“I can’t! I’ll break my leg!”
I heard this exclamation quite a bit when I invited people to try out my 7-foot stilts at the recent National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Indianapolis. I brought the stilts with me to participate in the Vocations Got Talent part of the conference, but I let anyone (teens and chaperones) try them – if they dared, that is!
Many people take one look at my stilts and picture themselves falling off of them in some violent fashion; they see my stilts as scary poles of death and doom. These people are sure they will break a bone if they attempt to walk on them. I look at my stilts, however, and see something quite different. I look at those two ancient, well-worn pieces of wood and see the love and support of community.
My stilts, you see, are more than just fun toys – they actually help build community. Wherever they are, they bring people together. My grandpa made me my first pair of stilts when I was four years old. I remember learning how to walk on them in my grandparents’ house surrounded by a crowd of loud and lively family members. It was a chaotic environment; everyone was constantly talking over everyone else, but it was a loving environment too. I received lots of encouragement and praise as I weaved in and out of the crowd, falling occasionally as I worked to get the hang of stilt-walking. I loved that feeling of community warmth that enveloped me.
I ignored my stilts during my high-school years, when I was not terribly interested in building community! I brought them back out again when I started working in Campus Ministry at the University of Mary. We (the staff members) were looking for something to build community on campus during our Praise and Worship nights. I thought it would be a great idea to have a stilts contest for students – whoever could walk the most steps without falling would win a prize! We attempted to get 100 people to come to our Praise and Worship night. To sweeten the deal, I promised to dye my hair purple if we actually got that many people to attend. We, of course, did get our 100 people, and I found myself at the store trying to find purple hair dye! It was the stilts contest that brought people in, though. The winner of the contest made it only seven steps without falling, but the feeling of community fun (there was a lot of laughter!) that developed that night was priceless.
After that Praise and Worship night, I left my stilts in the Campus Ministry hang-out area known as the Fire Pit. They stayed there for the next four years. Countless students during that time gathered in the Fire Pit to try them out – or to watch their friends try them! Watching someone else try to walk on stilts is often more entertaining (and safer!) than risking it yourself! J
And then I brought them to NCYC, where hundreds of people gathered around to try them out. I was impressed with the teamwork that occurred as students tried to help their fellow teens walk on them. Often it took four people to help just one person get up on the stilts and walk around! The look of accomplishment on all of their faces (the stilt-walker and his/her helpers) was great! Because of those stilts, I met teens and adults from all over the country. Also because of those stilts, I developed impressive blisters on my thumbs and bruised feet, but it was worth it!
Community is a key value for Benedictines. The women in my monastery have to work at living in community.
It is not easy to live day-in and day-out with thirty-five other Sisters. The same person who you can laugh and cry with one day can get on your last nerve the next day. I knew it was bad one time when another Sister informed me that my breathing was annoying her and could I please STOP!
But although living in community, like walking on stilts, takes patience and a lot of effort, the end result is always worth the trouble. That feeling of warmth one gets from a loving and supportive community is similar to the feeling of accomplishment struggling stilt-walkers get when they can finally walk on their own. In both cases, we know that our happiness is not of our own doing. In community – as in stilt-walking – we are assisted by many people whose support and encouragement help lift us higher. And we can do all of it without breaking a leg or ankle or arm or neck…I promise!