By Gregory Pratt
Barbara Hague had modest aspirations last winter when she took her first swing on a trapeze.
“My goal was really to get up there, do it and not run out of there screaming,” Hague recalled. “Not a real high bar.”
Fleeing in terror was a real possibility for Hague, 66, who is not a prototypical daredevil. She has spent most of her life doing desk jobs, and is currently an independent copy editor and proofreader.
Hague recalls a family trip to a water park when her children were little and she was in her 40s. Hague went up, but couldn’t bring herself to go down the slide.
Like a lot of people, myself included, Hague is afraid of heights. In December, I wrote a column about my time at TSNY Chicago, a trapeze school on the North Side of the city that has an outdoor rig just off Lake Shore Drive in the summer.
The gist was, I’m afraid of heights but take flying trapeze classes anyway because they’re fun, and it’s important to face your fears.
The morning the column ran, I got an email from Hague.
“Read this with interest as I am somewhat acrophobic myself and wondering if it’s worth the trouble and panicky feelings to try to overcome,” Hague wrote. “Avoiding down escalators whenever possible but flying on a plane is OK.”
Here’s the part that jumped out at me: “Just turned 66 and that’s two thirds of the way to a hundred, and enjoying the ride.”
I wrote back encouraging her to sign up for a class but didn’t expect to hear back. A few weeks later, I was surprised to get another email from Hague beginning with, “Well, I did it.
“Thanks again for your article. So many times you look at something and think ‘Gee, that would be cool to do but I’ll never be able to, I’m not an athlete, etc,'” she wrote. “But you really can if it’s made accessible and welcoming. Certainly not like the high school gym experiences too many people of my generation have bad memories of.”
Six months later, she’s still taking classes. In fact, she’s what the school calls a “frequent flier.” Psychologically, she said, “it’s good for me to face the fear of heights.”
Trapeze is helping reshape her identity.
“I didn’t take gymnastics when I was a kid and I kind of thought of myself as a klutz,” Hague said. “What I’m starting to do is redefine myself as a flier. I’m not a scaredy-cat and I’m not a klutz.”
It’s never too late to redefine yourself as not a scaredy-cat and not a klutz.
In fact, it’s a little funny to hear her talk about the school, as she’s gone from apprehension to enthusiasm. She said she still feels some fear going up the ladder but now is focused on nailing tricks.
“The fear is gradually being replaced by some frustration if I can’t do something perfectly, and then I stop myself: ‘Barbara, how long have you been doing this?'” she said.
What I like about Hague’s example is the idea that it’s never too late to do things you never thought you’d be able to do, like flip off a bar in your 60s.
One of the teachers at TSNY Chicago, Chris Rooney, knows Hague from their alumni work together at Northwestern University.
Rooney said he admires Hague as a “lifelong learner” who is pushing her own boundaries.
“In essence what (trapeze) is is you testing your own boundaries and you testing your own fears in a way that’s not competitive at all,” Rooney said. “You’re not competing with anyone in the class. You’re competing with yourself to see what you can push yourself to do.”
Hague has found that she can push herself further than expected, even through modest injuries like a sprained toe.
Some of Hague’s friends think she’s nuts, she said, but the classes have boosted her standing with her adult daughters, who are in their 30s.
“It has greatly increased my awesomeness factor with my children,” Hague said. “They think I’m a bad ass.”
So do I.