I am rolling through the green lowlands of Washington, along the boggy places south of Seattle where the gray cities begin to dissolve into berry fields and forests. The train is full, but quiet: everyone seems hushed and lethagic beneath the cloud-filled skies.
Nearly three years ago, I began to notice a certain mist that had begun to seep into my life, and behind that mist lay an odd and unseen culture (see In among the mist). In this other world, only dimly and occasionally seen, were festivals of shadowy circuses, cavorting clowns, brass bands blowing their raspy notes while stiltwalkers ambled past, all rambling and tumbling together down the long road ahead of us. It was as if this alternate world was parallel with ours in time and space but perpendicular in purpose, if there was a purpose at all.
Since that time, the mist has cleared more frequently, and I have found dark paths that lead to strange and wondrous places whose residents are the ringmasters, clowns, blockheads, and jugglers, bellydancers and firedancers, milliners and clothiers, nomads and builders of occasional cities. These strange people have become acquaintances, then colleagues, then friends. It is a participatory culture, of creative anarchy and love and fire. For a few inspiring moments, hours, or days, I have found myself at a summer festival of revelers parading their alter egos, a neo-chataqua bringing a band of vaudevillians to tiny island towns, a sideshow of freaks unveiling themselves weekly at a seedy dive bar, a weekend celebration of the bellowing of brass bands. Throughout all this, I have slowly shucked off the costume of my former life, discovering a weird resonance with the garb of the antebellum age, mixed up with a little circusian flair.
I feed my alter ego well, yet he rewards me with confusion and an existential state of wonderment. Obsessions which formerly entranced me now bring only boredom and frustration. I notice cracks forming in major strata of our common civilization; they reveal themselves to be filled with nothing but shards of plastic. The smell of culture-death is all around me.
I drown my existential sorrows in the wild antics of street vaudeville and poi spinners, visit tiny mountain villages and remote islands who have cast off from the consumerist grind, stumble through late nights of burlesque cabarets, make the company of one-armed minstrels and firebreathing strippers, and join the twirling dances of those mysterious ukulele bands you find at midnight bus stops. I have become drunk on the absinthe of the past and the never-happened, becoming positively antediluvian. I happily enter these worlds beyond the mist, fragile places as they are, and soak up their slippery, floating world.
When I pass back through the mist to the modern world, I feel a great trepidation and unease: modern life seems alien, dangerous, foreboding, all too serious and worried. It’s a disconcerting reverse-culture shock. I think, as I always do, of turning around and running off with the circus. I recall the time on Orcas Island where I attended the performance of a ragtag band of traveling vaudevillians, and was mistaken for a member of the troupe. At first I wondered why, then remembered I was dressed in the multicolored kilt a friend had made for me for Oregon Country Fair. I didn’t look like the audience; I looked like a performer. It was at that moment I realized that to join the circus, I must first become the circus. I had taken my first step out from this dark and dank cave of the moderns.
After a recent weekend full of dancing to the galloping melodies of a dozen marching bands, the exit from the other world is particularly difficult. I met a dozen new friends, and learned the existence of several bubbles of possibilities heretofore unknown to me. Why am I now returning to this world of consumption, corporatism, waste, sadness, and fear? This is not where I want to live.
Ah, but like the the bear who tries to be a man, perhaps I’m mistaken: this isn’t where I live. Perhaps I am only a traveler here, an observer and visitor to this strange modern land, with a passport and a temporary visa, good until the next time the mist clears, and I can return home.