The Circus Way of Life?


Last weekend, our family made what I called “our second annual trip to Caspian Lake.” A year ago, we spent a weekend at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, a small lakeside town in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It was the first trip we’d made as a family of six (our fourth daughter had been born two months earlier), the sun shone brightly the entire time, and the weekend left me feeling restored and hopeful. We can DO this! We can take four children to the lake and enjoy our time together!

This year, the experience was no less fun, but very different. This time, friends were with us: two parents, their combined four children, and one child’s friend. If you’re keeping track, that makes four adults and nine children in all. It rained almost the entire weekend, with the temperature never exceeding the 60s.

But thankfully, our friends had realized that Circus Smirkus was going to be in Greensboro the same weekend, and had gotten tickets for our entire group.

Circus Smirkus calls itself “Vermont’s Award-Winning International Youth Circus.” It’s the offshoot of a circus camp that’s been training children in the circus arts for 24 years; children from this camp and around the world audition to be part of a summer touring company. The 2014 troupe was composed of 30 youths, ages 10-18, who traveled around New England from June through August performing a show they’d spent three weeks putting together.

It was easily one of the best circuses I’ve ever seen. The clowns were funny, the feats of balance and coordination were impressive, and the aerialists were breathtaking. All nine children in our group, ages 1 through 12, were riveted.

Circus Smirkus is based in Greensboro, and the performance we witnessed was this summer’s final show, a sort of homecoming. At the end, the Circus Smirkus Executive Director stood to address the troupers. He exhorted them to carry the lessons of the summer — the “circus way of life” — with them wherever they went.

As we drove away, my husband grumped, “’Circus way of life?’ Why does everything have to be a ‘way of life’ these days?”

An aside: My husband did enjoy the show, which is pretty remarkable; usually he dislikes the circus. For that matter, he dislikes parades and cupcakes and just about any form of pre-planned joyful celebration. He prefers his happiness a little less showy. He aspires to become a grumpy old man.

But as I pondered his question, it occurred to me that maybe there is something to be learned from the circus, a certain “way of life” that appeals to us. Otherwise, why do people choose the circus for entertainment? Why are Circus Smirkus shows so quick to sell out? Why did I enjoy the show so much?

The story that every circus tells, it seems to me, is: What we think is impossible may just be possible. Each circus act builds upon a concept until it passes what an audience considers the “normal” limits. Toss one more ball to the juggler. Add one more person to the human chain dangling from the trapeze. Balance on the tightrope upside down. Don’t just ride your unicycle; hop on it up a series of steps – two at a time. Twist your body in ways it isn’t supposed to go.

This circus narrative appeals to me because it feels a lot like real life right now. In less glamorous, less public ways, life seems always to be asking for just a little bit more from me, until I’m teetering on the edge of the impossible. Life throws me one more baby, a dog, a husband’s business trip, houseguests, illness. And I’m supposed to manage all those things in addition to the normal everyday things, like getting out of bed in the morning and putting on clothes and making breakfast.

But the circus tells us: Yes! You can do what doesn’t seem humanly possible! Because if a human can swing from the ceiling hanging by the back of her head from a silken rope, then YOU can care for four sick children while your husband’s away!

I noticed one other thing at Circus Smirkus that I’d never noticed at any other circus: Every aerialist performing amazing feats in the air required human ballast. Each trapeze, ring, or rope that was the platform for a performer’s acrobatics was attached by a cable to a non-performing (and heavier) member of the circus company, and this person served as a counterweight, raising and lowering him- or herself in order to raise or lower the performer. They stayed in the shadows, on the sidelines, unrecognized, but the performance depended on them.

Like life, again. It’s hard to test the limits of possibility without support. When we’re hanging by a thread, there’s usually someone – more then one, if we’re lucky – holding the rope for us. If, like me, you subscribe to a higher power, you may have your people and your God keeping you aloft.

Watching Circus Smirkus, I couldn’t help but wonder: What’ll happen to these kids? What’s next for a teenager who’s supremely talented in the circus arts? My conclusion: Vegas.

But who knows? I’m not sure exactly what Circus Smirkus’s Executive Director had in mind when he referred to the “circus way of life.” Maybe he meant facepaint and unitards and ten performances a week. But maybe some of those kids will take away from their summer what I took from their performance: That the limit of what’s possible for you is probably further out than you think, especially if you have someone holding your rope.

And in between those breath-holding moments when you’re standing on your hands or keeping the balls in motion? That’s always when the clowns come in. Because when life is hard, that’s when it’s most important to remember that moments ago you were laughing, and you’ll laugh again after this act is done.


2 thoughts on “The Circus Way of Life?

  1. danielle

    Wow. Thank you so much for this post, Faith! I work for Circus Smirkus and have to tell you how personally touched I am. You absolutely get it.

    During the summer I am a counselor for those 30 kids, watching them and hugging them and driving them around and bringing them to doctors and encouraging them. Mostly, though, I’m inspired by them. You’re right – they make the impossible possible. They teach us that there is no age limit on dreams.

    What will these kids go on to do, you asked? Sure, lots of them are in Vegas (Cirque du Soleil has been hiring our alumni for a long time!). Lots of them go to Circus Colleges in Canada. Lots of them continue on the circus path as a career. But lots of them don’t. They leave circus as a hobby or passion and continue on to things like Yale, art school, teaching jobs, parenting, practicing law, street performing, music, engineering, the peace corps, graphic design… anything you can think of. But that doesn’t mean they leave the ‘circus way of life’ behind. Because at Smirkus, the circus way of life means following your passion. It means knowing how to be part of a community, a working part of the whole. It means being a strong, capable, and confident human being. The circus way of life is learning how to go with the flow, stay positive, and keep on truckin’… even when it’s 60 degrees and hailing and your costume is muddy. Even when your kids are sick and the phone is ringing and you haven’t slept in days. Even when… no, especially when, you think you can’t. Because you can!

    1. Faith

      Thank YOU, Danielle, for your comments and for being a part of those kids’ lives through Circus Smirkus! I can imagine that it’s a pretty all-consuming summer for you (I was exhausted watching just one night!), but it was clear that the performers’ lives had been permanently changed by the experience, and by interactions with counselors like yourself. Some of the Smirkus parents were staying at the Highland Lodge with our family, and from what I could see their kids were crying for DAYS after the final performance. I can only hope that my own daughters will have people like you in their lives as they grow and discover their talents and loves!

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