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.