The bearded man with the gray ponytail sits at a table, alone and looking like he wants to keep it that way. When he speaks, it's to talk about a time in his youth when he decided "I should not befriend new people, because they're likely to die." Even now, he goes on to say, "I still don't get too close to many people."
Flash forward to another scene. Same man, same beard and ponytail, tattoos visible on his forearms, but now he's prancing around in a red tutu over striped pants, sporting a red nose, a pink ball cap and an oversized, polka-dot tie and yukking it up with a gaggle of kids and a bunch of other burly guys who are just as outlandishly attired.
What accounts for the shift between scenes? The man in the red tutu is 71-year-old Vietnam veteran Mike O'Connor, who summoned a different kind of bravery to take part in an experiment in humanitarian clowning, traveling to Guatemala with a group of other veterans to spread smiles in hospitals and orphanages. In the process, he and the other Vets stepped out of the "suffer zone" into a more playful, loving space.
Clownvets, a program of physician Patch Adams's Gesundheit! Institute, is the subject of a documentary film-in-progress, and in a bit I'll tell you how you can help the filmmakers finish, distribute and promote the film.
But first, a bit of background. I first heard about the Clownvets project from my neighbor Mark Kane, a licensed psychologist who has seen from his work with veterans how trauma affects the mind, body and spirit. In fact, it was Mark's exposure to Vietnam veterans as a conscientious objector working with the American Friends Service Committee years ago that prompted him to become a psychologist.
"Post-traumatic stress, in a variety of names, has been with us since the beginning of time," says Mark. "It's not really a disease like polio is . . . It's normal people reacting normally to very un-normal circumstances."
Statistics on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are sobering. In the U.S., more than twenty Veterans commit suicide daily. Many more experience physical and psychological symptoms that ripple out to affect their families and communities. As a step toward relieving some of that suffering, Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute came up with the idea of introducing Vets to humanitarian clowning.
Known for his work with warriors experiencing PTSD, Mark was asked to help recruit Vets for the Gesundheit! project. All he knew about Patch Adams at the time was that Robin Williams had depicted him in the eponymous 1998 movie, but Mark quickly learned more about the clowning physician and got onboard with the project.
Getting Vets into tutus and rainbow wigs isn't as crazy an idea as it may seem. The nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute bases its holistic brand of medical care on the notion that the health of the individual is closely tied to the health of the family, community, society and world. A leader in the development of therapeutic clowning, Gesundheit! has been sending trained volunteers around the world since 1985 to clown in healthcare settings and distressed communities. They soon learned that it wasn't only the people on the receiving end who benefited from silliness and "spontaneous, interactive play." The clowns themselves—even those who'd started out depressed—came home happy.
In 2015, the first cohort of Clownvets traveled to Guatemala, and the experience was transformative.
"They saw that they could be part of the solution, instead of causing devastation," says Mark. In the film, several of the Vets, including Mike O'Connor, reflect on the experience.
"I never thought that I would interact with people the way that I did," Mike says. "It's probably a good thing for me, because I do like to isolate, and I couldn't there. It brought me a little bit out of my shell and helped me to interact with people once I got back home."
When the first group of Clownvets returned, they helped recruit volunteers for a second trip in 2016.
That's when Chilean filmmaker Esteban Rojas, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Gesundheit! Institute, got involved. What Esteban saw "blew his mind," to quote from an online write-up about the project. "Listening to their life stories, hearing the horrors that they went through, but also seeing how their faces changed while trying the clowning, convinced him that this story needed to be told."
A month later, Esteban traveled to West Michigan to film Mark and some of the Vets in their daily lives and interview them about their experiences. Mark took on the role of producer and has been working closely with Esteban, co-editor Luis Bahamondes, and executive producers Charlotte Huggins and John Glick on the film, which includes material filmed by a different camera crew on the 2015 Veterans clown trip. Veteran Mike O'Connor has signed on to the film project as a consultant.
Another friend of ours, Eldon Howe, is also involved with the film. In his day job, Eldon is owner of Howe Construction, a company that builds ecology-based, disaster-resistant homes all over the world. But he's also a talented singer-songwriter who expresses himself musically through guitar compositions. Some of his music is included in the film's soundtrack—the perfect accompaniment to footage of our West Michigan environs.
I had a chance to view an early version of the film, and to say I was impressed and moved is a huge understatement. Though I had talked with Mark on many occasions about the Clownvets project, I never quite grasped the enormity of its impact until I saw on screen how the Vets and the people with whom they interacted were lifted up through clowning.
Wearing silly hats, splashy costumes and of course, red noses, the Clownvets and Gesundheit! staffers gently coax smiles out of children and adults who are living with serious physical and emotional conditions. They hold hands, play with puppets and blow bubbles and kisses.
As Mark puts it, "the red nose works as an excuse to connect these men and women with love, compassion, laughter and friendship, things that for these heroes seemed forgotten."
"Clownvets" is well on its way to becoming a high-quality, 90-minute feature film, but it has hit a roadblock. Funding has run out, yet there's still more work to be done: filming additional scenes and interviews, finishing the editing, tending to other technical details.
That's where you can help. First, view the movie trailer here. Then, please consider making a donation in support of the project. Visit the Gesundheit! Institute's "Donate" page, and under the heading "How would you like to support our work?" select "Support the Veterans Clown Trip Film Project."
You're also invited see a preview of the film and meet some Clownvets in person at a "Fun-Raiser" this Friday, November 17, 6-10 p.m., at Ferris State University's University Center, 805 Campus Drive, Big Rapids.
Short of cash? Too far from Big Rapids to make the preview? You can still help by spreading the word about this project on social media. The Clownvets will reward you with a slew of heartfelt smiles, and maybe they'll even blow you a kiss.
* Photos: Gesundheit! Institute
This month's collection of wisdom is a mixed bag, a reflection of what I've been thinking and doing since we returned from vacation. First came the obsessing over all the things I needed and wanted to catch up on, then the realization that I didn't need to do them all at once. When I settled down enough to set priorities, it was with a renewed commitment to my creative projects, both ongoing and new.
I also spent some time reflecting on our travels and on the benefits of travel in general. And then, because my daily at-home routine involves at least a little attention to the news of the day, I sought guidance to help me keep distressing events in perspective.
Finally, travels over and routine restored, I found comfort in being right where I am, right now.
We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.
-- Etty Hillesum
I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.
-- Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave
Work is love made visible.
-- Ama Ata Aidoo
We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist's vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.
-- Mary Catherine Bateson
You throw an anchor into the future you want to build, and you pull yourself along by the chain.
-- John O'Neal
The more I traveled, the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.
-- Shirley MacLaine
We say, "Seeing is believing," but actually . . . we are all much better at believing than at seeing. In fact, we are seeing what we believe nearly all the time and only occasionally seeing what we can't believe.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.
-- Baruch Spinoza
Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is stay home, so we can learn the names of the plants and animals around us; so that we can begin to know what tradition we're part of.
-- Terry Tempest Williams
The little things? The little moments? They aren't little.
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn
What's on your mind as this month draws to an end?
While I'm taking a break for relaxation and recreation, I've invited some of my fellow bloggers to fill in with guest posts. This week's is from scientist and author Mark L. Winston, who blogs at The Hive. Mark's story takes place in a scientific setting, but I think you'll agree that the underlying message applies to all sorts of situations in life.
Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs
Art of any kind takes a ton of focus and mental energy. And most of us are working it in between our day jobs and family responsibilities. But in today’s world, writers must also market themselves, and that’s like adding on a third job. Marketing takes a ton of time and education, and so we’re squeezing every second out of the day blogging and interacting on social media and running giveaways and learning about what else we need to do to promote our work.
In the midst of all those activities, we’re losing time to write. That was hard enough to find in the first place! On top of that, we’re living in a world of constant distraction. There are just so many things vying for our attention, and we often lose the battle and succumb to watching YouTube videos instead of writing (or painting or composing).
Lately, we've been taking drives through the countryside with no particular destination in mind—sometimes only for an hour or two, other times for a whole day. A couple of Sundays ago, we headed out with the vague intention of ending up somewhere around Pentwater, a lovely little village northwest of here, bordered on one side by Pentwater Lake and on another by Lake Michigan.
After driving through forests and rolling farmland, we came to Cherry Point Farm and Market and couldn't resist stopping. I'd heard about the farm—one of the oldest operating farms in Oceana County—and its lavender labyrinth. We could see from the road that the lavender was in bloom.
Many people use labyrinths for meditative walking; the spiral pattern suggests a spiritual journey or one's path in life. Lavender, with its calming scent and medicinal properties, seems a perfect fit for the design.
By the time we'd taken in the gardens, it was noonish, and breakfast had worn off. Lucky for us, lunch was available in the farm's Board Room, a pole barn paneled with barn wood and furnished with mismatched chairs and plank tables topped with charming little sand-and-stone-filled lanterns. The menu was as appealing as the setting: whitefish chowder, tomato basil soup, and a selection of sandwiches, some garnished with homemade cherry jelly or cherry mustard.
-- Jenny Han, The Summer I Turned Pretty
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames
-- Henry James
-- John Lubbock, The Use Of Life
-- Alison Croggon, The Naming
-- Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
-- Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses: The Sea of Fertility, 2
-- Roman Payne, Rooftop Soliloquy
-- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
-- E.B. White, Charlotte's Web
-- Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart
-- John Mayer
I didn't know whether to laugh or wince when I read a recent post by blogger/photographer Ruth Daly, titled "You might have a problem with photography if . . ." The post listed twenty signs that photography is taking over your life. I had to admit, quite a few items on the list applied to me.
- If you go fishing a couple of times a year when you go away to the coast, then this is an interest.
- If you go fishing a couple of times a month and maybe read a magazine or two, this is a hobby.
- If you go fishing as often as you can, read magazines and books, maybe be a part of a club and plan things around fishing, then this is a passion.
By that standard, writing is clearly a passion for me. There have been times when I've tried to do less of it, to make room for other things in my life, but writing feels so essential to my being, I have to keep coming back to it. A glance at the magazines stashed beneath my coffee table reveals that fully half of them are about writing; I belong to a writers' group; I blow my vacation budget traveling to writers' conferences; and I plan my days around my writing time. Yep, it's a passion.
Now, when I find myself getting immersed in an activity, I try not to let it interfere with the rest of my life. Which brings me back to Ruth Daly's post on photography. After reading it, I asked myself, Do I have a "problem" with photography?
-- James Carroll, novelist
-- Terry Tempest Williams, in The Open Space of Democracy
-- Sharon Rab, founder, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, quoted in Poets & Writers magazine, May/June 2017
-- Douglas Adams, author
-- Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist
-- Susan B. Anthony, social reformer and women's rights activist
-- Lin Yutang, Chinese writer and educator
-- Henri Frédéric Amiel, Swiss philosopher, poet and critic
-- Message on a Yogi Tea bag tab
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom