I was about halfway through Essays of E.B. White when one piece in particular, “The Ring of Time,” brought me to a halt. I had to pause and look away from the text to protect myself; it was so good it was nearly painful and I exhaled this pathetic little moan of surrender.
White describes his visit to John Ringling North’s circus in Sarasota, 1956. It’s during the off hours—he pays a dollar to visit the grounds and mosey about. Wandering into a drab building, he sees a horse in training, galloping around a ring. A teenage performer arrives for a practice run. She swings herself on and off the horse, does a few basic poses and tricks, and leaves. White sees this and in it, “the world in microcosm.” The girl wears no makeup, spare clothing, feet bare and dusty, but during this routine she embodies the artist in each of us at our most pure, potent state. He understands that “long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given.” There are no shiny bells and whistles, only the girl and her raw, masterful movement, void of performance anxiety or polish.
Have you ever been in a relationship intimate enough that they let you watch them work on what they love? Not the concert, but the jam session; not the published novel, but the passage in progress; not the main stage, but the dancer in torn leg warmers—it is exquisite. The artist is his or her most authentic self, attention pulled taut by wholehearted pursuit of the muse and nothing else. It’s exercise; a professional workout to stay sharp with enough relaxed confidence to take risks. I’ve always been fascinated by things like handwritten drafts of classic literature, ballerinas in rehearsal, legendary actors’ old audition tapes.
White watches the room’s sharp corners meld circular as energy and objects conform for a moment. The girl seems to spiral up, up in her “ring of ambition, of happiness, of youth.” There is a transitory timelessness in these rounds—always looping back to the beginning, ever intriguing, ever lasting. But time is never duped; it continues just as the earth rotates firm on its axis, returning us to sunrise but not without another day’s stubborn lines etched onto face.
Have you ridden a ring of your own? If so, then you know the feeling. You are creating and time flies, yet it seems eternal. Love for your craft is focused, satisfied, and insatiable all at once.
“It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.”
Ok true, when I was in kindergarten and we were told to choose which performer we wanted to be for our little classroom circus, I knew in the depths of my tiny chest that I was the woman standing on horseback. And true, as a child I heaved with sobs during the film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken watching blind Sonora embrace her horse. I am, perhaps, predisposed to a tender spot for White’s essay. But nevertheless, I think it speaks to that thing inside each of us, the thing that keeps us ourselves. He humbly states, “It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable, and I have failed, as I knew I would.” Failed? If anyone could have captured this concept, it would be E.B. White. I think he got it, caught firm with both hands from flying trapeze.