The first time my Aunt Rusty ever stepped onto a high wire was in front of thousands of people at Madison Square Garden. As she climbed up the wrong pole without a clue what to do, she thought, "Holy &%$#, they were serious!"
With pride too big to refuse, she got in position with a wheel in her hands, wrapped her legs around the waist of another performer and slid out onto the 40-foot wire. (HEAR her tell that high wire story here).
That kind of courage (or foolishness as she admits) epitomizes the life of my great Aunt Rusty; a 4-foot-11, miraculous living legend in my family.
She left home at age 12, eventually joined a Wild West show, had knives thrown at her head on a rotating board and perfected trick riding on bareback, (which was her lifelong true love). She was discovered by Barnum & Bailey and toured all over the world as a lead performer in various horse troupes.
During the last 9 decades, (among her circus credits), she's been a guitar player in an all-girl band, a housewife (for two years), a skilled welder (for a Maine shipyard and the Russian Circus), and a breeder of champion Grade A racing greyhounds. Oh-- and even though she found acting really boring, she does have a cameo in the movie, The Greatest Show on Earth.
Looking at her now at age 91, she feels as solid and wild-eyed as the days when she was spun by her ankles in a Wild West Roping performance. Absolutely fearless and self-assured, she has that rare quality of believing she can do anything she sets her mind to. I didn't witness it, but I can picture her clearly when she describes doing headstands on a pole placed on an acrobat's forehead, or the time she was shot out of the cannon a little too early. (LISTEN to that funny story here.)
But what impresses me most is not her heyday of 'show biz' as she calls it; that world before TV ruled and entire towns lined the streets just to see the Big Top go up. I'm more mesmerized by the twinkle in her pale blue eyes when she talks about how wonderful life truly is; by the way she begins each day walking the full length of her neighborhood no matter how she feels; by the purpose she finds in demolition projects, in weeding, in climbing up palm trees to prune fronds. (She takes particular joy in the climbing tree part.)
Aunt Rusty proclaims she's not a 'family person' but last year, she granted me a wish she'd denied many times: I was able to sit down with her over a series of days, with a head full of questions and iPhone in hand. There are too many gems to fit into one article- but I find her wisdom as relative today as it was back in the 1950's. I also discovered the treasure of an unexpected ally; a free spirit like myself, blazing her own trail and defying labels, no matter how crazy it appears to the outside world.
(Watch a photo montage of Rusty's Circus life here.)
I'm editing the audio versions together as an archive for my family-- but more for those days when I've lost myself and need a reminder of what's really important.
Here's Rusty's advice, in her own words:
#1 Don't Be a Follower.
"Always pursue your own dreams, not anyone else's. This is key: if you're not satisfied with yourself, you're on the wrong track. Every person has one thing they're a 'genius' at. Keep trying until you find it."
#2 Always Think You're Better Than You Are.
"Get a high esteem on yourself. Think 'with my personality and my knowledge, I can do it!' Go in with that attitude because if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will either."
#3 Control Your Mind or It Will Control You.
"Always think positively. You have to train your mind. Every mental thought I have that is disturbing to me, it's disturbing my whole body. Controlling the mind is controlling yourself. Stop watching that idiot box (television), and don't believe everything you read or see. It's all just another person's opinion."
#4 As You Age, Don't Stop Working. Keep Your Body Moving.
"At this stage of my life, walking every day and working are the things that keep me alive. I believe when you get older, you have to work harder. If you stop moving your body and keeping busy, your mind stops and then everything really stops. If you don't have a purpose- everything seems to stop."
#5 Live a Life With No Regrets.
"Do what you want to do, when and how you want to do it so you don't look back later and say you wish you had. Looking back, the thing that mattered most in my life was having no regrets. Even the mistakes I made, I learned lessons."
#6. The Most Stupid Person in the World Can Teach You Something.
"No matter how brilliant you think you are, every person out there can teach you something."
#7. Always Have a Goal and Accomplish Something Every Day.
"I always did the best I could with whatever I tried to do. Life is a string of accomplishments-- for yourself. Finish what you start and do it to the best of YOUR ability. That's what gives you satisfaction within yourself. No one else can judge that- only you know if it's true."
#8 There's an Ending Point for Everything. Know When to Walk Away.
"If you know you've done everything you can do, the best you can, and it's not working out, it's time to let it go. Use the energy you have left in you for what's next. Don't waste it on something that's over."
#9. Everything Works Out for the Best.
"No matter what it is, whatever happens, it's destiny. Just live one day at a time to the fullest."
#10. There is Usually Never a 'Right' Moment.
"Do what you want to do now. Do not wait. Waiting means it will never happen. Whenever you'd decide it was the right moment, there is always going to be an excuse or reason why you don't want to do it then and eventually, you will just forget it. None of us know how much time we have left, so we should all get our act together and get it done."