There’s a chance –a really good chance –that I may be too old for the circus.
I know, I know. Shame on me, but as much as the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus fascinates me, I find my heart racing for more reasons than just the magic.
Before the self-professed Greatest Show on Earth even starts, I am hurting. One of the more unusual symptoms of Lyme disease is sensory alterations. I’m one of the lucky ones who experiences hyper-sensitivity to smells, sounds, textures, and light. As hundreds of kids pack the arena for the pre-show activities, my body buzzes with overload.
The laughter and squeals of exuberant children cannot drown out the sound of people munching their popcorn or the bellows for more cotton candy. The soles of my shoes feel repugnant, the stickiness of the floors causing tightness in my chest. The lights are too bright, and a dull pain begins in my head. My right eye droops from the weight of it all. I sit three rows from the stage and will myself to breathe, to get through this. Lyme will not take this from us. It has stolen enough.
The children are ushered off and the show begins. The pain ebbs and my heart slows as I’m able to concentrate on the performances.
After the opening hoopla, a huge steel ball is erected in the center of the stage. First four, then five motorcycle riders crisscross one another in the Cage of Courage, accelerating to sixty miles per hour while at times merely four inches apart. I’m not making this up. It really happened. It should’ve been called the freaking Ball of Death.
As my kids gaze at this marvel, impressed and delighted, I feel a wave of nausea, certain that, right before our eyes, the sixteen-foot-wide Globe of Steel will become a tangle of blood and fractured limbs. It is amazing, just as the ringmaster has promised, but more than that, it is completely unnerving.
Izzi, my normally empathic one, is entranced by the show. I whisper, “Izzi, I think this is making Mommy sick.” Without blinking, she replies, “Well, go throw up, but come back quick because this is awesome!”
The whirling continues. Now seven motorcycles. Engines rev and exhaust fumes fill the air. Ultimately eight riders, the last a dark-haired young woman, clad in pink. Pink helmet, pink uniform, pink motorcycle. She reminds me of the pink Power Ranger.
I wonder what makes such a beautiful girl decide to risk her life this way. And good Lord, why did I pay a pretty good chunk of money to let my children witness the gore that is inevitably coming?
I hold my breath and tell myself not be to be sick. Somehow, the riders manage to defy death, and there is no crash. No blood and gore. I exhale.
Until the big cats enter the arena. Lions, tigers and …leopards. Oh my.
These massive felines are at once hypnotizing. Their trainer unmistakeably trusts them, puckering his lips for one of the tigers to “give him a kiss.” Yes, his face was in the towering animal’s mouth. He persuades a hefty lion to pose on a stool, stand only on his hind legs, and then wrap him up in an heartwarming hug.
One lioness, who he affectionately calls Princess, is being difficult. With every command or flick of the whip, she growls, low and angry, baring her three-inch incisors. Princess obviously is not having a good day.
My thoughts go something like this.
Oh no. That cat is going to attack the trainer.
Is the cage secure enough to keep that lion from getting to us? Are we safe?
How will I explain it to my children when Princess decides to chew her trainer’s face off??
But Princess makes it through her act, and I breathe a sigh of relief for both us. Clowns lighten the mood. They’re amusing, theatrical, and harmless. Obviously, I don’t have a fear of clowns.
Next, the acrobats steal the show. Their strength and balance are worthy of our admiration. One dainty gymnast in particular twirls with such grace, such beauty. She makes every movement look easy. Fluid.
I speculate at how many times she fell before she finally mastered that move. I suspect there is a lesson in this, too. Keep going. Keep trying. Never give up. If you work really hard, you might be lucky enough to …. join the circus.
Hmmm. Maybe I’ll skip that motivational speech on our drive home.
But all things are possible at the circus. We see creatures that had only lived in our imaginations or in Disney movies. A pegasus. A unicorn. A wooly mammoth.
Who woke up one day and thought it would be really cool to design a costume for an elephant? Even more impressive than that, who is the unlucky sap who has to outfit that beast during each performance? Think about how difficult a 25-pound toddler can be to dress. If that toddler doesn’t want to wear socks, his 25 pounds feels more like one hundred as you attempt to cram his limp foot into them. Imagine that same tussle with a 14,000-pound elephant. Yikes!
And, yes, the mom in me examined exit strategies in the event that an elephant decided to storm out of the arena and into our seats. I can’t escape the fear. I see danger everywhere.
As if the performances haven’t been proof enough of that, the next act is called The Dead-Man Drag. Seriously. A man hooks one foot to the saddle and allows a horse, galloping at over 25 miles per hour, to drag him, his head just inches from the ground. To me, this is the worst-case scenario to horseback riding, but to him, this is just another day on the job.
Again, the performer eludes certain death and the audience cheers enthusiastically.
There is a surrealism to the circus. It is spellbinding. Magical. It is perfectly choreographed chaos. From chihuahuas to elephants, the animals are well trained. Their handlers manage to get them to jump through hoops and do summersaults, yet I can’t manage to train my two teenagers to turn their dirty socks right side out.
Okay, if I’m being honest, I can’t even get them to put the darn socks in the laundry hamper. Maybe I need to carry around a whip. Or a slab of meat.
I realize that the basic difference between my life and the circus is the choreography. Both are total chaos; the circus has simply perfected the dance. Each performance creates the illusion of magic.
Is this what draws us in? The escape from a harsh world into one where 18 people can ride two bicycles at once. It’s all completely unbelievable, yet that is what makes it stimulating, right? The death-defying acts, the mythical creatures, the amazing acrobats –it creates awe and fear, which makes our hearts race.
After all, nothing makes you feel more alive than the fear of not being alive.
Maybe that’s why today I feel more trepidation than intoxication.
Last November, I was pretty sure I was going to die. So sure, in fact, that I had a living will and medical power of attorney drawn up. I felt an overwhelming need to get everything in order. To leave behind no mess, no heartbreaking scavenger hunt for my loved ones to figure out. I had to organize my life, just in case.
Snow fell and treatment continued. By February, I wanted to die. Death felt easier than being alive, than being sick every single day, than having constant pain. Don’t misunderstand. I was not suicidal, and I did not want to leave my family. But the pain had worn me down. At just 37 years old, I felt ready. I began to understand why most elderly people seem “okay” with dying. Life becomes too painful and too lonely. You miss those already in Heaven. Death becomes a less scary and more acceptable idea when life is kicking your butt.
Now, however, almost six months into my illness, I am thankful to be alive. What’s more, I am thankful to want to be alive. Perhaps it is this new awareness of life’s value that makes the Greatest Show on Earth seem a bit scary. I can’t fathom people intentionally putting their own lives at risk while I’m sitting here fighting like hell for mine.
Or perhaps the anxiety inside me is just because everything feels too bright, too loud and too sticky.
Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
But it occurs to me that our lives are our own personal greatest shows on earth. Unlike Ringling Brothers, we don’t have choreographers or dress rehearsals. This is it. We each get one show. We are walking on our tightropes, trying to keep our balance. With sweat trickling down our foreheads, we continue to look up, smile, and give thanks that God is our safety net.
I am grateful for the circus that is my life, even without the choreography. I’m thankful to still be performing in my own Greatest and Only Show on Earth.
But I can’t help hoping for fewer death-defying acts and more clowning around after this intermission.