Promises of Later

They came from all over to see her, the great artist, the best of the best. They said she was the most skilled at walking across the tight rope and she was. The gasps were loud as she teased the crowd, inching her way forward with nothing but gravity, a rope, and a bar in her hands. When you’re in the crowd, all you see is a figure holding a bar doing something you wish you had the courage to do but never would. You can’t see her expression, you can’t hear her shallow breaths, and you can’t feel her fear. Sometimes, you look up and forget that you’re seeing a human. It’s easy to fall into the adrenaline rush from watching someone tease death, not sure if it’s more exciting to see a fall or to feel the relief when she reaches the other side. By watching her essentially escape death and injury for a moment, the whole crowd escapes death and injury with her. She is the carrier of all of their excitement, fear, and lust for the thrill of the fall. Looking at this confident young woman, you’d never expect to hear that this wasn’t what she wanted and that she didn’t start out qualified. When you look at someone high above ground, envy ripples through and we forget about the ladder she had to climb to get there.

She remembers the first time she had tried out for this position. It hadn’t been a goal of hers until she saw the posters. They were glamorous, the lights and fame tempting, and the thrill of something new beckoned. Suddenly, her old dreams of sharing her voice with the world were shifted to the back of her mind. She had left home and finally worked up the courage to present herself, allowing the directors a chance to make or break her. She had shown up wearing what she thought she was supposed to wear and had a confidence that all successful people were supposed to have. She wasn’t sure where she was in the midst of the costume but she matched the posters and that was enough. With the practice and courage she had summoned, there was a part of her that expected something great just loud enough to quiet the fears screaming in the back of her mind to not expose herself. It took her just a moment to climb up to the platform. When she snuck a glance down, all she could see was the top of the director’s hat. Was he smiling or bored? Shaking her thoughts out of her head, she let her muscles carry her through the movements she had envisioned for so long. She had done the routine, she had done what they asked, and she had done what she thought was her best. When she climbed down the ladder from the other side, successful on her first attempt, she looked at the director only to see a blank face. Her heart had sunk as she listened to their critique.

“You did fine for someone so new but don’t worry,” he had tipped his big black hat towards her and leaned forward, “I think it was just the nerves. This is perfectly normal for a first try. Go home, practice and come back. You’ll be good enough one day.”

Forcing a smile on her face and muttering a thank you, she changed and left the tent with tears in her eyes. Her mind raced in every direction. What had she done wrong? She had climbed up, successfully walked across with what she hoped was confidence, and landed smoothly. Her mind replayed each moment, frame by frame, trying to see her fault; she had actually believed, for once, that maybe she had succeeded. Yet she wasn’t good enough. What she had thought was real, what she knew she had done, what she was so sure of suddenly was thrown in the air, mixed up. She knew she had done her best. But the director had told her no. She shook her loose hair out of her face and sat on the nearest bench. Trees in the nearby park stayed still in the absence of a breeze, capturing the stillness of devastation. Clouds halted up and blocked the blue sky for a moment. Birds quieted their song to hear her cry. The breaths came and went, tears following closely behind. It was like she was falling off the rope she had just walked across but the director had told her she wasn’t falling. To be told her reality wasn’t real confirmed each fear in the back of her mind and amplified the nasty voices. They mutated, twisted and grew in the dark place that had only become darker. It was that moment when the darkness was able to squish her without any resistance. The director was supposed to be encouraging, supposed to be supportive and supposed to tell her she was good enough. She had worked so hard. The bench had beckoned her and caught her as she slumped further down. Her head rested in her hands while the strap of her bag slid down her shoulder and slammed to the ground. It matched the sound of her own heart slamming into the nothingness that had replaced the hope she once had. The person she was counting on to support her had failed.

The betrayal coiled its way throughout her being until it hit a block of realization. She suddenly snapped her head up to meet the sky and decided she would change his mind. A new determination had snuck its way in and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. Not everyone would see her effort the first time and maybe that was okay. With time and more practice, she worked each day until her muscles were moaning, her breaths short, and her face shining with the sweat that spoke of a job well done. After some time of repeated growth, she had stepped foot back into the tent in front of the director and changed his mind. The excitement cleaned her veins of all the fear and pain she had once carried. The newness of this life was dazzling. She remembers the first performance she had ever done. Her nerves had tingled with excitement and fear, she had made it through the costume changes and makeup, she didn’t even flinch when she heard the audience scream for her the first time. She was the new superstar, she was the next big thing, she was the next new and everything was what she thought it would be. Months of traveling and shows became the new normal and for a while, it was perfect. Nobody knew about the dark shadow she felt herself running from. Nobody could see her stolen glances over her shoulder and sigh of relief when she felt the shadow was far away enough. Nobody could see the hairs raise on the back of her neck when she felt the breath of darkness close behind. Each night, she would perform and hang on to the high of something different until the excitement ran out and she would desperately lunge for the next. As each night passed, the excitement shrank and the monster grew closer.

One night in a small town in the middle of nowhere, she got ready for another show. It wasn’t anything special or spectacular, but enough for the high to get her through to the next show. As the audience provided their usual excitement, something peculiar happened that night. In that small town in the middle of nowhere, she found that she didn’t have the high she so desperately longed for. In the middle of her routine, she felt the shadow come full force and the darkness embrace in her. She was grateful the crowd could not see the horror that had swept across her face. Falling was never something she had been afraid of until now when she felt like the shadow was holding her over the edge of the endless abyss. She remembered why she left home, she remembered why she had wanted to escape, and she remembered the reason why she started running in the first place. It was a slow-motion movie moment as she came face to face with the monster she had been running from: herself. It looked like a view of a mirror from the side as the reflection and original collided, blending into one. The high escaped her and she was back in the moment when the director had said she wasn’t good enough. For a moment, she had believed it again, in the middle of a show. She had run so far and there on the other side of the rope was the woman she had been running from, waiting.

After that night, it took all her will to tell her traveling family the fear she had experienced. The sympathy the first couple nights helped her continue her journey across the rope but when her dreaded shadow had appeared on the other side again, sympathy wasn’t good enough anymore. The family didn’t want to carry the weight and looked the other way as her load began to grow in size. Nobody said a word as they watched the young woman begin to hunch over and disappear; they simply walked away when they couldn’t see her face under the weight on her shoulders. Soon, loneliness was her companion and isolation, a home. Each night, she’d fight her way across the rope and stared across the abyss that went on infinitely. From the crowd’s view, they saw the fun show but they couldn’t see her anymore. Autopilot had kicked in and dragged her behind. Nobody had warned her about how lonely the rope could be. In the depths of her heart, a battle was waging. While Isolation trapped her, Faith had hidden with Hope and together they came up with a plan. Every night while she slept and Isolation was quiet, Hope and Faith had begun growing together, slowly building in the background. Each morning as her eyes opened, she looked around and saw nothing but despair and infinite darkness in the arms of Isolation. She hadn’t been able to look behind with Isolation blocking the view of the two little soldiers working in the background. Each night they worked harder, grew a little bigger, until one night when her eyes were closed, they struck. Charging into the room full force, Isolation never stood a chance. There was no backup, there was no defense, there was nothing in the way of Hope and Faith rescuing the woman who had been held over the abyss for so long. Hope had picked up Isolation by the scruff of its neck and Faith helped finish the toss into the abyss that it had created. The abyss closed as it received its sacrifice and the voice of Isolation was silenced. Seeing the light begin to appear, the two little soldiers returned to their stations and waited until morning.

When the sun peeked over the horizon expecting another view of the horror of isolation, the woman paused before opening her eyes, dreading another day. She and the sun paused as she patted the space next to her and realized it was empty. She inhaled deeply when she realized there was nothing sitting on her chest. The light of the sun cheering her on pierced through her closed eyelids and when she opened them to the daylight, she could see. The road ahead was no longer an abyss but paved with the beauty of hard work and the actualization of herself. Shielding her eyes from the brightness, she stood and looked onward. There at the end laid the unknown but this time, it wasn’t dark. The steps in front of her wouldn’t be taken on their own and the fruit of the trees ahead wouldn’t be picked by themselves. She shed every costume, every bit of makeup, and embraced the monster she had been running from. The true monster had been shielding her from the beauty of what could be and hidden her chance to move forward. The gift of finding herself and seeing the monster image transform into what it actually is, what it actually looks like, was one unlike any other. A woman, once buried under a mountain of darkness, was now a carrier of light.

First steps down the path are easy. The burden is lifted and there’s the initial floating sensation carrying her down. Fruit overflowed from the trees, birds sang louder than ever, and her muscles never once strained from exhaustion. She felt like she could skip, twirl, and hop her way down this new found path, stopping to smell every flower, pet every animal, and feel every ray of sun kissing her skin. Along the way, the grass beckoned her to lay down and she felt comfort in the arms of the earth. Resting for a moment, she glanced around the beautiful new world and felt a part of her missing. The ache of a hole made things look gray for a moment and she continued further down the path. The suddenness of the ache was overwhelmingly painful. She thought there must be more than just skipping down the path, and she began searching for the familiarity of her old dreams. A voice in the back of her mind began speaking after being tucked away for so long. Clearing its throat and coughing up dust, the voice shared old visions she had dreamt up and she began to remember. She had gotten caught up with the fame and the lights, forgetting about what she really wanted. She chuckled and shook her head, amazed at how quickly we can fall out of love with something that made us so happy and braced herself to fall in love once again. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and the crowd won’t always be there. Later is an empty promise we make ourselves when the crowd and fame are quiet enough to hear your conscience scream. She listened to the voice and held onto the dreams of sharing it tighter than she had ever held the bar in the air. There, for once, was something worth hanging onto.

When she woke up and began to prepare for the next show, she paused and caught a reflection of herself. Her fingers brushed the side of her face as if it were the first time. She was curious and stared into the beautiful blue of the reflection’s eyes. Awe swept over her as she began to see the reflection as a friend and beautiful woman instead of a below average walking corpse. She smiled at her new found friend and breathed a sigh of gratitude. Her mind travels back to her first shows where a former star had shown her the way of the rope. There were long nights of practice and criticism to build on, but this star hadn’t given up. Sometimes people appear in a lifetime to impact and teach you in a season even if you don’t think you’re ready. When you’re training to be a star, the lights can be blinding and the teacher pushed from the stage. But she remembers. Another breath of gratitude escapes her lips and she smiles again at her reflection in the mirror. She can hear the crowd begin to clap as the ringleader announces another act. With a few minutes left until show time, this young star placed her elbows on her dressing desk and rested her powdered forehead on her hands. Being in a dark place was when she had felt the most abandoned not simply by those around her but by a God she struggled to believe in. Trust seems nearly impossible with Isolation and Fear blocking your pathway. How could she believe in a God that couldn’t step around her pain? She remembers the childhood messages about a loving God and prayed desperately to Him, trying to get past the God that had left her in the dark place. As she sits back in the light, she connects with the loving God easier and her faith is restored. She isn’t afraid of falling and she isn’t running from her shadow. Sometimes, greatness comes in moments too quick to grasp right then and wait in line to be processed with other moments. The woman hears the ringleader begin to announce her act and vows to remember her loving God even when she is blind. As she stood and adjusted her costume, a weight lifted from her shoulders and she stared at the dressed up woman. This wasn’t who she had thought she would be or where she thought she would end up. Sure, the fame and fortune were fun but she remembered the voice in the back of her mind. Walking out to once again tease death, she knew it would be her last show. She had waited long enough to fulfill the empty promise of later.

The last show began like any other except the young woman’s mind had traveled elsewhere and she began looking into a future that she wanted. As her hands held the bar, her mind put the future on hold and she remembered the dark moments. It’s easy to take the bar for granted when you have your balance. It is only when you feel the rope shake under your feet do you realize how necessary it is. We don’t appreciate breathing until we’ve lost our breath, we don’t appreciate little things like blinking until our eyes are dry, and we don’t appreciate the love we feel until we shield ourselves off from it. Even in the moments of darkness, she had always had the pole to hold onto. She remembered the few distant voices that had tried to reach her under the mountain and knew then that they were the voices of friends, unafraid to climb under and carry the load. She smiled, thinking how easy it is to let the small things go unnoticed. Following that trail, her mind brought her to a learning moment with the star that had trained her. She remembers sitting on the edge of the platform, defeated, after falling into the net, unable to complete a trick. The older star had sat next to her and listened as she released the frustration and pain of the fear that she felt. The words of true empathy had ingrained themselves into her shelf of hope, able to be reached at any moment.

“I don’t understand it. I’ve never experienced it the way you have, but I believe that what you’re telling me is your experience and it’s true.”

It wasn’t the words themselves that had made their way to her shelf of hope, but the validation behind them. She remembered auditioning for the first time and feeling like the director was telling her that her reality wasn’t real. The disconnect between the true and false had been crippling, yet this older star had sat and drawn the line for her. All she needed was the bar in her hand to balance her. Not someone to hold her as she crossed it or someone to give her a shove, but just the validation to know that she could do it and it’s okay to fall. Validation, Isolation’s archenemy, had nested its way into her heart and she had grown stronger in that moment. She remembered another brick of determination being cemented into place in that moment. Now, as she finishes her last performance, the young star hopped onto the wind and rode out as far as it would take her.

Today, there are whispers of the wonders she has planned and anticipation as they wait for her to perform once again. What the audience didn’t know was that this performance, the promise of later she wanted to fulfill, was going to take place in front of them, not above them. No longer was she to perform and hide from the world, no longer was she to stand on the rope and grip an empty bar of broken dreams, no longer was she going to run from a shadow that blocked the sunlight of possibility. When she finally reemerges, rumors have it that she won’t have a costume, makeup, the spotlights, or look like any poster you’ve ever seen. Rumors have it that the show will be simply a book. Confusion often crosses the faces of those who had previously watched her shine high above the ground, but rumors also have it that the book is full of life and wonder. A book written by a woman who got tired of the spotlight and fallen in love with something that made her happy is a book that will captivate the audience more than the spotlight ever could. This is where she shined the brightest she has ever shined. Until that day, we, the audience, wait in anticipation of the beauty within. We wait to see her name in the headlines and then we rush to get a copy of the book of life, her life.

I’ve had the honor of being able to glimpse into this book of life and the pages don’t stop turning, the words don’t stop taking my breath away, and the hope doesn’t stop pushing me towards my own promise of later. This star that went from being in the spotlight to being the spotlight herself has been a beacon of hope in my own life. She has taught me that it’s okay not to be okay. She has taught me that the performance isn’t as great as it seems and the rehearsals are exhausting. She has taught me about the pain of being an unexplainable void of emptiness, lacking the desire to feel or do anything but be inadequate. She has shared with me her world of darkness and allowed me to take a step into a place locked away from the public to see. She has allowed me to feel the nothingness she felt. Most of all, she taught me how it feels to be alive. She taught me how it feels to be in love with the woman you see in the mirror. She has honored me by sharing her light in my life and shining in the dark places everybody else refuses to touch.

These days, the young star I had admired on the rope has become a grounded source of hope. Some days, she feels like the darkness is too much. Other days, the light is blinding and the sun is kissing her skin. Sometimes, she remembers the freedom of the innocent youth she experienced and can feel her heart crumble as it slips away into adulthood. It wasn’t until her moment of actualization that the future began to become clear. The blur of the unknown had settled and she saw the potential to shape what could’ve been cynicism and jadedness. These days, a sculpture is being molded of what could’ve been defeat but is now a masterpiece. A masterpiece of parts that were once broken, new pieces of hope, and the glue of her own hidden beauty. We, the audience, wait in anticipation for her to finish sculpting a masterpiece for us. We, the audience, are lucky to be able to see her book of life. We, the audience, are lucky to rest in the light of her, a woman that grew from being a star in the spotlight to being an actual star.

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