Have Piano, Will Travel

Enter strangers, leave friends...

Thirty years ago, I opened my home to strangers from all over the world. Likewise, around the globe, people I’ve never met have invited me to stay in their homes. I do this because of a belief in the importance of connections to overcome prejudices and fears. It has been a step toward creating a wonderfully rich life. Part of the richness of my life is reaching out to people who seem to be different from me and then discovering we’re not so different at all.

Today, the traveling piano man, Danny Kean, and his dog Boner just left after staying six nights at our home. My husband David and I had never met him but when he e-mailed me about staying for two nights with us, I told him more than two nights were fine.

And I’m glad he stayed longer.

Danny sold his house and leaped big-time into uncertainty. Most of us are afraid of uncertainty, otherwise we wouldn’t be afraid of death. Confronting uncertainty and immersing himself in the present, Danny has taken a leap of faith that the path he has chosen will continue to enrich his life as well as others.

He travels with Boner next to him and a piano on the back of his red pickup truck. During the day, he stops here and there and brings a gift of music. It might be in a park or on a street corner. It might be on the beach or in front of your house.

A gift of music and Boner too

The gift of music is not merely his piano playing, although he belts out a fantastic rendition of Nola and various high energy ragtime music and soothes the soul with free-spirited improvisations. His

gift is empowering others with creativity and music they may not have known they had in them.

You see, when Danny pulls his truck over, he invites people to his truck. Part of his gift is Boner too. Danny wants the world to meet Boner who is more than 14 years old and who perches on tops of the piano on the truck bed. Boner greets curious visitors who approach and seems perfectly content to be part of this music experience.

Danny invites people to climb aboard the bed of his truck and sit at his piano and play. Most people are shy and are reluctant to do this, probably because they feel they can’t play the piano. Before you know it, Danny has talked them into playing. With gentle persuasion, he encourages them. He says that even one note is music. Then he tells them he’ll count to 60 and they should play until he gets to 60. He counts quietly out loud and somehow untrained fingers begin to create music.

I saw a young woman on her birthday, who reluctantly sat down and played while her three children listened in surprise. I saw a young husband and his pregnant wife play together for their unborn baby. These people had no training but you could see the change in their faces as Danny allowed them to be free, encouraging them along the way. He empowers people to get in touch with themselves through music.

We’ll miss Danny and Boner and their special magic and hope they’ll visit us again.


I haven’t answered the question about how we go about meeting these strangers all over the world. Thereare three organizations that we’ve had experience with: Couch Surfing, Hospitality Club and Servas.

We’ve had the most experience with Servas which was founded in 1949 by Bob Luitweiler and some friends who envisioned a grass-roots movement toward world peace by people opening their homes to one another. We’d just experienced a second world war and it seemed we couldn’t depend on our leaders to prevent a third world war. It sounds idealistic and perhaps it is, but it works for those who are open to this experience.

I like to tell people that I used to look at a map and see only names of places. Now, after 30 years with Servas, I look at a map and see names of places where my friends live.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely. Broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one's little corner of earth. (Mark Twain)

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Highly recommended reading

David's compelling article about The Sun's latest round of lay-offs.

Defining Ourselves

For two years, I challenged people to answer this question: How do you define yourself? I asked people to respond in one sentence of any length beginning with I am... After they answered, I photographed them to illustrate the self-definitions. I received nearly 100 responses from people ages 4 to 100 representing 15 countries. Participants are diverse and include a Holocaust survivor, transgenders, gays, lesbians, a pilot, a police officer, poets, musicians, Muslims, Jews, Christians and athesists. Some people are well-known in their fields but most are not in the public eye.

During those two years, the project took on a life of its own. Perhaps it is best said in an African proverb: We are because I am. I am because we are.

Below are photos of my response and that of my father who was the inspiration for this project, and the talk I give about this two-year photo/word project.

Defining Ourselves

A two-year international and multi-generational photo and word project examining who we are


It’s funny how small things can grow. Take words, for example. Off-hand words are not usually meant to inspire or start anything. but it is what the listener does with the words that plants a seed.

This is what happened to me.

My father has Parkinson’s disease. One day, he was trying to perform an ordinary everyday action and, frustrated with a shaking hand, he said, “Bonnie, this isn’t me.”

Hearing those words awakened something in me and I wondered how he defines himeself. Then I wondered how I would define myself. The seed was planted and it grew.


I spent the next two years reaching out to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, challenging them to answer a question that goes to the core of their being.

The challenge question was this: “How do you define yourself? Answer in one sentence that begins with ‘I am...”

Some people I asked had never thought about who they are on any level of depth. Like many of us, they habitually go about their everyday lives, bobbing along on an ocean of chores and necessities.

Some people wondered why I was asking this question at all. Good question.

My answer? I believe that in order to appreciate the past, live in the moment and approach the future, we must have an understanding of who we are. And, in order to connect with our world—our environment, other people and our own spirits—we have to examine ourselves at our core. If we are unable to wrap ourselves around our own self-definition, then our lives and connections fall short of what is possible.

Defining Myself

Before asking anyone else to answer this question, I knew I had to take on the task of defining myself.

After much thought, this is my self-definition:

I am a child of the universe who lives a rich life
of creativity, connections and possibilities.

I said child of the universe... child, yes, because I wonder, explore, feel, grow, find delight, learn, walk daringly into emotional minefields — all in a setting of naiveté, trust and optimism. Yes, a child’s point-of-view.

Of the universe suggests my membership in something larger than I am.

In considering the rest of the definition, I thought about what elements of my life, if they were to disappear, would cause me to feel less alive. The answer? I must create and I must connect. My creativity can take many forms.

My connections are with people , environment and spirit.

Possibilities...suggests growth, adventure, change. If we ever lose our sense of possibilities, then we are in the process of dying.

Finally, I consider my life to be rich because of shared energy in all its facets. It is a layered life rather than a linear one. Underlying my definition, my essence, is a broad sense of love.

So, my definition does not depend on my job/career and it doesn’t necessarily depend on my health. I can still be who I am...regardless.

The Process, Considerations

Once I had my own definition, then I could begin asking other people to define themselves. It started with family and friends. Then it extended to friends of friends and sometimes strangers who I approached with this question. Some never answered while others were intrigued by the question.

One thing I stood firm on. I refused to share anyone’s answer with those who were still struggling to find their own. This was uncomfortable for many. They wanted sample answers. They wanted to make sure they answered correctly and in the way I expected. My only condition was it had to be one sentence, of any length, that began with “I am.” I assured people that there were no right or wrong answers unless they didn’t follow those two conditions. Whatever they said would be correct because they were defining themselves and they knew themselves better than I did. Who was I to say they were wrong?

After I received each response, I then shared other answers and portraits. We scheduled a time to do a collaborative portrait that illustrated the self-definition. Logistics were difficult because people were spread around the globe. I made a 600-mile detour to Indiana to get one portrait. For another I flew to California and for another I drove to upstate New York. Some were taken in Japan. One problem I hadn’t anticipated was the difficulty there would be in scheduling time for the portraits. We’re talking about busy people. And some had the idea that this was a small on-going project with no end. They kept saying, “One day we’ll get together to do this.”

A few people responded through e-mail but, because of distance and time, we were unable to connect for a portrait.

Once time was scheduled, then we usually worked together to come up with the concept. As a photographer used to doing my own thing in my own way, this was a different kind of challenge for me. There were two of us working on the portrait. Some people were uncomfortable with showing their faces or being in front of a camera lens at all. I didn’t want to use anything that made someone uncomfortable but, at the same time, I insisted on remaining true to my concept. (If you want to know more about technical details such as camera, lights, etc., you can talk with me later.)

In spite of all the challenges, somehow, over the course of two years, this project has come to fruition. Amazing.

Answers have come from people ages 4 to 100 representing 12 countries. Responses include a Holocaust survivor, transgendered people, gays, lesbians, an airline pilot, Arabs, Jews, Christians. Most participants are not in the public eye – just ordinary people. However, some are known locally and internationally.

The Responses

It fascinates me how people answered this question.

Of all the responses, 24% include career and hobbies in their definitions. Of course, this is not surprising. Consider how many hours a typical person might work at a job/career in a lifetime. Probably more than 93,000 hours, considering working ages 20 to 65.

Twelve percent mention God, spirit or the divine. This includes a wide range of believers and non-believers from various religious backgrounds.

And don’t forget love. Fifteen percent of those who responded to my question have “love” or a form of the word in their definitions. Petronio Bendito says it best in one of my favorite responses, “I am all that I love.” Many self-definitions made me think, but this one the most.

It is most significant that almost half—42%—defined themselves by their relationships. The percentage is even higher when you consider the definitions that imply relationships. This is the area of greatest similarly among respondents. I don’t think anyone would dispute the importance of relationships and how they lead us to new emotional places and better understanding of who we are.

Fred Muir, a Unitarian Universalist minister who participated in this project, puts it succinctly in his self-definition, “I am my relationships.”

It is noteworthy that most people did not define themselves by their nationality or race. Nine percent included age or age-related terms, the majority being young people. Thirteen percent used gender as part of their definitions but none of these were the two transgendered participants.

I find it interesting that 12% expressed a dichotomy, a feeling of the complexity and tug and pull of their being. How often have all of us felt fragmented and torn? How many of us sometimes do battle inside ourselves when making decisions? Recognition of this dichotomy is recognition of our full humanness. Joe Justice, police officer, said it well, “I am simple and complex, logical but emotional, aware yet eternally ignorant, powerful although miniscule—all of these dichotomies because I am human.”

In defining ourselves, there is a consideration of time. Ten percent connected in some way with time... past, present or future. Dirk Hamilton’s, the shortest definition, states simply, “I am here.” However, it is a deceptively simple answer. Those words imply that he embraces and lives in the present, an important tenet of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth where he says, “People who are able to be present in the now are closest to the essence of their true being.”

In President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, he pointed out, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” It is heartening that not one person in this project sought identity through ownership.

Seven percent of the people who responded to my question recognized an evolving self. For some, including my husband, before defining themselves, it was important to understand that who they are today may not be who they are tomorrow. A former student of mine, Justin Wainio, defined himself with this contradiction in mind, “I am always changing while always staying the same.” Anais Nin has an interesting comment in her diary. She says it’s impossible to define yourself because of possibilities. “How can I accept a limited definable self when I feel in me all possibilities? ... I never feel the four walls around the substance of the self, the core. I feel only space.” 

In fact, five percent mentioned “possibilities.” This perspective looks forward into the future for what can change, what can be and who we can further become. There is an openness in those who included “possibilities” ... an openness and acceptance of the evolution of “becoming.”
Final Thoughts

This has been a difficult but exciting journey inspired by my father’s comment and it grew into something much larger than I’d anticipated. I learned from everyone who answered and I discovered something part way into the project. This whole thing is not really about me or any one person. It’s about the you and me that makes up the we. Over the past two years, it has taken on a life of its own and I no longer own it. It is ours. Perhaps it is said best in an African Proverb:

We are because I am. I am because we are.

Bonnie J. Schupp

How do you define yourself?


Defining Ourselves

For two years, photographer Bonnie Schupp challenged people to answer the question, "How do you define yourself?" The answer had to be just one sentence beginning with the words, "I am..." Answers were followed by defining portrait photos. She received nearly 100 responses from people ages 4 to 100, representing a dozen countries.

Exhibit opening: Sunday, April 5, 12 - 1:30 p.m.

333 Gallery
Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis
333 Dubois Rd.
Annapolis, MD 21401