When the soreness failed to subside, I sought professional help from a body worker who quickly informed me that I was not sore.  I was broken.  Pretty seriously broken.  And I had spent more than half a month re-injuring myself.

Oh.

The expression on top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Pattersons' face when she found out she had an intercostal injury and couldn't train for circus classes

You mean I’m not “almost better”? And everyday I’ve actually been getting worse? And I have no chance of getting back to training without suffering serious skill loss?  photo: wikimedia

It sort of crushed my soul to stop training and heal.  Especially since the inevitable physical backsliding during three weeks of down-time meant returning to my former skill level before the end of the semester wasn’t possible.

Thankfully, I’m only a few bricks short of a load and not so stupid that I’d sacrifice long-term use of my body for short-term fun and excitement.

Can’t Bring Me Down! 

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Five weeks passed from date of injury to discovering injury to finally getting off the freaking sidelines.

My first day back to my favorite circus toy – the German wheel – I was still getting my sea legs back under me.  I rolled too high in the air and had to bail off the top of the wheel, landing poorly and incurring a minor ankle sprain.

WTF, Universe.  Seriously?

Unimpressed - the look on top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Patterson's face when she sustained a new injury on her first day back to training

“Let the record reflect that I am thoroughly unimpressed by this situation. Thoroughly.” – photo: wikipedia

No worries.  Minor sprain.  Nothing a few weeks of anti-inflammatories, icing, and an ace-wrap can’t fix.  I thought, “Okay, so I can’t go running.  But I can still do my classes.  And go on a backpacking trip in Maine on the Appalachian trail just south of the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Up to the trip departure, I was ridiculously kind to my ankle.  I took it on long, gentle walks where it never hurt.  I avoided all impact activities.  I wrapped my ankle during all heavy use – during class, on walks, and during the entire backpacking trip.

Glorious experiences were had.

My ankle decided it was happy to encounter pressure from any angle.

Back in the game!

Returning home from the Maine hiking trip, I unpacked and raced off to play on a wheel.  I wish I had known it was my last wheel time.  I might not have called it a day with 15 minutes of training time left on the clock.

Message From The Heavens?

The next day I went to Parkour class.  As usual, we made a runway by pushing together three rectangles of giant foam mat.  Then we built a big obstacle over which to throw ourselves.

As we chucked our bodies into the air and laughed at our amateur, not-so-soft landings, physics happened.  Slowly two of the rectangles crept apart.  No one noticed, because the newly-forming crack was on the other side of the big, non-transparent obstacle… in the landing zone.

Top travel blog Half the Clothes author Jema Patterson took a parkour class while attending circus school in Vermont

This particular activity definitely simulated real-world parkour. You don’t always know what’s on the other side of an obstacle!  photo: wikimedia

Already some of the things we’d done in class had caused my ankle to demand more gentleness.  I tried placating my joint by opting out, choosing my movement really carefully, and icing it between activities.  It was during a bout of icing that I watched a fellow classmate come off the top of the big obstacle and trip upon landing.

A few minutes later, I’d joined the line to toss myself over the faux wall.  I decided to do one of my favorite vaults..

I ran.

I jumped.

I spun.

I landed the first of the three step landing.

The stars of evil aligned.

The foot of my bad ankle also aligned.

With that crack no one noticed.

The same crack I (didn’t know I had just) watched another student’s toes get stuck in.

My foot went right into the crack and was locked immediately into place.

The rest of my body kept going.

I heard an awful snap as the rotational torque generated by the vault found its way down my leg and into my ankle.

No Four-Letters Fierce Enough

I made the noise you might make if a snake jumped out and bit you, followed immediately by an involuntarily expletive (rhymes with “truck”).  I assured the instructor that I was fine in a “not-dead” sort of way and scooted on my bum, toddler style, to the wall so class could continue.

I iced.  My last few moments of circus fun melted away.  Goodbye one more German wheel class.  Goodbye two dates with the Flying Trapeze.  Goodbye one more Parkour class.  Goodbye open studio practice on trapeze, wheel, and parkour.

R.I.P.

My heart sank deeper as I realized hiking the presidential range in the White Mountains in ten days would probably not happen.  Activities planned during a visit to friends in two weeks would likely not happen.  Playing actively with my favorite little kids in 21 days would also maybe not happen.  Someone get me a straw!  Quick!

An ankle injury kept top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Patterson from seeing the Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire's White Mountains

Well, Franconia Ridge… I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Raincheck?  photo: wikipedia

Class ended.  Instead of crying when someone asked if I thought I should be doing anything at all on my ankle, I snapped, “I don’t see that I have any choice.”  dSorry, Raphael. Then I immediately realized I should definitely ask classmates to carry my bag while I went down the stairs at iceberg pace.  And I should definitely take up the offer of two wonderful people to put me in the passenger seat of my car, drive me home, and help me inside.  eThanks Joy and Kat!

And I should definitely spend a minimum of 48 hours not moving my ankle out of an elevated and compressed position for any reason, save nature’s call.

And I should definitely ice it for 20 minutes of every hour and actively partake in all the things known to bring healing… anti-inflammatories, bone broth, comfrey tea.

Immediate Recovery In Numbers:

Number of times empathized with people whose bodies are permanently broken: 5,000

Number of pages read in five books: 390

Number of minutes spent talking on the phone: 388

Number of hours reading Wait But Why:  26

Number of constellations found in the ceiling’s pine board knots: 19

Top travel blog Half the Clothes' author Jema Patterson spent a long time staring at a pine ceiling making constellations with the knots after she got injured in a parkour class

“Oh! There’s the big dipper! And that sort of looks like a tree. And that one is kind of a teepee…” photo: pixabay

Number of times I became an old person who makes “helpful suggestions” to those in their field of vision: 11

Number of blog posts written: 3

Number of showers skipped: 2

Number of x-ray visits: 1

Number of times wrapped and unwrapped compression bandage: way too f&%#ing many

The Real Road Block

Sadly, my hope of healing up in a few weeks was ridiculous and misplaced.

In the time it takes to heal ligaments, you can break and heal a bone two or three times.  Over two months later, pain happened daily.  I still don’t have full use of my ankle, but it’s healed enough for me to start running again.

However injuries aren’t the reason I didn’t (and will probably never) run away with the circus.  The body heals.  And I didn’t have a single classmate who wasn’t struggling with a recurring injury of some kind.

The real reason is actually a whole other post.  Basically, I’ve spent tons of time in my life clarifying my priorities and working to stay aware of just how short life is.  After meeting our obligations and basic needs, we really don’t have that much time for the things that are most important to us.

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My priorities are my family and friends.  Sure, I have about eight lifetimes of goals and dreams I hope to achieve, including aerial and acrobatic badassery.  But in a “year-left-to-live” scenario, I’d always choose to spend my remaining days focused on the people I love.

So why does that preclude becoming a circus performer?

  • Because it’s a job.  Regular readers know I have zero interest in that autonomy-reducing scenario.
  • Worse: it’s a job that requires lots of summertime, nights, and weekends.  Guess when my priorities (family and friends) are most available.  Summer, nights and weekends.
  • It’s a hard job.  Aerialists and acrobats train hard.  Really, really, really hard.  Performers are not only at the mercy of an employer, but also their bodies.  It’s a fragile existence, investing massive amounts of time and energy and being permanently balanced on the precipice.  Not only are my interests too diverse to focus long term at a depth required by professional training, but I’m not keen to make that kind of investment in anything but family and friends.  I am and probably always will be a lifelong generalist.

The Moral of the Story

Hopefully you’ve taken my (poor!) example to heart: don’t squander your hard-earned physical abilities on a single superhero day.

Also: watch out for acrobatic floor mat cracks created by repeated heavy landing.

Also: appreciate what you have while you have it.  I sure do miss my fully-functioning, pain-free ankle.

How about you?  Do you have a life-altering or life-pausing injury story you’d like to share in the comments?

References   [ + ]

a. welcome!
b. I also met the first other-Jemma of my life!
c. It’s worth noting that I hadn’t gone swimming for exercise since early 2015 when I was attempting to survive my unintentionally domineering Australian boyfriend with a goal of placing my body in the Indian Ocean five days a week because I read the minerals are shown to have roughly the same effects as anti-depressants.
d. Sorry, Raphael.
e. Thanks Joy and Kat!


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