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Clowns of the Heart
by Sondra Upham

"What am I going to do," I asked Dode, my clown seatmate on the bus, as we headed toward Villa De Los Ninos, an orphanage in Mexico run by nuns for two thousand children.

"I don't speak Spanish, and I don't know any magic tricks," I told Dode. "I've only clowned for adults at the hospital."

"Don't worry," she said, pulling on white gloves with the fingertips cut off. "All you need is to have love in your heart and to stay in clown-brain--playful and vulnerable."

As if to underscore her statement, one of the clowns up front, with yellow hair puffed like cotton candy, blew soap bubbles into the air and caught one on the tip of his nose.

"I don't know, Dode," I said. "Eight to twelve year old boys are going to be tough to please. Boys that age like action--juggling, high magic, handstands. I should know. I raised three sons."

Dode was busy rewinding her roll of stickers, red lips that when placed on a cheek, looked like a lipstick kiss, but she paused and turned to me. "You'll be fine. Focus on the boys. You don't have to do that much. Last week, at a hospital, I spent thirty minutes gently brushing the arms of a little girl in a wheel chair with my feather duster. Every time I stopped, she raised her arms to me, wanting me to start up again."

I was noticing that Dode wasn't even wearing much clown makeup--just two small circles of pink paint on her cheeks and a spot of pink on her nose whereas I had big wings of white grease paint around my eyes, hearts on my cheek, a small, heart shaped mouth--a face developed to express my clown character, Heart Throb, a face that helped me fight my new-clown jitters.

It had only been two years ago that I had first heard about caring clowns from a woman I met at a party. "What's a caring clown?" I asked.

She answered by telling me a story. Yesterday, she had visited the cancer ward of the hospital where she volunteered every Thursday, dressed as Sunflower, her clown persona. At the door of a girl named Susie, a seven-year-old she'd seen many times, she paused and, as always, asked if Susie would like a visit. The child was sitting up in her bed; head down, staring at her hands folded in her lap. She didn't answer. Without speaking, Sunflower blew soap bubbles into the room. Susie didn't lift her head; she simply turned it and looked, out of the corner of her eye, at the bubbles floating toward her.

"Come in," she said in a tired voice.

Sunflower entered slowly and said, "I can see you don't feel like playing today. Do you mind if I sit quietly on the bed for a few minutes to keep you company?"

Susie shrugged her shoulders as if to say please yourself.

Sunflower sat down and kept her promise of not talking. Gently, she began to swing her long, red and yellow, polka dotted clown shoes. She could feel Susie watching. After a few minutes, Susie scooted over to sit next to Sunflower on the side of the bed, swinging her feet in unison with the clown's.

Neither of them spoke.

And then Susie asked in a barely audible voice, "Can I wear your shoes?"

"Sure thing," Sunflower answered and took them off. Kneeling, she slipped them onto Susie's feet. Susie hopped down off the bed and trudged slowly around the room.

At last she asked, "Can I go show my friends?" and off she shuffled in long strides as if skating.

As soon as I heard that story, I asked the woman, "How can I become a caring clown?" The question surprised me because I don't think of myself as funny. If anything, I am on the serious, introspective side, and I had never wanted to be a clown. Of course, I had never imagined gentle one-to-one clowning in a hospital setting.

Nor had I, at that point, seen the movie, "Patch Adams," which is based on the life of the real Patch Adams, one of the initiators of the caring clown concept. Dode, I'd just learned, had been to Siberia with Patch's assistant on a trip similar to our Mexican trip, to visit hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes with the simple goal of bringing love and smiles.

However, being one to follow up on my instincts, that winter I searched for and found a caring clown school, attended, graduated, and spent six months making "clown rounds" with a clown mentor at our local hospital.

Now, pulling out my mirror, I dusted my painted red nose with talcum powder to keep the color from smudging if I started sweating while working with the boys.

"We're here," someone up front shouted, and all thirty of us, clowns from different parts of America, were on our feet in the aisle, heading toward the front of the bus, which was parked at the entrance to a large open air performing space. I looked out each window as I moved forward, seeing, in the performance area, long rows of boys. They were all boys, I suddenly realized, two thousand boys.

One thing was for sure, we were going to make a lively entrance; already we were warming up, playing tambourines, and bells, Maracas, kazoos, harmonicas.

But when the bus door slid open, what we heard silenced us. In soft, mostly unchanged voices, the boys were singing to us in Spanish, a melody that sounded like a love song--gentle and slow, like oars leisurely dipping into water at night. While they sang, we descended the steps of the bus and walked out among them, down long aisles created by the openings between their rows. The boys were standing, dressed in white shirts and black pants. Mouths open, eyes bright, dark hair shining in the warm sun, they sang to us from their hearts, earnestly, simply, joyfully.

When they stopped and sat back down on the floor, we split up to circulate among them, one by one. A clown friend had lent me an orange and navy striped glove. Extended by wires sewn inside, the extra long fingers ended in orange pompons. I offered my gloved hand to a boy seated on the aisle. He grinned and shook my wobbly hand in delight. As I continued down the aisle of seated boys, twenty or thirty of them shook my hand, smiling, sometimes shyly, as though I were a celebrity.

One boy, broader shouldered than his pals, winked at me and shaking my hand, pretended that he couldn't stop. Our handshake went on and on, and as I mimicked dismay at our predicament, he jumped up and began pulling me down the aisle, making me jump higher each time he pumped my hand. One whole section of boys near us began to laugh. These were not the skeptical boys I had feared. Finally, my new friend let go of my hand, gave me a "thumbs up" and sat down.

Up on the stage, the school band began to play a rock and roll song. A tall boy tapped me on the shoulder politely and pointing at my glove, raised his eyebrows, then pointed back to his hand and pantomimed putting a glove on. I nodded my head, Yes, giving him my glove.

As he slipped it on, he immediately began to dance, gyrating to the music, holding his gloved hand up above his head as if it were in charge of him. Several rows of boys started clapping, cheering him on. Laughing, he came over to me, extending his gloved hand, inviting me to dance with him in the aisle. We twirled two or three times until we broke into the Twist. I could feel the sink plunger, tied to the end of the stethoscope I was wearing, flapping back and forth, and an ear lobe popped out from under my orange wig.

He dashed off, tapped a friend on the shoulder, slid the glove onto his hand, and sure enough, his friend began a mad dance, twirling and twisting with me in the aisle. When the song ended, I stood still to catch my breath. "Without knowing it, these boys were teaching me how to stay in "clown-brain."

From all corners of the large space, I could hear bursts of laughing, or ahs, or applause as each of my clown friends played with groups of boys. One clown, in a beanie hat with a red propeller on top, was playing a tiny harmonica, no bigger than an oblong pencil eraser. In an opposite corner, a clown mimed walking a tightrope. Ahhh, some boys cried out as he wavered side to side, arms flailing. In back, boys cheered when a clown in baggy orange pants and flowered suspenders balanced a balloon on the end of his feather duster. One clown simply stood still and held a teeny umbrella high overhead. Not far from him, a clown instructed a shy-looking boy in how to spin a purple plate on a stick. Here and there boys wore red, green, yellow, pink balloon hats or red noses.

On the sidelines, I saw a few young nuns, standing by, wearing red noses one of the clowns had given them. To my surprise, they looked completely at ease in them. The band started to play quietly. At a cue from the nuns, the boys began to sing to us again in their sweet voices, and I sensed that our time together was over. Later the nuns would tell us the English words to their song:

Long live love! Long live love!
In the morning, in the afternoon
In the rain, beneath the sun
Everything reminds us that there is love.

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