Wednesday, November 13, 2013


When I told my friend Peety I was going to Thailand, he looked at me, and said with an intense earnestness, “Stay as long as you can!!” While I had been excited to go before, I became intrigued as to what would make him, a man who has travelled A LOT, make such a statement, but now, as I write this, soaring in the air away from the “Land of Smiles”, I can truly say that I get it. How do I sum up my two and half weeks in this place of tuk-tuks (little motorized rickshaw-like taxis), wats (temples), night markets, and long boats? Do I tell of the humility and devotion that permeate this land that is so largely Buddhist, that every home, business, even taxi stand has a shrine, and where the sight of orange clad monks is as commonplace as the sight of people with their hands in a position of prayer. Every hello – sawadee – is said with palms touching in front of the heart, and with a bowed head, almost always with that sweet, sweet smile, that the Thai people are so well known for; instantly putting one physically in the beautiful position of being not above anyone, but of saying, “I wish you well, I wish you happiness, how can I help you??” Do I try to describe the serenity in each and every wat, which (along with 7-11s and, funnily enough donut shops in Bangkok) are EVERYWHERE! Glittering with gold, mosaics, and statues of the Buddha, Garuda - the king of the birds, and the elephant head god Ganesh pulling one’s mind towards the great stories behind these devotional works of art, and lifting ones heart to something greater than oneself? And then there are the children I performed for!!! In schools that have the buzz of learning emanating so powerfully from them that I felt inspired from the second I walked on the grounds. Children who are so kind, and, well “good” –and I don’t mean their behavior – which was VERY good – but I mean a deep kindness and sweetness, that all kids have, but sometimes gets lost at about age 10 or so. These students, from the two year olds I sang and was silly for, to the teenagers I worked with on their school play – were so willing to embrace what this lady with the short hair, and the fast talk from the USA had to offer. They let me into their world – and, heck, disrupt their world, as I asked them to get loud in their vocal and bodily responses (not something commonly done in the East, I quickly learned). Being someone who spends 90% of her time with kids, I am ALWAYS awed by the lessons they teach me – and once again, this group of young people taught me about humanity – that we are all more alike than different – the stories that hit home in NYC, hit home in Thailand, in Argentina, and in India – what makes us laugh is the same in Haiti, as it is in China. If only we could all remember that little fun fact. And, because this was “work” (and how freakin’ lucky am I that this is my job!!!) there was that lovely, intense what I call “cheese cake” feeling – when you are deeply immersed, and things are full and rich like even a small bite of cheese cake – for I was asked to perform my stories, multiple times a day to groups as young as three years old, and as old as eighteen year olds, give workshops in storytelling, creating character and setting, and in one instance giving an impromptu yoga class to a group of 11 year olds!! And as a bonus to this storytelling tour – I also got to do my other job – I got to clown without language (my favorite way to clown!!) for hospitalized children, adults, and for a group of preschoolers – some of which come from VERY impoverish communities. Oh the joy of doing a show with the beautiful imaginary of the language of folktales, and then switching to the chaotic playfulness of physical comedy – but the basis of these two art forms I love is the same – human contact and presence in the moment. Only with those two skills can I connect with an audience with words, or without. But, if I had to choose just one thing to say about my time in Thailand, it would be the people that I met along the way. There was Ellie and Dick – a couple from Kanas City, who, after spending three weeks doing work with an elephant conservation group north of Bangkok, were now taking some time to sight see. Then there is Edward, a clown from Liverpool, who has found a passion helping refugee children in Thailand by bringing them supplies regularly, and, making them laugh with his shows. (check out his foundation – – you will be moved). There was Hal and Sue, who my husband and I met while at the Bangkok Doll Museum searching for my “gift doll” for my mom (can’t come back into the country without adding to her collection!), Hal, a long time doctor for the CDC, retired, but now back at work helping fight dengue fever, and Sue, a long time nurse. Angela, a full time volunteer for a group called icare Thailand ( – who set up my clowning visits to pediatric and cancer hospitals, and then flew off to help flood victims. Grant, a young man from Australia, who, with his wife – who’s name I am ashamed I can’t remember, has worked for aids organizations throughout his college years. Joe, the manager of the hotel restaurant where we stayed a few nights – who just about cried when talking about his deep love for his country. Eric and Kevin, a deaf couple, who every single year make the time to travel for a month or more, finding ways to afford to feed their wanderlust, and use technology to help them communicate with a largely hearing world – and who this year, were happily celebrating their recent marriage, after being together for years!! And, then there’s the people of the Mercy Center ( – an organization that has projects helping everyone from AIDS/HIV patients, to homeless kids, to the elderly, to giving scholarships to promising university students (one now works for them, and was my guide to their FABULOUS pre-school program!) I have been so inspired by the goodness, and commitment that I have seen in the people that I have met here, that I just want to run and give of myself as much as I possibly can! The two most special people that I encountered on this voyage were people who I already knew – one is my life partner, my best friend, my support system, my husband – who braved the heat and humidity he DETESTS, to join me from day one on this tour. He did my laundry, organized our sightseeing, strived to make sure I ate something other than my protein bars at meals, told me time and time again, “You’ll be great!” when I was nervous about any of the performances or workshops. I am always a little too proud of my independence, and on this tour, I was, once again, reminded I live my life with A LOT of help from the man, who for some odd reason, not only puts up with me, but loves me. I have saved my last comments for the woman who made all this possible – Sonia Zivkovic, who chose me to be the very first storyteller of her brand new company Pana Wakke (it means brother-sister). To create a company at all is a daunting task, much less one that deals with different countries, languages, schools, charities, and those weird beings called storytellers, and so what she has pulled off in a mere matter of months, is truly astonishing. The fact that she also wanted to include, not just performances for pay, but charity shows (the ones I did in the hospitals and the pre-school) speaks to who she is as a human being – she wishes to leave a positive impact everywhere she goes. She was constantly asking me if I was happy, and what she could do for me and my husband – when I am the one who should have been saying that to her! In asking me to be the first, in what I hope will be many artists to bring their tales to Asia, I was honored that she was entrusting her “baby” to me, and so I tried with all my might to give the best that I had to offer – they all truly deserve that, and much more. I will see my friend, Peety in a few days, and I will tell him he was very, very right, and to all of you reading this, if you ever go to Thailand, take it from Peety and me – STAY AS LONG AS YOU CAN!!!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Notes from the field: Opening the Imagination in Thailand

I have just come from a day where I fed, petted, rode, and was hugged by an elephant, and literally lay down with a tiger - if that sounds crazy to you - think about my brain right now! I have clearly, always had an active imagination - sometimes I wish I could be less interested in my inner world, and more enchanted by the outer realms - especially when it comes to cleaning and balancing checkbooks - but "seeing" things like talking animals, fairies, castles that float in the air, have, frankly, never been a problem for me. To be able to see what is not necessarily tangible is easier to me than to comprehend things like why people are so awfully mean to each other, or why drivers think honking their horns REALLY is helpful to anyone. So, it is coming as a surprise to me just how much Thailand is stretching out a muscle I thought was already well used. The colors here - vibrant and bold, give my brain something to chew on for the next time I tell a story of a market place or bazaar. The graceful sway of the elephant as they walk, will forever inform the way these pachyderms will live in my body. And tigers - never again will they be portrayed as evil beasts who just want to sneak up on and devour other creatures. No, now I will give them - even if in the story they are going to ear everyone in sight - the dignity, and respect, these kingly beasts truly deserve. And the temples - I have always loved places of worship, no matter what the faith. It seems that man is able to do his best work, when he is remembering that there is a higher power than himself - no matter what he may call it. The many Buddhist shrines and temples are a feast of color, and light, and serenity, that I not only need, but can infuse into many a tale. With all this at their fingertips, it is interesting that one of the things I have been asked to do at the schools where I am telling stories is to "open their imaginations". To help the children be able to conjure up magical lands and beings for their writings. I REALLY don't want to join the "modern technology is destroying our brains" band wagon - but in this instance - it's pretty true. The fact that the children here are so sucked into their devices that they miss what I, in only a week have seen, speaks volumes. Yes, of course, computer sciences are key in this day and age, and goodness knows that I hope these kids take to math better than I did - but not at the expense of the worlds that are to be found in their imaginations! But, of course, children don't need much help digging into those places where fantasy live, they just need a little prompt, and that has been my job. And, it is one I have been relishing!!! My time here has been filled with stories I haven't told much, but have been falling in love with, the story of three magical wishes - where the magic comes from fairies, but also from the love between a couple. The mystical happenings of objects that three brothers find, and how they can save the life of a princess they all love, but ultimately, only one can marry - with the backdrop of Thailand as my guide, I have found deep inspiration in my work. It has been a joy to watch kids laugh at, and be engaged by these tales, and it was AMAZING to see students and staff embrace Halloween - a holiday, because of the costumes, candy, and color orange I ADORE!! But, even more than the tellings, have been the workshops with the children, in which they visualized magical forests, and, after describing them to their groups, created them with their bodies. There were rocks made out of diamonds, cakes containing monsters, animal-eating grasses. Teachers were fairies, narrators, and loving guides in these fun filled, boisterous romps into the inner rooms of the mind. And speaking of these teachers, and their wonderful administrators - they get it- I mean they get that it's not just the traditional "in the box" schooling that children need. I have fallen in love with these teachers here, largely ex-pats, who see education as their calling, and see that teaching to a child in a holistic way is the road to a truly well educated student. I was thrilled to here them talk about Robert Coles, who said the thing I MOST agree with about education "Parents need to ask not is my child smart, but HOW is my child smart!" "Soft" subjects like the arts, give kids a chance to be intelligent, feeling, creative in ways that other subjects do not. Imagination and self expression are tools that everyone needs, and for this generation, who may grow up with the world a mouse click away, but never actually speak to a real in person "friend" - they are skills that need to be developed. One of the students asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I LOVED that question, because it meant to me that I didn't look like I was "working", that I was just at play - and I was! I try to be grateful for the gifts of imagination and creativity, and on this trip to Thailand, as I bow my head before all those altars, I have been offering up my most favorite prayer (as inspired by the writer Anne La Mott) "please don't let me be a jerk!" but also "thank you, Universe for the gift of IMAGINATION!!"