After an almost two-year hiatus due to COVID, Polly Simpkins and the Cup of Karma Project returned for an afternoon of community and inspirational storytelling on Saturday at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to a “sold-out” group of almost 75 guests.
Simpkins believes we are all deeply connected, and voices that need to be heard, and that the sharing of the stories of those who help shape us and our perspectives has the potential to change the world. As a young child, Simpkins was drawn to recording how she and others saw the world. Once old enough, she traveled the world seeking story and connection, and that is how the Cup of Karma Project was born, through her recording of the storytelling of a holy man on a midnight train from Copenhagen to Amsterdam. Fate would have her way that night as 23-year-old Simpkins’ prepurchased seat was stolen by a drunk American student, she recalls, and she pushed her way through the crowded train with her overstuffed red backpack to the very last car. There, sitting lotus-style on the floor of the train was a sage from India, who looked up at Simpkins and said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Simpkins listened as the holy man talked about his culture in India, where what they valued above any possession was their relationships. For each “tour guide” or person who comes into their life, for just a conversation, or for a lifetime relationship, even a difficult one, the members of his culture would string a bead on a necklace to honor this “tour guide” who changed their life in some profound way, good or bad. The sage advised that the sign of a well-lived life was a full necklace of beads. As she disembarked the train, Simpkins recalls the sage telling her, “The most important things are the people that are right next to you, or the people who change you or challenge you or teach you in some way. That’s your job. To find some way in your lifetime to teach people this.” Simpkins remembers thinking, “OK.” And she got off the train and started looking at her life, and those in it, in a completely different way.
One of the ways Simpkins began sharing the sage’s message was by opening a tearoom in Connecticut, where people gathered to tell their stories of gratitude and honor for the people in their lives. In 2013, after attending college in New York City and marrying and starting her family in Connecticut, Simpkins returned to her mother’s family home in Vineyard Haven with her husband Brad and their two sons, Justin and Finn, to care for her elderly father, who was suffering from dementia. She wanted to find a way to get her father out of the house, and began to fuse together the idea of the tearoom that she had opened in Connecticut, where people gathered to celebrate life with the idea of the necklace of beads. Not long after returning to the Vineyard, Simpkins fused her tearoom gatherings with workshops, and at events like this past Saturday, she began asking people to stand up and tell the story of one person who changed their life. And she’s been doing it ever since.
The storytellers chosen for the event last Saturday were Allen Whiting (beloved Island painter and dedicated sheep farmer), Freedom Cartwright (activist, explorer, visionary), Barbara Dacey (Buddhist practitioner, musician, and former MVY radio programmer and DJ), Rose Styron (poet, journalist, and human rights activist), Wayne Sampson (UPenn graduate student and New York City history teacher), Mark Cronin (comedy writer and creator of myriad hit TV franchises, including Bravo’s “Below Deck”), and Donna Hylton (criminal justice activist and author of “A Little Piece of Light”). Simpkins chooses her venues and storytellers purely on inspiration, and sometimes they choose her. She tells her speakers and those listening, “There’s no such thing as a perfect telling. It’s about the act and the symbolism of standing in front of a group of people and saying, ‘This person mattered to me and my life.’ There’s something really powerful about it.”
Allen Whiting was the first storyteller at Saturday’s event, and he shared his gratitude for not just one person in his life, but three. A representative for each of the parts of his life. His wife, who he says is the world to him, and as he said, “is the world to herself. She has built libraries, schools, and the IGI farm.” His father, who was smart and kind, and “was not your everyday farmer.” He was known to sit on a hay bale reading the Atlantic Monthly, and he was an important man to everybody who knew him. He also honored his mother’s father, who was a tremendous painter and inspired Whiting in his art. He was flattered and honored that Simpkins asked him to speak at the event.
Freedom Cartwright followed Whiting, and declared, “I’m cheating too,” and joked that she was going to speak about way more than three people. She spoke of her ancestors and how they are always keeping watch. And how “Gratitude is both a word and a vibration,” and how she believes it is a shortcut to a connection to her ancestors, who had not always been seen. Cartwright was glad she agreed to speak. She said it was a very healing process, and that Simpkins is an extraordinary person whose “words and being match.”
Barbara Dacey followed suit, and spoke of her family, both immediate and extended. Brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews who were by her side when she was in the hospital for a week with a very serious bowel obstruction. She honored her parents, whose different attributes and shared quality of fairness shaped her and her siblings, who each have individual relationships, and how the collective is their foundation. Dacey began her storytelling by thanking Simpkins for doing this: “It’s really important.”
Rose Styron began her story by joking that she is from a different generation and takes direction well, therefore she would only be speaking about one person: Peter Matheison, who taught her to be “a really daring swimmer.” She confessed, however, that she wasn’t daring, she just followed the lines of where she was supposed to go. She was grateful to Simpkins for asking her to speak.
Wayne Sampson told the story of how as a high school student, he felt that reading Shakespeare was “like reading a foreign language.” But his Shakespeare teacher, Hugh Silbaugh, was his greatest inspiration for becoming a teacher. Sampson is also a longtime family friend of “Miss Polly and Mr. Brad,” as he calls them. He was honored to be asked to speak at the event because it was his opportunity to give back to them for all they had given him.
Mark Cronin said he “always returns to one man’s advice — Howard Stern.” Stern, his mentor among other things, has taught him perspective, focus, truth, that being popular is good, not to let others thwart your vision, and that it is always important to find a way to sneak in a good fart joke. Cronin, a West Tisbury resident and longtime friend of Simpkins, believes she is a force on the Island, and hopes that his story of gratitude goes out into the world and inspires someone else to thank their mentor.
The final storyteller of the day was Donna Hylton, who confessed that she doesn’t ever prepare her speeches in advance. She likes to wait to feel the energy of the event. She spoke of the unconditional love she received and learned to give from Sister Mary Nerney, who she met when she was in prison. Sr. Mary, or Mother, as Hylton calls her, was “a light in an abnormally dark place,” and made her promise to “Get the women out.” Hylton is a women’s rights activist and a social justice reform advocate. Hylton believes that we must see the person, not just their actions.
Brad, Simpkins’ husband and “logistical support person,” as he puts it, is proud of the creative work she does, and says that the connections she makes are really the thread that draws everything together. Simpkins admits that it takes a village, and she could not do what she does without the support of so many, especially her husband Brad: “He is my event partner, my best friend, and the person who has been most involved and most supportive in the Cup of Karma events since the beginning.”
Simpkins would eventually like to take her storytelling events all over the country. “The whole premise is to step into gratitude for a couple hours, take a break from your life, put down the phone, and listen to someone else,” she says. And for those who are telling their story, “it’s really the ritual of standing up and speaking your truth and honoring someone in your life.” Her hope is that the audience will think about who the people are in their life that they honor and have gratitude for making them who they are. And that they will honor and have gratitude for their own life and journey. Since COVID, the Cup of Karma Project has taken on more meaning for Simpkins: “It’s no joke, this is hard, this life, and it makes it so much more important to appreciate the people around you.”