Joni Mitchell’s song “The Circle Game” as a childhood hymn in college
In his song “The Circle Game”, Joni Mitchell tells the story of a child who becomes an adult, expressing the inevitability of time and growth. It’s a popular camp song, which I had a love-hate relationship with throughout my early years. The melody was pleasant, but the chorus, which is repeated after each phase of the child’s life, had corresponding dance movements. The choreography, in which everyone participated, asked me to get up from my comfortable position in the grass. During this time, I was thinking less of “being captive on the carousel of time” – as the lyrics detailed – and more of being captive in a boring cycle of getting 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 career in the camp was touch and go. I was an anxious and fearful child who could only get on the camp bus because my twin sister was excited about the idea. I didn’t want to stay in the dust, so even though I wasn’t ready, I went to the camp. Every morning, as soon as my eyes opened in my designated bunk bed, I focused my attention on my bedside window. I kept them locked there until I spotted my manager Gabe and his dog Brooklyn as they made their way to the office for the morning management team meeting. As soon as they hit my line of sight, I catapult myself out of bed with unstoppable energy propelling myself out of the cabin. From that moment until the rest of the day, I would sit in Gabe’s office and cry.
Sometimes I was pushed to spread my wings and, dare I say it, to leave the office. I wandered aimlessly around the camp, always crying to anyone who wanted to listen to me or maybe even to myself. Although humorous now, it was a tragic sight back then. Yet in hindsight, the scene also miraculously mirrors Joni Mitchell’s portrayal of the young child: “Yesterday a child went out to wander… scared when the sky was full of thunder and in tears at a star’s fall. “
Finally, and I mean very finally, I came out of my homesickness. Keeping the pace with the protagonist of “The Circle Game”, who “has moved ten times over the seasons [and skated] over ten clear and frozen streams ”, I became extrovert and adventurous. I laughed harder than I have ever laughed with friends and slalomed every morning with the water ski team.
This summer, 10 years later, I became the program director at the camp. I found myself in charge of the planning and management of all camp activities. I attended the morning management team meetings that I held at dawn a decade earlier and ran all the evening programs that I had loved as a camper. I spoke to the early years who were crying and clinging to the desk. I organized and judged Color Wars, planned the adored July 4th, and generally followed 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 tune echoed through the calm air, not only did I connect these dots between myself and the Circle Game child, but realized that my love-hate relationship with the song still rings true. Joni’s words sounded so true but at the same time stung so poignantly as they recounted the phases of life I had walked in and out of, and the inevitability of time. I finally figured out what she meant when she called life a ‘circle game’ as I watched my own circle close in front of my eyes: where my 8 year old once sat by the fire. camp, listening to “the circle game” with homesick tears streaming down her face and a stuffed animal in hand, now sitting my current self, tears still flowing. Only this time, I had a desktop walkie-talkie strapped to my waist in exchange for my stuffed animal, and this time I cried for the amazing but painful way “the seasons go round and round, and the ponies painted rise and fall. “I cried as Joni’s words pointed out that now, at age 20, I was entering ‘the last rotating year’ of childhood. I cried as I happily stood up to perform each choir dance, the same ones that I lamented once, in order to make the most of the moment and “slide my feet to slow the circle”.
When I jumped on this bus my first year, miserable as ever, I was also unknowingly jumping in the carousel of time. And, oh, how this carousel helped and shaped me as I rode it, transforming me from an anxious child into a happy, laughing camper, into a knowledgeable and aware counselor, and finally into a confident adult who now stands in front of the camp.
Maybe I have a love-hate relationship with the song “The Circle Game”, or maybe I actually have a love-hate relationship with time. It’s a strange, beautiful and tragic concept all in one. Do we thank time for all that it solves for us and the places it brings us, or do we feel it so quickly and inevitably slipping through our fingers?
Time is an unparalleled love-hate dichotomy that I guess we all have to accept and live with. Time was essential for my healing, my learning and my transformation into who I am today, but simultaneously I wish I could go back. I wish I could tell my 8 year old not to be bothered by the choreography of the choir and just get up and enjoy the dance – just enjoy the ride before it’s over.
“We can’t go back, we can only look back where we came from and go around in circles in the circle game; If we can’t go back, we have to make the most of the moment, seize every opportunity and let the little inconveniences pass.
This year, I will be entering my sophomore year at the University of Michigan and, by almost any criteria, my first real in-person college experience. With thousands of freshmen and sophomores, I will have an almost incomprehensible array of new opportunities and experiences, whether academic, social, or extracurricular. I foresee places where we’ll be tempted to complain about the choir’s new choreography – stressful homework, new life situations, relearning how to manage in-person classes and extracurricular activities and of course, Duo Push connections. But after seeing my last circle close, I realize that every moment counts. We have to ride the painted ponies as if every ascent and descent is the last.
After doing some research, I know that despite his feeling of melancholy, Joni wanted “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 will be new dreams, maybe better dreams and a lot of things,” she says. The best isn’t over when childhood ends or when we turn 21, or any other specific time or age. And, you never know when or where a new circle may open. One of the first times Joni Mitchell never played “The Circle Game” live was here in Ann Arbor. She sang at Canterbury House, a building nestled in an alleyway on Maynard Street, now located on E. Huron Street. It was 1967, before fame, and Joni had no idea she was starting her own circle of success as she sang in the streets Who I’m About to Call Home. She was just doing her thing – enjoying her 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, take a page from Joni’s songbook: grab it. every pony ride, make the best of the chorus, and may we all pursue “new dreams, maybe better dreams and many.”
Statement correspondent Lilly Dickman can be reached at [email protected]