The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Gnor

Today’s post is a follow-up to my preview of the International Southeast Asian Film Festival. Last night I went to one of the feature films, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Gnor. It was a powerful, touching film that was really well-done – informative and inspiring. And I loved the Q&A with filmmaker Arthur Dong.

Trailer: The Killing Fields of Dr Haing S Ngor from DeepFocus Productions, Inc. on Vimeo.

The Killing Fields

So just to start I’ll explain that the film is about one specific survivor’s experience of The Killing Fields, a period of systematic torture and genocide that the Khmer Rouge inflicted about the Cambodian people in the late 1970s. The story of The Killing Fields came to the attention of many Westerners in the early 1980s when a film of the same name was released. Others learned about it more recently from the news; in 2009 the Khmer Rouge Tribunal began to investigate the crimes against humanity that occurred during this horrific time.

Dr. Haing S. Gnor

Dr. Haing S. Gnor was a doctor in Cambodia who was a victim of The Killing Fields. He was tortured, he lost most of his family, and his wife died in his arms when she was seven months pregnant with their child due at least in part to the starvation they were going forced to endure. He escaped with his niece and came to America.

Through a series of circumstances, he was asked to become an actor in the film The Killing Fields. He hadn’t intended to become an actor – a career that isn’t a high-status career in Cambodia. However, he was able to share his story and the story of his homeland through this work. He won an Academy Award for the role and went on to do many, many speaking engagements to educate people about his story and about what was going on in Cambodia.

What many people who saw The Killing Fields original film didn’t realize is that there was no happy ending. The Khmer Rouge was ousted but that was followed by Vietnamese control. Death, devastation and the effects of the entire situation continued after the Khmer Rouge fell apart. Dr. Haing S. Gnor educated others about this.

In 1996, Dr. Gnor was murdered outside of his Chinatown, Los Angeles home. He had continued to live there despite his financial success, in large part because he was involved in helping the community living in the area. Gang members were convicted of his murder, which reportedly was a robbery gone wrong, but there remains some suspicion to this day that Gnor was really killed because of his activist efforts to speak out about what was happening in Cambodia.

The Film

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Gnor

This film depicts the entire story. It shares Gnor’s story as part of a larger story to continue educating people about The Killing Fields and the impact of the entire experience on the Cambodian people. One of the things that we learned was the Cambodian word “kum“, which describes a particular mindset of the Cambodia people. Dr. Gnor wrote in his autobiography:

“Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge – to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum . . . Cambodians know all about kum. It is the infection that grows on our national soul.”

The film is based on the autobiography and there is narration directly from the book. The film also incorporates archival footage from the era, some of which was documented by the Khmer Rouge for propaganda, film footage including footage from The Killing Fields, and modern footage of Dr. Gnor’s niece and a smily friend going through his possessions. Additionally, animation is incorporated geniously into the film. Some of the darkest scenes are done in animation, and this makes it possible to watch them while still retaining dramatic effect. It was a smart choice by the filmmaker.

Filmmaker Arthur Dong

filmmaker arthur dong

Arthur Dong is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and it was great to have him there for the Q&A last night, because he was able to provide additional insight into the making of the film. He shared that he actually hadn’t known much about Cambodia before beginning this film. I hadn’t known much about this region at all, and I had never seen The Killing Fields, so it was somewhat of a relief to hear that he also hadn’t known much, even though that’s also a tragedy. In any case, he had read the story and was so moved by it. He believed it would make a great film and he wanted to use his story telling capabilities to share this story.

I was really touched that he also shared that he had some residual cultural guilt that motivated his interest in making this film. He is Chinese American, and he shared that during the late 1970s there was a big movement towards embracing the pride in this culture, a movement that was prevalent here in San Francisco where he lived, and a movement that he was a part of. He went to China in 1978 for a visit, as one of the first tourists allowed in without a guide. He had no idea of the Chinese involvement in what was happening in Cambodia at this exact same time. He didn’t learn about this until he learned Dr. Haing S. Gnor’s story, and as he has shown the film around, he has learned that many, many other Chinese nationals do not know about this. He wanted to share the story to help heal the global world.

Researcher and Filmmaker Asiroh Cham

The Q&A also included Asiroh Cham, the researcher who really did all of the groundwork to make this film happen. She shared some terrific background information about the process, such as how the archival footage needed to be tracked down. She also shared a bit of her personal story, with parents who had survived the Khmer Rouge, and how the Dr. Gnor’s story hit home for her as she worked on this film.

Asiroh Cham also had a short film featured at this film festival called My Name is Asiroh Cham. She was interviewed about her work here.

I-SEA Film Festival

i-sea film festival

Arthur Dong shared that as a filmmaker, these types of film festivals can sometimes start to all feel alike. He travels from city to city and while he’s grateful for the opportunity to screen his work, he doesn’t always get the opportunity to see what other people are doing because of the nature of participating in so many film festivals. He also shared that as soon as he looked at the lineup for this film festival, he knew that he needed to take full advantage of the opportunity to see what was here; he had just seen Chanthaly before his film aired. He shared that the folks running this film festival did what he believed to be an amazing job putting this lineup together. Based on what I was able to preview online and the viewing of his film, I would agree. It’s a film festival that shares a terrific amount of culture and history, giving a narrative voice to the people who have lived through a variety of circumstances that we in the western world often don’t understand. This festival was put on by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network.


International Southeast Asian Film Festival

The International Southeast Asian Film Festival (I-SEA Film Fest) is happening in San Francisco this weekend (Friday, November 20 – Sunday, November 22) and I was lucky enough to get the chance to preview some of the works online. There are some brilliant films here, and some that are just plain beautiful, so it’s something I’d recommend to anyone with an interest and availability.

This video is a montage of exquisite clips of the films


The festival begins with an opening night gala at ATA on Friday. The films themselves (9 features, 22 shorts) will be shown at New People Cinema on Saturday and Sunday. (There’s a charming tea shop in the same building, along with unique shops, and you can find more fabulous shopping across the street in the Japantown mall, so plan to make a day of it!) Some of the screenings include Q&A with filmmakers and panels. See the full schedule here.

This is a longer introduction to the films

Some Film Thoughts

As mentioned, I was so lucky to get the chance to preview some of the work that’s showing this weekend. I won’t give away too much but wanted to share some thoughts and impressions on a few of the films I saw. I saw several of the feature films but I thought I’d tell you more about a couple of the shorts:

Cambodia 2099

This is one of the shorts that is playing as part of the Modern Love Shorts (with Q&A) that happens on Saturday at 4 pm. It’s directed by Davy Chou, a French Cambodian filmmaker, and is described as a 20-minute subtitled film where “On Diamond Island, the country’s pinnacle of modernity, two friends tell each other about the dreams they had the night before.”

There was something really engaging about the way the film began with a panorama of an everyday urban landscape. What I loved here was that we heard speaking, which we understood through subtitles, and there was music playing over the speaking. Something about the blending of this worked for me, although it’s hard to express why in words. The music contrasted with the landscape and enhanced the meaning of the words.

From there it goes into the two friends talking about their dreams, a simple conversation between two guys sitting outside together, but one that expresses the intangible camaraderie of two young male buddies who speak vaguely about big philosophical questions (“what is it like in 2099? I don’t know, but different”) and nightmares rooted in history while still joking casually. It captures the reality and everyday essence of youthful friendship in the context of the larger world.

There is love and politics and social issues and it’s all based in the lives of two average people so that the meaning of it becomes more graspable.

A Daughter’s Debt

hmong documentary

This is one of the films from the POV shorts collection that includes a panel discussion on Sunday morning. It’s described as “one of the first films to discuss and explore women’s issues in contemporary Hmong culture. Three generations of Hmong- American women share their experiences of bride purchasing, polygamy, and commodification in this intimate portrait of struggle and hope.”

This is such an intense story. It begins with the filmmaker relating the story of her mother’s rape, the community turning a blind eye to it, a rape that resulted in the girl’s birth, and her mother’s choice to move out of that community and raise her alone. This story of her birth led her to want to learn more about the community she came from and what it means to be a woman in this community. Through the lens of her story, and the story of her cousin who grew up within the community, we learn about this shadow side of the culture.

So powerful.

And also I think relevant for people living in the Bay Area. A large number of Hmong refugees are settled in the greater Bay Area and, yet, they aren’t visible to the average San Franciscan, so this film can be educational in a number of ways. It’s a bilingual film primarily in English.

More Films

In addition to these two shorts, I watched a couple others and some of the feature films and I’m planning to see at least one more. What is great about a film festival, including this one, is that you get such a range of styles in the films. In this one, there’s everything from Big Gay Love, a romantic comedy shot here in the US, to Chanthaly, a dark film from Laos dealing with terminal illness and ghosts, to The Look of Silence (the only one of these I haven’t seen yet), which is a feature-length (Indonesia/Denmark) documentary about surviving the 1965 Indonesian genocide.

More About The Festival

“The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network is commemorating the 40th anniversary of US military involvement in Southeast Asia by launching its inaugural San Francisco International Southeast Asian  Film Festival. The selected films seek dialogue with local and international communities, drawing connections between wars then and now, overseas and on our streets. The films — ranging from horror, experimental, documentaries and more — embrace diverse topics including gender identity, love and modernity. The group previously ran the San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival in 2012 and 2013 and this year is rebranding as I-SEA and branching out to include films from all over Southeast Asia and its diasporas.”


If I’ve Flaked Out On You … This Post Is My Letter To You

There is a good chance that if you know me then I’ve probably flaked out on plans with you. It might be that I just wouldn’t even make plans with you at all, or that I half-made plans but didn’t follow through, or that I made plans but canceled (with or without obvious reason) or in a few really rare cases that I just didn’t answer the phone or show up when we had actual plans. I used to feel terrible about this but I’m just going to clear the air … it’s happened before, it’s probably going to happen again and it has to do with my own personal needs for self-care not anything I feel about you.

It’s gotten better over time in the sense that I know myself better and am therefore able to tell people in advance that I probably can’t commit to a specific time and place with solid certainty. And I’m able to better pace myself with plans so that I don’t overdo it and therefore don’t have to cancel so much on what I do commit to. Knowing myself better, I can plan better, and the result is that I flake out less than I used to. But it still happens.

It doesn’t mean I don’t like you. It doesn’t mean I don’t value your time. It doesn’t mean I don’t want your company. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with our relationship. It doesn’t mean that I thought something else was more important.

All it means is that for some reason I was unable to make and keep a plan for a specific day. This has to do with being someone who struggles with chronic, recurring, debilitating depression. Certainly in the midst of depressive periods, I simply can’t force myself to leave my house even when I want to. But it’s not just this. It’s that in order to properly take care of myself so that I don’t fall into depression, I have to be tuned into my own needs at all times. Those needs include sleep and solitude and time for creativity and downtime and rejuvenation-after-being-out time. And it makes it really hard to see too many people too often but if I’m going to be well when I do see people then it’s what I need to do.

So when I say that I flake out, what I usually mean is that I either won’t make a set plan with you even if you’re someone I really like. If I make a plan, I try to be clear that it’s a loose plan, an open-ended plan, a plan that I intend to keep but we should check in with each other that day or the day before to make sure that we both still feel like we want to keep that plan. Occasionally it means that I’ll make a plan but I’ll cancel the day before or the day of; sometimes I’ll give a specific explanation and sometimes I’ll just say that it’s what I need to do. There have been times, even recently, when I completely forgot a plan I made … I put it on the calendar but then didn’t look at the calendar. This is rare, and when it happens, I feel terrible and I apologize and I attempt to make it up because I think it’s rude and disrespectful of the other person and their time. I feel a lot better about being clear up front that my plans are loose than I do about canceling same day or not showing up.

I want you to know that I flake out on people all of the time. I do it to people I love, to people I like, to people I’m curious about and to people I really do want to meet. I do it because I overbooked, because I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, because I am too cranky, because my body aches so bad that the idea of getting myself down the stairs and out of the house is overwhelming … or because one or more of those things happened the day before and now I’m behind on my work and need to meet a deadline. I flake because it’s rainy or because I feel a little sick or because I actually just emotionally need to stay on my couch and watch TV and not talk to anyone.

I’m significantly more likely to keep plans if you are willing to come to my house or at least to my neighborhood. My ability to stick to plans decreases  proportionately if you live a bus ride away, more than one bus ride away, or in a different Bay Area city. I probably won’t make a plan with you if you live elsewhere in the world unless I definitely know I’m planning a vacation, in which case I’ll likely keep the plan although I’ve been known to cancel a vacation. The likelihood that I’ll keep a plan goes up if you’re my sibling, you’re a close friend visiting from out of town who planned with me in advance, the plan is for the later afternoon or early evening, or you happen to have four legs and fur. The likelihood goes down if the plan is for really late at night, you’re a professional I’ve made an appointment with and I can just pay a cancellation fee if I can’t make it … or if you’re someone who guilts/ shames me about not keeping plans.

I used to think that all of this made me a bad friend. And I’m sure some people might think so … think it’s selfish or irresponsible or childish or whatever. I’ve come to learn that the people I want to be friends with are people that I genuinely want to be around and who are absolutely understanding when I cancel anyway. I extend the same courtesy to them – I never expect anyone to keep their loose plans with me and I’m totally okay with cancellations as needed. I love spontaneous get-togethers when we both just randomly happen to be in the mood.

And I’m actually a really good friend. If you’re my family or a close friend and you’re in a  true emotional emergency, I’ll bend over backwards to make sure that you’re okay. I’ll show up anywhere, anytime, even if it means getting on a plane or giving you money to get on a plane to me. I’ll answer the phone even though I hate phone calls. I’ll check on you, I’ll have food or flowers delivered to you, I’ll stay up late or get up early, I’ll give you a place to stay. Even when you’re not in an emotional crisis, I will generally remember your birthday, invite you to my annual gingerbread party, send you the occasional checking in text message, create something handmade for you, leave encouraging comments on your social media and show up for the really, really important life events if when they start late at night in a different city in the Bay Area. And when I’m with you, I’m really with you … I’m present, I’m listening, I’m tuned in, I’m curious.

At the end of every day, I do a post on social media summing up my day. Sometimes I worry that the people I’ve flaked out on will think, “she’s so busy with these other things, why couldn’t she do something with me”. Maybe no on is thinking this at all but I want to explain in case they are … these posts are a way for me to celebrate what I managed to get done and enjoy during the day even on the days when it felt like not much got done. Sometimes I did something really fun. Usually I enjoyed really small pleasures. The posts can come across as deceiving. For example, a post that describes my day as “sunny walk, puppy time, great talk with bro, mint juleps, circus” might mean that I stayed on my couch doing virtually nothing until 4pm when I dragged myself into the shower then went and picked up a neighborhood pup, walking around the park in the sun while talking on the phone, after which I forced myself to keep plans I didn’t feel like keeping to go to the circus with my beaux where I enjoyed a mint julep. True that I enjoyed all of those things. Also true that I stayed on the couch until 4pm watching TV and ignoring the world. I celebrate those things, however small, as much as possible because I need to know that I can do something even when I stayed on the couch until 4. So it can seem like I’m doing more than I’m doing but it’s not intentionally deceptive.

Most of the things I do are done with my beaux. He gets the best of me, and he gets the most of me, because that’s what happens with primary partners. He also gets the whiniest, grumpiest, sleepiest, snappyish parts of me although I try to give myself enough space during each day to minimize that aspect when I’m with him. I like to be my best me with others when possible. And to be my best me, I need to be able to avoid plans and cancel plans and see you spontaneously and leave parties early and say “no thanks” to invitations without offending you.


Raised By Wolves – A Season of Circus Acts

circus arts

A year ago I saw a beautiful circus arts show called In The Tree of Smoke at a newly-reopened historic Chinatown venue called Great Star Theatre. It was a fabulous show and I’ve had my eye on the venue and the performers ever since. There are several shows this season that look like they’ll be good, starting with Raised by Wolves, which I saw last night and have to recommend as one of the best live performances I’ve seen in a long time.

I knew that the circus arts would be great. I’m endlessly fascinated by contortionists and aerial dancers and it doesn’t take much to impress me in this area because I just find it all so enchanting. I’m familiar with many of the people who performed because I’ve seen them in several other things over the years.

And indeed, they did not disappoint. Fleeky Flanco crawled like an exquisite creature through tiny spaces and exhibited strength in hand balancing. Inka Siefker lent an air of burlesque to her unique arrow-shooting dance performance. Micah Walters sent his shoulder blades flying so far out of his back that he looked broken in that terrific modelesque manner.

circus, fleeky

There was clowning and acrobatics but my favorite of all was a mesmerizing water performance. I’m pretty sure the dancer was Rachel Strickland in that one. She swam inside of a bowl of water (reminding me of my favorite part of Zumanity) beneath red fabric that clung to her body as she was lifted into the air for portions of her act. Stunning. The whole she was sexy and funny.

But that wasn’t what really clinched it for me as a top performance among all of those I’ve ever seen. It was amazing, it was special, it was what I expected and I was as charmed by it all as I could have hoped. But it was the addition of spoken word by Jamie deWolf that took it over the top into amazing art.


Jamie shared his life story and thoughts about the world through spoken word pieces preceding every performance. Each of his pieces grew deeper into his own story, beginning with his first childhood crush, including the difficulties of life with some troubles and culminating in a piece that celebrates surviving suicidal impulse. (My favorite line in that final piece was: “Attempting suicide is the only failure that is of itself a victory.”)

His words were poetic, rhythmic, painting intense imagery in the air with breath and pounding directly into the heart of the audience in the way that only authentic slam-style poetry can do. I have seen a lot of open mic performances and poetry slams and only a few pieces have ever touched me like each one that he shared. My heart beat faster and my emotions came to a peak inside of me. I wasn’t thinking my own thoughts, which says a lot because I’m rarely so ever present in the moment.


There was one heartbreaking piece he shared about living in a bad area with his newborn daughter and always seeing a little seven year old girl in the hallway … never doing more for her, never learning her story, never even knowing her name until she went missing, abducted and plastered all over the news. It’s the story of Xiana Fairchild, abducted and murdered by Curtis Dean Anderson, a story I had actually just heard because it was the series premiere story on the new Lifetime show “They Took Our Child: We Got Her Back”. (Obviously, that’s not her family’s story, but the story of a second girl who was taken after Xiana.) The powerful poetry broke my heart and surely made us all think about the people we don’t pay enough attention to every day, about the horrors of the world and the personal mistakes we’ve made along the way even though we might not have been able to do it any differently.

Each spoken word piece, strong in its own right, was followed by a circus act that directly spoke to the theme of the poetry. The combination was unbeatable. I’d definitely recommend the show to anyone in San Francisco this month.

Oh and a shoutout to set designer Michael Murnane. My beaux commented several times on the magnificence of the set art.

raised by wolves


Phone Calls Are Not Fun For Me

rotary phone

Over the years, and especially recently, I’ve been offered the opportunity to participate in several podcast interviews about my work. I did do one of these several years back, when Crochet Saved My Life was first released, but all of the others I’ve said that I wanted to do them and backed out either over time or at the last minute. A recent example really brought to light for me that different people see phone calls very differently, something I knew but realized in a new way.

I was invited to do an interview with Stephen for the Yarnbomber podcast. And there was a part of me that really, really wanted to do it. I love what Stephen does, I think the (fairly new) podcast is special, it’s directly in line with everything I love about our crochet community, and it would have given me a chance to do an interview about the Mandalas for Marinke project, which is so very close to my heart.

I hesitated, because I know I hate phone calls, but then I eventually said yes. I said yes because of the part of me that wanted to participate and I also said yes because of the part of me that believes that I have to say yes to these opportunities to broaden my own world and promote the work that I’m doing. But even in that first yet, I mentioned that my hesitation was because of anxiety about phone calls. He was super nice about it and said that other people feel nervous, too, suggesting that I might want to contact a few of the previous interviewees who had been nervous too, to learn more about their experience.

And that’s where things differ for me … because I’m not nervous about phone calls per se. I know that they’ll go fine and aren’t a big deal. But nevertheless, I get anxiety about them. And anxiety is different from nervous. Anxiety is paralyzing. Anxiety is the physical stir in the body that comes from a “fight/flight/freeze” reaction.

princess phone with cod

We set the interview. I rescheduled. Then the day of the rescheduled interview, I considered rescheduling again and finally just decided to cancel. I wasn’t in a good place to do the interview. Could I have done it? Yes, of course. But it was giving me loads and loads of stress having it on my calendar. It’s not so much that there were particular fears or thoughts associated with it as just this growing, spreading feeling of dread with each passing minute closer to the phone call.

Some times in life, these things are easier than others. Right now happens to be a time when anxiety is harder for me. I’m taking medications (for asthma) that increase my body’s feeling of anxiety. So I feel anxious a significant portion of the time, not because of anything happening psychologically, but purely because of a physical response. (It’s the lesser of two evils at the moment because the meds do help my breathing, which had gotten really bad, and I kind of like to breathe.) And although I’m better now, I was in a recent small bout of major depression, so my psychological state is a bit fragile as well. It wasn’t the right time.

Stephen was super nice about it. I apologized – for canceling but also for committing when I knew I might cancel. And I wanted to reassure him that I absolutely love what he does and really appreciate the invite and want to support his work in any way that I can. (Some of this urge to “fix it” relates to previous issues I’ve had when canceling phone interviews. Sometimes people take it personally.) He wrote back and told me not to worry at all about him, that he understood, etc. And there was this line in his message that just stood out to me: “You know, this is supposed to be fun.”

Huh? I promise that it had never once occurred to me that doing a podcast interview might be fun for anyone. Never. At its best, I considered it a potentially okay experience that I would look back on fondly (from a far distance, once it was all complete), as a necessary evil for participating in my own chosen community and as something that would be good for sharing the work that I’m doing, which is work I truly believe in. So, “okay” and “necessary” made sense but fun didn’t register anywhere on my radar of what this call could possibly be.

The thought has stuck with me over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve mulled about why I hate phone calls so much but also about what one considers to be fun and what place this all has in my working life today. As for why I hate phone calls, the truth is that I don’t really know. I know that there was a time in my young teenage years when you couldn’t pry me off the phone, where anyone who called got a busy signal (because that was during the days when there were online landlines and you had to pay for call waiting so we didn’t have it), days when my dad would get up at 3am for a glass of water and realize that I was still on the phone. I know that it was this way at the beginning of high school and by the end of high school I mostly didn’t talk on the phone.

old telephone

In my early twenties, going through a terrible bout of depression, I really had to struggle with phone calls. I would force myself to make and answer the important ones. And I had a couple of friends that I connected with by phone because somehow that was our mode of communication. Email was available but wasn’t commonly used to communicate and texting cost per-message money that I didn’t have. So I did still sometimes have long conversations on the phone with friends but mostly because there weren’t good alternatives. Believe me, I’d have written long letters instead of making calls if my friends had been open to the idea.

The modern world of communication works much better for me. I’m totally comfortable with texting. I love texting, in fact. I love staying in daily regular contact with the people that I care about it a non-voice way, trading information about the mundane and the special through text. And I love that this has now been supplemented with social media where I can learn more about the people that are in my life without having to pick up the phone and call them.

I don’t think that these things entirely replace one-to-one conversations. I talk on the phone to my beaux most days (although that has a lot to do with a compromise because I’m a texter and he’s a caller). And I talk on the phone to my parents and siblings because I miss them like crazy and texting alone isn’t enough. If I could instantly transport them here for occasional face-to-face conversations then I would never call but the phone call is the best option so I do it. Notably, I strongly prefer video calls to voice calls.

Other than these few people, I’d rather not talk on the phone. Sometimes the idea of making and taking calls really paralyzes me. For example, I’ve had a gift certificate for a massage for nearly a year and I haven’t used it yet because they don’t accept online appointments and it stresses me out to have to call and place the appointment. Notably, I loathe any sort of place that requires reservations but doesn’t provide an online option for making them. I take a few other calls because there are certain instances where something is significantly easier to explain quickly in a call than have to share via a million texts (typically in regards to petsitting care). When a very close friend is in a crisis and really needs the support, I’ll pick up the phone. It’s not that I can’t make and take calls. It’s just that I don’t like it.

phone booth

Mostly, this works fine. Most people don’t require phone calls. But it does come up in challenging ways. Over the years, I’ve often had places require a phone interview before accepting me for a freelance writing job. In the past, I always took these, although over time I’ve come to the conclusion that nine times out of ten if they require a call then they don’t really understand what I do and we aren’t compatible for working together. I’ve also done phone interviews with people as part of my work (me interviewing them or them interviewing me) but again I’ve found over time that this is not how I like to work. Not only do I hate the phone call part but then you don’t have a written version of what was said to work with for your article. I don’t get why people would prefer a call in this case.

And this brings me back to the comment that it’s supposed to be fun. The comment really doesn’t even compute. I turn it over and over in my mind like a rare and precious gem, wondering where it could have come from on this planet because it doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. And what I realize is that it’s okay to hate phone calls, as long as doing so doesn’t totally limit my ability to navigate my world, and it’s okay, for the most part, to decide not to participate in things that require them. I appreciate every little bit of self promotion that’s offered to me when it comes to my work but I’m (thankfully) no longer in a stage of career where I have to accept every scrap on the off chance that it will lead to something that helps pay my debt down, so I can be more choosy about the way in which I work. And although there are community opportunities that it hurts a bit to turn down, like this one, I’m learning to be okay with hearing my own heart and doing what’s right for me right now.


Of Art Projects and Pen Pals, the Circles of Life

crochet mandalas for marinke WIP

In June I wrote about Riding Full Circle Through Depression, sharing how five years after depression stole my sense of adventure from me I was able to return to a previous desire and go horseback riding on the beach with my sister. Then in July I wrote about how I had just lost an online friend to suicide and the feelings it brought up were many and varied, ironic in a way because it returned me in some senses to the period of time when depression reigned, not so much in emotionality as in content. Life goes in circles that way. Doors that were opened are never exactly closed, and sometimes a breeze from today pops back into the past and jars them open so that they gape again until you go back and shut them a little more firmly (or ore tenderly as the need may be). After I lost Wink, my online friend, I started an art project in her honor, and through working on that I’ve returned in a way to the me that I was half a lifetime ago in high school.

Mandalas for Marinke

green ombre crochet mandala

The art project is called Mandalas for Marinke and you can read all about it and see the amazing contributions here on my crochet blog. But what is important to share today is the process that I engage in when contributions arrive. As I first began the project, I took myself to the stationary store that I love in Japantown and picked out a few things that I knew were going to be useful for me although I didn’t know why. I got heart-shaped stickers. I got three beautiful pastel polka dotted notebooks. I got a rubber stamp that looked like doilies or mandalas and purple ink to use with the stamp. My mind flashed so briefly that I hardly noticed it on the memory of an art store that used to exist on 4th Avenue in Tucson, a store I’d visit after school with my friends, rarely purchasing anything although occasionally getting stickers to use in the friendship books that I sent through the mail to my pen pals. A brief flash, from half a lifetime ago, and it passed.

Since I started the project, my daily mail is filled with beautiful crochet mandalas, handwritten letters, occasional small gifts and lots of color. I sit down each day with the stack of contributions, opening each one and giving it my full attention, reveling in the beauty that comes not just from the handcrafted art itself but from the loving intention of each participant in the project. I hold that love in my hands and let it course through me and try to send it out to wherever Wink’s spirit may be and to the hearts of whoever may currently be in need of such love so as to avoid joining her in her fate.

leftovers crochet art mandala

Then I pick up one of those polka dotted pastel notebooks, the purple one currently, and I record the contribution in there in my own handwriting. I write down the contributor’s name, address, email, website address, social media links, the number and type of mandalas that they sent in and if they wish to be anonymous. In the front of the notebook, I keep a running tab of contributions that includes each person’s name and location, so that I can see at a glance how many mandalas have come in and from where in the world they originated.

Somehow that process of recording the mandalas in this way is important to me. It’s not just about keeping the record. I do want the record – to include information in the upcoming art show and book, to be able to contact contributors as needed – but if it was just about that then I’d write it all up in a spreadsheet on my computer where it could be easily tracked and sorted and accessed. No, it’s more than that, somehow; it’s the combination of posterity and yet fragility that comes with handwriting each contribution down into the record. It’s like a guest book in an ancient inn, with people dropping in from all around the world and leaving their unique mark on the essence of the place.

crochet mandala doublestranded detail

If the person who sent the contribution is from somewhere in the United States, I write out a postcard thanking them for their contribution. (I intend to do something for the people contributing from other countries down the line but for now it’s easiest on postage to stick with this.) I write it on a postcard leftover from the mailings I did when I first wrote Crochet Saved My Life, the book that introduced me to Wink and her story. It takes me back to my own depression and my own triumph over the worst of it and the early days of knowing Wink. Each postcard includes a doily rubber stamp and a heart-shaped sticker and my handwritten thanks. Simple but I try to infuse it with my true gratitude as I write each one.

thread crochet

After that there’s a process of photographing and tagging and filing away the mandala contributions. I take the pictures and load them into my blog with the messages from the people who sent them, preparing them to be posted in their own individual posts in the days to come. I secure each contribution together with a tag that reminds me who it’s from so that it’s ready for the next stage – which will be an art book and art show, likely in early 2016. I place the contribution carefully into a file system that keeps the mandalas flat and ready for display. I try to email the people who sent their he(art)s to me to let them know I am grateful.

Pen Pals from the Past

three crochet mandalas

Until now, it had been a long, long time since I’d received daily mail, and a long, long time since I’d handwritten notes in this way. But oh how the memories have returned. Let me tell you about my pen pals and how they gave me the world when life seemed so small and desperate.

I was in seventh grade when I got my first pen pal, Melanie, and I remember being so excited because she was from Canada and at the time it seemed like such  foreign, magical place. She, along with my next few early pen pals, came from a pen pal service that I discovered in the advertisements in the back of one of my favorite teen magazines. This was pre-Internet, so I had to send away in the mail for someone to make that connection for us. It cost me a dollar and a SASE (postage was 29 cents at the time, I think) and it took time.

Junior high was awful for me, like it is for so many children. There are names now to describe what I went through – bullying, slut shaming. There are books to help the teens and parents who struggle with these things and classes for the educators to attempt to remedy the impact of the cruelty of children against children. But those things didn’t exist back then, there wasn’t a name for what was happening, and it was just ugly and hard and required a resilience inside of me that was strengthened by my few close friends, my first boyfriend and those letters that came to me in the mail at the end of some school days and transported me to another land.

detail of crochet circle

I became a little bit addicted to pen palling. By high school, I had discovered Friendship Books. This was how we in the world of pen pals met other pen pals. You created a little paper book and decorated the front of it with your address, some information about you and whatever art you wanted to create. You sent it to one of your pen pals, who added her art to the next page and sent it to one of her pen pals and at the end the last person was supposed to send it back to you. You could contact anyone in the book that you might want to be pen pals with. Today it’s called mail art. Back then it was just friendship books. A couple of years later I’d discover the world of zines and take the whole thing to another level still.

High school was rough for me in a way that was different from junior high. Junior high was rough on the outside – with mean people around doing mean things. High school was rough on the inside, with the mean parts of my brain doing mean things to myself in a way that it would take me another ten years to even begin to understand. I had trouble tolerating the sitting still of school, the taking in of information when my brain was already so full of the ruckus inside of itself. I often wrote letters to my pen pals in class,  and I swear it helped me to stay sane.

By my junior year of high school, I had over 100 pen pals. No exaggeration. Most of them were my age and were in the United States. But some were from people older than me and some were from other parts of the world, and I’d collect the stamps off of their envelopes, soaking them in water to remove the gummy part and sticking them in a shoe box, making tick marks on the inside of the box’s lid to indicate how many had come from where. These tick marks are not so different from the marks I’m making in the front of the Mandalas for Marinke notebook, and many of the letters came from the same countries that the mandalas are arriving from.

mirror art

Each day I’d get home, first from school and in later years from work (at a daycare, then an office, then a bookstore) and I’d immediately check the mail. I’d pull out the letters that were for me, sit down with them, read through each one, look at the friendship books or zines they contained and place them aside to respond individually. An individual response included my letter, of course. I’d pull out the friendship books from that envelope, decorate them and file them to be sent to someone else, pull the same number out of the files to be sent to the person I’d just responded to. I’d organize my response and fill the envelope with glitter, confetti and appreciation for the friendship that was coming to me from across the miles.

Those letters might have saved my life. They certainly made it bearable.

Yesterday and Today

double stranded thread crochet simple mandala

I met Wink through the world of the Internet and that’s how I’ve been connected to the many people who have contributed their amazing art to the Mandalas for Marinke project. I’m grateful for the world of social media and the way that it’s made me so in touch with so many people from everywhere who can understand a little bit of my soul. But I have to say I’m also grateful that it wasn’t around half my lifetime ago because what I needed then was the intimate connection of one-on-one letters sent slowly through the mail, each one allowing me to get to know the other person (and myself) a little bit more, a little bit at a time.

lavender crochet round mandala

When I imagine what junior high and high school would have been like for me if Facebook existed, I cringe. I was an impulsive teen who occasionally sent racy photos to the few boys that I pen palled with; I’m certain I’d have victimized myself with sexting if I’d been born a decade or so later. More than that, the world that opened to me through pen pals would have been exposed to the rest of the world I was engaged in – in such a way that I wouldn’t have been able to find or share myself with the vulnerability that those handwritten long-distance pages allowed. It’s not that today’s mode of communication is worse or bad; it’s just that looking back I’m so grateful for the difference in the years that I had, at least in that way.

pink thread crochet mandala for marinke project

And I’m grateful for the way it’s different now, even as I see some things that are the same. Returning to the receiving of mail, the handwritten recording of notes, the connection of one-on-one message-sending, the art that comes through the mailbox … it has returned me to memories that had faded into sepia tones in my mind. It has re-opened a door that was closed just slightly improperly, stuck in the door jamb in an awkward way, and it has allowed me to re-open that door, check out the room inside, be thankful now for what I couldn’t see clearly then, and perhaps close the door in a gentler way so that it isn’t stuck in awkwardness any longer.


Ups, Downs, Extremes … Balance? (The Confusion of Losing an Online Friend)

The last post that I wrote here on this blog was about Riding Full Circle Through Depression with my sister, a post about how I felt, in a way, like I had conquered my own battle with depression just a little bit because of a success I had in accomplishing a posse end goal of wanting to go horseback riding on the beach.

Shortly after I wrote that, I came online to discover that a good Internet friend of mine, someone who also battled severe depression and whose journey was not so dissimilar from my own, succumbed to suicide this week. My initial reaction to the news was a mixture of shock, sadness and fear (which I wrote about here).

As the days have gone on, I’ve continued to have a wide range of emotions. Life feels filled withe extreme news right now, in both good and bad directions, and there are moments where I feel like I’m in the middle of that achieving balance but most of the time it’s swelling clearly one way or the other.

This difficult news came during a week or so of other difficult news from other places around my life. I want to keep the details private because the stories are not my own to share; they are hard experiences of death, illness, sickness and life changes that are affecting some of the people closest to me in my life. Good friends, my beaux, people I love are being impacted by really tough things in life. It seems like it’s happening all around me right now.

All of those things are affecting me, as I pull to the center and hold the stillness for some of these people. But Wink’s suicide affected me, personally, in a strangely more direct way. I say strangely because I didn’t know Wink “in real life” but had communicated with her periodically over the past several years online after interviewing her about her experience with Asperger’s, loneliness and severe depression for my book, Crochet Saved My Life. Even when we weren’t communicating directly, I was abreast of many things happening with her through social media and blogging. She felt, in a way, like a close friend, and in another way like someone I didn’t know at all and that’s brought up a lot of strange feelings in and of itself. Those feelings are complicated by the fact that we specifically met and connected over the topic of depression, a journey that we’ve both been taking for many years.

I wrote on my crochet blog about these feelings (linked above) and received so many responses this week from people who are also feeling similar things. Many, many people are saying that they are experiencing grief over losing Wink and they don’t quite know how to place it since they “only” knew her online. Our society doesn’t have a good way of understanding or handling the impact of this type of loss yet. Many have said that they don’t feel like their families understand why they are crying and devastated over losing an Internet friend. There’s a sense of isolation.

So, so many of these people have shared their own stories with me (on my blog, in my Ravelry group, through other social media channels and in private emails) about how depression has affected them. Many have said that they were suicidal in the past, some that they are struggling with suicidal ideation now (note, please seek the support that you need if you are feeling this way – reach out to friends, family, crisis hotlines or even the ER). Others have shared their stories about people in their own lives who have caved to suicide.


It’s been hard, in a way, to read about all of this struggle and sadness. And in another way, it’s been so incredibly uplifting to see the crochet/ craft/ online community come together to give each other support in this time. So many people have reached out to me, left comments on the blog post by Wink’s sister and connected to each other to encourage one another and express their feelings about this loss. I had known immediately that I wanted to do something to honor Wink and channel my many complex feelings while helping the community so I created the #MandalasForMarinke project and it’s gotten tons of amazing support already. I hope it’s helping people as an outlet to craft through their feelings and I hope it will achieve my aim of raising awareness about the difficulty of depression.

This is just one of several amazing things on the positive side of the spectrum of emotions. Another is that I just got accepted to be a Text Crisis Counselor (like a hotline but via text; see video below for more info on how this helps people).

Apparently only one third of the applications this round got accepted so that’s an honor and I’ve started my intensive training for that this week. It’s a great next step for me in terms of giving back to the community, helping others experiencing mental health and other crisis issues and figuring out what I want to do with my own graduate degree as I move forward. In addition to these things, there’s been other great news in the lives around me, touching the people I love.

So there are these extremes – of loss and sadness and of growth and connection. In the big spectrum of life, this creates balance and I get glimpses of this balance in moments during the day. But in such quick back-to-back succession, these extremes are in deep contrast to each other and can feel overwhelming in some moments. I’m grateful to have the community support that I have and the internal resources for self-care that I’ve developed over time.


Riding Full Circle with Sister through Depression

horseback riding

My sister was here last week to visit with me. It’s always so wonderful to have here. My siblings are my best friends and the only thing I’d change about life in San Francisco is that I wish they were here with me. She was only here for a few days but we packed in a lot of lovely experiences together. On her last day here, we went horseback riding down in Half Moon Bay, an experience that pulled me full circle through a tough time.

You see, my sister once did try to live here for a summer, checking out whether or not it was the place for her. It was during the lowest depths of my depression, right before I got diagnosed and got help. I didn’t know what was wrong and I didn’t understand how to cope with depression. It was an awful time. The worst part was that I really wanted to enjoy my sister’s stay, to do fun things with her, to create memories, to celebrate our adulthood together … and I couldn’t.

It’s hard to explain depression from outside of it. We did do things sometimes that summer and sometimes I laughed and had fun. But I often couldn’t do anything. Or I fell apart. I remember one time we went to some kind of comedy day down by Yerba Buena and there were all of these people around, mostly kids, and I just started crying and I couldn’t stop and I felt like I was going to implode. I had to have my sister call my best friend who also didn’t really know what to do for me. I don’t recall how the day ended. Sleep, eventually, I suppose.

Everything just felt hard that summer. On the one hand, my senses were dulled and I couldn’t take pleasure in anything. And on the other hand, my mind was constantly ruminating and producing feelings of anxiety. Everything scared me. I got my first Zipcar rental while she was here and the whole process – figuring out how to get the car, get the gas, drive again after it had been awhile – terrified me and upset me and made me cranky, and snappy, and stressed and then I felt guilty and bad and sad about being cranky and snappy and stressed.


So that summer, I had suggested that we go horseback riding on the beach. It was something that had been on my “life list” for many years, probably something I saw in a movie or read about in a book that sounded magical and stuck in my mind. My sister thought it was a great idea. But I couldn’t do it. The cost, the drive, the ride … it was all too much. I kept saying we’d go soon and then being upset about it. My sister was fine with it all. She was mildly disappointed that we weren’t going but she’s laidback and was having a good time here on her own anyway, taking art classes and going to festivals and exploring the city. And yet, I felt terrible that I couldn’t take her.

That was six years ago. So before she came to visit me this time, I said that the one thing I wanted to do was to go horseback riding on the beach. I wanted to tie that loose end up into a bow. So we went. And I was a little anxious, because I hadn’t been on a horse in a long time, but I wasn’t debilitatingly anxious. I was fine. Because I am mostly fine now.

We rode an hour on a trail on the bluffs above the ocean then another hour on the beach itself. My horse was too tall, my stirrups didn’t quite feel right and when the mare would gallop I’d get scared enough that I’d have to WHOA her to stop. But I wasn’t petrified. And I wasn’t depressed. And I wasn’t stuck inside of my own head. I was able to look around and see the stunning beauty of the area. The trail wound through some beautiful flowers. And I have to say, riding on the beach actually is as magical as the movies make it seem. The waves crash on to the sand near the horses and you’re up there so tall and you’re part of this magnificent natural beauty in a way that is entirely distinct from standing on the sand on your own.

By the time that the two hour ride was coming to an end, I was definitely ready to be done. I was sore all over. I was tired and hungry. But I was so happy. I knew that it would be a good accomplishment to complete that activity but I didn’t expect to feel as elated inside as I did. It was as though there was this incomplete thing that was still waiting inside me to be done and when we finished the ride it was finally finished and I felt whole. It was like that loose end had been hanging there inside of me all of this time, itching just a little beneath the surface to cause tiny discomfort, and now it’s all tied up and the scratch is gone.

I live with chronic depression. That summer was the worst of it and I’ve gotten steadily better ever since. But I think of my illness like a cancer, with remission and not necessarily cure. It comes back sometimes and I have to be diligent in treating it. In fact, I’ve noticed over the last months that I’m more anxious than I was for awhile, that my downs are a little lower, and I eye that carefully, checking to see if it’s a normal reaction to what’s happening in my life or if it’s something that needs more care. I’m not always healed, but I’m well enough to ride horses on the beach with my sister and love almost every minute of it.

sisters beach


Animal Assisted Therapy for Couples

lucy pet therapy

Lately I’ve become super interested in the use of animals, especially dogs, in counseling settings. It’s something that I’ve been developing as an interest for awhile and of course it’s been enhanced since I started doing pet therapy volunteering with Lucy through SPCA. I wrote a few papers on the topic for grad school this semester and thought I’d share one of them here today.

Animal Assisted Therapy in Couples Counseling

Animal assisted therapy utilizes pets in the therapy room to enhance the power of the counseling relationship and the work done with clients. This has primarily been studied in counseling working with individuals, especially children, people on the autism spectrum and individuals working through trauma. However, there are a handful of therapists out there who are actively using pet therapy in couples counseling. Animal-assisted couples therapy is typically used in conjunction with other approaches to working with couples, rather than as a stand-alone type of therapy. It complements several of the major approaches used in couples counseling and works well for therapists using an eclectic approach.

Approaches to Animal Assisted Therapy

There are three ways that pets typically assist in couples counseling. The most common is for the therapist to bring his/her own pet to the sessions; this is usually (but not always) a dog. The pet is often specially-trained to work as an emotional support animal. In some cases, the pet may belong to someone other than the therapist but be assigned specifically to work in that therapy office. Although this area of research has only been studied in recent years, it is not a new approach to therapy. In fact, Freud himself was known to bring his dog Jofi to sessions and even to make interpretations through Jofi based on the behavior the dog displayed towards the clients! (Walsh, 2009)

The second approach to animal assisted therapy is for the clients to bring their own family pet into the couples counseling session. This is less common but can be greatly beneficial for some clients. Clients who share a love for their pet may be able to use this as a bonding tool to motivate their work in sessions. Other times, the favoring of the pet by one over the other can quickly reveal insights into the relationship.

Finally, couples therapy may incorporate family pets without actually bringing them into the room. This is done by asking clients questions about the pets at home with the specific intention of gaining more information about family dynamics, the ways in which the couples interacts with one another and even potential domestic violence in the home. A Utah State University study by Ascione, Weber and Wood called The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence revealed that in one domestic violence shelter more than 85% of women and 63% of children reported pet abuse in the home. This is one of several studies that suggest a strong correlation between the way a person treats the animals in the home and the way that (s)he treats the other humans in the home.

Pets Reflect Couples’ Behavior Back to Them

One of the core tools that the therapist uses with couples is to provide them with insight into the impact of their actions on each other, the relationship, and the family system. Sometimes a dog can demonstrate this information to a couple better than even the most qualified therapist. In her TIME Health article The Dog Will See You Now, Alexandra Sifferlin provides one example from the therapy room of Colorado-based LPC Ellen Winston who used pet therapy with a couple that was divorcing but wanted to communicate better in order to co-parent. Sifferlin writes, “During the sessions, the couple would sit on complete opposite sides of the couch. Sasha (the dog) would hop in the middle, curl up and fall asleep. Both partners would stroke Sasha at particularly emotional moments, and it helped them calm down. Still, they continued to get agitated, often letting therapy sessions intensify into screaming matches. When that happened, Sasha would quickly get up and walk to the door. Winston used those moments as teaching points.” The couple quickly began to see how damaging their conversational style and saw, through the dog, the impact it was likely having on their children. This motivated the couple towards change.

Pets are Part of the Family

MFT research from the 1970s reveals that many therapists noticed the important role that pets play in families, which is why it can be powerful to have couples bring their family dog into a session or to devote a session to talking about the animal. Froma Walsh, PhD writes in Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy:

“Murray Bowen (1978) noted that the family emotional system, which reverberates like shockwaves through the network of relationships, may include even nonrelatives and pets. Network therapists Speck and Attneave (1973) noticed that pets often seemed to reflect the feelings of family members and their behavior seemed directly related to the behavioral trends in the family.”

Pets can become part of the triangle in family relationships. Walsh gives an example:

“In some cases, pets became the subject of observation and conversation between spouses, with warmth, concern, and affection expressed for the pet rather than for each other. In a pursuer-distancer relationship, this could provide affection for a partner wanting more intimacy than the other. However, in some cases, this could evoke jealousy and hurt. One couple came to me for therapy because the wife felt starved of affection by her husband, who sat petting his purring cat on his lap every evening but could not express affection toward her. Exploration of family-of-origin issues revealed that, having felt threatened by his mother’s intrusiveness, he was more comfortable being affectionate with his cat than with women.”

If a pet can become part of triangulation in families, it can also be used therapeutically as the third leg of the triangle in the counseling room.

Pet Ownership Lowers Stress in Marriages

Pet ownership has been known to lower stress . Jill A. Kraus reported in her study Stress in Pet Owners and Non-Pet Owners that married couples with supportive social relationships were less likely to experience the negative impact of stress and that pets in the home could serve as just such a supportive social relationship to the benefit of both partners. The therapist can help the couple relive positive experiences that they have had with their pets to strengthen bonding and positive emotions between one another.

Furthermore, Walsh, PhD, writes, “In a study of social interaction patterns in the everyday life of couples, Allen (1995) found that couples with dogs had greater well-being, and those with the highest attachment to their dogs – and who confide in them – fared the best.Interestingly, talking to dogs – in addition to one’s spouse – was related to greater life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and physical and emotional health. Confiding in pets to ‘‘discuss’’ difficult life situations greatly relieved stress.” Therapists have been known to ask couples to direct their conversations through the dog in the room in order to reveal sensitive information that they may not yet be able to speak directly to their partner.

Other Benefits of Pets in Couples Therapy

  • Pets improve people’s moods. A more positive attitude may help improve therapy outcomes. It reduces client anxiety and helps build therapeutic rapport in the early stages of the relationship.
  • Dogs can encourage couples to interact with one another. Therapy dogs can be used to play interactive games with clients to get them working together. This shows the couple that they can indeed work together after all.
  • Animal misbehavior can be a teaching tool, especially for couples who disagree over how to to discipline children and other parenting issues. It can also help a couple practice problem solving.
  • The pet may be considered part of the healing team. Therapists who work with couples to identify their individual and shared support systems may add the pet to that list.

Additional Considerations

Although the health benefits of having pets and even the use of pets in the therapy room are not new things, they are understudied, especially as they apply to couples’ counseling. Therapists interested in working with pets in this way should gain as much training as possible. Additionally, the therapist must consider the legal and ethical issues involved with bringing pets into the therapy room.

Sifferline, quoting Canisius College adjunct professor of anthrozoology Sherly Pipe, says, “a therapy animal should be considered a partner rather than a tool. “We tend to have a greater willingness to consider the impact on our partner than our tools. We have to make sure an animal is happy participating and still has adequate time to behave like the animal that they are.”

Walsh’s report adds, “The therapist’s careful selection and certification of a therapy animal, rigorous healthcare and monitoring, and informed consent by clients are all essential (Fine, 2006b; see Delta Society, Standards of Practice,; Therapy Dogs International,” If animal abuse is revealed during the course of therapy with animals, the therapist must adhere to the appropriate mandated reporting requirements.

Finally it is important to remember that people form strong bonds with pets. If a therapist’s pet is used regularly in couples counseling, it will be important to include the pet in the termination process when couples’ therapy comes to an end.




Counterpulse, Arts Fundraising and Down’s Syndrome


Capacitor dance photo via Facebook

Over the weekend I went to Counterpulse, a local arts organization that specializes in producing cutting-edge works of performance art. They have been in the same spot in SoMA for a decade but are moving to a new building in Tenderloin later this year. I had been there before and enjoyed the space and the mission of the place but hadn’t attended anything there in a long time. I didn’t realize that what I was attending was a fundraising event, but it ended up giving me a great perspective on the place.


I heard about the May Day event because of an email from Capacitor, one of the five groups performing on the night that I went. They’re an aerial-contortionist-dance group that I always find amazing and I look forward to seeing their work. They didn’t disappoint of course, sharing and excerpt from a longer work that will be at Fort Mason next year that I’m already looking forward to.

Capacitor has been working with Counterpulse for the past year. The other performances were a mixture of similar work helped along by Counterpulse and performances by other partner / sister organizations in the Bay Area like ODC theater. Both types of performance were interesting. There was a wearable technology performance where movement altered voice sounds in a captivating way. There were two pieces that had a humorous edge. And there was a solo dance performance using a oversized chair as an impressive prop. I loved the mixture of performances, the unique inspiration of each, the abbreviated look at the dance community in the Bay Area.

directors counterpulse

Counterpulse executive director Tomás Riley with artistic director Julie Phelps

What was interesting was that it was also a fundraising event. Before the show and during intermission was a silent auction where people could bid on items including wine, bodywork, art, bike tours, overnight getaways, book collections and more. Between the two final acts there was an “auctioning of the bills”. This was fascinating to watch. The directors of Counterpulse got on stage and shared a breakdown of the different costs of operating their new facility, asking people to take on a portion of the costs. They said it was a way for donors to let people really know where their money was going. And of course it helped to make their costs really transparent.

It was fascinating to watch what people would contribute for or not, something that seemed to be based on the item up for donation rather than the dollar amount. Someone who didn’t bid on anything else shot his hand up immediately to donate enough to cover one week of free yoga for community members. Another gave to cover the cost of one month of full health insurance coverage for one of the staff members. A few donated to help provide stipend funding for arts fellows. Three more each gave a month of rent costs to keep the doors open. Another wanted to give tangibly and offered her money to the cost of office supplies and toilet paper.

Sometimes it was uncomfortable, sitting there in the audience, waiting to see if anyone would give for something specific. There was a sense of pressure to give, even though the presentation of the process was congenial and friendly, and I was curious if some people were giving out of response to that pressure. It was also interesting, as an outsider who isn’t really familiar with this community, to see how much of the giving came from a combination of staff members, board members and longtime supporters that the staff knew by name. It made me think of how we are all so passionate about our own little communities, the niches we’ve found ourselves in that we’re willing to really give for. It made me think of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and how it’s so true that people really do want to give to others in so many different ways.

art of asking

One of the things that they were requesting donations for was the cost of maintaining the elevator in their new space. They mentioned that they were not required to include an elevator but wanted to do so as part of their ongoing commitment to full accessibility – not only so that people with disabilities can attend shows but so that dancers with varying accessibility issues can be welcomed to participate in the shows. This impressed me. I see a lot of live performances of all types and it made me think about how few have had visible disabilities of any kind.

writing with grace book

Right now I’m reading Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome, a book by writer Judy McFarlane who works with a young woman named Grace who has Down’s Syndrome and is writing her own book. Judy is starkly honest about her own preconceived notions as she first met Grace and how she had to confront her own biases. She delves deep into the history of Down’s Syndrome research and litigation, both in Canada where she is based and also around the world. One of the things she highlights is the way that Down’s Syndrome fetuses are frequently aborted. I have no opinion either way on this, other than to say that I think abortion is a choice that all mothers should have though it shouldn’t be taken lightly and always comes with pain even when it’s the right choice. But the idea of it struck me because I have always kind of accepted that this is a totally reasonable choice to have and McFarlane caused me to consider that perhaps the legitimizing of aborting an entire category of humans isn’t something that should be commonly accepted.

What it really has me thinking about, I suppose, is the many different types of people there are in this world compared to the small percentage of which we consider “normal”. People on the autism spectrum, people with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities, people with major learning disabilities, people with mental health issues … there remains so much stigma around all of these things, stigma I admit I work with constantly inside my own self to varying degrees. And how each of these is considered a disability that diverges from the “norm”. But with the percentage of people affected by any one of these things, can we really say that the “norm” is norm at all?

I’ve learned a lot about the thinking process of people with autism as well as the learning process of people with dyslexia. Now in reading about Grace’s journey, I’m seeing yet another side of the same coin. And what it forces me to look at is my own value system in regards to “intelligence” and “knowledge” and “being smart”. I’ve always been smart by the standards of society. I’ve always gotten great grades in school and been able to carry on intellectual conversations on a wide range of topics and enjoy being well-read. And yet, it’s only way of learning and interacting with the world, so what I cling to as “smart” for me excludes entire categories of people who learn and express in other ways.

I realize this isn’t a new concept by any stretch, that this is something that people with different learning styles have been telling us for a long time. And yet it’s somehow impacting me in a different way right now. It’s subtle. I’m not sure what it means or will turn into or if it’s just reorganizing my thinking a little bit, which will likely reorganize my perception of and experience in the world. It’s all in process. And where I am at today.