Back to Ongoing Journey Index Page
Clown school, canoeing, meditation, and more. What I did on my summer vacation...
After two months in Seattle (I wrote about them in my last entry) and three weekend trips (Victoria and Vancouver, B.C. and Republic, WA), I headed to clown school and canoeing in Minnesota. Then a week with Mitch, Melissa, and Jan in Shushan, NY, a week in Albany (taping segments for Mary Darcy's NPR radio show, 51%), two weeks in a beautiful cabin high on a hill and hidden in trees at Omega, a bookstore appearance and two radio shows in Portland, ME, and now two weeks in New Harbor, Maine, eating lobsters.. More about all that later. Now, I'd like to digress a bit.
There's a central driving force in my life these days……………..and it's my e-mails. It's pretty incredible what has happened. Readers are writing, telling me about their lives, their dreams and goals, their frustrations and hopes. Many of them are inviting me to visit them. Given my nomadic lifestyle, my inability to think very far ahead, and my love of meeting……well…..just about anyone, I am doing the serendipitous thing; that is, saying yes to invitations that come along at the right time.
For example, a number of years ago cousins Jack, a cardiologist, and Lora, a nurse, told me that they had taken a course in clowning and were actually making-and-costuming-up and visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, clowning while talking about health issues. Intrigued, I parked the idea of taking a clown course and it kept sneaking out when I wasn't looking. When I gave talks to AARP crowds during my book tour, I gave out a sheet that I titled something like, How to reduce your inhibitions and expand your joy. I started simply with, Take a different route to the supermarket, eat dinner for breakfast, go out without a bra, go for a ride on a motorcycle. I finished with, Go to clown school.
But I had never been. So there I was this summer with lots of time. I went online and discovered that Mooseburger Clown Camp in Minnesota had two weeks of school at the end of July and early August. It was expensive ($579 for five days), far (I was in Seattle), and more whimsical than I'd been in a long time. When I checked airfares, I almost gave up. They were high.
And then I got an e-mail from Karen Gasche.
She wrote to tell me that her father had died in Sarasota, Florida, and when she went down to clean out his apartment, she found on the table next to his reading chair, a half glass of red wine and a well-thumbed copy of my book. She took it home and read it and felt closer to her father for sharing something he had obviously enjoyed very much. She also noted that I had autographed the book. She e-mailed me. We figured out that I had met him when I talked at the Unitarian Church in Sarasota. I actually remembered him and could visualize where in the semi-circle of people he had been sitting during my Forum-talk.
And then she told me that she lived in Minnesota and would love to introduce me to canoeing and camping in the Boundary Water wilderness in the northern part of the state.
Yessss. Minnesota, clown camp, Boundary Waters and an unmet friend about to become a met one. Of course.
The clincher was finding an airline that was based in Minnesota and much much cheaper than the companies I had checked out. That was it. I bought my ticket on Sun Country.
Karen picked me up at the airport, took me home for one night, and then drove me to clown school an hour and a half away. On the ride up, we speculated on who the other students would be. Probably middle-aged women breaking out.
In fact, they were everyone…………young, old, men, women, fat (more than in the general population) and thin. There were quite a few teachers, a fireman and a firewoman, two principals, housecleaners, business men and women, office workers, social workers, administrators, lawyers, retired folks, students, a doctor, a medical student and more. There was a significant number of practicing clowns honing their skills. GranELove, from Decatur, Georgia, shared my bunk room. Gracie, originally from Brazil, was there because she wanted do birthday parties. Terry, from California, was a firewoman who wanted to make her school visits more interesting. A medical student from Toronto was hoping to clown her way through some serious school expenses. Another woman, a survivor of breast cancer, was looking to begin a new life, to live a dream.
The dominant emotion in the camp was joy. People were happy to be there. A lot of them were living a lifelong dream. Some had saved up for years. Nearly everyone was pleased with her or himself for having decided to come. It was fun to be around so much positive energy.
The members of the faculty were all "serious clowns". Most had been with circuses for many years…………some still were. They worked us hard but nearly every moment was filled with joy.
The first night, the eight or so faculty members sat onstage behind a table…….make-up and mirrors in front of them. As we sat and watched, they created their faces. In front of the 56 students, they transformed themselves from the ordinary folks they seemed to be…….. into clowns. And then they did a show for us. They were fantastic…..and very different from one another. Priscilla Mooseburger (who owns the camp) was a soft, white-face, lacy and ruffly clown with a strong, take-charge personality. Elaine, who does hospital clowning, was quiet. She did a number with bubbles that blew everyone away…..especially when she attached bubbles to bubbles until she had created a carousel spinning within a framework of bubbles. Jose, an incredibly talented mime who studied with Marcel Marceau, was brilliant. Every student was in love with the small, delicate, child-like person he created onstage. I couldn't wait to take his class. (It was wonderful.)
We had to pick a major……birthday party clowning, clown ministry, hospital clowning, prop building, "super performing skills"…. I chose Clowning 101 so I would get a little of everything. 101 began every morning with making-up. The first day I chose a traditional white face (with some red and black). If I hadn't been attached, I would never have recognized myself. It was very much like a mask. As the week went on, my make-up softened and became more me.
Most of us in the class wore our faces all day. There we were, around 20 adults from the class, all shapes and sizes and ages, walking around in clown faces as though it was what people did every day. (It did occur to me that perhaps it was more real than it seemed. Many people do "wear" masks for much of their lives. We were, in fact, moving out from under those real-life masks.)
Our morning major-class was a couple of hours long. In addition to "finding our faces," we learned how to create characters, how to exaggerate emotions, how to do double-takes, how to use clown logic, do magic, and work on gags. Priscilla and Mark Renfro (they team-taught) talked about their experiences and they shared circus stories.
In the afternoon, we had a choice of classes: magic, hospital clowning, cutting newspapers into things, balloon twisting, clown ministry, prop making, tricks with hats, face painting, and lots more.
All in all, it was a great experience. We even gave a performance for a school fund-raiser on our last night and got to interact with kids and their parents. And we got certificates! But best of all, here comes my theme song again, we all connected in a very special way, with people we would never have known if we hadn't signed up for clown camp! I'm not a very talented clown, but I bought make-up, some noses, a few magic tricks, and a ton of balloons. I plan to cart them around the world with me.
When clown camp was over, Karen picked me up and brought me back to Minneapolis, an hour and a half away. (She actually made three trips…..delivering me, picking me up, and coming to see the show.) Now it was time to get ready for our canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota.
Karen explained that there are hundreds of lakes and miles of protected wilderness up there in Northern Minnesota. In most of the lakes motors are not allowed, nor are cans or bottles, or drop-ins. You have to have a permit, and they are limited.
Canoeing the lakes usually involves putting the canoe in at designated access sites and paddling to a campsite. There are maps with the sites marked. It's up to you how many lakes you paddle and how many portages you do. Portaging means carrying the canoe and all the gear across land until you get to the next lake (sort of like the early explorers). She showed me maps that show portage paths and the length and topography of the paths. They are flat and steep, short and long. You can choose the kind of portaging you want to do. Karen chose our lakes by the wildlife she hoped we would see and hear: moose, wolves, loons………..and the ubiquitous bears. (We saw loons.)
I looked around Karen's living room. While I was clowning, she was planning. Her living room was filled with bags and piles of stuff that we were bringing with us. Two huge bags, called Duluth bags would be filled with the gear that was all over the room. It was immediately clear that this was serious camping. There were: a tent, poles, tarps, ropes (lots of them), tools, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, hammocks, water carriers, cooking and eating gear and utensils, a plastic sink, a whole bag of carefully organized food, red plastic for lunches, blue for dinners, another for snacks. There were vegetables and eggs, salt and pepper in 35 mm film cans with store-bought plastic tops (I love them.), a canister of mixed spices, and assorted other dry and wet things to make our meals interesting. There was a single burner stove and four bottles of fuel. And life jackets, paddles (3, just in case), rain gear, and what seemed like endless stuff. (We had more stuff on our camping trip than I own in the world……….all of it necessary. Well, maybe not the hammocks, but they were wonderful.)
Just before we left, Karen took one meal of steak, one meal of chicken, and some stir fry vegetables out of the freezer and wrapped them in newspapers. (The chicken was still frozen and the steaks were still cold when we ate them on day one and day two.) We even carried a plastic bottle of wine with us.
As we drove the five or so hours to our access site, Karen described what was going to happen. The canoe would come off the roof of the car and be carried upside down on Karen's shoulders to the water's edge. Then the bags would come out of the car and be carried to the canoe. The two huge Duluth bags, the back packs with personal stuff, the paddles and the life jackets would be packed into the canoe and we'd be off. We would paddle a couple of hours to our first portage site, which was short (maybe a few hundred yards) but steep. We'd pull the canoe onto the bank, unload the bags, carry the canoe, come back for the bags, possibly twice, and then take off again. In the next lake we would find a campsite for the night.
During the two hours to our first portage, we barely talked. Instead we wrapped ourselves in serenity as we silently observed the purity of the water, the density of the trees, the lichen-covered rocks. We never saw another canoe that first morning, just blue sky, quiet water reflecting the sky, and the gentle sound of our paddles in the water.
Sometime during those two hours Karen decided that we would camp on the lake we were already on and do the portage in the morning. There were only three camp sites on the next lake and she worried that we would have to do a second portage if the sites were occupied.
I had never camped before so Karen did most of the work, even as she was teaching me. We set up the tent, the tarp, the stove (an amazing one-burner fire), the sink, some ropes, the hammocks. Karen collected water from the lake and boiled it for drinking. When we were set up, we settled in and began a conversation that continued for the entire trip. We were getting to know each other…………..our beliefs, our histories, our philosophies, our politics, our religions. There was hardly anything we didn't discuss. It was a wonderful setting for building a friendship.
During the evening, Karen decided to keep the campsite and portage the next day just with the canoe. I was thrilled. It turned out that the portage was very steep and difficult. Karen carried the canoe with a lot of difficulty. All I did was walk and I was exhausted. There were parts where I wished I had a helping hand to get me down and up steep rocks. I have no idea how Karen did it. Then a couple of hours later, we did it again to get back to our campsite.
The whole experience was amazing. We were out for five days. When we got back to Minneapolis, I had a couple of days to get to know Karen's family (two married children and their kids). I went to church on Sunday (Westminster Presbyterian………gorgeous church) and we had a pot luck dinner one night with some of Karen's friends….all women. Again, we covered tons of topics and when the evening was over, I felt I had five new friends.
I flew to CT to say hello to family (aunt, uncle, cousin, brother) and then drove to Shushan to hang out for a while with Melissa. Melissa and I went kayaking. Jan and Mitch joined us a few days later.
When everyone left, I went to Albany to tape three segments of Mary Darcy's 51%, an NPR program on WAMC that is nationally syndicated. I first interviewed with Mary in August 2001. At the time she asked me if I would call in every couple of weeks for a series of Where is Rita Now? But I was just beginning my US book tour and it seemed the wrong time to begin the series. I mean, how interesting is it that I am in Milwaukee or Durham? Mary e-mailed me a couple of months ago and said she was still interested, now that I'm back on the road. So we are doing it. I will be calling her from India every two or three weeks. And from anywhere else I happen to be.
At the moment, I'm at Omega (www.eomega.org ), 140 acres of rolling hills just two hours from New York city. Their catalogue of more than 250 workshops states, "Omega's mission is to awaken the best in the human spirit. Through our workshops, retreats, and professional trainings, our guests awaken their innate energy, wisdom, and creativity." The food is good too. And the campus is filled with flower arrangements that I can only describe as spiritual, a few purple petals resting on some rocks, a single sunflower reaching out of bed of hibiscus above a tiny pond.
So how did I get here? E-mail, of course. I was in India when I got an e-mail from Megan Bodane who had just finished reading my book. As staff-faculty coordinator, she invited me to be a guest in their Hermitage for two weeks (a beautiful cabin, "built to house the spiritual caretakers of the Omega community. While here, we hope they will be able to use their time as a personal retreat to write, rest, or deepen their own spiritual practice.") I didn't know it at the time I said yes, but it's an honor to be invited (there's only one person at a time in the Hermitage) and it's a joy to be here. The serenity of the house and the quiet peace that I feel here is very spiritual.
In exchange for gifting me two weeks of the Hermitage, I addressed the staff once each week. (The staff is mostly volunteer and there are tons of programs that they can take that are just for the staff.)
I don't want to sound like an advertisement, but this place has been an extraordinary experience. I have spent an hour every day meditating in the sanctuary with John Holland, a Zen-Buddhist dharma-teacher. I've also been doing yoga every other day. And I've met some incredible people and participated in some fascinating programs. I attended an environmental workshop on water with keynote speakers Robert Kennedy, Jr., Ralph Nader, Anita Roddick, Vandana Shiva, and more. The other day I went to an exquisite evening of Sufi poetry and flute music, and the day before I went to a Vortex Healing (Google it!).
During my stay, there have been workshops called, Shaman, Healer, Sage; Sufi Meditation; A Transformational Chakra Journey; Metaphors in Mind; Hypnotic Learning………………and lots more. At the moment there are one-month teacher-training courses in Yoga and Tai Chi/Qigong. Coming up tomorrow is the start of something called, "Sky-dancing Tantra, A 9-Day Love and Ecstasy Training, designed to forever change your experience of sexual loving."
I am into my 12th day and feeling very mellow…………I feel as though I'm on a constant high and the only thing I've inhaled is incense.
In two days I will be leaving here. While I was deciding what to do with the two weeks after Omega (I leave for India on the 3rd of October and I'm through here on the 14th of September), I got an e-mail invitation from Lori Buzby who owns a bookstore in Califon, NJ. She offered me her house in New Harbor, Maine! Then Jean Wadier (French pronunciation) e-mailed me with an offer to set up a bookstore appearance in Portland. He's another reader, and when I said yes, he went to work. I now have a bookstore (Longfellow's) on the 16th and radio and TV interviews as well. And possibly a school visit. Thanks, Jean.
I just hope I'm able to give back as much as I'm getting; I'm feeling that the world is just pouring its kindness and caring into my soul.
I know. That doesn't sound like me…..but it's how I'm feeling: thankful, lucky, honored.
In two weeks, I go back to Delhi. That kids' book that I was planning to write while in the US is unwritten. Before I left Delhi in May, I told a group of kids in the jhuggie community across from the school that I would set a new children's book in their community. The kids wrote me essays about their homes and families, and I had three kids shoot rolls of film about life in the jhuggie. But when I sat down to write, I realized I didn't know nearly enough about life in an Indian slum community to write a book about it.
So, my new idea was to move into the jhuggie (means literally, hut) for several weeks and experience the life first hand. But the shacks in the jhuggie do not have guest rooms and I didn't know where I could live. Then I got a brainstorm.
One of the themes in the kids' essays was that they have no place quiet to study. That gave me an idea. I e-mailed Carol Lemley, the teacher in the American Embassy School who introduced me to the kids. As I write this, she is working with the community to arrange the building of a room where I can live. I will pay for the building materials; the community will contribute the labor; and I will move in and work there with a group of kids who will help me plot the book.
After a few weeks of no running water and smelly drainage ditches, I'm sure I'll be ready to move out and find a quiet place to write the book. The new room will become a study hall for the kids.
If any of you want to send a contribution for windows and desks, some mats and pillows and lights and other study tools, send a check made to: Carol Lemley, 1455 Tallevast Rd., #L-2345, Sarasota, FL 34243.
If we get more money than we need, I'll use it to add books to the library that Carol started with the help of the American Embassy School.
I'm excited to be going back to India…………and strangely, I'm not actually worried about living in difficult conditions. What I'm nervous about is that maybe I won't find a publisher to publish the book. I've never written a chapter book where I've had to develop characters and extended plots. What if I can't pull it off? If I do sell the book, the money will go back into the jhuggie………………..if I don't, I may have to publish it myself.
Well, thanks for hanging in there. That's it for now. I'm off to meditate. Ciao.