This is the takeaway that played over and over in my mind as we drove home from our annual trip to the circus last week. For the first time, we were front and center, just inches from the acts. We were in reach-out-and-touch-the-pony-as-it-passes range.
And it changed my entire experience.
We were close enough that nylons had lines, make up had smudges, costumes were pilled with lint. We were close enough that in-between acts, when they came to sweep clear the floor, bits of dirt and sawdust flew up and bounced off of my cheeks.
We were close enough, that the illusion was broken. This wasn’t magic and mystery and glittering perfection. It was body sweat and meticulously combed eyebrows. It was normal, soft, imperfect people, pressed into sequins and skin-tight costumes, people who dropped balls while juggling, people who missed catching their partner in a trapeze exchange. It was a tent full of well-trained, well-rehearsed people, all with the potential to fall. And some who did.
A pair of brothers from a long family line of circus performers took the ring to dazzle us with their fancy footwork. One laid back in a chair, with his feet up in the air, while the other, the more slender one, would glide across the ring and gracefully jump to balance on his brother’s feet. From there, he was spun, twirled, tossed upward, and at one point landed standing upright (on his brother’s feet) and so on and so forth.
But, there was a moment when, being close enough to see their eye contact, I watched their faces and not their tricks. I watched the man laying down, focused intently on his brother laying straight out across him in the air, up on his feet. I saw their locked gaze, counting breaths, counting moments until the push-off. And then I saw their gaze falter, if for only a second. The trick failed.
The brother fell.
On the ride home, I thought of how true that is, as a metaphor. How two people can be intensely focusing on performing as one, carefully attempting to balance one another’s weight, twitching their muscles every so slightly so as to shift, to accommodate, to try and hold onto the mystifying act, if only long enough for the applause. Two people can both be committed and in the moment together, and it can still fall apart.
After the fall, the brothers looked at each other, looked at the audience, acknowledged their fault. One pointed, teasingly, to the other, assigning blame for the mishap. The band restarted the music, as if to encourage them to try again. They attempted the trick a second time.
He fell. Again.
We applauded their efforts, but this time the music only moved forward, ushering them to let that trick go. When they were finished, they exited together and froze in a back to back pose, the spotlight glinting from their shiny hair to the teeth to the sparkles on their tights. Clapping and hoots and cheers fell around them.
But, all I saw was the sawdust, the grooves in the ground where their feet had just jumped and landed. All I saw were two people who had a bad day at work, and knew it, but had to smile for the people anyway.
And I thought, isn’t that just how so much of this life that we create, really is? Don’t we all prefer to put on the perfect show, to smile for the cameras and keep everyone else back at a far enough distance that they don’t see the nitty-gritty?
Online, in mothering and parenting blogs, in the unobtainable realm of Pinterest, in the Facebook world of posting our next great accomplishments? Don’t we all just prefer to be seen…from the nosebleeds, where the spectacle is everything, and no one knows why you’re sparkling, only that you glow?
When you’re far enough back to see the spectacle, a marriage is awe inspiring and beautiful. It’s a bride in white, it’s a perfect sunset kiss. It’s a couple who never seems to fight, and who raise well behaved children who are far more advanced than yours. They work together in tandem. Oh, what an effortless, flawless, beautiful existence.
But, once you’re close enough to see the gritty details, it’s, well, just the same as your own house, your own relationship. It’s the cutting of toenails and the snoring through the night. It’s the cluttered garage and the mess in the minivan. It’s all a desperate attempt to maintain eye-contact, to stay focused, to perform well…when we’re all just one muscle twitch away from a fall.
We all have snags in our nylons. I see the lint.
And, I’m far more fascinated by what comes next. What happens when the music keeps ushering you forward, in the wake of a fall? What happens when your partner twitches and you’re left to face a world of spectators, who all seem to be looking in and expecting shiny happiness?
What happens when you fall?
I know that I, personally, am losing my sequins left and right and I’m dropping the ball, all day long – as a friend, as a mother, as a wife.
And I have to wonder, if in the real life, the one that happens after the spotlight goes out, when computers are put away and social media isn’t blinking at us from our cellphones – if the cliche Happily Ever After may better be changed to, Try and Try Again (and Again) – even if no one is watching. Even if the music stops and you have to go forward in silence.
Because, we all fall. Eventually.
The only real magic, ever, is in what comes next.