There’s a saying that used to be common, but has become less so, and likely will disappear from use altogether in the not too distant future. The sentiment it expresses, though, will no doubt continue, and find some newer, more culturally relevant expression. It’s a sentiment I feel regularly, to one degree or another. Today it’s especially strong. I want to run away and join the circus.
Actually, joining the circus – the archaic part of the saying – is only something I want to do if you understand the metaphor as meaning ‘do something unusual’. There was a time – likely during the Depression, and maybe earlier, too – when joining the circus had more currency, since it was something one might literally do. No one is likely to join Cirque du Soleil, for example, without first making a formal job application or going through an audition process. It would certainly be an unusual life, but you can’t just run away and join. And running away is the vital part of the expression.
Last night I went to see Rene Cormier speak about the time he ran away, and didn’t join anything at all. Instead, he spent close to four years riding his motorcycle around the world, living on not much more than $25 a day. He’s not the first to have done this. Ted Simon did it in the 70s, and again about 25 years later. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman famously did it – somewhat less extensively, but in a much shorter period of time – and made a TV show of it. Others have done it on bicycle, and even on foot. But it’s still incredibly unusual, and something most of us only dream about. Selling everything and hitting the road (and sometimes no roads at all) for several years is not something to which most are willing to commit. I think of Rush’s song, ‘Middletown Dreams’:
By every single person
Who’d be elsewhere if they could
So far so good
And life’s not unpleasant
In their little neighborhood
How often does ‘not unpleasant’ keep us from ‘extraordinary’? I think, for most of us, myself included, the answer is ‘far too often’. We all want more than ‘not unpleasant’, but for most it’s enough to hold us back from making the leap, and running way to join the circus.
But what is it that makes us want to run away? If our lives are ‘not unpleasant’, they are also, in many cases, vaguely unsatisfying. We can think of things we’d rather be doing. I remember there was an ad, years ago, for a job website that featured children saying things like, ‘When I grow up, I want to work in middle management,’ ‘I want to file. All. Day. Long,’ ‘I want to be forced into early retirement.’ The gist was that, rather than running away, we just needed better jobs to be happy staying put. Maybe that’s part of it, but how many jobs that aren’t dull as dishwater can there be? Surely not enough for everyone to have one. Not without enormous changes in the structure of our economy.
Corporate structures depend on someone having to do the tedious work. The filing. The hiring and firing. The schlepping. As the job site ad writer knew, no one dreams of doing these things as a child. No one dreams of being an insurance salesman, an office clerk, a call centre employee. Still, these things ‘need to be done’, because the way we’ve built our economy demands it.
Increasingly, even these boring jobs are relocated to places where labour is cheap. Call centres go to India or Philippines, or to economically depressed, low-minimum wage areas closer to home in some cases. Ditto manufacturing jobs. The filing is done electronically, often in an automated way. In some cases, people don’t just chuck everything and hit the road because they’ve nothing to chuck, and no means to support a more adventurous life, even one that only costs $25 a day.
I think the impulse to run away and the feeling of being stuck are largely systemic and economic in their origins. When even the boring jobs disappear, cities and towns hollow out, communities collapse. Those left behind by the economy either wish they could run, or that someone, anyone, would bring back ‘the good old days’, which likely didn’t seem nearly so good when they were the present as they do now that they’re past.
But some of us have wanted to hit the road since long before our prospects became unsatisfying. I remember in university, lo those many years ago, thinking it was all crap and that I should just drive my car to Halifax, find work on a freighter and see where it took me. I didn’t do it, mainly because I had no savings to speak of, having spent them on tuition and maintaining my truly awful car, which never would have made it to Winnipeg, much less Halifax.
I remember a co-worker I had years ago, when I worked in bookstores, had decided to chuck it all, move someplace cheap and try to become the Canadian Kerouac. He did it for a year, and then decided poverty sucked and dropped back in. Another Neil Peart quote seems appropriate here, this time from one of his books: ‘Adventures suck while you’re having them.’