Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hanging Around in DC

On Sunday I went down to DC to check out an event held behind closed doors, SuspenDC.
 Twice a year people flock to DC's largest public dungeon hidden behind 2 garages to swing from rigging by sharp metal hooks pierced through their skin. Before I was allowed through I had to complete a ream of paperwork and have my photo, taken clutching my forms and ID, by some very friendly event volunteers.
 I had to laugh as I read this but fully understood their reasoning. I also had to choose a wristband color. Red meant that anyone could take my photo and white would mean that I didn't want any photos taken. I chose red. After all, I was there to take photos so should be accepting if others wanted to take any of me, not that I had any desire to take part in the main event.
I was allowed into the main hall and was immediately surprised. I had been expecting dim lights and crowds. Instead the hall was brightly lit with a scattering of about 20 people. A constant drumming was kept up by a couple of guys perched on chairs next to a table covered with more drums and other percussion instruments. A notice encouraged folks to take part. Throughout the afternoon people dropped in and out of the group, never letting the drumming cease. I would find out why shortly. Whittney asked everyone to gather round and gave all some ice to hold for a while, followed by rubbing hands together to create heat, and then we held hands with the persons either side of us. The message was that it was easier to create warmth as a community and by working together. The exercise certainly evoked a social atmosphere. He talked through the routines and rules, and also explained that the drumming creates endorphines, and thus a happy communal feel for the suspenders. I was impressed at how quickly a feeling of trust had developed within the group. So why would someone want to do this? There are many different reasons to suspend, from pure adrenaline or endorphin rush, to conquering ones fears, to trying to reach a new level spiritual consciousness and everything in between. In general, people suspend to attain some sort of "experience". Some Native American tribes have been using it for several hundred years and still use it today along with some Hindu sects. The exact dates from the Native Americans are unknown since there are no written records left by these people, just what settlers heard and saw in the late 1700's and early 1800's.  One of these rituals was performed by the Mandan, a tribe that lived in villages along the Missouri River (now North and South Dakota).  This suspension ritual was called the O-Kee-Pa, and was a rite of passage for all young men, as well as a vision quest ritual for the shaman.  This ritual was performed by piercing two hooks into the chest and two hooks into the back of a young man about to enter adult life.  This young man was then suspended for about twenty minutes to seek communion with "The Great White Spirit", under the guidance of someone who had taken the journey before called a Ka-See-Ka, or guide. 
This lady was bravely the first to fly. I didn't watch the hooks going in, I felt too much of a newbie and too intrusive. I was concerned about stepping over any lines and so held back to observe from a distance. As they started hoisting her upwards I had some serious doubts about my own stamina and for one dreadful moment thought I was going to get dizzy. I had noticed a fleeting expression of pain flicker across her face and I think it was that which effected me. But my first impression when I saw her in the air was one of incredulity and awe. This lady was a little heavier than most yet she was hanging from hooks with no skin being ripped and very little blood. I was amazed. I fell into applauding her as did everyone once her feet left the ground. She then swung from side to side,  even seeming a little dreamy as she obviously enjoyed her experience. Her suspension position is called a 'crucifixion'.
 They then let her down very gently onto a plastic covered chair where she was offered water to sip while they released the ropes from her hooks. Once she was ready she went to the table in the corner where the hooks were removed and her wounds cleaned and covered with pads. She told me later that these pads could come off that evening and the holes, which would have shrunk to small puncture pricks, could be cleaned with salt water. They would heal in a few days leaving only a tiny scar like a pimple. But for the rest of the evening, the pads were proudly displayed, like a trophy.
 This guy had been watching with his girlfriend and without hesitation stepped up for his first time, choosing the 'suicide' suspension with 4 hooks in his back. Again I couldn't watch the piercing process closely but he was very brave and chatty throughout and stood up afterwards as though he did this on a regular basis.
 These pieces of material are for anyone to write prayers or thoughts on. The first lady had a handful of these and focused on releasing bad thoughts during her suspension, releasing each one as she worked through them. I've blurred some of the people out in respect for their wrist bands which indicated they didn't want to be in photos.
 It seems that their fear is at its strongest as their feet leave the ground for the first time and once airborne they do actually enjoy the sensation. They swing for about 20 minutes, either rocking themselves or being pushed back and forth by the aides who are constantly watching them, their wounds, and mopping any stray trickles of blood. Then it's almost suddenly that they've had enough and want to return to the ground. The staff were on hand immediately, strong, careful hands easing them down on to the chair. I have to say that all the procedures were carried out with meticulous consideration and every piece of equipment was thoroughly sanitized, even the ropes being completely replaced after each use.
 And so the next one stepped up, another 'suicide' suspension, and he even struck some poses for his girlfriend shooting photos. When asked what he thought of his flight, he grinned hugely and said, 'Awesome, just awesome!'
And after that, Lady Number 2, for another 'suicide'. This time, the suspendee felt the need to feel freer than usual and went topless. Whatever butters yer biscuit, anything goes here, and no one batted an eyelid.
 Here, she's being walked slowly back and forth, each time being raised a little, all done in her own time and at her own speed.
She seemed to really enjoy her flight and was up for longer than 20 minutes. Leaving her in her dreamy world, I walked away, distracted by Whittney and his crew who had dragged over a large table covered in white cloths. I had spotted some glinting coming from a tray and went to investigate. He had shiny hooks ready for his next flyer and I felt comfortable enough now to step up to the front and really look at the routine closely. The lady who had been the first suspension of the day stood next to me taking photos of her friend and offering moral support. Her friend had flown 6 times previously and seemed more than ready for her 7th, the Superwoman position.
I watched as Whittney prepared the hooks and then clenched her flesh firmly on her back, getting her to regulate her breathing, and then piercing as she breathed out. These hooks are 1/4 inch thick and he almost had to wrench it through her skin.I really don't know how she didn't leap off the table and sprint out of the room; nothing could induce me to go through that. But she did go through it, 10 hooks were inserted, and she only seemed a little uncomfortable throughout.
When she stood up I noticed her necklace, made with 2 hooks.
And then it was laying back down on the table to get attached to the rigging.
And she was lifted a little bit at a time.
Her hooks were checked and then she was ready to fly.
She was still enjoying her flight when I decided to leave. This had been an amazing afternoon and I was grateful that these folks had let me into their world with so much trust and so little reservation. I left in awe and with respect for the group but knowing that I could never experience their method of flight. My wings would remain firmly tucked in.
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