2016-11-18

 Dream

The first things I notice are the dogs. They’re Cairn terriers, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, like the terriers that Mom and Dad keep as pets, the warm and fuzzy pups that are part of my clown act. I’m a kid in this dream, a little boy on a journey whose destination is unknown. I walk through the woods. The sky is clear, the sun bright, the air clean. The dogs run ahead of me, leading the way. The woods morph into a jungle. There are chimpanzees and exotic birds perched in the trees. Wildflowers are everywhere. In the distance, I make out the trumpet cry of an elephant. I hear the growl of lions and tigers. I’m not afraid because I’ve been around all sorts of animals. I’m a circus kid with circus parents from whom I’ve inherited a circus life. Are the dogs directing me to a circus where I’ll put on my clown’s outfi t and perform? As the dogs charge ahead, I sprint to keep up. The jungle turns into a green meadow and the meadow leads to a  mountain covered with blue and yellow wildflowers. The sounds change. The cry of the beasts transforms into the roar of raging water. What is the source? Where is the water? Chasing after the pups, I run up the mountainside. 

The faster I run, the taller the mountain seems to grow, the louder the roar. I keep running and running, wondering if this is a trick. Is this real? Will I ever reach the top?

I finally do. I stop to catch my breath and survey the scene. Spread out before me is a natural wonder, a spectacular horseshoe-​shaped waterfall commanding the width of the entire horizon. “Walk over the falls.” I turn around and see the man who has spoken these words. He is dressed in the billowy white shirt and satin trousers outfit of a circus performer. His face is friendly. His voice is not stern, not frightening, but simply clear. He speaks in a tone that is matter‑of‑fact, repeating the words for a second time—“ Walk over the falls.” Although the task seems impossible, the idea excites me. It seems like fun. I want to do it. I want to know how. I want to know where to set the poles and put up the cable. I want the man to instruct me. But just as I turn to him for more instruction, I wake up. Over the years the dream will assume different forms, but the theme never changes. Not only am I challenged to achieve the impossible, but the challenges grow in dimension. I soon realize that the man who haunts my imagination, awake and sleeping, is Karl Wallenda, the great patriarch of the Wallenda family. He is the man who fell from the high wire to his death in Puerto Rico on March 22, 1978, ten months before my birth on January 24, 1979. He is the man who entered my dreams early in my life and has remained there ever since. He is also the man who is my mother’s grandfather and my father’s teacher, the man who literally brought my parents together and hired them to work in his company of performing artists. Amazingly enough, one day the abstract dream becomes concrete reality when my parents are performing at the Shrine Circus in Buffalo. That’s when they take their two children to Niagara Falls. I’m six and my sister Lijana is eight. We spend months at a time on the road and on days off often visit places of interest like the Washington Monument or the field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. I like these tourist excursions. I find them fascinating.

But Niagara is something else altogether. I’m not only stunned by its tremendous size, but thrilled to be facing an awesome sight that seems to have emerged from my dream. “I’ve been here before,” I tell my dad. “You must have seen pictures, son,” he says. “We’ve never been here before.” “I have.” Dad laughs off my remarks, but I cling to the memory. As we drive from the American side to Canada for a closer look at the rushing waters cascading some twenty stories down into the Niagara River, I relive my dream. My heart beats like crazy. I don’t feel at all crazy. I feel connected. I feel centered. I don’t know what to call these feelings. I don’t know how to describe the excitement coursing through me. I don’t know words like “destiny” and “purpose.” My parents have taught us that all good things come from God, so I do know that this sensation of being connected to my dreams has to be good. I know that God has to be at the center of my imagination that is constructing a wire across the Falls. In my mind, I see myself walking from one country to another. Even as a child, I realize that the vision isn’t mine. It has come to me in a dream. It has come to me from a relative I have never known. But now I am standing before it, my face wet from the spray of water. My eyes are wet with tears of joy. I know what I have to do. I know I will do it. But in doing it— not in a dream, not in the imagination of a child, but in real time before millions of television viewers the world over— I will require two and a half decades of learning. Those lessons engage the mind but mostly they engage the spirit. The lessons involve steely determination. Yet the source of that determination is God. Without Him, there is no journey, no lesson, no dream. 

Two Feet

Look at the little kid in the backyard of his parents’ house in Sarasota, Florida. You won’t be impressed by the surroundings. Though his mom and dad are well‑ known circus performers and part of the legendary Wallenda clan, they live modestly. The scruffy working‑ class neighborhood has an almost rural feel. Scattered around the yard is the training gear— the various poles, posts, and bars— that aerialists use to hone their skills and develop new stunts. The object that captivates the kid is a cable some twenty‑ four inches off the ground strung between two stands. The kid is fi xated on the cable. The kid is barely two years old. The kid is me. My earliest and strongest memory is stepping out on the wire with the absolute conviction that I would walk across it. I have already seen my parents walk the high wire, an act that seems both wonderful and natural. Naturally I’m moved to do the same. 

I take a couple of steps, and then fall. I get back on, only to fall again. I keep getting on and keep falling, getting on and falling until in a short while I’m able to walk the entire length of the wire. The accomplishment does not feel remarkable. I don’t feel that I’ve had done anything extraordinary. It simply feels right. The length of the wire isn’t long— just a few yards. I wish it were longer. All that morning and well into early afternoon I keep walking back and forth. I’ve found my footing. I’m a restless and superenergetic child, yet this short walk over a cable has calmed me down and sent me into a state of inexplicable concentration, hardly typical of someone my age. No doubt about it; I’ve found this magical comfort zone in which time is suspended. “Time to come in!” Mom shouts. But I’m not about to come in. I shout back, “I did it! Did you see how good I did it?” “Of course you did it! You did it beautifully!” “I wanna keep doing it.” “You need to eat, Nik.” “I need to keep doing it.” “You will. You have the rest of your life to do it.” — But would I? All I knew then was the joy of a boy who had found the greatest toy in the world. What I didn’t know was that my parents were barely making a living. I didn’t know that the traditional circus circuit was on the verge of collapse. For all the satisfaction that came with their life as entertainers, they continually faced financial ruin. Circuses were going bankrupt.

Premier performers with sterling reputations, Mom and Dad were forced to take all sorts of odd jobs— washing windows, working in restaurants— to keep a roof over our heads. Whatever precocious talents I might have displayed at an early age, they had no hope for my future in a field that had sustained the Wallenda family for over two hundred years. Understandably, they saw this as the end of the line. In fact, the title of the book about my mom’s life was The Last of the Wallendas. In the first two decades of my life I became increasingly aware of a dark cloud hanging over circus life. From that first step on the wire at age two, it was my passion, but a passion born at a time of impending death. Even when there was a reinvention of sorts— the explosion of Cirque du Soleil in the nineties— that Canadian phenomenon had little effect on my parents and the old-​school venues that were rapidly disappearing. The wolf remained at our door. I offer none of this in the way of complaint. Being born into struggle is a blessing. That struggle gave me an extra measure of motivation— and for that I’m grateful. That struggle tested my commitment to the aerial art form I love so deeply. That struggle also made me dependent on God. It didn’t take long to realize that I couldn’t win the struggle without leaning on a source of strength no human could supply. My parents helped me realize that at an early age. Practicing Christians, they were devoted to their children. Through their example, I accepted Christ as a child. But I also found myself absorbing their very human fears and anxieties. They couldn’t guide me past their own fears and anxieties. Only God could. In the same way, only God could give me the insight and strength to turn my long family lineage, marked by deadly tragedies, to triumph. To an alarming degree, that lineage is also marked by betrayal, backbiting, and mean-​spirited jealousy.

Yet my lineage is a miraculous blessing— as long as I view it through the eyes of a grateful child of God. I believe that God gives us the power to transform any story from darkness to light. He has taught me how the stories of my forebears, no matter how painful, can benefit my life and the lives of my children. He has shown me how negative can be rebirthed as positive. To tell that story, though, the negatives cannot be overlooked. To show the miracle of transformation— the movement from despair to hope— the despair must be revealed. The truth must be told. As a young child, I loved fairy tales. I looked at the Wallenda family saga as something of a fairy tale. Karl Wallenda, the man who excited my imagination, was a hero. He remains so to this day. I continue to derive sustenance from his never-​say-​die example of optimism. I never tire of quoting his mantra: “Life is on the wire; everything else is just waiting.” I view my great-​grandfather as a man of boundless courage and fortitude. I’ve never seen him as a competitor, but only an inspiration. It is never my intention to overshadow his feats. They remain remarkable. But as I have come of age, I have learned that, unlike some mythic character out of a fairy tale, Karl Wallenda was made of flesh and blood. 

As a family man, he suffered through a long series of spectacular failures. His private life resulted in chaos and confusion for those close to him. That chaos filtered down to his daughter Jenny, my grandmother, and Jenny’s daughter Delilah, my mother. These women were deeply hurt. They bore emotional scars. Those scars had enormous impact on me. They are part of my story. To tell any story with honesty and candor, scars cannot be hidden. Scars must be shown. If scars are to heal, they must be attended to. There’s no way, for example, to understand the story of Christ without seeing His scars. If His scars are airbrushed out, we miss the message. His scars are the means by which we comprehend His undying love for us. His scars are the means by which we feel His undying love for us. His scars are part of God’s instructional plan, symbols of how human pain can lead to divine glory. For me, Jesus’ story is the big one. It’s the story that says even the most brutal and tortuous ending isn’t an ending at all but merely the beginning of forever. It’s the one that says that lies can turn to truth and death can turn to life. So I will do my best to reveal all scars and shortcomings— especially my own— without assigning blame or wallowing in self-​pity. I will do my best, through my own limited understanding, to briefly tell the story that little Nik, walking a wire a few feet off the ground, could never have known. This gutsy kid— happy, hyper, fun loving— had no idea of the monumental saga that was, in fact, his legacy. Looking to stay on the wire, trying to find balance, he was blissfully unaware of how the history of the man in his dreams would shape his own life.

On June 15, 2012, high wire artist, Nik Wallenda joined the ranks of legendary daredevils when he became the first person ever to walk across the roaring Niagara Falls. The broadcast was aired on ABC to over thirteen million Americans. Nik is the seventh generation of the GreatWallendas. Every walk Nik does is in honor of his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who died on the wire in 1978. Nik has been performing on a high wire since before he was born when his mother (who still performs with him today) walked while she was six months pregnant with Nik. The Niagara Falls walk marks Nik's seventh World Record. By his side on the wire is his wife, Erendira, circus royalty herself. Learn more at www.nikwallenda.com. Buy  the book Balance: A Story of Faith, Family, and Life on the Line!  

more from beliefnet and our partners