15 July, 2011

Send in the Clowns....or Don't

My daughter is terrified of clowns.
I found out this fact at our local June parade, which is about the biggest event going around these parts, and ostensibly hails in summertime for our rainy coastal home. For weeks prior to this event, our toddler arts group made art projects, via our local arts center, to prepare to march five blocks in the children’s parade that precedes the big parade. It was my idea to have the toddlers group be a part of the parade, as a fun, accumulative celebration of our year together making art. We tie-dyed tee shirts and painted ribbon-flags latched on to small driftwood handles attached with a fishing swivels to make them easily wave. Other members made a banner with the kids’ handprints and decorated paper hats. The kids all had homemade noisemakers. We were ready.
The night before, when I had my usual trouble getting my daughter to go to sleep, I told the tale of how we needed to rest up in order to hike down the street the next day.
“But Mama,” my girl said, “I’m so exciting to march in the parade.” She made me smile at her sweet misuse of grammar.
The morning of, miraculously sunny, we scrambled to get all our art projects together, figure out how to maneuver into the crowds, find a parking space and meet at the designated spot. My daughter jumped up and down when she saw her other tie-dyed tee-shirted friends. My husband, thankfully, was there to help carry stuff and keep an eye on my daughter among the crowd. All was going smoothly.
I turned my back to unfold the banner and set blanket into the red wagon brought to help pull stragglers. When I turned around, all I saw was the giant hole of my daughter’s screaming mouth, her twisted up face and full of fear, her eyes pouring tears. I looked pleadingly to my husband to discern what was up. “The clown,” he said, pointing.
The clown was a man, dressed in a plum-colored suit, with big reddish-pink shoes and possibly green hair. I can’t quite remember because by then my daughter was on my hip, crying, shaking all over, and pleading to go “hoooomeee.”
“Oh honey,” I said, hugging her trembling little bod, but also annoyed, and surprised, and feeling a bit frantic about trying to herd the other toddlers into the lineup for the parade. “We can’t go, sweetie. We’re supposed to march in the children’s parade.” All I could think about was how this “supposed to” was all my idea.
She would not be consoled. “I want to go,” she wailed. She buried her face into my shoulder as the clown neared to hand her a sticker, her absolute favorite thing. I just held out my hand to him.
“Apparently, she’s terrified of clowns,” I said.
The clown smiled, the normalcy of his face and possibly the stubble of his beard apparent under his makeup. “That’s okay,” he said, walking away. “She’s right to have the instinct to be afraid of a man with a fake smile.” He was so kind.
Another pair of clowns appeared, two women dressed in yellow. My daughter trembled more and I forced her to stay by handing her off to my husband’s shoulders. The parade started. Everyone cheered and whooped and clapped. I waved to people as I carried the banner supporting our local arts programs. My daughter looked suspiciously at any passerby and held her ribbon flag near her cheek like a weapon. Her eyes still watered. It was like forcing her to do the Bataan Death March and was the longest five blocks I’ve ever walked. I felt horrible and was relieved when it was finished.
At the end of the children’s parade, all the kids got a bag of goodies (read: sugar and crap), which helped appease my daughter’s suffering. I had hoped she’d want to then watch the big parade, the horses and floats and monster trucks. But she didn’t. She still wanted to “go!” We walked back down the street and saw a girl with her face painted like a butterfly, face-paint being my daughter’s second absolute favorite thing. Until we found out the face paint was in the clown tent. My daughter, now hiking through the crowds on my shoulders, said, “noooooooo!” We blew by the tent and ducked into the relatively calm, serene space of our local farmer’s market.
We convinced our daughter to at least eat a little something and my husband and I watched the parade from afar, listening to loud old rock and roll music echoing off the small buildings as flatbed trucks rolled through town. We ate lunch and bought some berries. We saw a few people and told about our daughter’s fear of clowns to explain why we weren’t watching the parade. And then we saw another tent of local teens trying to raise money for their extracurricular activities by painting faces. I asked my daughter if she’d like to get her face painted by one of the teens. She nodded happily. She sat down in the chair.
“Tell her what you want, honey,” I said, assuming she’d say a butterfly or a flower.
My daughter looked the teenager in the face and said, “I want to be a clown.”
That’s right. She got her face painted as a clown. The teenager took her time and did a great job with my daughter’s red nose, clown smile, black curved high eyebrows, the whole bit. I was amazed and told everyone how some day I would go back to teaching English and use this story as an example of what irony really is.
On the way home, my husband sat in the back seat with our daughter who asked lots of questions about clowns. “Where do clowns sleep?” “What do they wear under their costumes?” “Are there boy and girl clowns?” At home, she studied her painted face in the mirror and I wondered if she was afraid of herself. That night, exhausted from her day, she only reluctantly washed the paint off her face. I imagine she dreamed about clowns.
I’ve told this story several times in the weeks following the event. My daughter talks about it too, telling people she was at the parade but she was afraid of the clowns. We tried another parade for the Fourth of July, but my daughter heard there might be a clown and cried again to go home. That time I did just leave. Why torture her more?
I don’t really know why she’s so afraid of clowns, but the original clown was right: she’s got good instincts. As usual, my daughter teaches me much about how to live in the world. Here’s a list of the recent things I admire in my daughter.
She feels her feelings.
She doesn’t worry anyone is judging her for having her feelings. (I did sort of judge her at first, and she really doesn’t care.)
She tries to understand her feelings by dressing up as, literally embodying, the thing she fears most.
She asks questions to process and reduce her fear.
She has goals to deal with her fear. Recently, I asked her when she might want to see a clown again. She thought about it for a while, then said, “when I’m seventeen.”
And just yesterday evening, a girl in the park cried at a barking dog. Her grandmother explained the obvious by saying the girl was terrified of dogs. My daughter smiled at me and said, “I’m terrified of clowns.” And then she giggled at her fear as she swung in the swing, her blond hair shimmering like silk around her sweet little head.
We should all be so smart to deal with our fears like her.

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