Postcards from Whidbey Island || Big Joy Among Us

Posted in Community, Feature, More Stories, Postcards from Whidbey Island

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
November 25, 2015

A showing of the film “Big Joy” earlier this month at Langley’s Clyde Theatre—a fundraiser to help with the medical expenses of island resident Charlie Murphy—also turned out to be a showing of solidarity, support and safekeeping, island style.

The audience for a showing of "Big Joy" to benefit the healing fund of island resident Charlie Murphy (photo by the author)

The audience for a showing of “Big Joy” to benefit the healing fund of island resident Charlie Murphy (photo by the author)

For many years, Charlie—following his calling as a mentor—has traveled the world on behalf of Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE), a global organization he co-founded with Peggy Taylor that seeks to unleash the potential of young people worldwide through creative facilitation training for adults and creative camps for youth. A talented songwriter, musician and performer with a background in social change theory and practice, Charlie is ideally suited for this work.

But when he learned a year or so ago that he was suffering from an aggressive form of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Charlie had no choice but to cancel his travel plans and redirect his commitment and energy to seeking treatment. In the fall, he and husband Eric Mulholland—actor and PYE theatre artist—traveled to China in search of herbal remedies they hoped would slow the onset of the disease. The pair returned after a few months, convinced that their Whidbey Island home and friends would offer the best medicine of all in meeting the challenges of ALS, which by then included symptoms of slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and loss of motor control…and that they anticipated would someday include paralysis and respiratory failure.

Charlie and Eric returned home in late October to a network of support: a team of friends in the medical profession that investigates and recommends possible treatments to slow or arrest the debilitating, and eventually fatal, symptoms of ALS. A finance team that considers ways to help Charlie pay for treatments and ways for Eric to take time off from earning income to give Charlie the care he needs. The sustenance team that prepares and delivers food—especially blended soups—now that Charlie has difficulty swallowing.

ALS is a pitiless, wasting disease. What joy, big or small, can be found anywhere near it? Even to look for joy in these circumstances might be considered audacious.

Big JoyBut it can be found. It can be found in the audacious life of James Broughton, the subject of the film “Big Joy.” Broughton (who died in 1999 at his home in Port Townsend) was an exemplar of exuberance who had a quirky genius for combining poetry with filmmaking to achieve “poetic cinema.” His zest for life was immense and his curiosity unquenchable; he was described as “forever liberating people”—a description that just as easily fits Charlie, who became friends with Broughton in the early eighties.

Broughton’s life was an example of how making art can sustain hope…exactly the theme of Charlie’s life work. Broughton courageously explored both his androgyny and his attraction to men in a time when queerness equaled social deviancy. Charlie, through his example and his involvement with men’s music and spirituality, has been inspiring others to accept their own selves.

Joy can also be found in the soundtrack to the film, composed and performed by Jami Sieber (together with Evan Schiller). According to Jami, who attended the showing, “James held the dark and the light so deeply in his life that, for me as an artist, composing music to reflect that was a challenge and a delight.” Jami and Charlie have known each other since 1980 when they performed together as a duo and later in the Seattle-based band, Rumors of the Big Wave. As well as composing music for films, Jami records CDs and tours the country playing acoustic and electric cello.

The personal and musical connection Charlie and Jami forged 35 years ago has endured. “The community up here is really committed to helping Charlie live fully in the moment. I admire the support that has poured in to make their lives easier and more real,” Jami said.

Eric Mulholland and Jami Sieber at a reception held at Ott & Murphy

Eric Mulholland and Jami Sieber at a reception held at Ott & Murphy (photo by the author)

Joy can also be found in a phrase coined by James Broughton, “Follow your own weird.” The film’s director Stephen Silha prefers the original meaning of “weird,” a Celtic word meaning “fate” or “destiny.” Present at the showing, Stephen observed, “Being weird is being true to your core; being on your creative edge.” Stephen followed his own weird in order to make “Big Joy,” a process that required several Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns to raise the funds and took over four years to shoot and edit. The film has been shown at more than 45 festivals. According to Stephen, who has sat through many screenings of the film with many audiences, the reaction of the audience at the Clyde was special. “People responded, they really listened. They caught the nuances, the subtleties, that many audiences miss. That was gratifying for me.”

Stephen’s history with Charlie is almost as long as Jami’s; the two met in 1982 when Stephen interviewed Charlie for an article on the men’s music movement for the Christian Science Monitor. Since then, they have collaborated on projects and vacationed together. Charlie introduced Stephen to James Broughton in 1989.


Musician Jami Sieber and “Big Joy” director Stephen Silha on stage at the Clyde (photo by the author)

During my interview with Stephen, I commented on the multi-colored velour shirt and maroon beret he wore. It turns out that both once belonged to Broughton (and both made an appearance in the film). Stephen also pointed to a small silver bell hanging around his neck. The bell was crafted by his partner, a jewelry maker on Vashon Island, and engraved with the words to Broughton’s poem “This Is It.”

This is it
This is really it
This is all there is
And it’s perfect as it is

There is nowhere to go
but Here
There is nothing here
but Now
There is nothing now
but this

And this is it
This is really it
This is all there is
And it’s perfect as it is

Film director Stephen Silba expressing his version of Big Joy (photo by the author)

Film director Stephen Silha expressing his version of Big Joy (photo by the author)

Much of Broughton’s particular genius, his weird, was due to his ability to live in the moment, earning him the nickname “Big Joy.” Like James Broughton, Charlie Murphy has found much joy in his life, and he has helped others to find it in theirs. But now, in his 62nd year, Charlie is also becoming acquainted with the sorrow, shock, and dread that follows a diagnosis of ALS.

Sitting a few rows in front of him in the darkened theatre, I imagined what Charlie might have been thinking and feeling: flanked by adopted family and artistic collaborators Jami and Stephen, clasping hands with his life partner Eric, watching old friend James Broughton romping on the big screen, surrounded by his Whidbey Island neighbors in space donated by The Clyde’s owners, knowing that all ticket revenues were pledged to his care, anticipating the reception that awaited him across the street at Ott & Murphy (space donated and drink revenues earmarked for his healing fund). I imagined what he might have thought and felt as he left the dark theatre and stepped out into the sunlight to find a rainbow spanning the sky.

Charlie Murphy

Charlie Murphy (also shown at top)

I don’t really know. But I do know that, if there’s anyone who can hold the light and the darkness simultaneously, it’s Charlie. If there’s anyone who can humbly accept gifts from others, knowing he has given plenty of gifts of his own, it’s Charlie. If there’s anyone who can appreciate the beauty and grace of human compassion, and allow the safety net of community concern to hold him, it’s Charlie.

And aren’t we, every one of us, invited to share in that Big Joy?  


A staged reading of “Tuesdays with Morrie” will be held at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts at 3 p.m. on Jan. 17 as a benefit for Charlie Murphy. Watch our Community News section for updates and more information about other benefits, and follow these links to find out more about:

Dianna MacLeod met Charlie Murphy in 1977 when they both lived in an intentional community that taught social change skills. She sought out Jami Sieber in 1978 for a cello lesson when she thought that following her own weird meant taking up that instrument. She met Eric Mullholland in 2013 when she interviewed him for a Whidbey Life Magazine article on Island Shakespeare Festival’s Classic Conservatory for Young Adults. She met Stephen Silha wearing his sixties garb and his poetry bell just this month. All of which has led her to the irrefutable conclusion that Big Joy never really ends.


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  1. Lovely, Diana. Touching and heartfelt. You captured the energy of the afternoon, of the community, of the mixed experiences of this journey for Charlie, for Eric, for all of us. Big joy, for sure! And the rainbow to embrace us all. Thank you!

  2. Diana – sorry I was not able to be there – local medical crisis among my friends are consuming me a bit – but thank you so much for sending this article which was so beautifully and lovingly written. I do hope to catch up with you real soon. Tenderness, Fai

  3. Your article braided together wonderful history, lives and the spirit of community that surrounds Charlie and Eric during this challenging time. With appreciation for your writing and generous spirit,

  4. Diana, that was more than reporting. it was weaving and evoking and captured a holy moment for our community. The double rainbow seemed to confirm the power of the love among us.

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