The Day the Big Top Set Up Shop

THESE days, when spring weather is taking forever to come, I'm remembering the weekend last summer when the circus came to town and I took my kids to see the elephants pull up the big tent. It was early on a breezy July morning, and none of us had ever seen a circus being set up before. As experiences go, this one was sublime.

There were men in muscle shirts, of course - one with spider webs tattooed on his elbows - pounding in long iron stakes with sledge hammers. When two men hammered on the same stake, they fell into a syncopated whack-WHACK, whack-WHACK rhythm that made our scalps prickle as each man's hammer narrowly missed the other man's head. They were sweating, and it was warm, and the whole place was alive with wonderfully green, not-yet-trampled grass.

The site was a big field next to our Lilliputian local airport, and tiny planes kept taking off in magnificent defiance of gravity while the stakes were pounded firmly into the earth. I felt as uplifted, yet safely grounded, as if the show had already begun.

There was something magical in the moment and in my mood, and I tried to analyze it as the children dashed off to check out a pile of colorful blowup toys - huge crayons, pink guitars, and the like. I suppose the planes were linked, in my mind, with the amazing nature of circuses. They were doing something out of the realm of daily life, and doing it with absolute confidence. Similarly, the strong men were just so good at pounding stakes. They worked together without saying a word, unworried and graceful.

The children kept looking for the elephants, but at first all they could find were ponies, a camel, and a cotton-candy stand without any cotton candy. A man sprawled in the grass, playing with a toy poodle. I studied him, wondering what his specialty was. Could he stand on a horse as it galloped around the ring? Could he twist his body into a pretzel?

But the kids wanted elephants. We found a tractor trailer with goats in a loft high above our heads. They peered down at us, smelling and sounding very goatlike. Several men were stretching an awning out from the side of the trailer. It provided such a deep shade that it was hard to tell what was poking out between wooden bars.

"The elephant's trunk!" my daughter cried. We hurried over. The tip of the trunk, pinkish and flexible, moved over the side of the trailer as sensitively as if it were reading Braille. The men removed the bars and out came two beautiful pachyderms.

Everyone clapped and cheered. The elephants were wrinkled and dusty, and their toenails were immense. They had fringed eyelashes and raggedy tails. One twirled her trunk in the long grass as if she were winding spaghetti around a fork. She stuffed a bunch into her mouth.

But she only got in two mouthfuls before harnesses were put over both elephants' heads. They strolled, in their serious way, over to the big tent. I could see that they knew exactly what they were doing. We all hushed and cleared a path. The enormous tent was spread out, ready.

I wondered, as I always do at circuses or on big sailboats, who did all the sewing. Fantastically long seams converged in red circles that would be at the top of the tent. And there were white and blue stripes and stars, all stitched together just right.

The elephants stopped at a place where the edge of the tent was propped up on short poles and pushed their way under. A tall pole lay on the ground, one end pushed into what looked like a sturdy metal box. Two men attached the chains trailing off the elephants' harnesses to the sides of the box; then the elephants plodded off slowly, pulling the base with them as the other end went up, up with the tent, until the red circle with the beautiful seams was high above our heads.

Everything was happening at once, yet no one seemed ruffled. The elephants pulled on more poles; men tied ropes; lights and wiring went up. In no time at all, the whole tent was done, the elephants' harnesses came off, and a girl of about 8 got up on one elephant and rode around as easily as if he were a giant rocking chair. ``No fair!'' my son said.

I couldn't share in his seven-year-old jealousy. How could I, surrounded by all these people and animals, terrifically good at the weirdest things, who would put on a show for us tonight?

But now, thinking back on it in the chill of early spring, maybe I can. The circus people, the regal elephants, and even the toy poodles all knew how to do whatever it was they had to do that hot summer day, and how to do it well. They had spent hours perfecting each move, whereas I am always scrambling to understand even the rudiments of computers, or how to juggle work and children. I am envious of the narrowness of their focus and the sureness of skills that comes from persistence and attention to small details.

I'd like to give myself permission to narrow my focus as well, to slow down and pay attention to details, to bring the fun and pageantry of the circus, its celebration of expertise in odd endeavors, into my daily life. Especially now, with snow still piled up, I want to remember the man with tattoos on his elbows, and the ease with which a little girl rode along, high above our heads, on the back of an elephant.

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