Monday, February 07, 2005

Have the Courage to Say Yes to Your Dreams

Dear Yanny,

In a week you will turn six. When you were only three, you lost your momma and are now in a boarding school in Shanghai, China. I sit in my apartment in Paris, hoping someday to help guide you into adulthood, through work, and beyond. Since we are so far apart, maybe this letter will give you a few appetizers from my heart's cupboard.

Lying in bed, your momma invited me to be your godmother. Fairy godmother would probably better define me! But your mother knew I would always be there for you.

Yanny Jacqueline Wang,
learn to say yes to your dreams. Then measure your risks, and trust serendipity to guide you.
Let me explain...

I went to college and got a degree in Music and Theatre. Everyone expected that I would then go on to graduate school and become either a composer or a professor. Wrong.

I took all my savings (from go-go dancing in a hunting lodge in upstate Vermont, and teaching flute at $5 an hour ) and took off for my dream city Paris! I was 22 years old. Within four weeks I fell madly in love with a brilliant street acrobat with a pH.D, met a theatre director who wanted to recruit me for his school, connected with a modeling agency, and started orchestrating music for cartoons at 'La Maison de la Radio.'

Four clear paths presented themselves to me: run away with the circus and make no money; go to Strasbourg and get a Masters degree in theatre; make a ton of cash modeling fancy furs and wearing high heels; or pursue a career in composing music with my first paying job. Guess what I chose? I followed my heart and joined an incredible baroque street circus. For the next ten years, from one village in France to the next, I was known as Lili Ratapuce.

I went back to the U.S. in 1980 with my newborn baby, Lailah. Again, I had no money. But within a few years, I had built a career as a freelance celebration artist, performing for the rich, the modest, and the poor. Some days I dressed up as a mermaid. Other days, I impersonated The Statue of Liberty. And on others, I wore shimmering iridescence blue wings. In the fancy hotels of Manhattan and in the schoolyards of Brooklyn, they all called me Dragonfly.
It was all wonderful! But Yanny, the work that changed my calling was becoming a clown-doctor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit. We visited hospitalized children twice a week, all year round. Some kids had life-threatening illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Others had been shot in street fights.
For three years, I grew more than I had during the rest of my life. And because attitude is so critical to wellness, I contributed to the lives of many others.
Then, I found that my dreams outgrew what I could accomplish with Big Apple. The most difficult choice I ever faced in my working life was to change things while they were still going well. I decided to reinvent what I had learned under my own vision.
I went back to Paris. Made hundreds of calls. Wrote hundreds of letters. When the first of many grants came in, my husband, Patrick, and Lailah left New York to join me.
I now direct a company of 48 performers 'Le Rire Medecin (The Laugh Doctors). We work in eleven hospitals all over the country and see over 40,000 kids a year. Twice a week, you’ll find me in a huge cancer hospital in the suburbs of Paris.
Recently, when I came back from my summer break, I discovered that we had lost 20 kids. This means that my brown-eyed Olivier, mischievous Charlotte and Pierre, the poet Shirley, the philosophical Maude, Oscar, Melanie, and Sami from Lebanon are gone. Daily, I think of their families. I will never get used to the grief I must live with, yet I have learned to accept that the work I do makes a difference in the moment. Those moments add up to minutes and then to a lifetime. If we can all still see the value of a smile, then maybe we'll all be OK.
All those moments, and all those smiles, and all those changed lives were possible because a dragonfly learned to say yes to her dreams.
You are still too young to worry about going to work and making brow-wrinkling decisions. But when you do, I will be close by. For now, let's celebrate life together. I'll be there for your first taste of champagne, and to give you a bottle of my Vetiver perfume.
Please make me laugh when I am an old clown!

I love you,


Note: Caroline Simonds is the executive & artistic director of The Le Rire Medecin, the prominent clown doctors program in France. She co-wrote "The Clown Doctor Chronicles" with Prof. Bernie Warren of the Fools for Health. She is writing to her goddaughter, Yanny.

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