Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the category “In Communities”

When the World is Crying

When the world is crying, what do storytellers do?

We tell stories.

We tell tales to heal hurts. We tell stories to empathize and to teach empathy. We tell tales to illuminate the paths that build caring communities.

Mostly, we tell stories to remember our humanity.

Telling stories matters, especially when the world is crying.

The events of the shooting at the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina this June stole lives and tore souls apart. It was yet another chink in the heavy curtain of pain that our nation wears, pain wrought from hatred, violence, and racism.

But out of all the turmoil in Charleston, a particular glimmer of hope caught me up. On Sunday evening, walkers gathered on Charleston’s Arthur Ravenel Bridge to stand together in the face of crisis. It was a show of unity, not division. This important, historical moment brought an old, traditional story to mind, an important one for any time, but especially important in times of splintering divides.

There once was an elderly man who was at death’s door. He lay in his bed, day and night, too weak to walk or care for himself.

Every day, one of his three sons came to the house to tend to his needs. His boys took turns. They never came at the same time because his sons did did not get along.

But it hadn’t always been that way. As children, the boys played and laughed. They shared one pizza and divided eight slices evenly when the youngest got old enough to want more. “Wanna wrestle?” they cried to their Dad as they tumbled like wolf puppies around the living room. Their relationship wasn’t perfect, they argued and fought like other brothers and sisters everywhere. Still, they loved and supported each other.

As they grew older, they stopped playing. They didn’t spend time together. Their life paths diverged and they argued about politics, about money, and about all the things with the power to destroy relationships. Their arguments came between them so deeply that they would never visit their father at the same time.

It pained their father to see how intent they were on avoiding each other.

As his illness grew worse, he realized that he had to try something. One day, he called each of them on the phone and said that none of the others could come on Wednesday afternoon of the next week. So it happened that all three arrived at the same time that day to take care of their Dad. When they entered his room, their stiff silence was punctured with a gasp.

Their father was sitting up in bed. It was the first time in months that he sat up on his own. And on his lap was an old, tin box.

“Boys, I need to ask you to do me a favor. Go outside, each of you, and bring back two strong sticks.”

Silently, they left the room. When they returned, their father said, “Now boys, each of you break one of the sticks.”

It was easy. Each stick snapped in two.

“Now, pass me your other stick.”

When their father held one of the other sticks in his hand, he said, “We have choices in how we live. When we stand divided, the weight of the world breaks us like old, dry sticks.”

Then he placed all three sticks together in a little bundle.. “But when we stand united, what happens?”

He passed the bundle to each of his sons in turn. “Break them,” he commanded.

They pressed and strained on the old wood. Though the bundle bent and flexed, the sticks held strong.

“My sons, when we stand alone, we can snap at life’s challenges like old, brittle sticks. But when we stand together, with others, we can more easily bear the weight of life and its problems. Though we might bend under the pressure, we won’t break.”

The tension in the room eased a bit, like carbonation escaping from a slowly opened bottle. The old man packed that bundle of sticks into the tin box. When he closed the lid with a snap, each young man looked up, as if waking from a dream.

“This is for you, my sons.”

The three young men took turns caring for their father until he died. After that, they took turns caring for their father’s old, tin box. They passed it from one to the other. They started to talk again. Slowly, they learned to overlook their differences to see the good in each other. And best of all, whenever any of them faced trouble, they remembered their father’s bundle of sticks. They drew together and drew strength from each other.

Strength in unity.

The people of Charleston came together for one night to show their unified outrage at senseless shootings. They banded together, like a bundle of sticks.

Stories, old and new, are like the old man’s tin box. They carry wisdom for living life. That is why storytellers tell stories when the world is crying.

What stories do you tell in times of crisis?

********************************

Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters All rights reserved.

We retold “The Bundle of Sticks”  from “A Father and His Sons”, an Aesop’s fable.

Photo Credit: תמר הירדני / Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

Daily Ghost Post – J is for Jersey Devil

I married a New Jersey guy, devil that he is… though the Jersey Devil has little to do with him. I hope.

There is a forested region of southern New Jersey alternatively called the Pinelands, the Pines, or the Pine Barrens. In 1735, the Leeds family lived there. Full of fragrant pine trees and free of the rancor of colonial urban life, it was a perfect place for Mr. and Mrs. Leeds to raise their 12 children.

But life wasn’t exactly bucolic when Mother Leeds discovered that she was pregnant with her 13th child. She cried and screamed, “This one is surely a devil!”

It was a dark and stormy night when she went into labor. The winds howled. Mother Leeds howled. When the baby was finally born, it also howled. And when the Leeds baby’s crying died down, something just a bit out of the ordinary happened. The baby grew horns on its head. Its tiny body stretched and its arms became wings. Then it screeched and flew up the chimney, but not before it killed the midwife.

The Leeds Devil, or the Jersey Devil, has terrorized people, off and on, ever since. It has been said to slash the throats of animals and people, devour children, and can leap over a cranberry bog in a single bound. Books and newspaper stories document eyewitness accounts of the fleeting creature. The image and the story is so famous in New Jersey that businesses and sports teams carry its name.

The Leeds family’s experience is but one version of the origin story of a bat-winged, goat headed, cloven hoofed, kangaroo-like, cattle-killing beast that haunts the Pine Barrens. Another account suggests that the birth of the devil was a curse on Mrs. Leeds because she was rude to a preacher. (There are definite discrepancies about the look of the beast, for slightly different description, head here).

There is another Jersey Devil origin story that is of a more political nature. Dabbed with religious intrigue, it is a complicated tale that has one thing in common with the Mother Leeds tale – it is about a colonial family also named Leeds who also lived near Leeds Point. This Loyalist family tangled with the Patriots, Quakers, and Ben Franklin’s rapacious wit. Franklin referred to Titan Leeds, a rival Almanack publisher, as a ghost – this moniker was used for Leeds while he was living and after he died. Over time and through folk imagination, perhaps he was transformed into the Jersey Devil.

Sightings in the 19th century and a fabled string of sightings in 1909 suggest that the Devil was active in the past. But recent reported encounters with strange leaping beasts, unidentified screeches, and hoofed footprints (as documented by some folks who host a website devoted to Jersey Devil sightings) suggest that people currently believe that something is haunting the place. A gentleman names Fred Brown, interviewed for John McPhee’s late 20th century book, Pine Barrens, believed in the Jersey Devil with his whole heart.

It may be of interest to note that the Native American tribes of that region, the Lenape, identified the Pine Barrens as a place of dragons. Is that because they saw a dragon? A Jersey Devil? Or was “dragon” the way they described the local bird called the sandhill crane? No one knows for sure.

Whether it is an indigenous dragon, a cursed baby, the ghost of Titan Leeds, or a sandhill crane, there is something afoot in Southern New Jersey. Just ask Fred Brown.

Do you have a local, legendary creature that haunts or frightens people? I’d love to hear about it….so would other readers of the blog I suspect…. 🙂

***************************

Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

SOURCES:
McMahon, William (1987). Pine Barrens: Legends and Lore. Mid-Atlantic Press.
McPhee, John (1968). The Pine Barrens. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Regal, Brian http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_jersey_devil_the_real_story/
Wikipedia – New Jersey Devil

PHOTO CREDIT: By Philadelphia Newspaper (Philadelphia Papers in 1909) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One Reason Storytellers Do What They Do

Fans of JK Rowling’s Weasley twins will be familiar with their joke shop product called “extendable ears.” With one end of a cord held close to the listener’s ear, the other end crawls along the ground, winding around corners and sliding under doors until it reaches its destination. Then, it listens to the secrets of unsuspecting friends and enemies alike. My son desperately wished for a set to use around the time of his birthday whenever we whispered about his gifts. There are probably numerous politicians, spies, and Academy Award nominees who would love a set as well.

Old-fashioned extendable ears

So why am I discussing this intriguing fictional product here? It is because stories reach and stretch into the human heart and mind like extendable ears stretch into other rooms. When people speak of the power of stories, this is what they mean.

Stories have a seemingly magical way of touching those who need them. They sneak in the cracks and openings of heart and mind and do their work: stories heal, stories connect one to another, they teach and ignite dreams.

But the work of stories is gentle. They seep into people like a mild rain softens dry soil. The images and messages embedded in stories, like water moistening dry soil, find their ways to their destination. This is one of the biggest reasons why we do the work that we do.

Stories reach in.
____________
Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Anybody with stories about stories doing this work? Share them (way) down below!

Campfires Spark Storytelling

Stories have always been important to human beings. Ancient people painted story pictures on cave walls. They carved stories in stone. But just when and how did oral storytelling take place?

People have long thought that some of it occurred around the campfire or hearth. Michael Balter, writing for Science Magazine, reports that recent research suggests that the campfire setting sparked the human storytelling impulse.

By studying an African hunter-gatherer tribe that only recently settled down to agricultural, village life, anthropologist Polly Wiessner noted different styles of narrative communication among them. It all depended on when and where tales were told.. During the day, stories were more likely to be about topics like economics and land issues. But as days stretched into evenings by the fire, people’s talk turned to social institutions, people in other communities, and traditions.

Storytelling is the oldest form of social networking.

The idea that the campfire setting is an incubator for stories won’t surprise campers and counselors. Countless imaginations (and marshmallows) sizzle while listening to ghost stories around a fire.

That age-old human tendency to enjoy stories in the evening continues even today. We attend theatrical shows at night, we sit around supper tables telling each other about school or work, and we share bedtime stories with our children.

It is an iconic, romantic image – people sitting around a fire listening to stories. It is also now documented that language-rich worlds are kindled by the warmth and glow of a fire.

As a performer who has told stories in every context imaginable, from campfires to hospitals and parking lots, I would like to offer an additional insight. The intimacy and sweetness of the campfire setting, combined with the full-bodied, live presence of a campfire audience, gives storytellers and listeners the focus and comfort that can set everyone’s imagination on fire.

There is nothing like an in-tune, authentic audience for encouraging communication and creativity.

That said, I will keep this topic in mind the next time I struggle with writing. Perhaps the darkness of night and the roar of a fire can help to burn my writer’s block to ash so that creativity, like a phoenix, can rise.

It’s worth a try, at any rate!

And then there is that other night light that connects us to stories. It is a cooler light. A bluer light. A light that brings us stories of friends on social media and makes it possible for us to binge on Netflix. Is this screen-based, mediated connection to stories an outgrowth of storytelling around the fire? Does it inspire connectivity and imagination and sustain the storytelling impulse? Or is this storytelling of a different kind? Let’s chat this up!

Comments below. Ready? Go!

—————————-

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

Photo Credit: Jon Sullivan

Reimagining Beauty – F is for Frolicsome

Blogging A to Z

If you are new to the blog, welcome!

For my Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, I am writing about how storytellers, writers, parents, teachers (in other words, just about anyone) can reimagine beauty to be more inclusive. That way, people with disabilities, varying body types and racial backgrounds, etc.(in other words, anyone) can feel and be recognized by the world as the beauties they truly are.

Reimagining Beauty – F is for Frolicsome

The other night I attended a school dodgeball tournament that included high school teachers, sports team members, bus drivers, National Honor Society students, and school maintenance personnel. But one team, The Dodgefathers, was made up of school administrators. Costumed in black with grease markings on their cheeks, they were captained by the school superintendent. With darting, mischievous eyes and energy that filled the gym, that middle aged administrator rocked the house. And though the younger students were playful too, his frolicsome nature was particularly riveting.

Everyone knows someone who is part leprechaun, part otter, and part human. Such a frolicsome soul is a delight to be around. Full of energy and fun, a frolicsome person spices up a group, makes classes enjoyable, sparkles at meetings, and transforms a dull party into a hoot. Now that is beautiful.

This quality is one that anybody can possess. Although it is true that some people, by nature, are kitten-like while others are more Eeyore-like, everybody can have moods that include bursts of playfulness. And when such frolicsome moods break through a professional or personality veneer, it rates as a beautiful thing.

There is something else about frolicsome people. They can be any age at all. As I’m sure you realize, much of what our culture popularly sees as beauty focuses on youth. But what is wonderful is that being frolicsome actually improves with age.

We expect kittens and babies to be playful. Play has traditionally been an important part of a young child’s education. But when we witness playfulness in older people, it is even more engaging because we don’t expect it.

That is why the school superintendent was especially beautiful to watch. I expected a stodgy administrator and saw, instead, a frolicsome spirit.

Babies, middle-aged folks, elders, teens, camp directors, the young, the young at heart, disabled folk, parents, teachers, even bosses can be playful otters or fun-loving leprechauns while everyone delights in being around them. So when you think about or describe beauty in stories or conversations, consider the beauty of spirited and frolicsome souls that ignite fun and set play on fire. Just what would this world be without them?

**********
Copyright 2014. The Storyrafters. All rights reserved.

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge

Blogging A to Z

Hey, I’m doing something neat next month! A group of bloggers (nearly 1500 as I write this post) will blog every day in April, except Sundays. Starting on April 1 with the letter A and going forward to the end of the month with the letter Z at the end of April 30, bloggers will write daily posts on the same letter. Over the month it will be like savoring alphabet soup, one noodle at a time. People say it is great fun, so I’m raring to go.

You can read more about it here.

Many bloggers who do this challenge orient their blogs to a theme. And today is the big Theme Reveal.

My theme is Reimagining Beauty.

One of the most beautiful children I have ever seen is a little girl. She was born with a genetic syndrome that among other things, alters the way she looks. It got me to thinking about the images of beauty that she will encounter in her life. Will she feel excluded? My recent blog posts have touched on this and other related issues, and there are more to come.

But when the A to Z Challenge came my way, I thought that it would be great opportunity to really dig down into this issue. So I decided to focus on how anyone – storytellers, writers, people in everyday conversation, parents – anyone has the power to describe beauty inclusively, regardless of cultural background, body type, age, abilities, or what their physical appearance has or “lacks” in terms of media driven imagery. Because that stuff is not what matters or makes one beautiful. At least that’s my take on it.

Storytellers know that words have great power to change mood and mind. My blog series on Reimagining Beauty will focus on the words we can choose to redefine and reimagine beauty in ways that are inclusive of anyone.

It will be one fun roller-coaster ride through the month of April.

***************

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

Conquering the Ugliness in Beauty

Social media is buzzing about how distorted images of women create unnatural, unattainable representations of ‘beauty.’ And this reminds me of an important, related issue.

A friend recently told me that as a kid, he hated reading certain stories because they were about characters he could never be like or look like. My friend has a disability. Whenever he read about beautiful people in books, he felt awful about himself.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

A mom I know struggles with teaching her kids about beauty, wishing for more stories that reflect her kids’ Asian heritage. And then there is my friend whose daughter has a rare, genetic syndrome. In addition to having a unique appearance, the child uses a wheelchair. There aren’t many beloved story characters who conquer kingdoms in assisted devices or who have asymmetrical body shapes. Finding stories that don’t marginalize such children can be more challenging than conquering storybook kingdoms.

My friends are not alone. Many parents wrestle with this. We comb bookshelves to find stories with illustrations that depict beauty in ways we feel are appropriate for our children. But many of those images are picture book perfect or culturally biased; they don’t reflect our reality. So images in books can become subliminal, insidious reminders of how we “should” look. Most of us fail.

Because pictures send a thousand messages, some parents carefully screen the images their kids see. They don’t want their children receiving messages that might cause them to undervalue their own unique beauty, heritage, or gifts. They don’t want their kids to feel like they don’t measure up. They don’t want to teach them to aspire to impossible ideals.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

Rigorous screening of media is one way to offer images of beauty to kids. But you can also do something else to give children stories and images that reflect them and which can build self-esteem.

Tell them stories.

When stories are told, words are chosen by the storyteller. Pictures are imagined by the storyteller and the listener(s). Thus, beauty is in the imagination of the beholder.

You can make up a story, adapt a traditional one, or retell one from a book. In so doing, you can define beauty in all the ways that make sense to you. A beautiful character can be from any culture, can have any disability, can mirror any child. Listeners can imagine themselves riding wheelchairs to glory.

Best of all, the potent images from a child’s imagination can stay with a child for life.

Beauty does not equate to blond hair, white skin, two straight arms, a certain weight range or a particular ability. Beauty is not just appearance alone. Beauty can be described in all the ways that humans perceive it. Most importantly, when you tell a story, your beautiful characters can have the beautiful traits that your child possesses.

Inspire children to find themselves beautiful. Inspire “typical” children to see beauty in those who have disabilities. Tell them stories.

The little girl I mentioned earlier, the one with the genetic syndrome, is one of the most beautiful children I have ever met. Not because she looks like everyone else, but because she looks like herself. Her heart popping smile is riveting, her glance has the power to light up the dark. I fall over myself when she smiles at me because her infectious, gorgeous glance kisses my heart. She radiates pure joy. What is more beautiful than that?

Every person deserves the chance to feel beautiful. Reclaim beauty for yourself and for the children around you. Beauty does not have to call up the beast of failed hopes; when stories are told personally, when beauty is described consciously, then stories become more beautiful. And that is when they can bring joy, possibility, and peace to parents and children.

Beauty does not have to be ugly.

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

*********
In an upcoming post – soon I hope – will outline ways to describe beauty in inclusive ways in the stories you tell. Follow for more on this and other stuff.

The Arts for Whose Sake?

While performing recently in a small theater with my storytelling partner, Barry, I noticed a seasoned, powerful, storytelling producer in the audience. As much a critic as a storytelling aficionado, my nerves quivered like a teenager meeting the dour road test examiner for the first time.

“Would he like our work? Were we on our game?” My internal dialogue merged with my stories, and this caused thoughts, images, and emotions to assault me in a poly-rhythmic fugue.

Typically, when that producer attends storytelling concerts, he sits apart from the audience, in the sound booth or theater wings. This is not unusual behavior for producers. Barry and I do it when we run the open air Story Grove stage at Pete Seeger’s beloved Clearwater Festival. While artists perform under tree and sky, we hunker down in a market tent that is sandwiched between the back of the audience and the poison ivy. The tent functions as backstage, green room, and sound booth rolled into one. There, we do countless tasks while trying to listen to the performers onstage. Although we make a mighty effort, we are keenly aware that we’re set apart from the spell being cast by performers and audience.

But the seasoned producer that day was in plain sight, not secreted away in the shadowy wings. He attended the performance like a typical audience member. I saw every detail of his facial muscles. A disapproving frown, the crinkle of a smile, and I would know if he was happy or bored with our work. To salvage soul and show, I focused on everyone else and pressed my jitters, Panini-like, to the bottom of my being. Then, after a cleansing breath, the stories bubbled free to the surface, untainted by my parochial concerns.

After the show, the producer emerged from the crowd, beaming. “That was a great show. And it’s such a different experience to be in the middle of the audience! What a wonderful feeling, I felt so connected to you and everyone.”
My first reaction was “Phew! He liked it.” But as we chatted on, my internal dialogue, like a desperate puppy, licked and nuzzled me for attention, saying, “He seemed surprised at the power of being part of a live audience!” That was much more meaningful to me than whether he liked our work; it raised important questions.

If a seasoned arts producer can forget the power of attending a live performance, what about the rest of us? What else is forfeited when we miss the mood and emotions that sizzle and soar among performers and audience members? What do we forsake by not being fully present at a performing arts experience?

What we lose is the vibrancy that springs to life during shows. It happens between artist and artist, artist and audience, audience member and audience member. Connections are forged with shared smiles, ripples of laughter, and knowing nods to neighbors. And those connections build community. Regardless of politics or background, everyone feels as though they hold hands and heart, mind and spirit, with each other.

Sitting alone in the wings or under a separate tent, choosing a seat apart from the group; these are choices that create a gulf of separation. They block that untouchable, yet vitally felt part of a face to face performing arts experience. That’s what struck the seasoned producer that day in the small theater. Fully present for the fleeting moments of one show, he was reminded how precious and human those moments are.

Lest we forget too, let’s immerse ourselves in the vitality of live performances. That way, we can support the arts for art’s sake, and ours.

*****

Copyright 2013. The Storycrafters.

Heroism Through Stories

Have you heard about Antoinette Tuff? She is the bookkeeper who single handedly talked down a gunman in a Georgia school. Living up to the spirit of her name, she was alone with him for an hour. Yet calmly and compassionately, she talked to him, drew him out, made a personal connection to him and his life. Although Ms. Tuff claims that the credit for her success lies solely with God, there may be an additional, worldly contribution to her success as well.

“I just started telling him stories,” she said.

Storytellers have always claimed that the power of storytelling can be momentous. Therapists and others who use stories in healing work have seen it first hand. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and related self-help groups are predicated on the telling of stories to heal self and others. Antoinette Tuff told her own stories as a way to make a connection with the gunman, and in so doing, she probably saved many lives.

Honor this woman. Listen to her tell the story of this event. She is heroic in every sense of the word.

And tell your stories too – you never know, a story you tell may save a life.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: