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Philippe Petit crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1973

We learn the rope of life by untying its knots.  -Jean Toomer

Solutions, are sometimes disguised in a complex problem. In folklore, literature, plays, and riddles, the knot has historically served as a metaphor for complicated problems at an impasse. The complexities of a knot and it’s unintelligible meanderings are much like the the tortuous circumstances we often find ourselves trying to circumnavigate in life.

We are finite beings, accepting of those “knots” for which we have the answer. The shoelaces we learned to tie in grade school …the artistic half-knotted scallion strand around a baby asparagus hors d’oeuvres bundle…the braids we wear on a summer day…a bow-tie to finish off the look of a dandy.

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We use these simple knots as solutions related to simple problems. But the more complex knots we encounter,  the more we recognize them as things that cannot be readily solved, and so we throw up our hands in frustration and walk away. We circumvent it…thinking perhaps there is another way to fix it. It’s easier to buy a new strand of lights, rather than face the horrors of that holiday ornament box amassed with tangled tree lights. It’s easier to just look for another job rather than deal with the work challenges we face. It’s a sort of “microwave mentality” that we’ve adapted to as a culture; that has diminished the skill of problem solving.

A few years ago, I attended Philippe Petit’s one-man show, Wireless, where I met Victoria Dearing. Her bright, blue eyes were full of excitement and infectious ideas, and I immediately knew she would be a friend. A few months later, she introduced me to Philippe & his partner Kathy O’Donnell. They are a powerhouse team that have become inspirational light-points in many lives, including mine.  Famed for his global, un-matched wire-walks, Philippe has spent over 40 years depending on knots for countless feats.

“I know it’s impossible, but I know I will do it!”, was his resolute exclamation at 18, and he was 24 when he indeed walked a steel cable between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Philippe walks the wire to create his art. He could care less about breaking a record, and is looking to prove nothing other than the resilience of the human spirit; to inspire others to walk that figurative wire that bridges the seemingly impossible to the tenable.

 

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Gang of Five knots, clove hitch 2nd from right

This spring, Philippe released Why Knot? , an illustrated, instructional book on knots and personal anecdotes.

I have read reviews of Why Knot? –  lauded by various publications and notable personalities for Philippe’s impeccable illustrations, the ingenious inclusion of the miniature practice rope embedded in the front cover, and for the inspirational personal narratives therein.

I agree with all of the reviews. At the same time, I’ve discovered that for me, it is not simply one of those books to casually read, practice a few knots, and fill a space on the coffee table.

I have reverted to my childhood, in a way. I have plunged my arm deep into the cereal box; up to my elbow in corn-syruped crumbles, and clumsily pulled out the decoder bracelet, in-hand. Each knot is a different lesson, mystery, and element of magic. Every illustration is another token for another life challenge – in simpler terms; giving me pause in believing that something is not possible.

 

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I received a gift necklace a few months ago. A tiny gold arrow dangles at the end of an 18″ gold chain.  At 17mm, it is feather-light and far too delicate for my boisterous ways and inclination towards graceless blunders – but it’s sweet, simple, and I love it.

I was getting ready for a dinner, recently and was about to put on the necklace when I realized that a tidy knot had formed in the wispy chain. I started to untangle what seemed to be a small knot, and realized that it was really a series of complex, minuscule knots all jumbled into one funky mess. Each maneuver I attempted in untangling the tiny links, made the knots more impenetrable and in risk of damaging the chain.

Imagine a situation in which your life depends on a series of knots. Despite the complexity of the impossibly-gnarled set of knots of my tangled necklace, I highly doubt that Philippe would have chosen it’s combination of twists to secure his cable that would span 200 feet across two buildings, and a quarter of a mile above earth. Though they would seem strong and impenetrable,  they are unstable and not secure.  But see the clove hitch: a simple, clean knot Philippe used to anchor his cable when walking across Grand Central Terminal in 1987. A simple solution, essential to a skillful venture, and critical to his safety.

After minutes of sweaty palms and un-dignified exclamations, I visualized the pages of Philippe’s book as a kind of mental support to accompany me on my task.

I slowed down, took a deep breath, and straightened myself from a tense, forward hunch. My eyes scanned over the length of the chain, and I grabbed two straight pins from my sewing box.

One, Two, Three gentle maneuvers, and the necklace was knot and tangle-free, nary a kink in-chain to be found. A tiny feat for someone who will never walk a wire, but my triumph was symbolic.

I felt as though I had learned a code to some secret enigma. Using my magic decoder guide.