The Shape of Our Dignity: The Music Box of Camouflaged Love

Posted inCreative Voices

I don’t recall when I was given this gift. I don’t know if it was for a birthday, Christmas, or a buying-your-love kind of thing. It was presented as if it had come from my biological father. To this day, I truly can’t tell you who actually purchased it. Nonetheless, it was given to me, and to this day the memory of it holds so much angst, longing, and loss.

I longed for acceptance from him; my biological father I knew so little about. I just wanted him to love me. I sat on our porch often, waiting for him to pick us up. My bag packed for the weekend, stuffed with all the things I wanted to show him I’d made.

He never came. He always had an excuse. Or maybe it was my mom who provided one for him. He just… never…

The gift, a music box, porcelain, shaped like a moon with a sleepy bear resting in its crescent curve, floating in a pillow of clouds. I’d spin it on its stand, winding it up to pluck the notes; its treasure hidden inside.

Its song haunts me still. I couldn’t remember if it were a classic composition or a lullaby. I remember how it made me feel. Lost. Lonely. Then loved, like a treasure, a hidden glimpse of being embraced by my father’s arms. I would cry, wind it up, play it again and again.

Like a dance in the clouds, I drifted in and out of sleep hoping that the moonlight would rescue me. As the gift had drifted into my life, so had it shattered. My sister, careless, enraged, threw something at me. My sleeping teddy bear friend broke into a thousand pieces; just like my heart.

The crumbled shards of broken promises would never again spin, like my head in the clouds. My mother tried to glue it back together. Deep were the lines across its face, shaped like tears and tattered edges. I don’t know if it was that it broke, or that he broke my heart again and again.

My mind has been numb as I recollect this memory. The fear of trigger, the sound of its music, its shape, and familiar shine. Its meaning, the meaning of what this particular object was or was not for me. All of the thoughts racing through me to find this vintage relic of my childhood. To really remember its sound. I contemplated leaving this shape to the memory, or searching incessantly for it in the universe.

I landed on finding it, to really remember it, to find out what it would feel like to play it again. The search was fruitful. The distinct object, there on the screen, plucking its notes of dis…content…ment. It was just as full of angst as I remember.

What I have unlocked from this memory has been nothing short of desperation to understand WHY? Why do these memories affect me so? Why do we connect with more triggering things than we do with the real, happy moments. I’ve taken some time to compose my thoughts on this.

I’ve spent every day since finding the music box online, listening to and reading the words of the song it played: “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim. Every version available has a slightly different delivery. Written for A Little Night Music, a musical about love, relationships, and life.

The lyrics struck me especially, as I dove deep into the meaning of the WHY?

Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air,
Where are the clowns?

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move,
Where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns?

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours
Making my entrance again with my usual flair
Sure of my lines
No one is there

Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry, my dear!
But where are the clowns
Send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns
Well, maybe next year

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Stephen Sondheim


In the story of Desiree and Fredrik, their lives ebb and flow in chaos and infidelity only to realize in the end they belong together. Their love for each other is only found in the follies of their choices and actions. There is a line in the play in which Desiree’s mother tells her granddaughter about how the summer night smiles; three times, the moon with its gaze.

“But why does it smile, Grandmother?”

“At the follies of human beings, of course. The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second, at the fools who know too little, like Desiree. And the third at the old who know too much— like me.”

I knew nothing about my youth, nor knew nothing in my youth. Was I the young then, or am I the young now? I fear I may have been the fool longer than I’d care to have been though. The fool to think that my father wanted what I wanted.

It is a passed and gone feeling to want that from him. Over the years of trying, I lost the fool. I’ve grown old in the particular relationship; knowing too much. I never knew my biological father when I was a kid. I know what type of person he is today; one who will never know of my success and happiness. He chose that option long, long ago.

We’ll revisit his character in later memories. This one, though, has been a foundational realization of many things for me. I am not my father, and I am good with that.

A few versions of this song that really struck me:
A Little Night Music (Original Broadway Cast Recording) Send in the Clowns, performed by Glynis Johns

Reprise Rarities (Vol. 3) Send in the Clowns, Frank Sinatra

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.