What signals the beginning of summer to you? Do you wait for the calendar to tell you it’s officially begun, or do you declare it underway once you’ve planted a flat of annuals, fired up the grill, or popped open a beer on the back porch?
For me, those are all sure signs, but what really kicks off summer is the first festival of the season. Around here, that’s the Newaygo Arts & Crafts Festival, held over the Memorial holiday weekend.
Some years the festival is better than others (with my definition of “better” based on an index I derive through complex calculations weighted heavily by the ratio of actual artisans and crafters to booths occupied by gutter-guard salespeople and chiropractors).
This year, I have to say, the festival was outstanding. Not only were there lots of vendors offering interesting wares, there was also a new addition, “Let’s Art Newaygo!”, that I hope will become a regular feature of the annual celebration. This juried art show and competition showcased the work of twenty-two artists, displayed in thirteen businesses throughout Newaygo. You could think of it as a smaller-scale ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids extravaganza of the arts that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
I spent a blissful couple of hours strolling around Newaygo, checking out the works of art. Then I headed back to the River Country Chamber of Commerce booth in Brooks Park to cast my vote in the People’s Choice competition. (Read on to find out which pieces were selected by the judges and the People’s Choice voters.)
I was fascinated to see the variety of materials and techniques the artists used. There were paintings, photographs, sculptures of metal and wood, stained glass windows, and multi-media works. Several artists made creative use of recycled or repurposed materials, which added interest.
I could go on and on, but words don’t do justice, so I’ll let you take a look at more of the art. And if you’re in the Newaygo area, you don’t have to settle for pictures—the works will be on display through June 10, and printed guides to their locations are available at local businesses and libraries.
Last Saturday I celebrated an occasion I’ve never celebrated before: Independent Bookstore Day. It was so much fun I plan to put it on my calendar every year.
All around the country indie bookstores hosted special events, like the Michigan Author Jamboree my friend Janet and I attended at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague. A chilly wind just about blew us into the store, but inside by the fireplace, with warm drinks in hand, all was cozy.
The event opened with a workshop on how to present your book to prospective readers. Led by author Ingar Rudholm, the workshop offered easy-to-apply tips on quickly engaging readers and keeping their attention.
We all had a chance to practice our book pitches during the workshop. And it was a good thing we did, because after the workshop, any authors who wished to do so were given ten minutes to get up on stage and talk about their books to an audience of readers.
Following those presentations, authors signed and sold books at tables near the front of the store. Even though I won’t have books to sell until October, I took the opportunity to spread the word about Mango Rash, hand out information cards, and sign up subscribers to my newsletter, Mango Meanderings.
Beyond promoting my own book, though, I was excited to connect with other Michigan authors. It’s always interesting to hear how authors began writing and what led them to write the kinds of books they write. I also learned about Written in the Mitten, an online community of published and aspiring authors that shares information on local author events.
Most of all, I was happy to show my support for independent bookstores. These welcoming spaces are more than stores, often serving as community hubs and performance venues. They enrich their neighborhoods and boost local economies. As publishing professional Valerie Peterson noted in a 2017 article, even some well-known authors got their start at local independent booksellers. “For example,” she wrote, “Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi hosted an unknown John Grisham's first book signing event.”
So mark your calendar for the last Saturday in April 2020 and plan to celebrate next year’s Independent Bookstore Day. But don’t wait until then to celebrate independent bookstores. Visit often, and buy books!
As for me, I’m heading off tonight to Flying Bear Books for poetry night.
Born and raised in Michigan, photographer Malia Rae has returned to her roots for an exhibit at Artsplace in Fremont. Roots have an even deeper meaning for Malia, whose fine art photography stems from her love of nature.
The daughter of Sue and Al Schneider of Newaygo (Sue is one of the Monday morning yoginis, by the way), Malia has shown her work at the city-wide, international art competition ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. The Artsplace exhibit, “Photography from the Heart,” which runs through February 2, is her first in Newaygo County. A meet-the-artist reception is scheduled for Thursday, January 24, 6:00-7:30 p.m. in the Jansma Gallery at NCCA-Artsplace, 13 E. Main St., Fremont.
I’ve invited Malia here today to tell us about her work.
So much of your work is nature-inspired. How did your appreciation of nature begin, and how has it developed over the years?
It definitely started with my parents, my dad in particular, because it was his upbringing. My father’s love of nature influenced and shaped our entire family. Growing up, we spent a lot of time in the woods. We didn’t get a lot of TV time, we were always told to go outside and play. Every vacation we took, we were camping—roughing-it camping with no running water, no bathrooms, no “campsites.”
As I got into high school, I resisted and pushed against spending time in nature. I wanted to hang out with friends, go to games, and be social. In college, when I was on my own, I quickly came back to my roots, enjoying spending time adventuring in the woods. I spent 10 years in Chicago, and Lake Michigan was my saving grace. When I moved to Texas, I bought a state park pass and started spending as much time as I could in nature. It was just like coming back to myself. Then I really appreciated all the time we had spent in the woods growing up, and I had more appreciation for my parents and what they did with what they had.
Now I feel like nature is my church, where I go for sacred space.
How did photography become your life’s work?
I went to school for photography and received my BFA in Advertising Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. After graduation, I worked for other photographers, learning the ropes, assisting with everything from architecture to food photography to regattas.
Then I moved to Chicago and started shooting on my own. Around that time, all my friends in photojournalism were getting laid off from newspapers, so they started doing wedding photography as a source of income. I had assisted on a couple of weddings when I was in school, and it was horrible. Not fun. I remember saying, "I’ll never in a million years do this." But then once the photojournalists started doing it, and I started seeing the documentary-style shooting they were doing, I reconsidered.
I had been photographing dogs for fun, and for my love of them, which lead me to doing photography for PAWS Chicago—Pets Are Worth Saving. People who saw the dog photos had been asking if I ever shot weddings. Once I saw what was going on in the industry with wedding photography, I thought, “I could try this.” So in 2007, I launched my own business, and it took off from there.
On your web site, you say that you’ve been studying love for some time. Tell us more about that.
Sometimes when you’re involved in what you’re doing, you can’t see the bigger picture. There was a time when my life took some drastic turns, in terms of everything changing as fast as you can snap your fingers. Within a year after that, I began looking at things with a broader perspective, and I realized that the whole time I’d been shooting weddings, I was actually studying love. Every couple communicates differently and shows love differently, even within their families. No two couples are the same. It really showed me a more dynamic range of what it’s like to show up and love someone or be loved by someone. Love is this intangible thing, but it’s also very real. Around the time I started having a new perspective, I also began the quest of finding hearts in nature, and it started to all make sense: I’d been studying love for a really long time without even knowing I was doing it.
It’s so interesting how it all dovetails.
I never would have chosen weddings. I never set out to do them. I resisted them at first, then fell in love with them and the people they brought into my life. And it wasn’t like I set out to do this whole thing with hearts. That came about because I was so down and depressed and struggling to find my way, and I knew there was something bigger and greater, and I knew I was capable of more. I was reading human potential books, listening to interviews, and looking for direction when I came across the phrase, "What you look for in life you find." Something nudged me to explore this concept more in my life. I decided to start looking for naturally formed hearts in my daily life. Initially I couldn’t even find one heart, not one. For three months I searched desperately everywhere I went. At that point, I was thinking, “This is total BS, they are all making this stuff up, I’m going to burn all the human potential books, and stop listening to the interviews. This is not working.”
It wasn’t until I left Chicago, on the first hike I did on my own in Austin, that I found a heart-shaped leaf. When I saw it, I had chills up and down my spine. What I’d been desperately searching for, I found in this one leaf, and all of a sudden that started to change everything.
Do you find that different people respond differently to the various heart images?
Yes, for sure. Sometimes, interestingly enough, it takes people a couple of minutes and then it’s like, “Oh wow, all of these are hearts.”
At ArtPrize 2016, we had 150 heart images, and there was definitely a handful of people who came through and took a while to figure it out. But yes, different images speak to different people. That’s the beauty of it all. These hearts transcend race, religion, gender, and politics. They have the ability to speak individually to each unique heart of each viewer.
What I’ve also found since I’ve been doing this project is that a lot of people have different things show up in their lives, whether it be hearts as a symbol or something else. I met a couple who find nickels everywhere. After their daughter died really young in a hospital, they walked out and they found a nickel, and they felt it was her speaking to them. Now they find nickels everywhere. To me, that’s amazing—I’ve never found a nickel in my life.
In that way, this project has opened up a way of communicating with people who also have a sign or a symbol or something that speaks to them, letting them know they’re on the right path, they’re loved, or that there’s something more, and to keep moving forward.
What was the experience of being in ArtPrize like?
It was so fun because that was the first big installation I did with the hearts. We had a 10 x 15-foot wall, with 150 8 x 8-inch metal prints of hearts mounted to float off the wall. That was the first time when, assembling all the pieces, I felt like it was bigger than me. Once they were up, I was like “Whoa! They’re mine and I photographed them, but they almost don’t feel like mine anymore. In a large collective, they took on a life, a pulse, and a breath all their own.” The people that came and that I connected with, some of them I’m still in touch with to this day. That’s where I started to be inspired to do more installations—trying to get into hospitals and other healing environments or public spaces like airports, to send more pieces of love out into the world.
I did have a 70-piece installation in the Austin airport. That was just fantastic, too, a space with that much traffic. The pieces just take on a life of their own once they’re out there. I’m trying to find out more ways to get them out there. They keep evolving, too, as I keep moving forward with them.
Are you still finding heart images?
Yes, all the time. I mostly only post and share ones in nature, but I also find them in other places. In fact, there’s not really a place in my life that I am not finding these signs of love.
I think what’s surprising me the most now, though, is the people that find them and take a picture and send it to me. People I don’t actually know that well personally, and also other people’s kids! I had friends who were vacationing in Alaska, and their son was scouring the beach. He finally came running to them with a black, heart-shaped rock and said, “This is for Malia.” My niece and nephew, also will find them on their own and grab their parents’ phone to take a picture and send it to me.
That stuff blows my mind. It’s shocking. Because in some ways I was the anti-heart girl, and the fact that now people see a heart and associate me with it, that’s wild. It warms my heart, makes me smile, and inspires me to keep pressing on even when I’m not sure where I’m heading.
Your Soul Nature project offers a unique perspective on both human nature and Mother Nature. How did that project come about?
Even when I was back in school shooting film, I always loved alternative processes like multiple exposures—shooting one frame of film and not advancing the camera and then shooting another frame over it. I had experimented with taking parts of a human body, like somebody’s legs or knees and putting them with, say, a cactus. So I always had this idea of wanting to mix Mother Nature and human nature, but I never really had the time or resources to do much with it, and with film it was so different. When Canon came out with their Mark III cameras, it became possible to do multiple exposures in-camera. At that time I was ready for an upgrade. As soon as I got the digital camera, I started playing around with the technique.
At first I thought I could do it on projects for my client base, but that did not work out very well. So I decided, if I really want to do this, I need to take time. For one whole month I got up every single morning a couple of hours before sunrise and went out to the state park. At first I was using myself as a subject, with a self-timer. I kept testing and testing and testing. As soon as I got the first image that actually worked—that wasn’t just muddy and gray—it was like finding that first heart. It was like my whole body and soul went Yes! Let’s do this.
I haven’t really found an avenue for putting these images out in the world, so really it’s just a personal project. I’ve always said if I could paint, I would. But for some reason I chose a camera as my medium, so I manipulate the camera to do what I would if I could paint or draw. By layering human figures into these natural settings, it’s my attempt to convey the mystical experience I have when I go into the woods.
Even when I think I have the process “figured out,” it’s always surprising me. I expect things to layer up certain ways, and then they come out totally different and it surprise me. I feel like I’m collaborating with Mother Nature. A lot of what’s involved is me just showing up. And then having the courage to ask people to come out to be photographed—that interaction with people is a vulnerable space for me.
Sometimes I have an idea that I think will work, and it might take over a year to actually make it all come together. So then I just keep playing with it and practicing and going out to create new images. In this series, I’ve been able to layer up things from Austin, Texas, from Chicago, and from Michigan. Right now I have four shots that literally encompass the four places where I’ve spent most of my life. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling of that. That starts to stitch together the threads of my life.
How do you feel about showing your work at Artsplace?
I’m so excited. I think it’s just the perfect fit. In my life I appreciate and value places that create community and bring people together. Artsplace does that, not just for artists, but for anyone who wants to be creative or wants to learn different techniques.
What kinds of things do you do to recharge your creative energy?
Yoga is big in my life; I love the body movement connected with breath. It’s like kinking and un-kinking a hose. It really fuels so much creative energy for me. Being in nature is another big one. I try to be mindful and aware of what I’m taking in, so I stay away from negative news. I also try not to look at other photographers and what they’re doing so I don’t compare myself to them. But surprisingly, one of the places where I get so much inspiration right now is all the science that’s coming about our bodies and our hearts and the heart-brain coherence. That you can be within a few feet of somebody and your hearts start to synchronize. The heart’s intuitive intelligence will actually try to get in rhythm with those around you. That blows my mind! So I go to lectures and workshops and try to saturate myself in information that feels good while continuing to learn and evolve myself. I get so excited, it makes my heart explode inside out with happiness.
What I want to do is create art that ignites the soul in that way. Sometimes it can be just one little thing that sparks the fire inside that makes you feel Yes! Anything is possible.
I'm not much of a souvenir shopper. I don't need t-shirts, hats, mugs, or other paraphernalia to remind me of places I've been. However, there's something I do like to bring back from our travels: the memory of at least one interesting person we met along the way.
Some months ago, I wrote about Leroy Gonzales of Golden, New Mexico, who captivated me with his eccentric roadside assemblage and friendly banter. On our latest road trip, I encountered another colorful local character, Johnny Bones, in Tombstone, Arizona.
Our visit to Tombstone happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day, which happened to coincide with Tombstone's annual Wild West Days and Salute to the Troops. Talk about a combination of celebrations!
We rolled into town about an hour before a parade was set to step off, but the main street was already teeming with performers and local folks in period costumes. Gunslingers, cowpokes, banditos, fancy ladies, dandies, and dance hall girls mingled with the crowds and posed for pictures.
Amidst all the hubbub, one chap stood out. He wore a top hat decorated with baubles, feathers, playing cards, and a picture of an angelic orchestra. An assortment of belts—including one that looked like it might've graced a belly dancer's hips—encircled his waist. A long chain dangled from one ear; bells jangled around both ankles. Chunky rings, bracelets, necklaces, and a green bowtie completed the look.
But his outfit wasn't what made him so noticeable. Or at least it wasn't the only thing that made him so noticeable. The fellow was in constant motion, twirling, stomping, dancing a jig, and clacking two pairs of bone castanets.
We watched him perform with a group of musicians before the parade. Then the parade got underway, and our attention turned to marchers, floats, and some sweet donkeys from Forever Home Donkey Rescue Sanctuary.
Then, sure enough, here came Johnny Bones, prancing along with the other revelers. The guy was everywhere, clacking, cavorting, and wearing a smile wide as the desert horizon.
We left the bustle of the street to have lunch and watch a live OK Corral dramatization.
Then we stopped in at Historama, a hokey depiction of Tombstone's history that the website Roadside America describes as "a big, lumpy mound on a turntable, decorated with small vignettes from Tombstone's early history, set on a stage in a small theater." Blinking lights, sound effects, and clips of old Western movies enhance the 25-minute presentation, which also features narration recorded by Vincent Price in 1964. You get the picture. Funky, but fun.
Late in the day, I took another stroll through town to snap a few more photos. The main street was almost deserted by then, but there, on a sunny patch of boardwalk was our man Bones, still jumping, jiving, clacking, and looking not the least bit weary.
He seemed so naturally chipper, I imagined his life to be just one big dance party. But I later learned that he's had his troubles. Six years ago, the city of Tombstone passed an ordinance aimed at banning Bones (whose real name is Ronald Koch) from the town's historic district. He was permitted to perform by the visitor center or by the park—both at the far end of town—but those places are "dead zones for busking," Koch told Arizona Sonora News.
Somehow, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona got wind of Bones's banishment and wrote a letter to Tombstone's mayor asserting that Koch was protected by the First Amendment, as busking is considered artistic free speech.
Johnny Bones, whose costumes and talents are reminiscent of the minstrels that once performed in Tombstone's Bird Cage Theatre, was allowed to return to the heart of town, which is where I found him.
He didn't have much to say when I stopped to leave a tip and tell him how much he'd brightened my day. He just beamed and struck a pose for my camera. But if I'd asked what keeps him going, I have a feeling he would have told me what he told the Arizona Sonora News reporter: "I'm a gardener of smiles. This makes me feel fulfilled because my position in life right now is to make people smile."
I was at my desk, working on this week's blog post when a mysterious missive came over the transom. The thing literally flew in as if borne by winged creatures.
Now, I'm pretty good at ignoring tweets, pings, and such, but a fluttering billet is quite another matter. Of course I had to give it a read, and when I did, I knew I had to drop everything and share it with you.
Here it is . . .
FAIRYLAND, Newaygo County (April 28, 2018)—This year's late spring had officials in the Enchanted Forest (also known as Camp Newaygo) concerned about the availability of housing for all the fairy folk returning from their winter homes down South.
"Construction has been delayed all over the county, and the Enchanted Forest was no exception," said Elvira Elf, housing coordinator. "Fortunately, however, artisans from all around pitched in to fill the forest with creative homes for wee folk."
When fairies, gnomes, pixies and their pals showed up last weekend to check out the offerings, they found every kind of dwelling imaginable, from condo to castle.
However, it's common knowledge that pixies can be, well, picky. And fairies are notoriously fickle, with whims that shift with the wind. So we sent a reporter out to tag along with the fae and find out what they thought of the choices.
Pierre Pixée, who winters in the South of France, was searching for something palatial. "C'est si bon!" he said when he spied this turreted manse, complete with moat.
Scurrying along a woodland path, Grizela Gnome pulled her cloak around her. "It's still too cold here in Michigan," she complained. "I wish I'd stayed on the beach."
"But look," said her friend Sophie Sprite, pointing to a cottage nestled beneath a tree. "This house will make you feel sunny and warm no matter what the weather."
"You're right! I'll take it," said Grizela. "Care to stay for a piña colada?"
On the stairway leading down to Pickerel Lake, Fairy Fiona paused to take a breather. "These houses are all beautiful," she said, "but what I'd really love to find is one with room for my wine collection AND a view of the lake." Then she leaned over the railing and there it was: Gnome Top Vinyard. "It's an oenophile's dream!" she said.
Up on the patio of Lang Lodge, Ivan Imp took Elvira Elf aside. "I hate to admit this," he said, "but I'm not much of a woodsy fellow. Really more of a garden guy. Any chance that the house I choose could be, um, relocated?"
"As a matter of fact," Elvira said, "that's what we're hoping for. All the houses are up for auction, to raise money for Camp Newaygo's ongoing improvements. When bidding closes Sunday night, some lucky humans will be taking the houses home—complete with tiny inhabitants, of course—to install in their own special sites. I'm quite sure more than a few will find their way into gardens."
What magical beings do you suppose chose these homes?
We’re back from our travels with loads of impressions and images to share in coming weeks.
Today's topic: the Tucson Festival of Books, our first stop on the trip. I wrote at length about last year's festival, and I won't repeat all the details here. (But if you're curious, you're welcome to look back at that post.)
This was my third visit to the festival, but Ray's first. In previous years, I scurried from one end of the University of Arizona Mall to the other, trying to catch as many talks on writing and publishing as I could. It was almost like being back in college (without the exams, thank goodness). This time, I took a different tack, hoping to make the weekend fun for both of us rather than dragging Ray along to talks on topics that would make his eyes glaze over. (Besides, how many more Moleskin notebooks do I really need to fill with conference scribblings?)
I scrolled through the long list of presentations and found several by mystery authors Ray enjoys, and because I'm always interested in other writers' insights, I knew I'd find their talks informative.
The festival's presentations are all free, but some require advance reservations—and those go quickly. We were lucky to snag tickets to "Setting the Bar in Mystery" by New York Times bestselling authors Greg Iles and Scott Turow. It was just plain fun to witness the interaction between the two authors, good friends who traded jibes as well as compliments. I was fascinated, too, to hear them describe their writing processes. Turow is methodical, treating writing like a day job. Iles, on the other hand, goes long stretches without writing—occupying himself with music and other interests—and then writes his books in marathon sessions, fueled by granola bars and Tab. (I hope he makes up for that with healthier habits during his non-writing periods!)
We also made sure not to miss Michael Perry, described on his website as "New York Times Bestselling Author, Humorist, Singer/Songwriter, Intermittent Pig Farmer." I first discovered Michael's writing at the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books. I had only enough room in my luggage to bring back one book, and I also wanted find a gift for Ray. When I saw Michael's memoir, Truck: A Love Story, I knew I needed to look no further. After all, memoir is my favorite genre, and Ray's all in for anything automotive.
Perry's humorous—and heartfelt—accounts of rural Wisconsin life enchanted me, and when I heard him speak at last year's festival and then read another of his books, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty, I became an even more faithful fan.
This year, he read from his latest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. As the blurb describes it, the book is a down-to-earth look at the ideas of a philosopher "ensconced in a castle tower overlooking his vineyard," channeled by a Midwestern American writing "in a room above the garage overlooking a disused pig pen." I can't wait to read it.
As in previous years, it was heartening to be in the company of more than 130,000 book lovers, to overhear conversations about books and authors and see people browsing through and actually reading books.
But still weary and bleary from the nearly 2,000-mile drive, we could expect only so much of our brains. The festival's entertainment schedule of sixty-some performances offered restorative time-outs from nonstop literary engagement.
We applauded pint-sized musicians, whooped it up with local clog dancers, the Saguaro Stompers, and ooh-ed and aah-ed at acrobatic feats.
By the end of the weekend, we were inspired, entertained, enlightened, and ready to take on more of Tucson.
From time to time over the past couple of years, I have written about the remarkable group of women with whom I spend nearly every Monday morning. We start with yoga—either a class with Behnje Masson, who drives up from Grand Rapids every other week—or a group practice session. Then it's on to breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, where we appropriate the biggest table (and pull up extra chairs and tables when our group is at full capacity).
I've mentioned how our breakfast conversations ramble, touching on books, movies, politics and passions. But have I mentioned that these stalwart women can also get mighty silly when the mood strikes?
As it did on the morning of the corset. Kathy had discovered the article of clothing—a stretchy, satiny creation from an era when women wore "foundation garments"—among the belongings of her mother-in-law, who had recently passed away at the age of 98. She brought it to breakfast for show-and-tell, but this group couldn't be content to just pass the thing around.
After waiting until the table of men from the nearby church camp had left the premises, Valerie hopped up, undid the corset's side zipper, and began tugging it up over her yoga clothes. The more she wriggled, the more we giggled.
Camera phones came out. Then, like Cinderella's stepsisters, we all wanted to try squeezing ourselves into the magical undergarment.
I don't know about the other yoginis, but I fully expected that slipping it on, I'd be transformed into a svelte, glamorous, Hollywood-worthy creature. Seeing the cellphone picture Sue took of me quickly shattered that illusion.
No matter. The real transformation was that moment of lightness, of letting go of whatever concerns were constricting me and sharing a laugh with friends I've grown to love in the five years since we moved to this community.
Another opportunity to let loose together came up a few weeks ago at Camp Newaygo's annual Christmas & Cocktails event. For the past several years, our group has reserved a couple of tables at this annual women-only shindig. If C&C sounds like a wild and boozy girls' night out, it really isn't—not for the yoginis, at least. We might sip a cocktail or a glass of wine, but it's dancing, not drinking, that's the draw.
In past years, we've rocked out to the tunes of piano woman Alesha Nicole. This year, Camp Newaygo changed up the entertainment with BellyDance Grand Rapids. No corsets here! In fact, in reading up on belly dancing, I learned that when this style of expressive dance first became popular in the U.S., in the 1890s, Victorian sensibilities were affronted by the dancers' uncorseted gyrations. Imagine!
We, however, delighted in the dance performance, especially the part where the male waiters—who had served us so capably and even recited poems composed specifically for each table--took to the floor to swivel and sway with the belly dancers. A few brave women from our group gave it a shot, too!
The rest of us held back until the rock 'n' roll came on. Then we were on our feet for the rest of the night, bopping and twirling against a backdrop of glittery lights.
When the music ended, and we headed out into the cold night, we all glowed a little brighter.
What's the most fun you've had with friends lately?
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Seinfeld's Festivus for the Rest of Us, or some other winter observance, this is a festive time of year. The lights, the sparkle, the special treats, the gatherings with people you love (or try to) all combine to brighten the season.
Now that I think about it, this whole year has been pretty festive. Sure, it's also been stressful in a lot of ways, but there's been a lot to celebrate and plenty of events centered around celebration. Though we didn't set out with this goal in mind, Ray and I ended up attending a record number of festivals this year, from the Baby Food Festival in Fremont to the Blueberry Festival in South Haven.
I've taken HeartWood readers along to some of these events, but looking back over the year, I realized there were several I hadn't shared with you.
So take a break from the holiday bustle and join me as we hit the highlights.
National Blueberry Festival, South Haven
Newaygo Logging Festival
Muskegon Polish Festival
Newaygo Christmas Walk
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
We're back from our travels, and do I have a lot to tell you! In coming weeks, I'll share stories of people, places and experiences on the road, as well as some closer to home.
First stop: Stillwater, Oklahoma, my home town, where we attended my graduating class's 50-year (!!!) reunion. I reconnected with friends I hadn't seen since high school and strengthened ties with those I've stayed in touch with.
Every time I meet up with these schoolmates, I feel comforted by our shared past. Many of us have known each other since kindergarten or first grade. We lived within blocks of one another, knew each other's parents, siblings and pets, played countless backyard baseball games and croquet matches, and giggled through many a sleep-over. Other longtime friends I came to know through church groups, scout troops and other clubs, where we learned values that shaped us into the grown-ups we became.
At the reunion, my school friends and I pored over old pictures, remembering carefree days, favorite teachers and a few who were definitely not our favorites. That was fun, but I got just as big a kick out of finding out what my classmates are doing in this current phase of our lives.
Many, I was delighted to learn, are using the freedom of retirement to explore their creative sides.
Terry, who retired from the florist business a few years ago, now applies his artistic talents to stained glass. His wife Robin stitches stunning quilts. The couple hosted one of the informal open houses that are my favorite events during our reunions, and Robin showed us the sunny studio they recently added onto their home. That's where Robin's quilting group gathers and Terry does his glass work (probably not at the same time, I'm guessing).
At another open house hosted by Keith and Holly, Keith told us he spends his time these days "fixing things and making things." When we asked what kind of things he makes, he took us to his workshop and showed us the wood and metal creations he's working on, as well as a few finished pieces. A former CPA, Keith always yearned to work with his hands. Now he's satisfying that desire, and from the way his face lit up when he showed us his projects, it was clear how much pleasure they've giving him.
Kay, a former school library media specialist, spends many hours tending to her flowers at Lily Hill, a 13-acre spread north of Claremore, Oklahoma. Somehow she also finds time to make lovely things, like the striped socks she knitted for me. The colors are inspired by the peacocks that roam around Lily Hill, and the package she surprised me with was decorated with a few of their feathers. Those colors just happen to be my favorites, and the socks were a perfect fit.
Cindi, a longtime dear friend, insists she's not creative. Yet her talent for nurturing friendship takes just as much energy and attention as making physical things. Over the years, we've diverged in many ways, but Cindi's steadfast allegiance has kept us close, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
Which brings me to another thing I want to share about my classy classmates, another thing for which I'll always be grateful.
Our last year of high school was a challenging one for me. I wasn't even supposed to be in Oklahoma, attending Stillwater High School. A year earlier, my parents and I had moved to American Samoa, where we planned to live for two years (that's a whole other story, and trust me, the memoir will be published someday). I was supposed to graduate from Samoana High School and then return to the States for college.
My diagnosis with a life-threatening illness cut short our stay in Samoa, and we returned to Oklahoma at the beginning of my senior year. All of a sudden I was not only the girl who'd lived in a faraway place and returned with a weird accent and strange habits, I was also the girl with the scary disease.
My classmates could easily have shunned me, not out of unkindness, but out of fear. I was a reminder that life was not all parties and pep rallies, that even our young lives could be in jeopardy. But not once did I feel anything but unconditional acceptance. My Stillwater friends sent me cards when I was in the hospital and welcomed me back when I was able to return to school.
Looking back, I realize now just how much open-heartedness it took for them to treat me the way they did. Talking with some of my old friends at the reunion, I expressed my wonder at their compassion.
"It never occurred to us to treat you any other way," one said. "We were just so glad to have you back."
See what I mean about classy?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
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.