The Pleasures of Life Dept.
A postcard from the circus
By Ashley Wahl
The first time I heard my grandmother talk about her Uncle Joe running off with the traveling circus, I was 29 years old and in the midst of rewriting my entire future.
I didn’t know where I was going with it. And having stripped myself of nearly every role, title and attachment I’d identified with for most of my adult life, I needed time to reacquaint myself with myself. But if I knew one thing, it was this: The life I was born to live was going to require a heroic change of trajectory. I’d just initiated that. And with my grandma’s casual anecdote — I think it was over a cup of coffee — a league of dormant memories began awakening inside my cells.
My Great Grand-Uncle Joe was 14 when he joined the carnival and learned how to charm snakes. This morsel was all I had. And yet this tiny glimpse of family lore was, for me, the missing piece to an ancient puzzle.
Throughout my life, I have experienced what I can only describe as episodic bouts of nostalgia for the bizarre and fantastical. As if I’d once belonged to a troupe of prodigious misfits, and in some parallel universe, the circus train was beckoning me to come back.
Whatever you call that wild, magic spark behind all great tales of adventure — that ardent longing for a life untethered by doubt, fear or logic — it was alive inside my heart. And in that moment, for the first time in my life, I was ready to kindle it.
Let’s skip through time a bit. I’m 33 now and have, over the past few years, tried on dozens of winsome hats. Some have fit, some have not. But my life’s narrative began to crystallize when, two years ago, my fiancé Alan and I “ran off with the circus,” so to speak.
Our “circus” isn’t a menagerie of acrobats and clowns. It’s just the two of us, a small camper van, and a cargo trailer full of handmade art. We still keep our rental home in the North Carolina mountains, but if there’s a circuit of art and craft fairs in, say, Florida (winter) or Michigan (summer), we’ll take to the open road.
Last year, we spent a total of six months in transit. I wouldn’t call it glamorous living, but the van’s equipped with everything we need: a full-size bed, a roof vent fan, a 5-gallon water dispenser, sunshades for the windows, a single-burner camp stove, a portable fridge, a power inverter with enough watts to run a hair dryer or a rice cooker, and — this among our luxuries — an electric tea kettle. We’re no strangers to coin laundries or truck stop showers, and were our closets breadboxes, mine could hold four, maybe five loaves. Yet there is a freedom in this simple life worth more than gold; and as a wise friend observed during one of our quick trips home, it’s the richness of our experiences that we carry with us.
Not a day goes by on the road, for instance, that we aren’t improvising in some deliciously eccentric way, even when it comes to our most basic chores and self-care. And because life on the road demands spontaneity, a fair amount of magic happens.
Like meeting kindred souls who have welcomed us, at once, as family.
Back in November, we celebrated Thanksgiving in Florida at the table of a Vedic astrologer and his devoted wife who live just miles from the largest Hare Krishna community outside of India. In the 1960s, they told us, bored with drugs and in search of true and everlasting bliss, they hitchhiked from New York to San Francisco to meet their spiritual teacher, Bhaktivedanta Swami, and never looked back.
They must have recognized something within us — some wild, magic spark. We certainly saw it in them.
This past winter, before the pandemic sent us on the road home to Asheville, we set up our canopy tent for an art show in Sarasota, Florida, where The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus maintained its winter quarters for over 30 years. While we were there, we bought two tickets to Circus Sarasota and saw a dazzling troupe of circus artists from around the globe perform beneath a red-and-white Big Top that looked like something straight from a vintage postcard.
The performers were spectacular. Each one reminded me, in some way, how incredible it is to be human.
I thought of my Great Grand-Uncle Joe and how life is constantly gifting us with opportunities to answer our inner callings, however bizarre or fantastical they may be. It’s not always the easy path, especially at first. Yet the more we can trust that magic spark, the clearer it becomes.
Life also gifts us unexpected twists. Who knows if or when we’ll take to the open road again, for instance. But here’s the gold: Life demands spontaneity. Imagine if the trapeze swinger never dared to fly. When opportunities arise, we know what to do. That’s the spellbinding beauty of this circus called life, the greatest show on Earth.
All of this to say that I never missed the train. The circus was never outside of me, either; it was simply the road home. Thanks for the reminder, Uncle Joe. And if you’re listening beyond the veil — if you’ve got any wild stories from the carnival, I’d sure love to hear them. OH
Ashley Wahl is the former senior editor of Salt and its sister publications, PineStraw and O.Henry. She currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she’s dreaming up her next grand adventure.