When I was a kid, going to the circus was a big deal. In Winner, South Dakota, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the circus wasn’t held in a “big top.” It was in the open air at the baseball field. Since the field was lighted, it was a perfect venue for an outdoor circus, especially at night.
I remember being awed by the elephants striding across the ground with ponderous dignity, carrying beautiful women in splendid clothes. I remember watching the aerialists out over the field, high above our heads. Their costumes glittered in the lights as they swung from trapezes, twisting and twirling and flinging themselves through the air. It was breathtaking. It was beautiful. It was magical.
Then one year, when I was probably ten or eleven, for some reason the circus was held indoors. I remember walking into the Winner city auditorium with my sisters, scurrying through the crowd, almost overwhelmed by the people and the noise, and finally finding room to squeeze into one of the upper rows of the packed bleachers.
In this makeshift space, even our upper bleacher seats were like being in the front row. The elephants were only a few feet away. The aerial acts were almost at eye level. Instead of seeing the performers as remote creatures, way up in the air in the spotlights, we were up close and personal.
And I was shocked.
The elephants were still dignified. But their skin looked worn and rough, their headdresses were a little dingy, and, to put it bluntly, they smelled really awful.
The aerialists were no longer the beautiful, fairy-like flying creatures I expected. They were dreadfully ordinary, even plain. The flowing golden hair on some of the women was clearly dyed. Some of them even looked old—maybe as ancient as 40 or so. Their glamorous costumes, seen that close, didn’t look much different from swim suits. Some of them had obviously been mended. The sequins lost much of their sparkle in the everyday indoor lighting.
Even worse, I started to recognize performers from one act to the next. It was disconcerting to realize that “Madame Yvette” with her dancing poodles was the very same woman I had just seen swinging from a trapeze as part of the “Flying Santorinis.”
Without the lights and the distance, the illusion that helped make the acts so marvelous was destroyed. The reality was such a disappointment that I lost much of my childhood enthusiasm for the circus. I had seen too much of it, too close. The magic was gone.
I’ve been to a few circuses since then. I’ve enjoyed them. But I’ve never recaptured my early awe and wonder. I know too much about the reality behind the illusion.
I clearly remember the last time I went to a circus. Unbelievably, it was 25 years ago. It was the first time I met my soon-to-be stepchildren. Believe me, there were plenty of illusions involved on that occasion.
Thank goodness that, over the years, we’ve grown to know each other well enough to get past most of those illusions. It hasn’t always been an easy process. But the closer we have become, the more we have learned to value reality.
Just think about the distance it takes to maintain our illusions about other people. A couple you know slightly might seem to have a perfect marriage. Unless you get close, you have know way to know what really goes on between them. I used to see other stepfamilies who seemed to be doing everything right. As I got to know them better, I realized most of them had the same struggles and challenges that we did.
This week we enjoyed a performance of “Hairspray” by a local theatre group. The singers and dancers were graceful, energetic, and polished. Whether they were veterans or this was their first time on stage, they all looked confident and comfortable. It wasn’t until after the show, when dozens of cast members surged into the theatre lobby on a wave of adrenaline, that we could feel the nervous energy they must have been feeling. From the audience, we weren’t aware of the sweaty palms and the shaking knees.
There’s a time and place for illusion, and I greatly appreciate the many performers who put so much discipline and practice into creating illusions that we can enjoy. But I have come to appreciate even more the reality behind those illusions. Whether it’s a show, a job, or a family, the most incredible performances are the ones given by people who show up, day after day, and do what they do.
Who have the courage, the grace, and the heart to do what needs to be done—and even to make it look easy. To get up close and personal. To live with reality—even when some of its sequins are missing.
Because reality, I now know, is where the real magic happens.
I remember the circus in Winner too. I remember how many people were about as I was not accustomed to seeing so many, living out on a farm and the biggest group I saw was at a rare occasion when my dad would let us come to Dallas, where they sold the cream and eggs and got groceries.