Monday, January 16, 2017

Behind the greasepaint

Clowns are pegs on which the circus is hung. - P. T. Barnum.

We walked down Clown Alley after the circus performance. Trunks scattered the area. Trunks full of oversized shoes, brightly colored wigs, bow ties and ruffly collars. Clowns were changing from clown to selves once more. The children marveled. Wow, we got to go down clown alley to see the back side of the circus.

I sat in a front row seat above the circus floor. The student I had brought to sample an audition for Clown College was surrounded by Ringling Brothers' clowns. A couple of clowns, Tuba and Tommy, wandered over and kept me company. I was a bystander loving every minute of this wonderful atmosphere. It came time for the auditionees to show their stuff. A clown would set up the scene then work with the applicant improvising as they went along. The auditions were complete when one of the clowns asked if I would like to try it? Well, how could I resist?! This was right down my 'alley'. The clown inside of me surfaced, and I had the time of my life. Caren did not get into clown school. I was accepted. Of course, running off to the circus was impossible with two kids to raise. And, Mom would have been horrified.

This experience brought into my life a few new friends. Scott Linker was the Little Usher clown who to this day is a dear friend. I met Tommy and Tammy, a married couple of clowns. Tuba went on to be Ronald McDonald in commercials. Scott took me onto the circus train to see how he lived. Small compartments lined the hallway. His compartment was tiny. A bed and room for little else. Here was his life for most of the year as they traveled from place to place. The common toilet was so small that one could hardly turn around. This was the life of a circus performer. Elephants, lions, horses all had a place on this train. Children traveled with their families and most performed as well. A world removed from the rest of us. Unusual and strange to me, yet it spoke to the child in me. I wanted to run away with the circus.

Aunt Bess gave last dolls to the Loxley girls. Peg and June were given lovely dolls. I got an Emmett Kelly, Willie the Clown, doll. A sad faced, weary clown dressed in rags with a derby on his bald head. When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by Mr. Kelly. The way he conveyed emotions without saying a word spoke to the silent child in me. I understood him. He understood me. Aunt Bess gave me the best doll of all.

Now the tent comes down. We who are blessed to have experienced the thrill of the circus will pass on the memories to future generations. We will tell of the smell of the circus. The excitement of walking into that big, white tent. For me, it was the day the Little Usher played to me as I sat with my children in the stands. My heart was won over and has stayed there ever since.

I did not go to clown college. I did some Christian clowning. I discovered what it was like to be behind that white face. One of the most powerful experiences I ever had was praying alone with another clown in an empty sanctuary. Behind the white face, I felt my very soul. I finally understood the clown.

To my clown friends: Thank you, thank you, thank you. To my children: Remember what we were given. To my grandchildren: Come here. Let me tell you a story. A wonderful story about a circus.

Truth will answer

The masks we wear. Yes, we all have them. We put them on when we leave the house. We put them on when we are trying to train the child. We put them on to please our partners and families. We wear them well, because they shield us from change, from truth, from exposure.

It was 1977. I packed my toddlers into the car and drove to my estranged husband's temporary dwelling. The kids were thrilled to see Daddy. I was not so thrilled, but his car was in the shop, and he needed a ride to work. We pulled up in front of the building, dropping him off. Before we pulled away from the curb, we saw him walk into the building with his girlfriend. I share this because we wear masks.

For many years, I wore the mask of a dutiful wife and mother. I tried my best in this new residence in Wisconsin to blend in and accept the change. I wore my best face and cried when no one was looking. There is nothing lonelier than being in a relationship with no way out. I was a child of the past in a time when women were just beginning to step out of that old belief of the little housewife. I wore a mask, an identity of the past. Yes, we all wear them. They are all different. In fact, we have a drawer full of them.

I tossed off that mask and walked away. The shy wallflower became a working woman who would offer her life to her children. My ex said he did not like the change. Well, he didn't like me much before, but, darn it, I liked me.

I have learned over the years that honesty is crucial for any relationship. Kids can see through our put-together facades. We talk differently, relate differently, keep our parental distance. They know our games. Even the little ones understand. We keep friends at arms-length and let our other half have his/her way. Kindness? Maybe. But from a woman who lived thirteen years with a heavy mask on her face, I can tell you, that truth in action is the only truth worth living.

I realize this is a fairly different column. Many of you have asked that I keep including my Grandparent's Voice. I like to think that perhaps you find some truth in my writing. Let's throw away our masks and give future generations freedom to experience, to believe, to grow into themselves. Maybe we can make a difference in this new year for ourselves and our world.

When I was a child trick-or-treating, I hid my identity behind a mask. I became someone else for a brief period of time. There was a world outside from which I was temporarily removed. The mask itched and poked me. When it was lifted off my face, fresh air whispered to the real me. It revealed a child who for a moment hid away from the world. Share the truth of yourself with other; truth will answer.