Up With People, Sketches, and Impact

I travelled with Up With People Cast B 1992-93. You may have heard of UWP and you may not have. If you have heard of them you may have been told they are a cult. You may have seen one of the big, impressive, and highly professional shows. You may know the main song “Up, Up With People, you meet ‘em wherever you go…” or the most famous song “What Color is God’s Skin“ which was the only religious song in our repertoire. You may recall they were part of a Super Bowl halftime show, performed for the Pope, and filled a 20,000 plus seat soccer stadium in South America.

When I travelled I was 25, and I had interviewed to tour after a show in Troy, NY. I ended up traveling to nine countries over the course of the year with 121 other students and recent students from 22 different countries, staying with approximately 85 different host families and performing the 2-hour show over 180 times. We also did community service in every town. I painted playground equipment, cleaned out animal rescue shelters, served at soup kitchens, planted trees, hayed, taught grammar schools kids about my culture and my friendships with the other Uppies, sang in aged care facilities…

This was a year of my life (well-spent) in which our motto was “we’ll sleep next year”. It brought me self confidence, exposure, and many new friends, including my amazing husband with whom I lived in the Netherlands for a year before we settled in the USA. It cost me $10,800 to travel for the year with the cast, not including incidentals such as coffee, postage, film, some serious occasional self-doubt, and much of my sanity.

When I was raising money to travel, I cleaned houses for $35, quickly learning I should scope out the house before setting the price. I sold some of my stuff as well as my parent’s car (with their permission) getting half of that money for the trip. I staged a cabaret performance evening with about 40 of my closest friends performing over two (or was it three) nights, called “Let It begin”, and I sent a letter out to many friends and family asking for support in the form of monetary donations or good wishes sent my way.

One friend, who I held and still hold in very high regard, totally attacked my choice in doing this crazy thing. He basically said if I wanted to truly help the world I should take the thousands of dollars and buy coats for kids in my own town. That I was foolish for singing and dancing around the world in order to “change things”.

I was crushed. I thought I had totally lost him as a friend and I could not understand why he would think buying coats for one community would be more effective than being an ambassador and traveling to meet people from other cultures. I would be learning from them and sharing my world with them!

He never asked my “why” I thought it was a good idea to travel. 

I would have said that I felt like UWP was what we truly needed (in 1992 and I suspect now in 2019) and I related the experience to sketching. When I sketch, I don’t start in one corner of the page with perfect lines exactly colored in, and finished, and then work my way across the page. Certainly if I did this, I would run out of paper before I ran out of the picture I wanted to create. Instead I sketch lightly over the whole sheet, to ensure the view fits fully and the proportions are right. Then I go over with clearer lines, and adjust and mend things that aren’t clear. I do some “broad brush” painting, and then add detail, light, and shadow. I maybe even then oversketch some parts and pieces to pull them forward and make them more prominent. 

A sketch of my cat, Playful

This is what UWP was to me. A big, complex, highly detailed sketch that had to begin with the full page, an effort to get to know at least some parts of the world, and more of its inhabitants by traveling with them and going to them. This experience taught me to be a human being on this planet, instead of merely a New Yorker. 

A bit as the expression, if you teach a man to fish…, this trip was exhausting and enlightening and gave me a more solid foundation in myself and in my life.

Notes from an Integrative Process class

The thing is, I never had the guts to ask him “why” he hated my plan. Maybe he didn’t understand, or maybe he had experiences with something similar and was scared for me. Maybe he thought it was a cult. Maybe the money was beyond his comprehension at the time. Maybe he thought I’d go away and not come back. Maybe he saw all it could be, but couldn’t see me doing it. Perhaps someday I’ll ask him. Maybe I’ll send him this post.

So these are the two messages of this story.

First, cherish the “broad brush” awareness and connectivity of sketching, and of Up With People. Sometimes in order to learn and to benefit your own context you need to look outside of it.

Second, don’t hesitate to ask “why”. Being curious is, I think, our more precious instinct. We can find out all kinds of things by being curious, and open. I know, after more than 25 years of not knowing the “why”, that I still regret not asking. I still want to know. I can still learn more about me, about my friend, about the world….by asking “why” and by listening to the answers.

Be well, and be greener,


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