Up in the Air

Cover of Up in the Air

A meme depicting a giant crab with uneven claws reads, “Aerial crab only trains on one side. Don’t be like aerial crab.” When I voice apprehension about approaching a new sequence from my “bad” side, Claire, my circus aerial arts instructor, brings up the image of the crab on the silks. Don’t be like aerial crab, I tell myself.


I wish I could stop complaining, but I don’t like doing hard things. I’m not someone who inspires or possesses great ambition. Throughout all three of my childbirth experiences, I snapped at my midwife, demanding she cease the flowery, encouraging recommendations to be more present and experience the miracle. I wanted her to yell at me and focus on the task at hand—getting the baby out. I find that I am motivated most effectively by threats, emergencies, or impending deadlines. I even asked, “Can you just knock me out and wake me up when it’s all over so I can hold the baby?” I’m not interested in the journey. Whatever the stakes, I believe in avoiding as much pain as possible.

It’s embarrassing to admit it, and I know the social pressure to add the caveat, “but I’m working on reframing my mindset.” I’m not, really. In our culture, ambition and hard work often serve as benchmarks for moral superiority, influencing judgments on who deserves what. People frequently resort to the saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers,” conveniently overlooking the fundamental truth that every individual inherently deserves choices, rather than being relegated to whatever scraps someone more fortunate deigns to offer them, solely by virtue of their existence. Laziness is condemned as a sin, while sacrifice and pushing oneself to the limit in pursuit of goals are revered as virtues. It begins during childhood with receiving accolades in school or extracurricular activities for maintaining perfect attendance, and this trend persists through subsequent life stages. Meeting the standard is met with punishment rather than recognition; the constant elevation of the bar serves as a marker of status. Just as there’s a moral panic response to the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, similarly, accolades are lavished upon the most industrious workers. The prevailing mantra of “We Can Do Hard Things” has captivated the spirit of the times in fostering resilience. 

The phrase, championed by Glennon Doyle, graces the walls of my children’s classrooms, the yoga studio, and the library. On a philosophical level, I endorse the message. It would be wonderful if I could fake embodying the sentiment enough to help my kids learn more advanced skills in this area. While I don’t necessarily revel in being this way, I don’t shy away from acknowledging the reality of who I am. I’ll see complex tasks through when they are crucial (see: childbirth). However, when it comes to artistic pursuits, work, or domestic labor, I’d rather walk into the sea. I prefer to let the breakthroughs come to me: bruised, half-defunct, and subjected to unnecessary hostility.


I ask Claire if I’ll get extra points for starting on my weaker left side. She reminds me there are no scores. I watch her move through the sequence, calling out names of isolated poses—Georgia twist, Rebecca split, hip key. The rhythm of her body, bending and flowing seamlessly, fuels my drive. I yearn to rehearse this series until it becomes second nature. As I drift into sleep, I visualize it with my eyes closed, urging my muscles to commit the motions to memory. A scarf becomes my prop, my hands mimicking miniature versions of my body, suspended higher on the silks, in the air where the ground can’t ground me, a reminder control is never mine. The reality is, grappling with challenging tasks serves as a stark reminder of how little control I truly wield—in parenting, in writing, in aerial.

I simply want to reach the end result, cross the finish line as quickly as possible. If motivating me were easy, I wouldn’t have developed the wicked sense of humor acquired from years of choosing the most nonsensical path. In art, you are in competition with your own worst impulses, not against others’ most impressive hard-won achievements. It’s easier to remember this in circus, where people of all ages, backgrounds, abilities, body types, and cultures come together in pursuit of activities such as cocooning oneself in a nylon-polyester blend, suspended from above, or mastering the art of ascending and twirling within the confines of the lyra, a large steel hoop. 

I wonder how often I’ve stifled myself, dreams unrealized, suspended development because of my penchant for avoidance, running away, moving, ignoring, procrastinating. I give up on hobbies as easily as I start them, after intense obsession. Knitting supplies and books gather dust in the basement; a treadmill, Garmin watch, and running gear abandoned after one half-marathon. How do I grow as a writer, as an artist, as a human? Usually, by accident.


When introducing a new position or sequence, Claire includes the disclaimer, “Of course, you can get to this position in other ways; there aren’t any absolute rules.” The exception, however, lies in adhering to a specific set of safety guidelines tailored to our studio, situated in a refurbished building that once housed The Ithaca Journal‘s printing press. Take, for example, the process of preparing the Rescue-8 and navigating the pulley system. In the initial stages, Claire not only demonstrates the physical demands but also immerses us in the intricacies of an unexpected physics and engineering class. As we progress, the focus shifts to mastering proper dismounting techniques and gaining a nuanced understanding of the expected sensations in various muscles.

In writing, I like to throw out the grammar. Start from the end, sometimes the middle, oftentimes a nearly unrelated metaphor. But never the beginning. The sequential order is boring. When performing on the silks, it’s akin to swimming, relishing in draft mode. Twisting, turning in ways to see how it feels. In writing, I ask how a phrase changes the tone, how the spacing or a tense shift affects the emotional impact. Lean too far to the left in a wrap, forget to grab the tail, and you risk a fall. It’s a process of discarding conventions, starting where it feels right. Neither my writing nor my aerial practice feels inherently like art; both are often excruciating processes involving mental and emotional anguish. And if I shy away from pain, how can I ever authentically express myself?

Aerial artists perform without safety harnesses, relying solely on a mat beneath them, showcasing the mastery of their craft. They construct their routines much like assembling building blocks, like immersing oneself in literature, devouring research, or spending hours in contemplative silence prepares a writer. It’s the resiliency built from the fall, from getting twisted up in the silks, laughing until your side hurts from all the failures. I don’t like to do hard things. I will complain, but I wish I could promise I won’t be the uneven crab.


At a certain point at home, I decided to Google the meme to share it with my kids, anticipating their amusement. My curiosity takes a detour as I explore whether crabs like the one depicted actually exist. I come across information identifying the lopsided crab as a male Fiddler crab, its uneven claws intentionally designed. One of the claw’s functions is to attract a mate.

I want to email Claire to tell her I could be a fiddler aerialist instead. After all, the Fiddler crab didn’t have to undergo any challenges to earn its distinctive claw—he was simply born that way. But as I read on, I learn the more robust the display of the male Fiddler’s wave and drum courtship ritual, the greater their stamina becomes. It’s annoying that the meme’s metaphor, though the size is not related to the actual hard work, turns out to be still somewhat apt in its application to resiliency, doing the hard things, seeing the payoff. 

Shame weighs me down, an oversized claw made of a lack of well-developed plans or a sense of competency. Motherhood caught me off guard, young and unprepared. I threw myself into building a writing career in the depths of pandemic depression without a journalism degree or MFA. I ran to the circus simply because everyone there was so warm and welcoming. If I don’t possess the discipline and tenacity to become The Best in any of these roles in my life, am I settling for Good Enough? Or is improvisation itself a hard-enough thing to do, a way to open the door a crack for whatever insights are brave enough to want in?  I can do hard things sometimes. The fiddler and me, we’ll be alright. 


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