I Wanna See You Be Strong

Me, circa 2004.

By my senior year of college, I was able to do 13 consecutive pull-ups. I realize this is a weird thing to brag about, but for someone who could barely do one three years prior, I was really proud of myself. That was the thing about being in a circus – we had to train to be strong. And there was no guy training and girl training. Sure there were act-specific trainings (I had to do more ab work for my aerial act than, say, the jugglers), but overall we were all treated the same. We had to do pull ups. We had to carry the giant aluminum poles around the tent. I mean, even some girls did guy acts (and vice versa). It was hard, yes, but also nice being treated similarly.

I was used to this, though, because my parents – specifically my dad – never treated me inherently “girly.” Yes, I had dolls and Barbies and an awesome Easy Bake Oven (all of which I LOVED), but my dad also taught me to use tools and throw overhand and block my brother’s snapshot into our hockey net.

But being strong isn’t just doing a crazy amount of pull ups, and I learned that as I grew up. It was making decisions, and sticking to them. It was sticking up to others, something I wasn’t very good at for a  long time. (In elementary school I was convinced to trade one of my favorite stickers to another person in order to be friends. We didn’t become friends, and I never saw my sticker again. Sigh.) I was (and still am, to a degree) a people pleaser. It was how I made friends. I went along with things I wasn’t always pleased about, because I didn’t want to let anyone down. And whenever my parents noticed it, they would interfere and try to get me to stand up for myself. But I wasn’t that kind of strong. Not yet.

But after losing and gaining friends, I realized which ones were right, which ones i’d risk my life for, and which ones I knew wouldn’t last. And I realized these tried and true friends would never like me less if I said no. So I learned the word. I learned to embrace what I believed. And I never lost someone I cared about in the process. I didn’t go to parties I felt uncomfortable at. To this day, I’ve never smoked (nor done any illegal substance), even though I could have multiple times. I just didn’t believe in doing it, and found ways to say no. This was my new way of being strong.

In the books I write, you won’t find a girl saving the world. She’s never wielding an ax or the hammer of Thor; she’s never bringing down the government. But you will see her struggle. You will see her question what she believes. But, ultimately, you’ll see her be strong in tough situations, especially when with friends. You’ll see her make hard decisions. You’ll see her be scared and brave and do what she feels is right, even when it might not ultimately be.

Because, to me, that’s the ultimate definition of strength.

(Okay, that at 13 consecutive pull-ups.)

Left, Right, Left, King Avenue

photoWhen S and I were planning our end of summer road trip, we took two things into consideration: 1) we wanted to go somewhere we’ve never been before, and 2) It had to be affordable (no trip to Ireland, sadly!) In that, we decided on touring the southeast, which we’ve never done before, going from Florida through Georgia to Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and, last, Charleston, SC. In planning the trip, we needed a place to spend the first night between Orlando and Nashville, so I picked Pine Mountain, GA.

When I was in college, my two favorite summers involved working as a camp counselor in Pine Mountain, at Callaway Gardens. I went with the circus (of which I was part of…) so during the day we took the kids swimming and playing and golfing and water skiing, and at night, we performed. We were average people by day, magical aerialists by night. To the kids, we were their teachers, their heroes.

Callaway is a large resort , and we lived just off site at a house with 16 tiny rooms (girls on one side, boys on the other). My first day I was nervous, shy, being around all of these people – some friends, some people I wished were friends due to their seniority – but by the end we were family. I’d wake up Saturday mornings and before getting ready of the day, meet my friend in the living room for video games.

S and I arrived in Pine Mountain yesterday, and, city wise, everything was the same, despite the eight year time lapse. There’s still the combination gas station/Subway/KFC at the one major intersection (it’s a small, small town). There’s still the no-name pizza place next door. There’s still the legendary BBQ places we used to go to during lunch (which I, naturally, took S to). We drove by the old house and he finally put a picture to the place i’ve told him so much about.

Callaway itself has grown, thrived. New attractions were added, but the same old charm remained the same. There’s still the man-made lake shining in the middle, the acres of woods you can hike through, and the circus tent, standing proud – all green and white striped. S thought it was beautiful.

BUt while S saw it as shiny and new, I saw the cracks underneath. I remember the time we found a diaper in the lake, the time we took the kids to play capture the flag and two got stung within the woods, and all of the blood and sweat spilled inside the tent.

It’s weird going back. Back when I lived there, I was 19 and 20; I, too, was shiny and new and excited to get away. I had my life ahead of me, and a summer full of memories to make. Sure, there were downsides (it was hot, practices ran long, I was constantly sore), but I loved every moment of it (what other college student was paid to perform?) I remember eating breakfast and having the kids run up to say hi, or introduce me to their parents as “this is Lauren, she did rolla last night, and she flipped me in the lake, and it was awesome.”

I made friends that lasted a lifetime (indeed, one was my maid of honor). I created a home in a city I’d previously never heard of before. I felt part of something

Callaway holds a million memories for me, and it’s weird going back, but in a sense, wonderful. I love picking up and, in a way, telling it how i’ve changed, feeling the change in every step. In introducing it to S. Sure, it’s different, sure I’m different, but it’s all the same, really. I’m still the same girl, looking for summer full of memories.

This morning we’re going back to see the gardens before continuing our journey. I’m glad I shared this place wish S, and i’m happy to have visited it again. It’s like walking back in time, into a memory I know so well I can play over and over again. And even though the memories changed over the years, and perhaps dismissed the negative moments, I’m happy holding on to these thoughts, these bits of light over the lake.

This morning when I woke up I kept my eyes shut, waiting to hear the familiar sound of “ready, player two.”

Road Trip Wednesday – My Memoir

Yesterday, my fabulous agent got me in touch with some other writers she represents. It’s really neat having these new friends to talk to – to go through this crazy writing/editing/publishing trip with. That said, I noticed that a few run the website YA Highway. Each Wednesday the site hosts a blog carnival, so I’ve decided to participate this week. Here we go!

NAME YOUR LIFE: What would your memoir be called?

Let’s be honest – my memoir wouldn’t be that great. I’m 28. I haven’t accomplished that much. But let’s ignore all that for right now. Let’s pretend I’m super interesting and important. And my book, instead of being a normal memoir, will be a book of essays, a la David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell.

And it would be called: Ready, Hup.

And here’s why:

Joining a circus was much like visiting a foreign country – you had to learn the language first. Starting on day one I had to learn a slew of new words that eventually became part of my normal speech. But the most important word was hup. Hup meant go. When about to do a trick, our partner or coach would yell “ready…hup” and then we went, whether we were ready or not. We’d whisper it to ourselves when coaches weren’t needed. We always went.

Even though I’m not an acrobat anymore, I still use hup. Whenever I’m afraid, i’ll say it. Because I love taking chances and seeing what they’ll bring. When I realized that teaching wasn’t for me, , I said hup and went to library school. When S asked to marry me, I said hup and said yes (actually, I kind of went “…..” but that’s another story). And with my book – something I always dreamed of accomplishing – I said hup and wrote every single day. I said hup and sent it around. I said hup to my agent. (Not really. I didn’t want her to think I was weird.) With work, life, or even love I use hup because it’s what pushes me to do the things I want to do, but may be too scared to try. My body was trained to go and I’m all the happier for it.

Because, really, what’s the worst that could happen? I’m not 30 feet in the air anymore and I know my limits. I know that, no matter how crazy my action is, there will always be a safety net waiting to catch me.

What would your memoir be called?

Mini Circus

Miniature circus from the Ringling Museum of Art

There’s a neat art show coming up here in Orlando that showcases cell phone Instagram photos. All photos entered will be displayed, and then printed off for people to buy. Proceeds to go charity. I’m thinking of submitting the above photo. What do you all think?

Tights and Fishnets

“We’re lost, aren’t we?” I asked, staring out the window, watching the rain drip down.

“No…not yet,” Mike said, staring ahead at the dim, red light.

“It’s been 30 minutes. Can we please pull over and ask for directions?” The show ended an hour ago, but we were still driving around aimlessly because, like most men, Mike didn’t ask for directions.

“Fine, fine. There’s a gas station at the next light.”

The gas station seemed to be the only thing awake at that time of night. When we pulled up to the front door, Mike put a hand on his handle, but paused. As I readied myself to mock his inability to ask for assistance, he asked, “Hey, Lau, can you go inside and ask? I would, but I’m still wearing my tights.”

I sometimes forget how weird it was, being in a circus. When a guy talks about the horrors of wearing tights on a daily basis, I agree and add to the conversation. Not once is it thought to be out of the ordinary, a far thought for many. Whenever I mention that I was an aerialist, I get this perplexed look of disbelief. Discuss how you were Mama Rose in a production of Gypsy, you get applause; mention hanging upside down by your ankles, you get questions. It’s all part of the lifestyle, I suppose.

I didn’t mean to go to college and do it, it wasn’t my original plan, but the red, white and yellow tent called for me. It was something different, something that would bring about adventure, excitement and stories. But mostly, it might bring me friends and really, as a freshman in college I needed friends.

Reminiscent of an early Ringling Brothers set up, our tent had three rings, and two outer nets. Sawdust that would litter my socks and, later, apartment crunched under our feet. The apparatuses, the trapezes and bars, became part of us if we were good, or enemies if we were bad, leaving bruises and bloody cuts as souvenirs. To me, they were a bit of both.

The wounds were telling. It was unusual to leave practice completely unharmed. Bruises in the shape of hand prints would adorn my arms and thighs. I’d get questioning looks from my classmates and teachers, wondering what boyfriend could do such a thing. But I didn’t mind the bruises, because each one meant that I didn’t fall that time, that I didn’t really hurt myself.

Outsiders or alumni who knew the circus could tell which act a person did by their wounds. Raw skin on your upper arms? Swinging Trapeze due to one trick called crucifix when you jumped off and caught the bar by your arms. Deep cuts on your ankles? Mexican Cloud Swing from the trick leap, where you’d jump off the apparatus, only catching by your ankles. My ankle wounds were so deep they didn’t heal for a year afterwards.

We came to class straight from practice, bandaged up and sweaty, and yet some people still didn’t know there was a circus. They probably thought we had one strange workout routine.

It’s harder now out of college, in a normal working environment, to mention my past. Saying, “yeah, when I was in the circus…” isn’t as typical as saying, “yeah, when I was an actress…” It just doesn’t have the same ring. And yet, I still say it and I still love collecting the reactions. Storing them away in my mind, ready to pull up when I need a laugh. I love telling stories from those days. They were my glory days and although they were odd, they were still mine. So I keep going, avoiding the looks and questioning glances, and talk about that time I was on ESPN spinning by my neck. Because it’s my story to tell.

We kept in touch, most of us, even after it was all over. We reminisce and compare show memories like war tales, whoever had the deepest cut won. We all won, each one of us. Although Mike doesn’t wear tights anymore, he still has that.

A few Christmases ago, he and I were at Kohls picking up a neclace for my mom. As we walked pass the clothing section, I noticed a rack of tights and fishnet stockings hanging up.

“I’m so glad I don’t have to wear those anymore,” I mumbled, remembering the grated feeling my legs would take on after a day of wearing them for performances.

A woman nearby looked at me and then the stockings. And then me again, and then back to the fishnets. I suppose she thought the worst of me, because why else would a female in her mid-twenties wear fishnets? Rather than saying anything, I just shrugged, shaking my head. It was Christmas, she needed and awkward, albeit weird, moment to remember the season by. We all need stories to tell and I didn’t want to take this one away from her.