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Finding a New Way to Get a Glimpse of God


By Henri J.W. Nouwen | July-August 1993
The Rev. Henri J.M. Nouwen is a writer and lectur­er, a priest-in-residence at Daybreak in Toronto (a Catholic/ecumenical l'Arche community serving disabled persons), and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. The first installment in this two-part circus diary appeared in our June 1993 issue.

Ed. Note: Fr. Nouwen here continues the chronicle of the time he spent in Germany in 1992, largely with the traveling Circus Barum, in particular with the trapeze group the “Flying Rodleighs,” composed of four South Africans: Rodleigh, his wife, Jenny, his sister, Karlene, and Joe; and one American, Jon. Fr. Nouwen expects to write a book based on this diary.

Wednesday, May 13 — Kamen

The trip on the German roads from Dat­teln to Kamen last night was short but, again, very tricky for me. At one point I realized I had forgotten to push back my camper’s door­step. Since I was afraid that this piece of metal sticking out was a hazard, I had to stop, walk around the camper, and push it in. Jon, driv­ing behind me, and seeing what was happen­ing, talked by radio to Rodleigh at the front of the convoy, and brought the whole circus troupe to a standstill. At first I couldn’t get my camper to start again, but finally I got back on the road, and everyone started to move again. I felt embarrassed by my clumsiness, but real­ized that I had to accept it with a smile.

Mud, mud, mud. Mud was everywhere at the Kamen fairgrounds. I walked over to Kar­lene’s place, and we had some coffee. She was very open with me and spoke about all the “mood swings” of the troupe. “Rodleigh can be so critical of me. Sometimes I get so fed up with all his remarks about the way I keep my trailer, the way I am with my daughter, Kar­lene, the way I do my act. A few weeks ago I was about ready to quit…but I have to con­fess…what makes him so critical is also what makes him such a good artist. He is a real per­fectionist. You have to be a perfectionist when you want to be a good aerial acrobat. You not only have to do good tricks, but you have to do them with perfect style. A difficult trick, sloppily executed, does not make a good show. Well, his perfectionism comes through in all things. I guess I have to learn not to take his criticisms too personally.”

Karlene also spoke about Jenny, Joe, and Jon. She spoke of them with great love and respect, but also letting me know that living so closely together, day in day out, with no out­side friends, is far from easy. “You really have to give each other space. I need my own space, and I can’t deal with people just walk­ing in and out of my trailer all the time.”

We talked a little about how hard it is for her to be a single mother — being a family, but not quite recognized as a family; being responsible for a child, but not always taken seriously as a mother. “Yes, it is not always easy,” Karlene said. “But I shouldn’t complain. Things are a lot better than a few years ago.”

The longer I am here, the more I find to write about. The flying trapeze act alone could keep me writing for months. I have collected some good personal stories of the three flyers and the two catchers; I have a rather good de­scription from Rodleigh of the act itself, but the gaps in my knowledge seem wider than ever.

I know nothing about the rigging. It would take me weeks to figure out the names of its different parts and the way they are pieced together. I know nothing about cos­tumes, the way they are chosen and used. I know nothing about earnings and expenses and the countless administrative aspects of the act.

The more I learn, the more I realize how very little I know. Still, the more details I grasp, the better. I might not use all these details in my final story, but without knowing them I don’t think I can make good choices in my writing. This makes me think of Rodin’s statue of Balzac in Paris. Although the statue shows Balzac in a wide mantle, the prelimi­nary studies show many nude models. Rodin wanted to know every detail of Balzac’s body in order to be able to sculpt him well with the large mantle over his shoulders. I guess this is also true when you want to write a story about the flying trapeze. Even though you don’t want to distract your reader with all the technical details, you have to know them quite well if you really want to describe the artistic power of the show.

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