My Third Eye: One Woman's Vision of the Great Mystery

Via the Paths of Creativity, Cancer, Folly & a Wild LOVE OF LIFE

Jane Underwood

Jane Underwood
San Francisco, California, USA
October 08
The Writing Salon
I'm a mother, writer, photographer (amateur), and owner of The Writing Salon, a school of creative writing for adults, in San Francisco. I'm also a woman living with breast cancer (since Aug. 2005), working to heal myself (and to understand just what that means, REALLY). Since I'm beginning this blog six years after my breast cancer journey began, the first post is a flashback to that fateful day. The rest of this blog will be, I suspect, a kaleidoscopic mix of past and present, as I refer to the first six years of living with breast cancer... but also focus on the present. And the present contains a whole lot more than just breast cancer. So be forewarned: I will frequently digress.


NOVEMBER 22, 2011 11:17AM

Circus Mom Memories

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PSY from marion bellin on Vimeo.

1989: My six-year-old son Will wants me to watch him do the acrobatics trick he just mastered. I sit down on the bleachers at the San Francisco Circus Center, where Will first took a basic tumbling class a few weeks ago, and is now signed up for a slightly more advanced "Chinese acrobatics" class that I wasn't expecting but agreed to let him take because he wanted to so badly. I figure maybe he will do a headstand or a handstand or a back flip. This Chinese acrobatics stuff is all pretty new to me, as are the majority of things that have entered my life as a result of my choice to become a mom. 

Will -- who is my first and only child -- is dressed in the red tee shirt and black sweat pants that all class members are required to wear. He runs over to the pole, which apparently is something they use, for some feat or other, in Chinese acrobatics classes. I don't know much about it yet. I watch as Will shimmies up this 15-foot pole like a caffeinated monkey. Impressive! I raise my hands and am about to clap, but before I can do so Will's trainer, Mr. Lu Yi, yells, "Focus, FOCUS!"

Will suddenly flips himself upside down, lifts his head, holds both his arms outstretched and, gripping the pole only with his feet, slides down it at breakneck speed, stopping only a split second before breaking his neck. I sit, frozen, mouth open into the shape of a large O, but no sound coming out of it. Adrenalin has flooded my body, my being. Oh god. Oh no. Oh yes. Oh my. Oh what have we gotten ourselves into NOW? 

Will flips himself off the pole and does a bow, his face aglow with joy. That joy leaps across the space between us and enters me as well. What he feels, I feel. That's the deal, that's the surprise I was hit with the second he was born. Like it or not, I feel his joy, which has, in the blink of an eye, intertwined itself with my fear. I sense that both these feelings are are here to stay, conjoined at the hip, impossible for me to separate.   

1992: Will writes in a school paper: "If I could hang a motto in every home in the world, it would say: BE CRAZY, TRY EVERYTHING. One of the happiest days of my life was when I went bungee jumping. There was a 21-foot crane. I went to the top. They tied a huge bungee cord around my ankles and told me to dive straight down, head first on the count of five. They opened a little gate, and held my waist so that I could lean out of the crane. When they got to five, I dove."

I wasn't present at the Great Bungee Jump. His dad handled that, thank god. Even now I practically have a heart attack when I think about it. The fact that I am this kid's mother is one of those cosmic jokes that the universe seems to get such a kick out of playing on people.

Until I embarked on the path of Circus Mom, I'd never even been to a real circus. Many of Will's tricks scare me, as do most energetic physical activities. I was the girl who threw her arms up and went into a sideways crouch if a ball was ever thrown my way. I was the woman who, when in labor, had to be forcefully ordered to shift my position after 22 hours of refusing to budge.

"Listen to me," snapped my midwife. "You have got to MOVE AROUND if you want this labor to progress. If you won't walk, then at least turn over onto your side. Now DO it."

So I did, and look where it got me!

First came the diapering and breastfeeding marathons. Then, as soon as I got him weaned and toilet trained, he started running around the house like a little madman, doing chin-ups and push-ups and trying to teach himself headstands and handstands. I had no choice but to enroll him in the Saturday morning tumbling class that led, through no fault of my own, to the Chinese acrobatics class.

Then came the circus school shows. At age 11, Will started performing with the New Pickle Circus. I remember his first show at the packed Cowell Theater. The band began to play, the lights went down, my heart thumped like crazy, my palms started to sweat, and for the next two hours I alternated between being the loudest clapper and screamer in the audience, and the one who squeezed her eyes shut the tightest.

For the grand finale, Will stood on the end of a teeterboard. When a man jumped on the other end, Will shot straight up, spun around in the air, and landed on the shoulders of a guy who was standing on another guy's shoulders. The audience roared.

After the show, his sixth that weekend, Will had the same dazed look in his eyes that I often saw when he was two years old, in need of a nap and determined not to take one.

"Tired?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was from Mars. "Why should I be tired?" Then he casually mentioned that he'd hurt his wrist in a fall during rehearsal and would need to ice it later.

In the morning, his wrist resembled a bruised bowling ball. At the emergency room, when our ponytailed X-ray technician learned how Will had injured his wrist, he grinned and said, "Are you a star? More importantly, are the babes asking for your autograph yet?"

2001: My 7-pound-11 ounce, 21-inch baby is now a 175-pound, six-foot-two hellabuff guy preparing to dive through a hoop balanced on top of three other hoops. It is his last performance here before he flies away to Montreal to attend L'Ecole Nationale du Cirque instead of college.

The hoops are lightweight and only two feet in diameter. They're precariously balanced. The one he's about to dive through is five feet off the ground. He is going to dive through it FEET FIRST.

Think about it.

I watch him take a deep breath and then become utterly still, supremely focused, his body collecting itself, mind/body/spirit coalescing to some pure point of containment, the mere thought of which dazzles me to the brink of tears.

A hush falls over the theater.           

In a sudden burst of motion, Will runs, then leaps. His legs shoot straight out in front of him, parallel to the floor. His feet are aimed at the heart of the small hoop. He becomes a human gazelle.

His feet enter the circle. His speeding body follows, making a whoosh of wind that causes the hoops to shiver. His shoulders almost, almost touch the hoop — but DON'T! He sails the rest of the way through, lands on his feet, and the audience explodes. Every chakra in my body bursts wide open.

2003: My 20-year-old son calls from Montreal to say that he has just finished a two-day long audition for a circus extravaganza involving a gigantic water dome and seating for gazillions.

I take a deep breath and reach for my smelling salts. "And?"

"And I made the first cut, Mom."

2011: Yep, I am still a Circus Mom. I think Will might be in Paris right now. Or possibly still in Lisbon. Before Lisbon was Barcelona, before that, in no special order, was Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, Greece, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, London. . . . the list goes on on and on.

He currently does a "hand-to-hand" balancing act with his partner, Heloise. Heloise likes to balance, in a one-handed handstand, on top of Will's head. I have a photo of her doing just that, out in front of the Eiffel Tower when they were "goofing around"one day. She also does crazy acrobatic dances with large stuffed armchairs. Will likes to toss Heloise into the sky, wait nonchalantly as she hurtles toward the ground, and catch her with a cavalier flourish right before the petrified audience has a massive synchronized heart attack.   

Every once in a while my globe-trotting daredevil drops by for a too-short visit. He lazes around on the couch and leaves lots of empty water glasses sitting all over the house. Sometimes we take the dog for a stroll. Last time, we played a few games of pool at the local bar. Every now and then I tiptoe into the living room, early in the morning when he is still asleep, his feet hanging out over the edge of the fold-out couch, and I stare at his peaceful, smooth, still glowing face.      

In this sliver of silent dawn, I am not a Circus Mom, I'm just a Mom. And he is not a crazy amazing circus performer, he is simply my beautiful son.


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Ah, Jane, those last two sentences: how lovely. I suspect that, if such a thing approaches possibility, you have demystified what the eyes of a mother sees. Your son--awesome. I wish I had just a smidge of his courage. For me, climbing a ladder to clear leaves from a gutter is an act of courage which I believe justifies a medal or certificate of some kind!
Thank you Jerry! I am smiling...I too have precious little physical (athletic) courage; I think I deserve a medal (or perhaps a certificate would be better) just for getting on a STEP-ladder, inside the house, to change one ceiling light bulb.
I was wondering if we would be hearing about your son's circus adventures...and here they are. Thank you Jane.

It is rather unbelievable, as you say, that you would have a son who is so different from least in the lack of fear department. But it just goes to show us all that anything is possible and good for him. We mere mortals find the acrobatics that you describe so enchanting to watch, but for a parent to watch? Well, that makes me squirm just thinking about it.

By the way Jane, you write beautifully and isn't there something acrobatic about that?
A lovely piece--I would have the same response you did!
How utterly delightful, following your son through his passion for the circus. What a fantastic mom you are! And lucky to have that one visiting sleeping on your couch!!! Thank you for sharing him with us!
Those are amazing videos -- and I felt my heart in my throat as you describe him flying through the air, aiming for a small hoop! My anxiety over my son's travels feel like dramatized vapors after that.