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Jennifer Dempsey, on the value of social circus, Belfast during ‘The Troubles,’ creating resilience through humor and being the world’s worst waitress

(Publication Date: 3.26.24)

In this episode of We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Jennifer Dempsey, founder of the Salida (Colo.) Circus and former director of the Belfast Community Circus in Northern Ireland.

 

They talk about what a social circus is and the good it serves in a community. They talk about what it was like for Jenn to live in Belfast for 12 years, using the circus as a tool for bringing people together during “The Troubles.”

 

Jenn tells about how, as a two-time college dropout who also was, in her words, “the world’s worst waitress” and a “terrible employee” for others, she figured out the unconventional path of her own life and not only has thrived but has helped so many others along the way. 

 

They also talk about solving life’s quality problems, getting past our own self-consciousness and developing our skills of humor to create resilience. Among other things.

SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.

 

Along with being distributed on podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org

 

Jennifer Dempsey

Website: thesalidacircus.com 

Instagram: instagram.com/the.salida.circus 

Facebook: facebook.com/SalidaCircus  

Documentary film about the Salida Circus, “Come One Come All”: vimeo.com/778626562

 

We Are Chaffee

Website: wearechaffee.org

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffeepod 

Facebook: facebook.com/wearechaffee

Instagram: instagram.com/wearechaffee

CREDITS

Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams

Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray

We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin

We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby

Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom

TRANSCRIPT

Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.

Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.

 

[Intro music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams (00:14): Welcome to We Are Chaffee's Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community, and well-being, rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. 

Today I'm talking with Jennifer Dempsey, founder of the Salida Circus, and former director of the Belfast Community Circus in Northern Ireland. Both are social circuses, so naturally, we talk about what a social circus is and the good it serves in a community. We talk about what it was like for Jen to live in Belfast for 12 years using the circus as a tool for bringing people together during the Troubles. 

She talks about how and why her experiences in Belfast were such an incredibly formative time in her life and how she learned the value of creating opportunities for joy and absurdity in the midst of political turmoil, violence, and grief. We talk about how, as a two-time college dropout, who also was, in her words, the world's worst waitress and a terrible employee for others.

(01:05): Jen figured out the unconventional path of her own life and not only has thrived but has helped so many others along the way. We talk about solving life's quality problems, getting past our own self-consciousness, and developing our skills of humor to create resilience, among other things. The Looking Upstream podcast is supported by Chaffee County Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. It's available on all podcast players, and the show also airs at 1 PM Tuesdays at KHEN 106.9 FM community radio in Salida.

(01:36): And look for the monthly We Are Chaffee Column in the Chaffee County Times and the Mountain Mail. Show notes, including links and a full transcript of this and all Looking Upstream conversations are available at wearechaffee.org. You can support the podcast by following We Are Chaffee Pod on Instagram and the We Are Chaffee account on Instagram and Facebook. 

Now, here we go, my conversation with Jennifer Dempsey. 

[Transition music, guitar instrumental]

Adam Williams: Well, Jen, let's start with the circus. Tell me about your life in that, how you got started, what you got started with in the circus, what drew you to it. There you go, a whole load of questions right out of the gate.

Jennifer Dempsey (02:24): When I was eight years old, in third grade, my PE teacher had an after-school circus club, and his name was Mr. Moyer. And so my brothers and sisters and I just went to his after-school circus club. Other kids went to soccer, other kids went to basketball. That was my after-school sport. And he was a very unique person. 

He had been bequeathed to all this circus equipment and he just opened his gym to all these local kids who wanted to learn how to ride unicycles or do tumbling or trapeze or whatever. And of course, at eight years old, I totally took it for granted. I thought this was just what kids do. And now looking back, I think, wow, that was really unique opportunity and little did I know that was going to lay the blueprint for my life.

Adam Williams (03:12): Yeah, it's such a pivotal moment to come into contact and so early with something that would resonate so much with your life.

Jennifer Dempsey (03:22): Well, it's interesting because I really lost it for a lot of years. And my personal journey was coming back to it at age 21. There's a real common habit of kids dropping out of circus school. I see it all the time now, when they hit 12 or 13, they're too cool for circus school. And I was too. And so my high school years, I really didn't do anything circusy. Did a little bit of gymnastics, but it was only when I went to do a year abroad in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and I was enrolled as an English literature student at Queen's University, and I was still like, ooh, I don't know, this is not quite sure... I don't think this is what I want to do. I don't really know. Pretty restless. School never was very easy for me to excel in academically. I love learning.

(04:19): I'll learn until the cows come home but the actual structure of school was hard. So I'm twice college dropout. I don't use that as an example for other people, but my journey was. So it took me two times dropping out of college to finally say, okay, so there's a different path for me and I'm going to find it. And so my motto is, never let school get in the way of your education. So when I was at Queen's and I dropped out of school again, it was 1989, in the middle of the Troubles, I'm 21 years old, like, I don't know what my path is. But then I discovered this little circus club and it was just like my third grade circus club after school, and I was just in it to win it.

(05:08): Man, I just kept going there and it was so familiar and it brought back this childhood joy. And what the Belfast Circus was, it used circus as a way to bring Catholic and Protestant kids together in a neutral, playful, safe environment. So of course, that definitely appealed to me. So it was not only finding my own personal joy, but also stepping into a way of using the arts for a higher purpose, which was totally a revelation to me. I don't know, that was my path and I've stayed on it since 21.

Adam Williams (05:48): What was your experience of being there during the Troubles as an American and somebody just playing from the outside? And what was going on with that experience in Northern Ireland?

Jennifer Dempsey (06:01): I could go in a lot of different directions. As an American college student living there, I was pretty protected from it. The Queen's University area is pretty removed from the Troubles. But once I dropped out of the circus and I was on my own, I ended up living in West Belfast with another circus performer. 

And what my takeaway from living in West Belfast, because I ended up living there for 12 years, ooh, that there is great value in creating opportunities for fun and joy and absurdity and comedy and lightheartedness in the midst of political turmoil. Lots of people were focusing on the political turmoil and trying to find a solution to the political crisis there. Thank goodness for them.

(07:06): Then there were lots of other people who were creating moments of happiness and moments of joy and celebration, and thank goodness for them. And it takes both to create a healthy society or to resolve conflict. What I learned was by... because I eventually became director of the Belfast Circus, my job was to facilitate workshops, put on shows, bring people into this creative space, teach them skills, find out what skills they had, and then perform that for the wider community. 

And what I found value in was by creating a neutral space, all their outside identities were irrelevant. And to be in a space with other people in a completely level neutral space is so transformative because suddenly, everybody's on the same level. So discovering that in Belfast, I was able to bring that back to America and hopefully, replicate it here in Salida, which I think it has happened.

Adam Williams (08:24): It's interesting how programs like that, and I'm thinking specifically in America with opposing gangs, for example, and being brought together for maybe its creative purposes, its community purposes, but when you are face to face with someone, you have to see and hear the human across from you and they understand that about you, a bunch of these labels and barriers to identity, and in this case, with the Troubles, we're talking about violence in these politics, long-standing hard feelings, and it's amazing that there are tools like this that can be creative and can be social and community-oriented to help dissolve some of those barriers and bring people back together.

Jennifer Dempsey (09:10): I often referred to the Belfast Circus as a subculture in Northern Ireland because you had your two very, very strong identities in conflict with each other, with all that history and all the identity that people carried. Creating a circus ring or a circus environment, you need to be present. You cannot care if your trapeze partner is Catholic or Protestant. You just want them to keep you up above the ground. You just don't want them to drop you. So the relationships were based on completely new contexts. And sometimes it worked, and you know what? Sometimes it didn't.

(10:06): I worked in a boys' home for about four years. They were all in the court system somehow or another, funny as heck, I mean, it was so... they were the funniest kids I ever worked with. And some of them were able to crack open their identities a little bit. And they did get integrated into the bigger circus community, and some of them carried on and did careers, and some of them just... they didn't. And that's just the nature of introducing anything new, it's going to take a while, or it'll take hold to some people and it won't on others.

Adam Williams (10:54): You said you were there for 12 years, was that 12 years... did that end up ultimately spanning the end of the Troubles?

Jennifer Dempsey (11:02): Well, that's an interesting question because the Troubles just... yes, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was the, quote, unquote, "end of the war," the ceasefire and all that. So the official war was over, however, the Troubles continue to this day under maybe a different name or in a different vein. What's also interesting is when I lived there, there was very little... suicide rates were low. 

There was petty crime ... I mean, they had that but it wasn't as prevalent in other areas. The Troubles seemed to dominate the social fabric. And it's very interesting how it gave a lot of people a sense of identity, a sense of purpose. There was a struggle, there was something external to them that focused their attention. And then when that was over, sadly, suicide rates have just shot sky-high. So that's a very interesting social study.

Adam Williams (12:20): You think, because they don't have that to identify with anymore, so they no longer feel like they're part of a team, oh, now I'm out here alone. Who am I with? Who am I not? What do I associate with?

Jennifer Dempsey (12:30): All that, all that, that you said.

Adam Williams: Wow.

Jennifer Dempsey: And I think that the lack of purpose and the lack of external organization of your energies, without that, you have a lot of personal answering to do and a lot of self-direction. When your attention has been consumed in that way, first of all, I think it's a jolt to your system that now I don't label myself as a freedom fighter or as a victim. You have to re-identify yourself, plus people are carrying deep, deep wounds. 

One of the things about the Good Friday Agreement that I can't imagine, I'm going there next week, by the way, so this is all very present on my mind. But another group I worked with was called WAV, Widows Against Violence, and it was Wave Trauma Centre, and it worked with anybody in the Troubles who'd been bereaved, Catholic, Protestant, police, civilian, anybody. And I started a circus program with those children. And my focus was so much on the circus that I would just get little glimpses of like, what this kid lost both parents and what... I mean, that aspect of it was always there, and I absorbed it as I could.

(13:48): A lot of the time when I was in Northern Ireland, I was focused on the happy, focused on the circus, and there was a lot of that. And oftentimes, I just forgot where I was, I was just being a circus director, and then other times, I was like... I could get paralyzed with the tragedy of the place. But what I was getting at was the Good Friday Agreement said anybody who'd been imprisoned for Troubles related offensives were now out, could now be released. So now in Northern Ireland, the Troubles are over, but there's this mix of people living together who perpetrated, were victims, were... carried out atrocities, living next door to each other.

Adam Williams (14:38): So there wasn't really a reconciliation process officially for everybody to come back into the shared society and have to work through those traumas. Wow.

Jennifer Dempsey (14:51): I've been away now for 20 years, and so I'm not exactly sure. I would imagine there was peace and reconciliation programs to speak of. But one of my friends that I worked with for a long time at WAVE, he lost his wife and father-in-Law in a bomb, and I saw him on a documentary and he said he was walking into a shopping mall and he walked right into... he saw the bomber. 

And I mean, that's his normal day. And I'm like, oh my gosh, how do you... at least when the war was going on, there was... there was a little bit of rhyme and reason, but now, you're walking in to buy a new pair of shoes and you're like, oh, hello, you planted a bomb that killed my... That's a whole new mess.

Adam Williams (15:42): Yeah. When you dropped out of school and you ended up in this circus life, I don't know that you had those intentions. Tell me how that maybe went, but what did you think you might be heading toward as you chose to stay in Belfast, not just come back home to the US? And it's sounding like to me that this was a fun... I don't want to say diversion–

Jennifer Dempsey (15:43): Diversion. Oh, no.

Adam Williams: Oh, okay, great.

Jennifer Dempsey (16:11): So I'm going to Belfast trying to get back into the academic life. I went to UMass Amherst for about a year. I dropped out. I was a 21-year-old, I had my own inner struggles with depression and with fighting an outlet that would work for me and to try to keep me moving in a forward direction. And so my attempt to go into Belfast was like, well, let's try this college thing again. When I found the circus, it met a huge need in me.

(16:46): I was like, oh, wow, this is happiness again. I forgot about this. I am not moving from this space. I just remember, when your TV gets in tune with the antenna, you're like, hold the antenna there. That's how I felt when I found the circus. I was like, I found my antenna happiness, I can't leave. And my parents were actually very happy for me that I had found the thing that was going to work for me. And it just took me a couple of college tries to get there. I started out, I didn't make any money, but my happiness factor was the thing that I needed most.

Adam Williams (17:35): Did your parents have expectations when you were going off to college? I mean, well, let's look beyond that. Did they have expectations of what your life was supposed to be, this, perhaps, conventional, go to college, get married, get a career, have kids, whatever all they thought? And I don't want to put that on your parents. That's why I'm asking though, because that is, as I'm sure you're aware, a very common structure a lot of us are given now, and we're told to conform to it.

Jennifer Dempsey (18:02): So I'm a parent now, so I get it, I get it that you want to see your child following some sort of path that's going to keep them safe and fulfill them.

Adam Williams (18:14): Stable.

Jennifer Dempsey (18:14): Stable and all that. But I think I had struggled with this recurring depression for so many years that I think my parents were just very, very happy that I was happy. Okay, you're in the middle of Northern Ireland and you found this sense of purpose in the circus and it's fun for you. And I hear this in your voice. I see it in your face. Your joy is back. You're good. And I have a lot of gratitude and understanding now for my parents, and I don't think I was an easy child to raise.

Adam Williams (18:59): Why do you think that?

Jennifer Dempsey (19:02): I was told that... especially by my mom, she said she just had to trust the universe with me, and she said things that gave me a lot of belief in myself at a time when I didn't have a lot of belief in myself. And she would say things like, "I never have to worry about you, Jennifer, because I know that you'll figure it out." And I did. When you have to, you do. 

I think the best thing that happened to me was unlatching myself from this privileged white middle class upbringing that I was born into, but that didn't hook me into a sense of purpose or meaning. And apparently, that's what I need more than anything, more than money or a big house.

(20:07): All that stuff just makes me tired. But I need to be fed with a sense of purpose. And finding the Belfast Circus gave me that and it brought me everything I needed, even materialistically, I was living on... when I got offered the circus director position, I was like, yes. And then I was like, oh, do I get paid for that? And I was offered 5,000 a year pound salary, and I was like, awesome, I am living the life. And I had a roof over my head and I have 5,000 pounds a year is whatever. But I had everything I needed.

Adam Williams (20:54): It's proof that you can continue, that there might be a path forward here.

Jennifer Dempsey (20:59): Yes. And I was onto something. I was figuring it out as I went along and it was unfolding each day and it was so thrilling and so exciting. I hadn't a clue what I was doing most of the time, but each little step, I was like, oh, okay, that's one more step on the path. My mom said that... she goes, "I can't imagine you as an adult, Jennifer."

Adam Williams (21:25): And you were an adult when she said that to you?

Jennifer Dempsey (21:28): I was approaching adult, because all this happened in 21, 22, and she was just like, "I can't imagine you as an adult." And I actually couldn't either because growing up in Fairfax, Virginia, around D.C., I was like, oh, God, none of this is for me. I don't see myself here either. It was kind of scary. And I am of Irish heritage, so part of my reasoning for wanting to go to Belfast was the Irish connection thing. 

And honestly, part of it was like, oh, well, I wonder what life in a war is like. I mean, that was my thinking at 21 years old. I was just my path. I now look back and I can connect the dots, but when I was younger and creating the dots, that was a thing. I mean, that was really a challenge.

Adam Williams (22:28): I think it's difficult when we are raised with certain expectations, rules, the conventions, and we have the privileged opportunity of that being easier for us and for a lot of people. To go counter to that raises a lot of questions for a lot of people, which then puts pressure on us. Even if it's coming from their best interests of they just want that stability for us, they just want us to have the security and to have the life that they value. It can be difficult to be alone in that, I think.

Jennifer Dempsey (22:59): It was, it was. However, the community I found in Belfast, in the circus but also in the wider society of Belfast, it felt so enriching to me and so validating for me. And I think a lot of that is because I'm a creative person, and to be creative, you need a lot of time and space where you're just not sure what you're doing but things are starting to make sense, but they're very nebulous. 

Now I'm okay with that like, that I don't know but something's brewing, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I know that part of the creative process now. Younger, I was just like, oh my God, I am having the biggest existential crisis every day. This is no fun. Going to Belfast just... oh, gosh, it sounds melodramatic, but it's true. It really did save my life and it turned me around and I was around creative people.

(24:06): Plus it's a very artistic, appreciative society. They appreciate the arts there. Arts are an important part of that society. Where I was growing up, they really weren't, in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C., they weren't that valued. Or you got to be the best, you better be the best actress or the best, blah, blah, blah. You got to make a big career. 

And I was just like, oh, that's exhausting. And I'm not that confident. And what appealed to me in Belfast is the arts were serving a greater purpose. They were healing, the arts were a healing aspect of bringing people together. And that was so lovely because then anything I had to offer felt like it was being helpful, and it wasn't about me and my career path or my profile on IBDM or whatever that's called, that film thing. It wasn't about me. It was about serving the greater societal needs.

Adam Williams (25:10): It's not seen in that conventional sense of ambition because even if you had ideas for where you might've wanted your life to go, which sounds like might not have entirely been the case, because how can we draw that out when we are of such, I guess, an unconventional community? 

But even so, that's not necessarily how the conventions view it as ambition. It's just, well, your mom's saying, I can't imagine you as an adult. You mentioned community, and I sometimes ask us about their sense of community, especially when it pertains to them having had different life experiences, like what you're talking about with fellow circus performers and creative people. This is a different kind of sense of community, I think. Could you speak to that song?

Jennifer Dempsey (25:59): I can, because what I realized my job has been all these years is to give people permission. The one consistent thing I've done since I moved to Salida is created a space to give people permission to try these new things and to validate them for trying. It's important that you're here trying this tumbling class at age 42. That's awesome, that is awesome. And don't let anybody make you think otherwise. 

That is what I think the most important thing you can give another creative person, is to validate their... that thing in them, they may not even be able to name, but to, let's foster it a little bit and tell me more about that, and oh, try this or try that. And it eventually shapes something. And it's a mystery, this whole creative process.

(26:55): And the way I've come to understand it now at 56 is that it's a... creative energy flows through you, and my job is to let it flow through me so it can flow through other people, and then something is going to happen. There'll be a dynamic created between people and then we will mold that and we'll shape that and then, oh, it's called a show now, or oh, it's called a discussion. It takes different shapes but there has to be a little bit of managing the shape and allowing the shape to manage itself to find itself. And so I just feel like my job is to give permission to people to be in that space of trying to figure it out.

Adam Williams (27:51): A lot of people, I think, find it very difficult to give themselves permission, and they don't feel like they have it from whether it's family, friends, and especially as we get older, the longer we age, the more we feel like we are supposed to sustain a certain role. 

So you giving permission and to people who are well past the eight years old when you got your start, I think is incredible. And I'm wondering if that is a key component of what we mean by social circus as it pertains to here versus your initial experience many years ago in Belfast, or how would you describe what social circus means in rural Central Colorado and how you bring people together.

Jennifer Dempsey (28:32): To explain it to people in the simplest form, I say social circus uses circus training as a social work tool. So that's a real broad general thing, but people understand that terms. So with kids, it's... we open it to everybody, we open our workshops to everybody, but we really reach out to maybe at-risk kids or kids who might need a little bit more sense of inclusion or whatever. 

And it's all about promoting this social, emotional, physical health for its own sake. What happens is if you hold enough of those workshops, people get really skilled and good at the unicycle or trapeze or juggling or whatever. So we have a employment side of it, where people actually go out and get work as a professional circus performer. But that's not the main goal. But that has just happened, which is great. People can come to Salida, train up and actually get work as a circus performer.

Adam Williams (29:33): Like you. I mean, you were introduced to it when you were really young and ultimately, you would have this life that is so entwined with circus.

Jennifer Dempsey (29:44): And also, I knew what to do when I came here because I'd had those years in Belfast and I watched how it went from this fledgling little grassroots organization, and each step of the way, it got more and more solidified with more people joining, the mission, money getting pumped into the organization, people getting paid to be an administrator now, which meant they had to do all the boring work, let them. 

But it built itself up, and now, next year is its 40th anniversary and it's this international training school and people come train there and the people go all over the world from there. So I watched how that was built up along the way, and I was part of building it up too. So when I moved to Salida and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with it when I grew up, I was 39, and I gave myself permission to run away from the circus if I needed to.

(30:41): But after about a week, I started workshops in my backyard. So it was all just local neighborhood kids coming in, tumbling, juggling, whatever, and just for fun. And it was just like, oh, yeah, this is what I'm supposed to do. And then every little increments, it got more and more solid. Adults in Salida were like, I used to... I know how to juggle. I was a clown in high school. I was on the gymnastics too. Great, great. Oh, really? You can teach a back handspring? You can teach a clowning routine? Awesome. 

So wherever you go, there are going to be resources there. One of my projects is called Build your Own Big Top. I'm going to go speak about it in Pueblo at the Colorado Creative Summit next month. And it's to show that anywhere, you can start a circus, if you have a pair of socks, you can start a circus, you ball up your socks and then you start juggling, that's it.

(31:42): It will gather momentum, and allow it to gather momentum. This is what I did with Salida Circus. I had no business plan, I had no nothing. The only thing I knew I wanted to do when I moved here was make my own living, doing what I wanted to do, and it was stilt walking and acrobatics and stuff like that. So I was like, okay, how do I get a job? 

And I joined a couple of fair associations and then I had these two kids in my life who are my kids, and they were 11 and 13 and they joined the circus and we became family. And so we started going on the road together as this little trio, and we were the Salida Circus. And our first gig was at the Lamar County fair, and it was myself and Destiny and CJ, and we did stilts and acrobatics and we got paid. And so I could pay my rent and feed them and we were good to go. And so it's just built up very, very organically.

(32:46): And as I always say to people, I never set out... I don't need to have the biggest baddest circus in the world. I just wanted to do what I knew I could offer, and I wanted to do it in a way that was manageable and not admin heavy. That's also been an interesting journey as a business owner because I'm accidentally successful because I've kept wanting to do it. I haven't burnt out yet. I've had little moments here and there, but I want to stay in the joy of it. 

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And the business structure of it has found its way... from people in the community, I have to say, Salida Circus was built on social capital. People have made this thing happen. I've just kept doing what I wanted to do and people have shaped it financially around and help me figure out how to do that too. So I don't know. That's my business style and I realize it's not for everybody, but it's what I did.

Adam Williams: It seems to work for you.

Jennifer Dempsey: It works for me.

Adam Williams: This is how life has gone for you–

Jennifer Dempsey: It does.

Adam Williams (34:00): ... is to follow what your heart. I mean, to use a phrase, it's you being willing to somehow tap into. I don't know if this is intuition, or how would you describe what it is that you are listening to when you have made life decisions, when you have followed what becomes a path?

Jennifer Dempsey (34:20): I'm very inflexible on some level. I am of the temperament where... I am the world's worst waitress. I've been fired so many times. I'm a terrible employee for other people. I am. I don't mean to be, but I am. And it's because I have too many of my own ideas and too much inspiration to do my own thing. So being wired the way that I am, I had to figure it out. I totally had to figure it out, and I am still figuring it out but I trust the process now because here I am. But I remember my dad, oh, man, poor dad, but he said, "Jennifer, there's a word for you, serendipity." And I don't know, there is.

Adam Williams: That's a positive word to me.

Jennifer Dempsey (35:17): It's a positive word, yeah. But I think both my parents just had to stand back and let me fly. And if I was going to crash, I was going to crash.

Adam Williams (35:27): I think we have to be open to serendipity, and if we go where we think we have to have this such a structured conventional path, we're not really being open to what the possibilities are, I think, as they come in. If we think we have to live to a certain way of being or climb a ladder of a particular kind, then how much are we actually allowing... again, I'll use the word intuition, because that's one that resonates for me, I guess, is to hear that internal something that says this is the next step.

Jennifer Dempsey (36:00): And doing that enough times, trusting your intuition, it gets easier and easier. So now I say, I don't get ideas, I get assignments. They strike me like assignments. There's no question that I'm going to follow this through.

Adam Williams (36:17): And you can trust it because you've had the experience of trusting it.

Jennifer Dempsey (36:18): Exactly. So I'm in the middle of organizing this Women's Day show and we have probably 25 people in it or whatever. And I'm talking about it and encouraging, oh, that's a great act and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'm thinking the show will go on one way or the other. I don't know what it's going to look like. 

I also am going to accept whatever it is because it's all going to be in the process of learning or contributing or being open and being... offering something to the public in a way that is generous. And this is a big thing too, I tell my performers or actors or whatever, I say, if you're self-conscious, you're focusing on the wrong thing.

(37:16): It isn't about you. You are the tool for this bigger show. Think about the bigger show and what you are serving. That was very freeing for me when I was younger and self-conscious. Everybody is when they start out. But to then all of a sudden shift the focus from it being about me to it being about what am I serving the audience here. Oh, man, then it just flows through you and it's so fun. And when I perform now, everybody's my friend. I just make everybody who's come to that show my friend, whether they know it or not.

Adam Williams (37:57): Well, I think that has factored into your parenting in the way that you operate your life and within that community. You've mentioned to me before that, that is something you teach your son, is everybody is our friend. Actually, you've described it as wonderfully naive.

Jennifer Dempsey (38:14): Yeah, I am, I am wonderfully naive. I've been made fun of for that, and that's okay. That's all right, that's all right.

Adam Williams: By the cynical?

Jennifer Dempsey: By the smart and–

Adam Williams (38:34): The ones who know how life works and that you can't possibly just be joy-filled and positive.

Jennifer Dempsey (38:38): Yeah. And the ones who know better. You know what? That's fine. I appreciate that and I am glad that there's rails of safety in the world and stuff like that. And it's constantly a learning curve, this idea that everybody's my friend, but I'm going to start out with that until they prove otherwise.

Adam Williams (39:05): I think we're living in a tough time for that because of the divisions and things. I won't try to compare them to the Troubles that you had experience and knowledge of those years ago. But while you were talking about that, plenty resonates as well because what we're talking about are people who've chosen a team, they've chosen an identity, they're rooted into that, and then they're lashing out because of it. 

And then you have this wonderful naivete and this positive light and energy and then what you are bringing to the community because of it and teaching kids. There's so much positive in that, that I think it's very admirable, rather than sitting in a dim lit room at home, feeling all anxious and uptight and afraid of everything and everyone.

Jennifer Dempsey (39:58): One of the skills I learned along the way too was humor, and it's a learnable skill, which I didn't know either. And what the ultimate skill of humor is, is a new perspective, adopting a new perspective on a situation. And this is how the situation is. These are the facts. And everybody has a choice of how to respond to the facts, and to develop that choice is where you develop a sense of humor. And humor is a great way to rebel and to let go. You know what? I don't really accept that that's the only way to look at this problem or this situation. I don't want to say teaching, but I'm facilitating a humor workshop in April to share with others what I learned and how freeing it was.

(40:56): And everybody has their own route into their own funny bone if they choose to find it. And that's what I want to help people do because we are all hung up on stuff. It's part of being human. We all overidentify with things and get fixated on things and we get neurotic or we get upset or we get stuck and humor gets us unstuck because it casts this new possible light on a situation or create a new response to that. And boy oh boy, I learned also... I learned that in Belfast, the black humor, as they call it, or dark humor, I was like, wait a minute, I want to be funny like everybody here but I'm not funny.

Adam Williams (41:53): You were talking about teaching, well, maybe awareness of humor, maybe that's what you're describing also is from a performative place, but I'm also thinking about how we take ourselves individually too seriously, and we would all probably do better or a lot of us would to develop a sense of humor about ourselves and about what we decide is right and so serious.

Jennifer Dempsey (42:20): The way I look at humor is it's an emotional skill to develop. Just like any muscle, you can develop your muscle of humor, and what that will give you is resilience, resiliency to the world. I really saw this a lot in Belfast that the humor in Belfast was so profound to me, and it was like a defense mechanism that allowed people to carry on. 

The whole physiology thing about laughter, I mean, I could go into that too, but it was just that I was like, whoa, this is an important life skill. I'm not quite sure what this is but I remember thinking that to myself, if nothing else, I want to learn about humor because people here are surviving life. And one of the things I realize now growing up in Fairfax, Virginia, was my problems were not quality. I didn't have quality problems growing up.

Adam Williams (43:35): What do you mean by that, quality problems?

Jennifer Dempsey (43:37): My problems growing up were very unnecessary. I don't say that in judgment. I say that as a fact because human beings need problems to work on. We're wired to solve problems. If you don't have a quality problem, you're going to find another problem. So it could be like, oh my God, I'm so... I don't like the size of my butt, that's going to become my problem to solve. How petty and how unimportant is that? Be healthy. But that can become a fixation.

Adam Williams (44:16): So quality as in terms of significance–

Jennifer Dempsey: Yes.

Adam Williams: ... of the problem, the real weight of a problem.

Jennifer Dempsey (44:23): And a problem I have come to understand is a problem I would like my problem-solving to be about helping other people. So it's not about me and my vanity, it's about I wonder how I could use the circus to create a fundraiser for South Sudanese girls. To me, that's a quality problem. 

And I'm privileged enough to be able to have all my needs met, that I can think about something like that. In Belfast, what I found was people were literally surviving, literally, it was like life and death. And there was a lot of poverty there, so it was literally getting food on the table and stuff like that. So they were grounded. Frank McCourt, this Irish writer, he said his dreams were never neurotic. They were always simply to get out of his poverty in the lane where he grew up.

(45:17): So it was very grounding. He didn't have ADD, he didn't have a zillion distractions, and that's always stuck with me. He didn't have neurotic problems, he had quality problems. And I think that this lack of quality problem can be endemic in affluent societies. And I've done it. I mean, I speak from experience. 

I get focused on the wrong things. And there was no joy in that. For me, it was when I went to Belfast and suddenly, all my skills and my fun with the circus had a place to go to help others. And that was such a sense of joy and purpose and motivation. I'm so grateful that I found that place. It just worked for me.

Adam Williams (46:17): It was at an age for you that was, I mean, in your 20s, largely, and I'll describe it, I guess, as coming of age. I don't know if that's really the age that we talk about when we use that phrase, but when we think about being an adult and coming up and really shaping worldviews, experiences, all these things that you carry forward as you develop and evolve as an adult and a human being, so much happened there for you that was so important.

Jennifer Dempsey (46:43): So I say I was raised in Fairfax but I grew up in Belfast. That's what happened to me. I really came of age in Belfast and by the time I moved back to America, I was 33 or something, 34. And I told myself I was moving back like an Irish immigrant. I needed to hold on to all those things that I learned and just come back to America as an Irish person.

Adam Williams (47:12): Do you reflect on those experiences yourself, not for a conversation like this where, obviously, we're digging into that, but is that a period of time in your life that just frequently comes to your mind and you think of the lessons that you learned then and-

Jennifer Dempsey (47:26): Always, always. It informs my whole life. It informs how I keep my house. It informs how I raise my kid. It informs everything. There's two phrases that I live by that I got in Belfast. One is thrive on neglect. I saw people there, especially kids, thriving on neglect that made them resilient, funny. 

They had a strength about them, like, God, I remember this little four-year-old in the neighborhood I lived in, and I was like, okay, someday I want to grow up and be like him. He was so streetwise and all that. And I realized that's like, I'm looking at it from a real wonderfully naive perspective, but he did have something I wanted and it was like a resiliency to life. 

So that thrive on neglect, I keep in the back of my mind, and also throw another spud in the pot because living in Belfast, where seven people were living in a two-bedroom house or whatever, there was always enough and there was always enough for you, if you happen to walk in.

(48:43): That open door welcoming, there's always room. There's always enough. First of all, my parents were like that. There were five kids but we always had other people coming and staying. The cleaner ended up camping out in the basement or whatever. I was raised in that environment. And then I was definitely around that environment in Belfast where it wasn't an affluent society. Oh, and here's another thing I live by, the people who have the least are the first to give. I have seen that over and over and over.

Adam Williams: It's amazing.

Jennifer Dempsey (49:23): It's amazing. And I think two reasons that's why, because they know what it's like not to have any. So they're going to empathize more. With that, a little goes a long way. And there's a leveling. There's this thing, the whole thing about money, the more you have, the more you need. It's a spiral that never ends and it's such a sickness. 

And there's this optimum amount of money that will allow you to meet your needs, be comfortable, and also be in the flow of give-and-take. I have found people who have the most money are the ones who protect it the most. And then suddenly, their life becomes about protecting their money. And it's like, I want to shake them and go, you've lost perspective. Give it away. You will be so much freer if you give your money away.

Adam Williams (50:18): That fear-based scarcity mindset despite how much abundance they actually have.

Jennifer Dempsey: Totally.

Adam Williams (50:24): Like we were talking about with how you have learned, you can take leaps and you will land and you will survive and even thrive. And I think, for better and worse, people who have lived through such neglect, such challenging times and experiences, I think that they probably have also learned we can make it through, we can survive this. I don't know what's going to come tomorrow and make that work but we can do it.

Jennifer Dempsey (50:48): I had to go two ways. I've seen it and I see it in myself but I see it in other people where if they have experienced a lack in the past, they can become greedier and more self-protective, or the majority of people I know are like, oh, yeah, I know it'll be fine, here, have some of this. I know I'll be fine. So I think it can go either way. 

And I really love being around the people who have gotten through something or experienced something and come out the other end, and it's made them more generous and more loving and more connecting and more open. And that's also what I'm really motivated by, is to create opportunities for that cracking open to happen. And just even if it's a little micro move towards opening. And I'll end on this if you want.

(51:44): So with clowning, humor and clowning, they're very closely related. And clown to me is a verb, you can clown anything and anybody can clown themselves. Really all it is in the most simple definition is bringing out the things about you that you're embarrassed of and celebrating them and walk around in them and have people applaud them. 

And guess what? You're not the worst person in the world. And you know what? Somebody else in the room is going to have the same hang-up you do, so why not get on stage and celebrate it? So that's clowning, big deal about your hang-up. Somebody else has it in the world, and don't let it stop you from connecting with other people.

Adam Williams (52:33): Well, Jen, it's been great to talk with you. I appreciate your insights and getting to hear more about this experience in Belfast because I've definitely been curious. This has been fantastic. Thank you.

Jennifer Dempsey (52:43): Thank you. Thank you so much. I want to just plug this because I think it's an interesting... I think Nathan Ward did a great job. He made a documentary about the circus called Come One, Come All and it's on PBS. Come One, Come All: Salida Circus With a Purpose. And I think Nathan Ward of Grit and Thistle Film Company captured what we're trying to do with Salida Circus.

Adam Williams (53:04): Great, thank you. 

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Adam Williams: Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado, who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at info@wearechaffee.org

We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.

(53:52): Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby, for graphic and web design. To Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment. And to Lisa Martin, community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee storytelling initiative. 

The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health, and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. 

You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee. Lastly, until the next episode, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change.

[Outro music, horns and guitar instrumental]

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