“I met you on a midway at a fair last year and you stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear.” It’s one of singer, songwriter Joni Mitchell’s best lyrics from Clouds, her first album. Many of this poetic geniuses songs are woven in the soundtrack to my life.
Another one of her best lines is a little darker, from another early album, Blue. “The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68 and he told me, all romantics meet the same fate someday, cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.”
Not necessarily. Not if they join the circus.
I’ve always liked midways, and bazaars; Central American Mercado’s with their chilies and mangos and sides of beef. Brilliantly colored Mayan Indians. Jugo de Zanhonia y Queso Frito. Love the colors, textures, smells, the flies, the comedy, and the chaos. I love the circus in general but I would be one of those who’d sneak around and set the animals free. Or try to. Then end up being a sideshow spectacle myself.
One of the most extraordinary bunch of human beings I’ve ever met were with the circus.
One day when I was all of 22 years old, I was sitting alone in church watching candles flicker and enjoying the solitude in semi darkness when the door at the back of the sanctuary opened and three robed women came in on sandaled feet. Two were young and one was old and slightly bent, but still agile. I watched them move down the aisle toward the red votive candle by the tabernacle and file into the pew. They all kneeled quietly and bowed their veiled heads.
The habits were rough, light brown and extremely simple. I was used to Franciscans and Sisters of Notre Dame who, though austere in habit, still had on elaborate get ups. The starched, white cardboard boxed things on the top of their heads made them look like small cathedrals of varying shapes and sizes.
These lovely, ethereal but down to earth women had no pinched faces, no black crocodile shoes or other gothic accessories. They were just simple, very plain women; but I recognized them! They were from “The Little Sisters of Jesus,” a Catholic monastic order started by the Frenchman, Charles de Foucald.
And wonder of wonders, they had come to me, sitting in an empty church, somewhere on an ordinary Saturday in Southern California. Leaving the introductions and initial conversation, they took me with them to their small trailer home parked in a dirt lot surrounded by trucks, other trailers and rigs of various kinds. To my complete amazement and delight, they were traveling with the circus.
The thing that had attracted me to this particular order, both the Little Sisters and Little Brothers, and which sparked interest keen enough to write for information on the novitiate, was that they were given to the people they considered most marginal in whatever culture they found themselves to be: Hmong, Gypsy, Aborigine, Bedouin and in this case, American circus workers.
They didn’t preach or teach, cook or nurse as so many religious orders do. They befriended the circus people and simply lived with them wherever they went. Following the “carnies,” in their little airstream trailer. Three quiet women who knew how to love. Pitching tents and pulling up stakes several times a week, they roamed the country with their circus family; one of the most peculiar blends of transient romantics and castaways that can be assembled.
I think about the older nun a lot lately. It’s been over twenty years since that day we sat together in silence before the holy bread on the altar of their makeshift table. I don’t even remember her name but I can still see her peaceful grey eyes, neither afraid of the future nor longing for the past, but fully in the present.
I wonder how she died. I know she died happy, maybe surrounded by tearful clowns and bearded ladies; a few runaways and drug addicts.
The two other little sisters must be getting along in age now too. Maybe they are sitting in a nursing home somewhere singing “Ave Maria,” and eating fish on Fridays, but I hope not. I really hope not. No, they must still be out there, where the buffaloes roam and airstreams follow the circus all day.
Standing out like rubies in the black and blue velvet of an eternal midway.