In her song “The Circle Game,” Joni Mitchell tells the story of a child becoming an adult, expressing the inevitability of time and growing up. It’s a popular camp song, one with which I had a love-hate relationship throughout my early years. The melody was nice, but the chorus, which repeats after each phase of the child’s life, had corresponding dance moves. The choreography, which everyone took part in, required standing up from my comfortable position in the grass. During that time, I thought less about “being captive on the carousel of time” — as the lyrics detailed — and more about being captive in an annoying cycle of standing up and sitting down. For that reason alone, “The Circle Game” and I were touch and go.
Of course, when I was eight, my entire camp career was touch and go. I was an anxiety-ridden, fearful child who only made it onto the camp bus because my twin sister was gung-ho about the idea. I didn’t want to be left in the dust, so though I wasn’t ready, up to camp I went. Every morning, as soon as my eyes cracked open in my designated bunk bed, I glued my attention to my bedside window. I kept them locked there until I spotted my director Gabe and his dog Brooklyn on their way to the office for the Leadership Team morning meeting. As soon as they reached my line of sight, I’d catapult out of bed with unstoppable energy propelling me out of the cabin. From that moment through the rest of the day, I’d sit in Gabe’s office and cry.
Occasionally I was pushed to spread my wings and, dare I say it, leave the office. I’d wander aimlessly around camp, still crying to anyone who would listen or maybe even to myself. While humorous now, it was a tragic sight then. Yet, looking back, the scene is also miraculously reflective of Joni Mitchell’s depiction of the young child: “Yesterday a child came out to wander… fearful when the sky was full of thunder, and tearful at the falling of a star.”
Eventually, and I mean very eventually, I grew out of my homesickness. Keeping in time with the protagonist of “The Circle Game,” who “moved ten times round the seasons [and skated] over ten clear frozen streams,” I became outgoing and adventurous. I laughed harder than I’ve ever laughed with friends and slalomed every morning on the water ski team.
This summer, 10 years later, I became the program director at camp. I found myself in charge of planning and running all camp activities. I attended the Leadership Team morning meetings that I had crashed at the crack of dawn a decade earlier and led all the evening programs that I had loved as a camper. I talked to the crying, office-clinging first years. I organized and judged color wars, planned the adored Fourth of July and generally upheld the camp traditions — which, of course, included campfires and “The Circle Game.”
About a month ago, we had our last campfire of the summer. As the familiar melody echoed through the calm air, not only did I connect these dots between myself and the Circle Game child, but I realized that my love-hate relationship with the song still rang true. Joni’s words rang so true yet simultaneously stung so poignantly as they storied the phases of life I had entered and exited, and the inevitability of time. I finally understood what she meant by calling life a “Circle Game” as I watched my own circle close before my eyes: Right where my 8-year-old self once sat at the campfire, listening to “The Circle Game” with tears of homesickness trickling down her face and a stuffed animal in hand, now sat my present-day self, tears still streaming. Only this time I had an office walkie-talkie clipped to my waist in exchange for my stuffed animal, and this time I cried for the amazing yet painful way in which “the seasons go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.” I cried as Joni’s lyrics pointed out that now, at 20 years old, I was entering “the last revolving year” of childhood. I cried as I happily stood up to perform each chorus dance, the same ones I once bemoaned, in an effort to make the most of the moment and “drag my feet to slow the circle down.”
When I hopped on that bus my first year, miserable as ever, I was also unknowingly hopping on the carousel of time. And, oh, how that carousel helped me and shaped me as I rode it, transforming me from an anxious child into a happy and laughing camper, into a competent and aware counselor, and finally into the confident adult now standing before the camp.
Maybe I have a love-hate relationship with the song “The Circle Game,” or maybe, in actuality, I have a love-hate relationship with time. It’s a weird, beautiful and tragic concept all rolled into one. Do we thank time for all that it resolves for us and the places it gets us, or resent it for so quickly and inevitably slipping through our fingers?
Time is an unrivaled love-hate dichotomy that I guess we all have to accept and live with. Time was essential to my healing, learning and transformation into who I am today, but I simultaneously wish I could turn back the clock. I wish I could tell my 8-year-old self to not be annoyed about the chorus’s choreography and to just stand up and enjoy the dance — to simply take in and enjoy the ride before it was over.
“We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game;” if we can’t go back, we have to maximize the moment, seize every opportunity and let the minor inconveniences go.
This year, I’ll be entering my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, and by almost all standards, my first real, in-person college experience. I, along with thousands of incoming freshmen and sophomore students, will have an almost incomprehensible array of new opportunities and experiences, be they academic, social or extracurricular. I foresee spots where we’ll be tempted to complain about the newly shaped chorus choreography — stressful assignments, new living situations, relearning how to manage in-person classes and extracurriculars and of course, Duo Push logins. But after watching my last circle close, I realize that every moment counts. We must ride the painted ponies as if each up and down is our last.
From doing a little research, I know that despite its melancholy feel, Joni intended “The Circle Game” to be hopeful. She wrote it for Neil Young in response to his song “Sugar Mountain,” in which he laments his lost youth. With “The Circle Game,” she teaches Neil and the generations to follow that life is a series of circles.
“There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty,” she says. The best isn’t over when childhood ends or when we reach 21, or any other specific time or age. And, you never know where or when a new circle may open. One of the first times Joni Mitchell ever performed “The Circle Game” live was right here, in Ann Arbor. She sang at the Canterbury House, a building tucked into an alley off of Maynard St. now located on E. Huron St. This was in 1967, pre-stardom, and Joni had no idea she was beginning her very own circle of success as she sang from the streets that I’m about to call home. She was just doing her thing — enjoying her carousel ride. So, as we begin this school year, as we celebrate the start of a new circle, some of us in a new city, all of us in an open campus, let’s take a page out of Joni’s songbook: seize every pony ride, make the best of the chorus-choreo, and may we all pursue “new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty.”
Statement Correspondent Lilly Dickman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .