Ringmaster Tristan Graham

“Gooday, mate!” I heard as a young lad strode brashly up the steps of my house. Ordained with hippie dreadlocks, a didgeerie doo, and a bursting backpack he wore a big broad smile. Offering his hand with a solid shake Tristan, from way down under, made his grand entrance.

I had a habit of rejecting hippies who arrived at Bellyacres unannounced, telling them our intentional community was full and to apply online, but Tristan was insistent and just kept talking until I relented. It was March 17th 2008 and my search for a protege to step into my circus shoes had just been answered. He became a volunteer worker, then a renter, then a circus student, assistant HICCUP director, and eventually a full member of Bellyacres.

Before I left Bellyacres in 2015, he had taken over as the Executive Director of our community facility S.P.A.C.E. and was successfully running all the HICCUP programs. Yeah for Tristan !

His long arduous journey to Puna, Hawaii from Bomaderry, Australia had taken him to various States in the U.S. including Alaska where he worked various odd jobs to support his travels. Being a huge outdoors adventurer he kayaked more than two thousand miles from Homer Alaska to Seattle Washington over two summers – and did it all alone! The courage, strength and determination that got him through that formidable mental and physical ordeal was to prove essential over the next decade as he faced the challenges of life in the circus and the jungles of Puna.

I quickly realised Tristan was limited in his range of life skills but he had a great enthusiasm for learning and engaging in all things related to community building. He made friends easily and was quick to explore the wild local attractions.The biggest bonus for me was that he picked up circus skills really quickly and had a rare passion for teaching kids.

Tristan exemplified how our volunteer workers’ program at Bellyacres enabled hundreds of people to experience living in Hawaii and sustainable community development. My practice of hospitality and openness to non-members staying on our land played a huge part in the maintenance and development of our infrastructure and agricultural projects. This policy of inclusivity was, however, challenged by certain members, and became especially sensitive when children were involved, which contributed considerably to Tristan’s eventual demise.

Being a child centred person made Tristan perfect for our circus programs but, as I had discovered myself, he eventually came to grief with Bellyacres after he moved in a partner with three kids and had a child of his own. Our group always had divided attitudes towards children even though I have always considered children to be an essential part of any communal living situation. I naturally assumed everyone would have this same belief and so did Tristan but we were clearly wrong.

During his decade in Puna Tristan stayed at Bellyacres in several jungalows, the Horvat House and the Teahouse and also lived with girlfriends in Paradise Park and Yoga Oasis and Cinderland. He worked really hard as a Bellyacres intern and with Joe Hoffman building the Horvat House. He was a budding entrepreneur and ran his own landscaping and water tank cleaning businesses. He also participated in various musical ensembles and starred in ‘Rent’ a theatre show that toured the island. But, his most consistent and regular work, was helping me run HICCUP circus classes and camps and participating in our shows – first as a sidekick, then as Master of Ceremonies. Tristan has a natural love of performing.

By 2013 after a tiring run of fun HICCUP events and not so fun legal wranglings I took a well deserved break with Isla and Tristan. We flew to Seattle and toured the pacific north west visiting ex HICCUPer Marcus Raymond on Whidbey Island, my sailing friends Charlie and Inge in Port Townsend and a brand new circus community at the Quarry in Bellingham. The culmination of our trip was a week spent at the American Youth Circus Organization Festival where Tristan and I taught workshops and Isla participated in classes and performed in the big show representing the HICCUP circus troupe.

Later that year Dena, Tristan and I took our “Ecotopia” troupe to the Kohala Aina Festival for a very special weekend. We enjoyed a three day tour camping out in the beautiful Halawa Gulch in Kapa’au. HICCUP circus was billed as the headline act for the family entertainment area under a big beautiful monkey pod tree and the troupe presented one of their very best shows. To top all of this our young performers got exposed to the amazing music of Nahko Bear and Medicine for the People who performed a memorable intimate show for this really wonderful event. We participated in the Kohala Aina festival every year after that but it was always bigger and more impersonal and sadly never had the same ohana feeling that we experienced in 2013.

From his early days Tristan was heavily involved in our S.P.A.C.E. farmers market. He initially playing his didge and guitar and later sold his handmade juggling props. When we started our S.P.A.C.E. night market he organised the entertainment through his “World of Intuition” theatre group and when we needed support or music for our kids parties he always stepped up to play or help. Our friend Annetta was constantly recruiting players for her eccentric artistic antics and Tristan became a regular and very photogenic participant.

In 2014 S.P.A.C.E. was going through it’s most stressful period and our executive director resigned so we appointed a transition committee of Tristan, Dena and Michele while I continued as Board President and the point person for all the planning politics. It took much of my energy away from the HICCUP kids but luckily I had Tristan to fill the gap. He developed a special connection, and spent a lot of his time, with four of our local teenagers, whom he named the Junkyard Jugglers. He took them under his wing, created various new acts, played accompanying music, found costuming and arranged photo shoots. With his enthusiasm he motived them to practise hard and engage in an ambitious fundraising campaign to support them attending the annual International jugglers Festival. The boys were inspired and took off on a wild ride with Tristan, street performing at community events and busking weekly at Uncle Roberts famous Wednesday night market.

Tristan and the Junkyard Jugglers using the recycled clubs he made.

Early that summer he continued a longstanding HICCUP tradition by taking Hunter, Beck, Jake and Kenoa to beautiful Kauai island at the invitation of Uncle Mark. By this time the boys had been performing consistently, their show was ‘rocking’ and they had nine different routines, many based on the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ message that the HICCUP circus was promoting. The group were thrilled to travel off island and the strong friendships they had established clearly showed during their lighthearted and funfilled presentations.

They all lodged at Mark’s Storybook Theater, a renovated historic building with a store front, radio and TV studio inside. The boys became T.V. stars when filmed for a segment of Mark’s TV show with his puppet character Russell the Rooster. Each morning they performed at different venues for kids attending ‘Summer Fun’ programs and in the afternoons they taught juggling lessons. To fundraise further for their upcoming festival trip they busked for cash at a couple of shopping centres and outside of the Storybook Theater. Then they got invited to the annual Japanese Buddhist Bon Dance. This usually tranquil and peaceful event was totally transformed when Tristan’s costumed troupe took over the microphone and music with their crazy antics. Although the audience responded with enthusiasm the oriental hosts were obviously shaken and seemed anxious to take the excitement level back down a notch after the surprise exhilaration of the renegade Junkyard Jugglers.

Through many shows and persistent fundraising Tristan succeeded in taking these same four lucky lads to the 67th Annual International jugglers Festival in Purdue University, Indiana. They had an amazing time joining over 650 jugglers from around the world and meeting some of the very best. I’m sure it changed their lives forever. A highlight, none of them will ever forget was their brilliant performance in the Youth Showcase. Their attendance at this prestigious event was made possible by the generous financial support from our local community and we all felt really proud having our four HICCUP youths represent the lowly district of Puna, which typically lacks such achievements. Take a big bow Tristan !

Back at Bellyacres Tristan and I continued touring our bigger troupe presenting lots more shows around the island – to the delight of local audiences. Tragically, the political climate and deportation threats became increasingly more stressful for me and by the end of the year I made the painful decision to move. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life but was made easier because Tristan was able and willing to take over as HICCUP Circus director and he also became the executive director at S.P.A.C.E. He embraced these new roles with all the energy and skills he possessed and expressed a willingness to accept help and learn more while doing the job. Unfortunately, while coping with heavy new responsibilities, he faced a barrage of criticisms and obstruction and didn’t get reasonable support from other Bellyacres residents which made his life very difficult.

Obie’s first day

Tristan made a lease-to-buy agreement with me to take over stewardship of my home (the Tea House) and he moved in soon after I left. I thought we had a win/win/win situation but I was wrong. Transfer of my house to Tristan needed approval from the Bellyacres membership and this proved problematic. After two years of discussions and a lengthy debate at the 2017 A.G.M., it passed by consensus, pending final acceptance by the six resident members. Tristan had suffered the trauma of having his partner run off with Obie, his very young son, and instead of his fellow community members giving him support some were complicit in the drama and turned against him. Furthermore they rejected his purchase of my home which devastated him and me, and greatly impacted our families.

Everything got very sticky at that point. I felt that antagonism towards Tristan was mostly due to the fact that he was my protege, having been my right-hand man for several years, and opposition to my leadership and my vision was wrongfully transferred over to him as he stepped into my empty shoes at Bellyacres and S.P.A.C.E.. Being cursed with having my first name as his last name might have made it all the more difficult! Secondly, there was a new belief that houses built by individual members were now the only resource Bellyacres had to provide income for the group and accommodation for visiting members. The new idea presented by certain members was to have houses owned collectively, and not by individuals.

Negotiating at the 2017 AGM

This radical change was a philosophical and practical shift that impacted me severely. In the formation of Bellyacres, I had created a mixed model of private and collective ownership based upon my experiences living in two very different Israeli kibbutzim. Needless to say, the resident group, which comprised of four members who already privately owned their houses, deferred approval of Tristan’s proposal until the 2018 A.G.M.. Meanwhile, he continued with the lease-to-buy option in the hopes that he would eventually get full group approval. Ironically, he became the only Bellyacres member who was paying rent to live on the property and, with a very uncertain future, I was lucky that he was a man of faith and forgiveness, and was willing to hang in there, working as hard as ever believing in the good things coming and trying very hard to remain politically neutral. 

By the 2018 meeting I was living in the U.K. and Tristan wrote to me saying, ” Wow, what a weekend!  It was challenging on many levels. I am glad that a motion (provisionally allowing Tristan to buy the house ) was crafted where everybody compromised to reach a passing vote. Thanks again for your dedication to supporting me in all of this. The last 10 years has been an incredible journey of personal growth for me and in particular this last year has been a real integration of the things I have learned from my experiences, I am glad that I have survived this far. Henrik has been coaching me in serious communication skills to get by in these meetings and in general living here.” 

I wrote to the meeting facilitator thanking him for his hard work and expertise in achieving an outcome for my both houses. “You had a tough job and did it well. I’m happy that I can now move forward with my life here in the U.K. without the stress of wondering what might happen to my only major monetary assets. Of course I wanted a better deal but so did everybody and in the end it became a test of the consensus process. I surrender to that. After 30 years we still have a lot to learn about consensus in order to avoid spending twelve hours discussing a single topic but I think a lot was learned.”

I strongly believed that Tristan deserved my house and everyone’s full support to operate S.P.A.C.E. and the HICCUP program but sadly this did not happen. Within a year relationships deteriorated further and he moved to live in Hilo with his girlfriend. By the fall of 2019 Tristan had his membership revoked, resigned from running S.P.A.C.E. and directing the HICCUP circus and moved to Oahu. Today he and Cindy Claudia continue their circus performances and I wish them every success as they move forward with their lives. The questions I now ask myself are; was Tristan too renegade for our once self proclaimed renegade community and will there be any future prospective members able to find compatibility with the dominant resident Bellyacres membership?

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “Ringmaster Tristan Graham

  1. Aloha Graham for this full bag of reflections. Tristan was/is an outstanding full on human being and as you well expressed went through the “ringer” with his soul intact. I am still baffled as I approach my 70th birthday, why do otherwise “decent” people force people with unnecessary challenges rather than embrace them with love and compassion. Our communities here are feeling a lower pulse of life from exactly the same anal behavior which has dried the juices of reality.Much love to youGeorge and Stephanie

    Liked by 1 person

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