Ringling Brothers is Closing.

ringling1For a couple of years of my life, I was a professional juggler. I was part of the carnival world.

I worked with Carrie Heller's Circus Arts and Jest For Fun Productions. I was never that great a performer, but the folks I worked with were amazing - and some of the relationships that I made there literally changed my life.

To outsiders, the circus is just a few hours of entertainment. But from the inside, it is an entire culture. It connects our modern day back to an earlier era - particularly, to the Victorian era, and Vaudeville.

There were actual Ringling brothers - five of them - and they were jugglers, like me. They founded this particular circus in 1884. Imagine all the things that have changed in the world since then.

The culture of the circus is "carny" culture - short for "carnival." The carnival is the time when the world turns upside-down. Roles are reversed, and strictures loosened. People are allowed to don masks and try on new personas during the carnival. The carnival is a mixture of grease paint and dark magic.

Carny culture is a deep maze. P.T. Barnum taught us that. "There is a sucker born every minute" - but the truth is, the suckers hang around so long because they love the show. Deeper than that, they love the con. At the end of the day, people don't get upset about being tricked, so long as the story is good enough.

The carny culture is esoteric. It is built on there being insiders and outsiders. The outsiders are marks and rubes - perhaps you have heard the terms. The insiders are con artists - all of us.

We have to be. The living is itinerant, and the wages are low. The traveling show is always a site of danger, and you make your fortunes where you can. Some on the midway entice you into a rigged game. Some pick your pocket. Some gain your friendship and promise you the moon, so long as you are buying the rounds. But all of it is a long con.

To the outsider, the carnival is a child's entertainment. But from the inside, it is one of the most adult places I have ever seen - and I mean that in every sense of the world. There is no one more cynical than a clown when the makeup is off.

The parties I went to were incredible.

So for two years I traveled among these masters of the ancient art. I watched them practice and pass on the surface secrets of their trade - juggling, trapeze, Spanish web - for a fee. I also watched as they charmed and fleeced the pockets of corporate suits who were looking to be trained or entertained. But I also got to know them when the lights were dark, and the makeup was off.

I learned how to work a crowd. That served me well when I started performing shows of my own as a musician. Even more so when I was a professor, and most of all when I spent some time as a preacher.

I learned how to draw strangers out of their shells, and engage them with only a few seconds to work with. I learned that from a telephone, actually. A five foot two lady dressed as a cellular telephone, to be exact. Her face was completely covered, and using only gestures and body position, she could connect with just about anyone, and gain rapport. It was astonishing to watch.

I also learned that, when you are at a carny party and the hour grows late, and the wine has been flowing, the contortionists start to perform. That, my friends, was a sight to behold.

My church, the Catholic Church, maintains ancient traditions and protects esoteric knowledge. I suppose I am drawn to institutions that house mysteries. Like the circus, the church is a line to an ancient age. Catholicism connects us to the medieval courts of Europe - a connection that is otherwise impossible to forge in our present day.

So I am saddened by the passing of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus. There is nothing like it in the world to replace it. The bridge it offered will be torched, and its inhabitants scattered back into our world. Carnies among rubes.

The importance of the circus is that it reminds us how gullible we are. We pay a fee to be hoodwinked. The wisest of us learn the lesson. The lot of us go back again and again, simply trapped in our own gullibility, and its consequences.

The luckiest of us - and I count myself doubly lucky to be among that few - get invited behind the canvas of the tent, to learn the world underneath the world. I am thankful for the time I spent there.

Now, especially, we need reminders of how much we are suckers. We need a way to knock our heads against the fact that we cannot beat the shell game, and that the whole midway is rigged. The carny barker and the pickpocket, both, are after our nut - and they aim to get it.

Without that reminder, that taste of the pain when the fleecing comes, we might be prey to a longer con. Without the reminder, we might not spot Main Street for the Midway that it is.

Hey, Rube, drink with me. And leave a little something for the departed and the bereft. We're mourning here. A friend has passed.

Filed under: Public Religion, Stories

Leave a comment