Seeking a Circus on the Outskirts of Sixty
David R. Weiss, February 4, 2018
It was a silly children’s book. A mix of whimsy and rhyme and rather stiff illustrations. No doubt there was a gentle deeper message intended all along, but I’m pretty sure that Robert Lopshire (the author) was not trying to map out my life. That just happened.
My copy, now with the binding starting to crack, still comes out for grandchildren on occasion. My name is neatly printed on the inside cover. First published in 1960, I suspect I got my copy of Put Me in the Zoo about five or six years later.
The story, in short (I’m sure most of you have read it; apparently it was a bestseller in the Beginner Books line) is about a creature of ambiguous pedigree—and magical spots—who meets a pair of kids and asks them repeatedly to “Put me in the zoo.” He longs for a place where he’ll belong, and he is certain the zoo, with its menagerie of well-cared for animals is the place for him.
Never mind the innocent naiveté about zoos (that’s a whole other issue), our mysterious creatures goes to great lengths—and heights—to show all the amazing things he can do with his spots as a way of demonstrating why the zoo should welcome him. He can change their color and size, indeed throw them onto other objects—even the children—all in a cheerful frenzy of self-expression. But if you read between the lines, something probably done more easily as I approach sixty, you can discern a more exhausting existential desperation to find a vocational home. Which is where my life maps onto this tale.
Fast forward about ten years to my fifteenth year. Let’s say the fall of 1975. That’s just a guess, but I think it’s close. My brother, Don, was a senior in high school and I was a sophomore. One night at supper Dad asked us (in truth, probably mostly Don, but I was included since I was just two years behind), “What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?” Parents might ask that question any number of times as their kids grow up, but the fact that this question came: over supper . . . from Dad . . . to Don . . . as he began his senior year in high school . . . gave it an added sense of seriousness.
Don responded, “I was thinking about studying pharmacy.” To which Dad (a mechanical engineer) replied with evident satisfaction, “That’s a fine field to enter. You’ll need a lot of math and science. But that’s a great choice.” (Eventually the numbers won out and Don went into accounting.) When it was my turn, I responded, thoughtfully and with near excitement, “I’d like to be a writer.” To which Dad (did I mention, he was a mechanical engineer?) replied—after a short but noted silence—“. . . Well, that would make for a . . . fine hobby. I was actually wondering what you might like to do for real work.” I don’t recall if I managed to generate a second choice. What I do recall, with searing emotional clarity, is that my first choice, my love for working with words was found wanting in Dad’s eyes.
Necessary side note: my dad and I have a very good relationship. It was a measure of the esteem I held for him that his words sent me second-guessing my own gut. And a measure of the esteem he’s come to hold for me, that he now steadfastly hopes I find better outlooks for my words.
In any event, as a result of that exchange (albeit with a plethora of other social-familial-academic forces adding their own thrust) I’ve spent the past forty-some years showing “off my spots,” all the while hoping to find my zoo, the place where I belong. Unlike the creature in my childhood book, most of my workplaces have been happy enough to have me on board. Although they’ve always either wanted to manage my spots for me or, on occasion, to tell me, “Just keep ’em in a box, while you’re on the clock.”
But I’ve never forgotten the voices of the two children who, after seeing all that he can do with his spots, finally speak the creature’s truth to him near the book’s end: “We like all the things you do. We like your spots, we like you, too. But you should not be in the zoo. No. You should NOT be in the zoo. With all the things that you can do, the circus is the place for you!”
So here I sit, on the outskirts of sixty (I just turned 58 two months ago), wondering if I will ever find my circus.
I can do a lot of things well. But the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is write. I’ve taught college classes, processed mail, done campus ministry, sold books, worked in warehouses, preached sermons, done restaurant kitchen prep, graded tests, done public speaking, organized a union, delivered groceries. All good things. All very good things to have done. But at the end of the day—in my soul, at the outskirts of sixty—they’ve all been fine hobbies to have. None of them have been my life’s real work.
It’s time to find my circus.
I may still teach a class or two, and I hope to go on delivering groceries, but with the sun now on its noticeable westward trek in my life, if I’m going actually write—my own words, my own stories, my own thoughts, my own agenda—it’s now. Or never. And I’d rather it be now.
Foolishly perhaps, but honestly, too, I actually believe that the words waiting patiently (no, impatiently!) inside me all these years matter to more than just me. I say that partly based on people’s responses to the words that have managed to find their way out over the years. And partly based on the existential restlessness that tells me I’ve only just scratched the surface. And partly based on the still mostly innocent eyes of my grandchildren, for whose future I truly believe I have some things say.
I’m participating in a 4-month seminar at United Theological Seminary right now. Not quite a circus, but getting closer. It’s aimed at fifty-five-plus folks looking to reimagine where they fit in the workforce (or perhaps the volunteer-force if they’re retired). A chance to ask some piercing questions in the good company of others. I don’t know where it will lead.
Except that after thirty-five years of non-career mostly part-time work in a variety of fields, I’m done with zoos. I’m going to write (and gather together the things I’ve already written over the years). I’m going to write. If it’s the last thing I do. On my terms. After my own heart. Believing it will matter for us all.
I’m going to find my circus. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll see you sitting ringside someday.
David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”