One hundred and sixty-three years ago, on June 30th of 1859, the man Mark Twain once referred to as “that adventurous ass” rappelled 200 feet down to a rock at the base of Niagara Falls to retrieve the end of a cable that he then stretched across the Falls and used it as a footbridge.
Clad in pink tights, soft-soled leather shoes, and plenty of spangles, the 19th century’s most famous funambulist, or tightrope walker to those of you less imaginative 21st-century types who don’t do crossword puzzles, Charles Blondin made the world’s first high wire trek across one of the world’s most famous waterfalls.
For trip number one, Blondin, whose real name was Jean François Gravelet, carried a twenty-six-foot-long balancing pole and started from the American side. Partway across he stopped, sat down on the cable, cast a line down to the momentarily anchored Maid of the Mist tour boat and brought back up a bottle of wine, which he then drank before continuing his journey to Canada.
Not many of the 25,000 people there that day were betting he could accomplish the task, but he’d been walking tightropes since he was four years old and had been known to compare himself to a poet, “born and not made.” I know a few poets who work really hard at their craft and might disagree with his comparison, but there is little doubt that the five-foot, 140-pound Frenchman was particularly well suited to walk his way across Niagara Falls that day, and many subsequent days.
Over the years, he performed the stunt more than three hundred times, adding to the challenge in various ways. He crossed it without a balancing pole, backward, at night, blindfolded, pushing a wheel barrel, transporting his agent on his back, carrying and using a daguerreotype camera, and once hauling a portable cooktop that he set up in the middle to cook an omelet he then lowered for a passenger on the Maid of the Mist to enjoy.
His stage name became synonymous with tightrope walking itself, prompting Abraham Lincoln to once compare the work of government to that of Blondin, slowly and carefully balancing the wealth, welfare, and priorities of a nation while steadily and often dangerously crossing from one issue to the next.
I’m feeling that right now in a big way. You may have heard that the US Supreme Court recently made a big decision that resulted in overturning a previous big decision. The move had been highly anticipated for months by a lot of folks, some with fear and anger and others with hope and joy. Now that it has come down as expected, it has sent big ripples and maybe even some significant rifts through the nation.
I have strong opinions about the decision and I bet you do, too. Maybe we agree, and maybe we don’t. I know for certain that there are people I love and respect on opposite ends of the spectrum of opinions.
That makes the powerful waters and the turbulent winds of public opinion tough to navigate right now. In general I have very little faith that politicians will ever get anything particularly right, and it is in their hands, and by extension in the hands of those who elect them, what might happen next in each state.
No matter where our personal opinion falls, I do think we’re all trying to get from the court decision through the imbalanced feelings of highly emotional shock and frustration that don’t allow us to have reasonable conversations with one another, to whatever the fall-out from the decision will eventually be.
There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and it is incredibly difficult to walk that line of compassion that stretches precariously through passionate conflict. But if that uninsurable adventurous ass in pink tights could cross a high wire over Niagara Falls more than three hundred times and die peacefully at home at the age of seventy-three, then I’m betting we can probably do it.