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In Memory of Andrew Barden

This is a tribute-in-progress to the man who inspired much of my silliness. It is taken from notes and stories shared during the celebration of his life on 10/21/17 at Camp Casowasco in Moravia NY, the place where most of our shenanigans began.

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In memory of Andrew Sears Barden (12/18/72 – 10/8/17), lifelong friend, fellow oddball, In Jest co-founder, entrepreneur, tree hugger, lover of souls, peace seeker…

Nels & Andrew, circa 2000

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Where to Start?

How do you sum up a life? I almost started this by saying Andrew was a pain in the butt. Almost. Then I realized it might not be the best place to start. It could come across the wrong way. So I’m not going to say that. […]

I mean, he was. At times there was literal pain in the butt, following his prompts to attempt a balance board or unicycle stunt. More importantly, he was a kick in the seat of my pants to try new things. An inspiration to dream, risk, fail, and try again. An example to embrace the adventures and mysteries of life. A reminder to live for joy.

The beginning is a good place to start.

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Lifelong Friend

Both our parents were ministers and active with United Methodist ministries in central New York. We were told we first met while still in our mothers’ wombs. My mom even called Andy my “brother from another mother.” At the Barden’s 50th anniversary party held here two summers ago, we shared that we first played together under tables at conferences when we were in diapers. Andrew improvised, “We were what, 12 years old?” “Right.” “Still wear your diapers?” I said, “Depends!” (I never knew what he might throw at me.)

Though we never lived near each other, we managed to get together to laugh and play. When his pursuits brought him to the west coast, we still kept in touch—performing when we could, visiting when he was in New York, exchanging thoughts by email, him sending goofy pics and videos by Facebook Messenger… My wife and kids got used to hearing, “Look at this, it’s from Uncle Andrew.” And we’d laugh or groan or shake our heads.

(Aside… He was called Andy growing up and at home. Unless he was in trouble. Then he was “Andrew Sears Barden…” Later he embraced his given name, so I call him Andrew.)

We were both oddballs, yet different—him the dreamer and chief mischief maker, and me… well… trying to keep up.

When we were young, he’d pour a heaping bowl of dry cereal and then add milk. Predictably, the cereal would spill onto the table. Every time. I remember asking, “Why not take less?” “I’m hungry.” “You can always get more.” He’d just grin, wipe his chin, and already be moving on to something else.

That was Andrew. He wanted a big bowl of life, and wasn’t overly concerned about details. My mom adds that, when we were 6 or 7 years old, Andrew visited and was asked to get the small dessert bowls for ice cream. He came back with giant soup bowls saying, “These are perfect!”

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Fellow Oddball

Many of our early memories involved juggling and clowning around. He was typically the more adventurous one. We’d get hopped up on Skittles and Mountain Dew, and he’d propose something brilliant like, “Hey, why not throw these juggling clubs at each other? And why not endanger a friend in the process?” (Okay, we didn’t ask that second question. Though we probably should have.)

Eric and Ryan Hansen were friends who also juggled. Eric was the guinea pig for one of our misadventures. We said, “We want to throw these around your head.” Eric said, “Sure.” Andrew added, “Oh, and hold this pen in your mouth.” Eric shrugged, “Okay.” (We eventually switched to a straw, because it was a better target. See where this is going?) I suggested head protection. That was dismissed as unnecessary, and we started passing.

On our first attempt, we knocked Eric in the nose. He shook it off and said, “I’m okay. Try again.” (I can’t imagine if Andrew and Eric had been partners. There would’ve been more than bruises.) In short, it took several tries, but we were finally able to pass and knock the target out of his mouth.

Now, how did I end up with the role of knocking out the target? Certainly, not every nutty thing we did was Andrew’s fault. But I definitely don’t recall volunteering for the job. And I can imagine him saying, “No, you first.” (He was selfless like that.) In any case, by then a pattern was established, and he was often the idea man if not the detail guy. “Why not fire?… Why not unicycles?… Why not fire while ON unicycles?!…” Well, here’s why not…

As teens, once we could pass torches without dropping them or burning ourselves, we wanted to show off our new skills. So we did, in Foster Center below this very chapel, with a low ceiling. And it worked! However… Fire makes smoke. We set off the alarms and everyone had to evacuate. We said, “At least it can’t get worse. Let’s never do that again.” Yet it did! And we did!

As college students, we upped our game. In the closing show at a performing arts ministry conference at Roberts Wesleyan College, we thought we’d pass torches again. “What about smoke?” “No problem. High ceiling.” We were in a big theater, on a narrow stage apron, with curtains on one side and full audience on the other. This time Andrew was on a balance board and I was on a tall unicycle. And it worked! But after a clean finish, I came down off my unicycle at an angle and fell off the narrow stage. He hopped down with me, then we both popped up, looked at the audience, and said, “Thank you! That’s our show!” Everyone exhaled and applauded. However… Smoke rises. We set off the alarms and everyone had to evacuate. It was deja vu, all over again.

We were remembering and laughing about these things this past July, while preparing to entertain at a wedding party. Fortunately, that went much better. We passed torches, and the bride and groom literally walked through fire, hand in hand toward their family and friends. And we did that outside. At least we learned from our mistakes!

One more key story and a few thoughts…

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The Circus Kingdom and In Jest

Soon after starting college, Andrew came across The Circus Kingdom, a nonprofit Christian circus devoted to spreading joy and good will. While I was doing more soul searching than adventure seeking at the time, we ended up touring the northeast U.S. together, developing our talents and trying everything from acrobatics to wire walking to fire breathing. (My mom was a fire eater, so you’d think that last skill might come easily. You’d be wrong. Fortunately, my eyebrows have grown back.)

Soon after the circus, we co-founded In Jest: The Antic Arts Company. He jumped in with both feet to pursue performing, while I was finishing school and starting a family. Then he chose to go back to school, right when I decided to become a full-time performer and speaker, as I am to this day. Once again, he was first. Looking back now, I can’t imagine doing all that I’ve done apart from his influence.

Sure, I can point to the encouragement of others. After all, I had a mom who was a fire eater and mime, among other things. But so did my brothers. And they turned out normal. Okay, that’s debatable. The point is that they didn’t have Andrew. I did. And I still do.

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Memories, Marriage, and Meaning

So we’ve only touched on friend, oddball, and In Jest co-founder. We haven’t gotten to entrepreneur, tree hugger, lover of souls, or peace seeker… And there are lots of great stories I could share… Boating, fishing, and fireworks at the cottage… The time I told a spooky campfire story and Andrew charged out of the woods to scare the campers, causing a stampede… His 30th birthday, when he insisted on going to Chuck E Cheese and playing in the ball pit with my kids and his mother…

There was also him living in an RV and making his way to California, where he considered joining a monastery. That’s where he met his wife, Sunny. I’ll pause to let that one sink in. […]

Interestingly, we both married Asian Americans. Yet I think the real quirk of the universe is that Andrew and Sunny met through a monastery. How’s that for unorthodox? I still don’t know exactly how that went. How do you relinquish worldly attachments and get a woman’s phone number? In the end, they were both pursuing not monk-hood but meditation, mindfulness, and living well. Those were the things which brought them together.

However unconventional, the fruit of Andrew’s spiritual journey was evident… His heart for service, environmental consciousness, and non-aggression… Choosing unity over division, building up over tearing down… His ideas for compassionate capitalism or what he called “philanthropic entrepreneurship”… How he was just as comfortable hanging with yogis, church youth, hippies, and corporate executives…

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Closing Thoughts

Here’s a thought I’ve shared with others… People often use the word fool to refer to someone who is senseless or unwise. But then there’s the court fool who brings joy to the king’s court, the dancing fool who loves to dance, and the holy fool “who subverts convention or orthodoxy or varies from social conformity in order to reveal spiritual or moral truth” (American Heritage Dictionary). These were all reflected in Andrew’s life.

Andrew respected the tradition of Kriya Yoga and Paramahansa Yogananda, who believed in the harmony of the teachings of Jesus Christ with all true spirituality. Yogananda taught some things which I believe might help us when we’ve lost someone, if we listen with our hearts:

“We would not be human if we did not miss loved ones. [Yet…] When a dear one dies, instead of grieving unreasonably, realize that he has gone on to a higher plane at the will of God… Rejoice that he is free…” (PY)

“Our real self, the soul, is immortal. We may sleep for a little while in that change called death, but we can never be destroyed. We exist, and that existence is eternal. The wave comes to the shore, and then goes back to the sea; it is not lost.” (PY)

We can grieve reasonably, as we acknowledge our sadness. We can rejoice, as we embrace remembrance over regret. In time, we can find peace, perhaps as we watch the waves on the lake or the sea and realize that souls are not lost, except through faith to waters of joy.

From joy people are born; for joy they live; in joy they melt at death.
–The Bhagavad Gita

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
–Psalms 16:11

Within my soul I possess the unconquerable, unchangeable, ever new bliss of God.
O divine silent Laughter, be enthroned beneath the canopy of my countenance and smile through my soul.
–The Light of Smiles, a meditation of Yogananda which Andrew treasured

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Closing Prayer

Our Father in Heaven, I desire…
To honor your name.
To see your kingdom come, your will be done.
To that end, and to celebrate Andrew’s life, I intend…
To embrace the adventures and the mysteries.
To remember that we are all connected.
To be present, playful, and thankful.
To know the bliss of God and to smile through my soul.

To have a big bowl of life.