I take my children to the circus this weekend, for what I thought was the first time ever. Until I remember that Tony and I took the Chop once a long long time ago, before the Bump was born. I can only just vaguely recall it. The Chop remembers it better than I- it’s him that reminds me, mentioning his dad for the first time in the two weeks since he’s started Big School.
I adore the circus- I always have done. There was very little entertainment in the town where I grew up. The circus was a bi-annual highlight. I love the skill, the music, the colour and sparkles. I love the applause and the laughter. I love the smell of a heavy vinyl tent, buttery popcorn mixed with the faintest whiff of greasepaint.
I think that’s the only thing I miss about going to an animal-free circus, like this one was. Without the heady, fermenting stink of a fantasy barnyard- straw mixed with elephant dung, contrasting against the burnt sugar smell of fairy floss…. It’s not quite the same, not quite as exotic.
That’s OK. The smell is all I miss. I remember, a smoke-like apparition becoming more solid as the Chop mentions our last circus visit. There were one or two performing elephants there last time. A herded handful of sad, dusty, shaggy lions. Watching them slink through a caged entrance to the ring, looking distrusting and p*ssed off and depressed enough to be spiteful… it was just sad. I can still remember their growling, somewhat pathetic and desperate, only just audible under the pumping techno music, the sweltering stage lights of the Big Top.
“Will there be lions at this circus?” asks the Chop, and I tell him no, and explain why- it’s cruel and unnecessary and lions like to be where they can run around and play.
I’m disappointed for him, slightly, but I’m relieved as well. For my kids, for myself, for my conscious. The older I grow the less I am able to stomach the idea of seemingly proud creatures cowed and coerced before cheering, paying crowds.
And a circus is sad enough with exotic animals, really. I don’t know if it’s just me; if a traveling circus simply pings at my romantic, dark side. Maybe it’s a result of those movies I used to watch with my Gran, black and white films filled with melodrama, where beautiful women had knives thrown at their broken heart by the dashing, dark magician they assisted.
It’s possible that was it, the reason seeing a circus performance always left me somewhat pensive as a child, in ways (weltschmertz) I didn’t even understand. But I think the older I am, the more it’s the reality of a circus life that makes me sad, rather than the romanticism of it. I’ve always wanted to run away and join the circus- who hasn’t? It’s all those things I mentioned- the lights and costumes and make up. The excitement. The applause.
But then you look at the reality of it… the constant traveling. The damn hard work. Once I realised, probably in my early teens, that all the performers did double-duty before, during and after the show; working as roustabouts, ticket-takers, riggers and carnies, people-watching became my favorite element of any circus. Spotting who did what while they weren’t in the ring. And pointing it out to my fascinated, wide-eyed son today was all the awesome bits of parenting, rolled into one.
The man who released balls into a turning clown-head game for us was, in fact, the circus clown and an expert at slapstick, at mimed audience participation. The lady who sold us popcorn later appeared on stage with a troupe of trained dogs, much to my daughter’s delight. Twin acrobats showed us to our seats. And the crowd’s roving photographer- who then sold over-exposed family photos for ten dollars a pop at intermission- re-appeared at the end of the show on the Wheel Of Death. Which was one of the damn coolest, scariest circus acts I’ve ever seen.
The photos must be a new money-spinner for traveling circuses, introduced with the advent of cheap digital technology. And after watching the amateur photographer perform his day job- skipping with a rope atop a metal cylinder that’s rotating fifty foot high in the air- it was kind of difficult to say ‘no’. Of course. I guess that’s part of that sadness of it, too- with insurance and equipment and training and costumes and travel costs, would this place make a profit at all? Or be just struggling to break even?
I don’t know, and I suppose it doesn’t really matter. My kids- my son especially- loved the circus as much as I do. I watch my emotional little boy closely for signs of that same melancholy that overcomes me at the circus, and see none. Only once does he react, and that’s when a man- a dad, at the show with his wife and two small children- is called up on stage and pleasantly ridiculed by the circus clown.
“I wish that was you, Dad!!” chimes in a little girl in the row behind us… and I feel a wave of sadness and longing roll of my son, who snuggles in closer to my side.
But that’s OK. It’s nothing like the huge, gaping hole of a year ago; when we felt the absence of a fourth person in our family like a missing limb. Today, we did the circus. Just the three of us. And it was fun. It never occurred to me, at any point, that I needed another pair of hands, that it was just too difficult to do this by myself.
We are family, and today we went out like families should.
Just we three. And that’s just fine.