As best as I can recall, the circus came to the small town in the Oregon steppe where I grew up when I was about 8. It was only a one-ring circus.
I remember clearly the elephants. The huge wrinkled beasts seemed tame and friendly, and they ate hay just like all the cattle in our part of Oregon.
The circus only came once to our town, but the carnival came every year at round-up time.
The carnival was more mechanical than the circus. The merry-go-round horses were carved in wood or molded in plastic. We kids clamored to test ourselves against the Ferris Wheel and the dreaded Octopus.
Much later in life, after retirement, I went to the modern circus. There were no animals whatsoever. The modern circus, the Cirque du Soleil, is a combination of fireworks, light show, rock concert, opera and Olympic gymnastics event.
The original circus of my youth seems now like a metaphor for the original taming of the wild earth by the first humans.
The animals in the circus were tame or trained, but memories of the wild steppes of Africa still resonated in them as an ominous presence. The old circus is only a step out of the caves of our ancestors.
If the original circus is primordial, the carnival is Newtonian. In the carnival everything is reduced to laws of inertia and centrifugal force, flesh and bone replaced by gears, motors, metal, wood and plastic.
If the carnival is Newtonian, the Cirque du Soleil is Einsteinian, relativistic and quantum mechanical. Sentient particles dance about and dangle on strings of energy, jump in layers of ascension from one level of energy to another. In the modern circus the performers are in perfect simultaneous communication, like entangled helium atoms acting without regard to time or distance.
Diana Starr Cooper’s book about the circus, Night After Night, helped me to understand this. In the book she describes an interview with Ernestine Stodelle — one of the performers in the circus. “Ernestine knows all about breath, about gravity, about concentration in a shaft of light, about strength.” If this is not a description of an experience of God, I do not know what is.
The circus and the carnival are whirls and circles of light and action; but there is a longing for ascension that Marc Chagall depicts so well in his paintings.
In the circus, matter and energy are in a magical warp of time and space that distorts and bends ordinary reality. Bright trapeze angels sprout invisible wings and fly, the gravity of the ring and wheel threaten to weaken, release their grip and centrifugally fling everything into a new realm of creation. Jesus ascending to space on a beam of light would not seem strange.
The circus to me is a metaphor for the creation, and I love it.
Mel Adams is moderator at Northwest United Protestant Church and author of “Atomic Geography: A Personal History of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.” Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email email@example.com.