Lessons Learned at City Museum

If you haven’t been to City Museum in St. Louis, make it a priority to get there very soon.  It is truly a marvel.  The nuts and bolts:  opened in 1997, situated in the former International Shoe Company warehouse, designed by artist Bob Cassilly and curated alongside his team of twenty artists, comprised of found building materials all from within the city boundary lines including two abandoned airplanes.  The heart and soul: a playground of wonder, ten story slides, underground caves and tunnels, outdoor climbing structures that look like the edging of your spiral notebook, mosaics and paintings and art in every nook and cranny, circus performers, a beatnik café, imagination run wild.

I spent this past Saturday morning at City Museum with my husband, our boys, and some friends and family visiting from out of town.  It’s always a blast to play hometown tourist in St. Louis, but I was particularly excited about this outing because my boys had never been to City Museum before.  We spent hours exploring the place, only leaving when hunger got the best of us (okay, in my case, hunger and exhaustion and sore knees and large crowds).  But I know we’ll return because there is always more to see and discover, and I wanted to share a few of the life lessons that City Museum taught (or in some cases re-taught) me today:
1. Don’t look down.
Seriously, just don’t.  Some of the tunnels in this place are very tall, and offer a lovely view to the ground below.  I’m not a fan of open heights.  Enclosed heights, sure.  Put me in an airplane or the top of the Arch or even a very tall roller-coaster that completely straps your body to a car and I’m fine, but the minute I feel out in the open, it’s a completely different story.  I’m vulnerable and  become aware of the fact that I could just fall at any moment.  Climbing through these wired tubes I learned to keep my eyes straight ahead, cast in a slightly upward direction.  Sure, that does not change the precariousness of the situation at all but it shifts my focus to the finish line and to all the successful steps it will take me to get there and takes my mind off the many ways I could stumble and fall.  This is a lesson I need to apply in many areas of my life.  I’ll never be able to ignore the (many) ways to fall, it’s simply not the way I’m wired.  And that’s okay.  It’s more than okay really, because recognizing and developing a plan to overcome obstacles is a necessary step towards achieving any goal.  The problem, for me at least, is dwelling on the potential pitfalls even after they’ve been assessed and planned for.  The ability to think strategically is useless if it leaves us in a state of inaction. I am learning that I can choose to focus on the ways to keep climbing which are just as visible as the possible falls if I keep my focus forward.  
Not thrilled about this clear plexiglass tunnel.
He makes it look so easy.

2. Sometimes it is okay to look back and even turn around.

There are places in City Museum that really merit some kind of height/weight/claustrophobia warning sign.   One minute, you are walking through a cave, occasionally ducking your head and the next, you find yourself on your belly, pulling your body through a tunnel with your not so impressive arm strength, wondering why you don’t work out more often.  You have to remind yourself to breathe and that you’ve never heard a single news story of someone actually getting lost in the fathoms of the underground caves.  Sometimes, it is too late to turn around.  The path is too narrow or the way is crowded with people, and you have to just keep on keeping on.  However, sometimes, it is possible and advisable to turn around and go back to where you started and choose another path.  Sometimes, we get so stubborn about the path we are on that turning around feels like defeat.  Even if the path is clearly no longer for us (even literally, as in, my 36 year old body could not fit through the path) we feel like we have to finish because, well, we started.  But sometimes, we find out that if we just turn around, go back and begin again, we find an even more amazing path than we ever expected.  
See those little black holes?  You are supposed to go in those.  For fun.
Look what I found when I reversed course?  I think that’s legitimate treasure.

3. Boldly try new things because failure is always an option. 

I recently read a quote that said, “The beautiful thing about writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, brain surgery.”  (Robert Cormier)  Our culture constantly tells us that failure is not an option, but actually, it is almost always an option.  In fact, it’s kind of a wonderful option because it means you don’t have to shut out any possibility just because you might fail.  Kind of like how I did not shut out the possibility of becoming a parkour/circus arts professional at City Museum.  There is a magical room in City Museum and in it, you can swing on ropes like Tarzan or run up what looks like a giant skateboard ramp.  After you successfully run up this ramp you can grab the top of it and hoist yourself onto the ledge and look like a total rock star.  I know this because I saw my husband do it.  Not wanting to miss out, I also ran up this giant ramp but I looked more like a hamster in one of those clear wheels who keeps running and running and never getting to the top.  It was a total fail.  BUT, the point is, at least I know that I don’t have a future on the parkour Olympic team if that ever becomes a thing.  I also failed to make it across the kiddy half-pipe on the rope.  Okay, I failed to even get my feet on the rope.  But I tried.  BOLDLY.

4.  Facing your fears is not the same as conquering your fears.  But that’s okay because either way you get a marshmallow.

The last time I was at City Museum was in the summer of 2010.  I was with my husband a few of my cast-mates from a production of Guys & Dolls I was performing in that summer and so excited to be:
1. Meeting new people
2. Who loved musical theater
3. On a date with no kids
4. At a new place
5. Up past 9 p.m. I had already summoned up enough courage to audition for a show for the first time in a decade, so I was feeling a little extra brave.  One of the guys in the cast shared my aforementioned fear of heights and, totally sober, we decided we were going to conquer our fear.  Together.  We headed outside to the super terrifying fun web of tunnels where you can plummet to your death tower over the parking lot.  We started climbing and right away I realized it had been a terrible mistake to wear flip flops.  I tucked them into the back pocket of my jeans and kept going, barefoot.  We climbed higher and higher and one of us started sweating profusely and one of us was shaking so badly the entire tunnel cage structure was rattling (and yes, both of those were me).  Finally we made it to an exit and all I remember was a slide and sweet relief as my bare feet hit solid ground.  We did it.  
Can you see that tunnel?  No?  Oh, that’s because it is so high up in the sky that it is almost invisible to the naked eye.  That’s the one I thought I would not make it out of alive.

Flash forward to this weekend.  It was raining and the outside tunnels of death climbing structures were closed. Oh, too bad.  But, a couple of hours later, the clouds parted and yay!  The tunnels were open!  Did I want to go up to the top?  “Mom, come on!  Let’s do it!  You’ve done it before!”
And that is when I learned that facing a fear is NOT the same as conquering a fear.  Because no thank you very much.  I was not going back in those tunnels, even in my appropriate footwear.  I was staying on the ground where it is solid and not high up in the sky and also solid.  And to make matters worse, I was rewarded for my cowardice by a lovely City Museum employee manning a bonfire and handing out marshmallows to sit and roast.  Solid ground for the win.
5. If you homeschool your kids, they might end up juggling knives.
If you get tired of the terrifying heights and claustrophobic tunnels at City Museum (man, I’m really selling this place….they should consider hiring me for their PR team), you can take a breather and watch the performers from Circus Harmony.  We caught The Awesome Brothers in action and it was incredible.  There was tumbling and ring tossing and juggling and sandwich assembly.  Crowds were dazzled, popcorn was consumed, and at the end of the act, my seven-year old found his new life’s ambition.  When one of the performers announced that he and his brother were homeschooled, my also homeschooled child decided that he too wanted to juggle knives for a living, preferably on his older brother’s shoulders.  Older brother politely declined the offer and went back to mentally creating an app for that, but the younger one talked to the performers on the way out, grabbed a Circus Harmony brochure, and started practicing a variety of “acts” as soon as we got home.  And I might have also checked out the classes online, because, if I’m crazy enough to homeschool my kids, I’m also crazy enough to enroll them in circus classes.
The Awesome Brothers, aka, a glimpse into my future.

6.  Life is better with a soundtrack.
Have you ever watched  a really emotional scene from a movie without the music, maybe in a director’s cut or behind the scenes footage?   Doesn’t it feel so strange?  Music is straight up magic and it has a way of finding the heart-swelling emotion in you and magnifying it.  As we watched the Awesome Brothers warm up for their show, we were already a little captivated.  They were, in fact, awesome.  But, when they came on stage to perform and added music to the act, it became larger than life.  I thought about how true this is in everyday life.  You can make dinner, or you can make dinner to Ella Fitzgerald.  You can drive to work, or you can “Keep the Car Running.”   So, as I was trailing behind my ten year old in the sort of spooky caves, hesitant to enter the tiny mouse holes he referred to as tunnels, I pulled out my phone and opened Spotify and discovered you can climb through caves with your kid, but it is lot more exciting to offer “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”  When in doubt, add a soundtrack.
7.  Some people can hula hoop and some people cannot.
There’s really nothing more to add to that one.  Some things just are what they are.

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