Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the category “In Education”

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.
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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters

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

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Why We Need to Spin it Ourselves

Think about warm, fresh-out-of-the oven muffins. Tasty for sure, they can be desirable, happy, delights for carbo-gluten-dairy tolerant people. But that’s not all. Muffins have muffin tops. Torn from the muffin bottoms, their crunchy shells and feathery interiors are savored first or saved for last by hard-core muffin top lovers.

But muffin tops on human waists are not as popular. The only thing they have in common with the desirability of the cake is the desire to rip them off.

The Urban Dictionary provides yet another of its memorable hip definitions and usage examples for muffin top:

When a woman wears a pair of tight jeans that makes her flab spill out over the waistband, just like the top of a muffin sits over the edge of the paper case.

Jeez, check out the Muffin Top on that chick! *shudder

If the Urban Dictionary can be said to provide definitions of culture,” *shudder tells you about how muffin tops are perceived. And because of this, people try to exercise them away. People try to hide them under sweaters. People try not to grow them because culture frowns on pounds. Culture shudders.

But really, who exactly decides what things are desirable or shudder-worthy?

I woke to a wonderful link that reminded me how anyone can take back that power and decide these things for themselves. Anyone can choose the spin. It’s in the words we choose and the attitude we use. That’s what makes all the difference.

The link was a Youtube video by Erin Keaney, a mama who raps with pride about her muffin top. It is her badge of parenting. And her video is awesome. Writers and storytellers and anyone can learn from her example.

In her rap, Erin tells how her muffin tops came about. She raps about her fighting efforts to vanquish her opponent with Rocky style commitment. Ultimately, she gives up muffin top fighting. But not in despair! Erin turns the whole thing around and embraces her muffin top. Erin takes joy in her muffin top and her winsome, winning video gives me joy in her muffin tops too.

We don’t have to accept all the images put forth in the media. We can take control of the images in context, attitude, and in how we use our words. We can change the connotations associated with words and phrases. It’s all in how we spin it.

Sure, muffin tops can remain hidden in the cupboard of our bulky knits. Or we can shout from the rooftops and proudly shake ’em, like Erin does. As storytellers and writers, teachers and parents, we can shake anything up in the words we use and in the mood we create in the telling of our stories.

Muffin tops are a fact of life for so many people, especially for those of us in the Mama Club. Next time I look with disdain in the mirror, I think I’ll go watch Erin’s video instead.

If we carry our muffin tops with joy, we won’t create dreaded fear of muffin tops for future generations. If we teach children to shudder, they will shudder. If we reinforce the shudder, anyone, not just children, can have distaste for self and others.

Instead, choose your words carefully. Choose the way you utter them. Choose the way characters respond to them. Choose to shatter the shudder with the words you utter.

Jeri

What other issues do you think you can put your own spin on? Have you already done this? Please share in the comments! I’d love to hear and will comment/visit back.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

The Power of the Verbal Delete Button

During a kindergarten residency at a school recently, we visited individual classrooms many times. On one visit, we noticed an injured child. It was hard NOT to notice. Laced with lacerations, one side of his face was every shade of the red spectrum, from pink to purple. Greeting us, he cocked his head to show us the palette of pain that marked his cheek.

“Did you fall on the playground?” we asked.

He shook his head.

Then his teacher approached us and gently set a hand on his shoulder.

“He was bitten by a dog,” she explained.

The boy nodded sadly.

We said something soothing and then headed over to the story corner where all of his classmates were sitting in a cozy semi-circle on the alphabet rug. Finding his place at the letter Q, he joined them and we began the session.

Our presentation carried everyone away from the plastic, primary colors of the classroom into the lush, tropical fruit colors of Southeast Asia and Indonesia. One of our stories was crafted specifically for the residency. Not only was it age appropriate, it fit our curricular goals, and it represented the culture of one of the minority students in the class. For all those reasons, it was important to tell that tale that day.

As we were telling it, we came to the moment when an old woman is threatened by a snarling, sharp-toothed wolf. We thought immediately about the injured, little boy. This was not the sort of image he needed. But there was no way around it. The woman had to be threatened by the animal or the story would no longer make sense.

Such a dilemma is exactly when in-person, live storytelling has one of its many moments of glory.

Because live storytelling is not hardcore and scripted, storytellers have freedom. Because live storytelling has improvisational aspects, it is possible to make shifts in text and image on the fly. So we changed the way we described the threat to the old woman. Instead of telling the story as we usually do (by focusing on a kindergarten-appropriate scary description of the wolf’s teeth), we dropped it completely. By “deleting” all references to the animal’s mouth, we pulled the teeth out of the image, so to speak. We kept the story integrity intact and also preserved our integrity as caring people.

While deleting phrases may sound insignificant, it is not. It is what live storytelling is all about.

Storytellers often change their work in response to their audience. It is part of the magic and allure of live performance art – it is also its brand. Instead of stiffly adhering to a script and leaving the boy with a reminder of a dark memory, we left him laughing and happy like the other kids.

Live storytelling can bring the needs of audience members into sharp focus. Take your eyes off the text and put them on those who might listen to you. You can learn a lot by watching them. Parents, teachers, and therapists are lucky because they know their audiences intimately. But even if you don’t know yours, you can ask about them before you perform. And whether you know them beforehand or not, watch them.

Could the old woman be a role model for the boy, showing him that it is possible to overcome a scary canine? Quite possibly. At the very least, we avoided salting a wound in the service of a script by invoking the verbal delete button.

If you heed your audience, you honor them. And maybe, you will offer the balm of blissful forgetting graced with healing.

Do you have moments where the power of your writing or speaking is amplified by what you don’t utter or write? Let’s have a conversation -if you comment I will respond and visit you back!

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Reimagining Beauty – Q is for Quirky

Blogging A to Z

If you are new to this 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 – Q is for Quirky

Recently, we worked with a group of children at an after school program. All of the kids were sweet and lovely. Some were quite talented, most were hard working, and a couple were lightning quick. But one of them was extraordinary.

Her hair was always a little mussed. Her glasses were often a bit askew. She wandered in late but always stayed to help afterwards, sharing wildly creative, deep thoughts for a person of her age. The child asked penetrating questions. Though she seemed out of step with the rest of the children in the group, she was not out of sync with the project that we were all doing together. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that although she was with us on our river of creativity, she was riding a different current.

The child was quirky.

And good golly, was she beautiful. Not because she fit the standard recipe, but because she was quirky. Everything about her came together in such a pleasing and unusual way.

Beauty attracts. So does quirky. Great beauty is remarkable. So is quirkiness.

It’s true that there are similarities between the qualites of “quirky” and “outside the box” (which I wrote about previously for letter “O”). But for me there is one critical difference. To be outside the box means that you know where the box is and are very aware of where you stand in relation to it. There is a conscious choice to let norms fall away or to follow personal whims despite, or because, of the presence of the box. To decide to shed the box is to be free of its boundaries.

In contrast, quirkiness isn’t chosen like that. The awesome beauty of quirkiness comes because it just is. My quirky student has no idea that she is quirky. She has no idea how charming, how delightful, how attractive she is. So much of what is beautiful about her comes from the innocent and honest individuality that she possesses. I can’t wait to see how the wonders of her life unfold.

It is important to tell and write about the beauty in quirkiness for two reasons. First, it widens the lens of what is truly beautiful. The second reason is that the innocent originality of quirky beauty is often reviled by others. My quirky student was avoided by the ‘cool’ kids in our group. Not a target of bullying exactly, she was not embraced by others, which could be a bullying risk.

Make the quirky ones the beauties in your stories. Declaim their beauty with your powerful words and thoughts. Use your words to celebrate my girl and all those lucky enough to wear a quirky badge of honor.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. 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.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

Be the Superhero

In my last post, I wrote about how the power of visual images can marginalize children with disabilities. Here is a case in point.

Anthony Smith is a young fan of superhero comics. Born deaf as a result of a genetic syndrome, he refused to wear his hearing aid because the superheroes in comics didn’t wear hearing aids.

Children notice many things about the images that come, and that don’t come their way.

However, storymakers can be as powerful as superheroes. According to the Huffington Post and Wikipedia, when Anthony’s mom wrote a letter asking for help, the folks at Marvel Comics acted like their characters and came to the rescue. They created a new character who wears a hearing aid. His name is Blue Ear.

Upon seeing the character, great delight came to Anthony. Great delight came to his parents too because Anthony started using his hearing aid.

Anthony is a lucky boy. He has caring parents who took action. Their letter landed into editor Bill Rosemann’s activist hands. Then, a corporation approved a brand new idea and made it happen quickly. Wow.

Wonderful as all this is, it is unlikely that publishers can or will modify the entire literary canon to reflect the extraordinary diversity of children in the world. Though we too can write letters to educate publishers and wait for changes to happen over time, we can also do something right now.

If there are children in your universe who don’t see themselves in visual depictions of characters in books and other media, remember that you – parent, teacher, therapist, child care worker of any kind – have the power to be a superhero storymaker. You can tell stories that describe characters in ways that are inclusive of children with disabilities. Take it another step too, for stories can be inclusive of children from any cultural heritage, of any shape and size, and on and on.

By telling stories, you can be as marvelous for the children around you as Marvel Comics was for Anthony Smith.

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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

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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.

What to Do About Those Disney Princesses

In improvisational acting, one big rule is that when another actor does something, you say “Yes! And…” This means that you embrace the prompt that the actor gives you : Yes! Then, collaborate by adding something of your own to it: And….

Joy Martin-Malone from the MamaPop blog wrote a piece that appeared in the Huffington Post. To this I say “Yes! And…”

I love her article and urge you to give it a read. I love it so much that it is preventing me from doing my sacred exercise ritual because I have to write this post NOW.

Her article is about the striking parallel between Disney princesses and drag queens (big hair, fancy gowns, dressing up). It is also about the author’s discomfort as a parent of young girls who adore Disney princesses and their glitzy paraphernalia, princesses who share perfect looks and wait around for rescue from princes and their assorted ilk. She says that where drag queens revel in humor, Disney princesses wait and worry; at other times they wake up singing with animals. But unlike drag queens, they lack spunk. Martin-Malone worries how that imagery affects her children. About such princesses, she writes that “[t]hey are a perpetuation of the stereotype of the weak, dumb woman who obediently waits for a man to come along and make her valuable. Between the two I’ll always promote the big-wigged man crooning “I’m Every Woman.”

Yes! And….

Much of the imagery that Martin-Malone disdains is borne of visuals. Movies and accompanying products like dolls and princess apparel are examples. Because they are visual, these images get FIXED in the minds of those who view them: the princess must look or dress a certain way, sometimes she must even behave the way we saw her behave. The power of the picture is very strong indeed.

So what can you do about it?

Tell the stories yourself.

If the stories are told in person, face to face, by parent to child at home, in live storytelling performances, by librarians or teachers without picture book accompaniments – if visual representations of the princesses in a story are NOT physically shown to a child, then that princess can look and act like anything the imagination can conjure.

Together, the storyteller and the listener can fashion the princess into anyone. A princess can look like Mommy, she can look like the child, a friend, a relative, a babysitter, a drag queen, anyone! Princesses can be from any cultural background and they can have spunk, compassion, drive, or whatever your parental heart desires. Stories contain powerful role models; you don’t have to let Disney be the main storyteller in children’s lives! Take back that power and draw princesses with your own lips.

As professional storytellers, Barry and I take this responsibility seriously. We carefully craft our stories to describe princesses (and all characters actually) in broad enough terms so listeners can thrust themselves or others they know into the role. A broad description opens the door for them to do this while hearing the story and later in imaginative play. It also allows listeners to be creative and morph their princesses in future play sessions or when they tell the story to others.

An upcoming blog post will share ideas for how to describe such characters in broad terms. Be on the lookout for that. In the meantime, tell stories to the young ones around you. Later, when you look at the pictures in books and movies, you and your children can talk about how each visual representation of a princess is only one representation out of the limitless human imagination.

Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters

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.

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Copyright 2013. The Storycrafters.

You Never Know

Yesterday we performed in an elementary school for several classes of kindergartners. They were a lively bunch. In fact, they were livelier than usual for several reasons.

First, they were visiting the cafeteria at the wrong time of day. Second, they were attending a storytelling assembly. But the third and most prominent reason for their excitement was that it was Pajama Day. Almost all of the children were dressed in pajamas.

If our assembly occurred later in the day, their excitement would have dwindled and the children would have forgotten about their ‘evening wear.’ But there was not enough time that morning to properly determine who was wearing what superhero pajama top before they were led away, single file, to the cafeteria.

They streamed in like a hive of busy, buzzing bees. After settling down on the floor, they were very attentive. They sang when invited to do so, they moved when asked. It was an interactive performance with a responsive audience.

As we were telling our first story, though, we noticed one child. It was hard not to notice him. He stood out because he suddenly stood up. But even after his teacher gathered him in and sat him down next to her, it was hard not to notice him. He called out during our stories. Sometimes he guessed what was coming next in response to our prompts. But mostly, his words came at random moments. He seemed to have a hard time controlling his desire to talk along with us.

Over all the years that we have been doing our work, we have seen students like him. He is not like Jakey, a child whom we wrote about last month. Jakey’s exuberant ‘outbursts’ were completely connected to the narrative and in sync with our invitations for audience commentary. This child was different. He was not always in tune with the social niceties of audience behavior, his comments weren’t always invited or on point. Lovingly, his teacher quietly redirected him when she could.

To the observer, it might seem like the child’s frequent interruptions displayed a lack of interest in what we were doing or betrayed his desire to sabotage the show.

Does this sound irritating?

When we started our work years ago, it might well have irritated us. But over the years we have seen how difficult it is to read individuals in an audience.

For instance, when we performed for the first time in England, one carefully coiffed lady sitting front and center drew our gaze. She appeared to be annoyed with us. She scowled continuously, as if her most recent cup of tea was served with curdled milk. Throughout the show her pinched face suggested displeasure. Like two toddlers trying to get the loving attention of a surly aunt, Barry and I both felt like we had to get her to smile. But that scowl was etched on her face for the duration.

When the show was over, we expected her to hightail it to the nearest exit. Instead, she hurried over to us. We cringed in preparation for an attack. Instead, she shook our hands until our forearms were vibrating, and said, “Brilliant. That was just brilliant!”

Who’d have thunk?

That was the first of our many lessons about how challenging it can be to read the minds of an audience member through body language alone. Sometimes what appears to be a downright rude expression is merely a concentrated effort to take in all that is offered in a live performance. It is hard to know.

That was why, in the school cafeteria, we didn’t take the child’s interruptions personally. We didn’t know his story and were in no position to make an accurate judgment. Instead, we acknowledged his comments when they made narrative sense, and focused in on the rest of the audience when they did not.

After the show was over, the teacher approached us. She said the boy was very connected to our storytelling and it had touched him in ways that she didn’t usually see.

We said, “Does he have any challenges?” Her nod and widened eyes spoke about just how many issues there were.

“He hardly connects with anything. Even if he doesn’t say what he should, the fact that he says anything shows that he is connecting. I am so delighted and I want his parents to know.”

Although she was complimenting us, we understood that it wasn’t due to our skills alone, but rather the live connection that we were making with him. By shifting our performance on the fly to accommodate some of his comments, by looking into his eyes and responding to his gaze, we gave him the raw materials of connection.

So you never know. The rude one out there may be the one who is most heartily listening. The one who interrupts may be connecting in the only way she knows how. Even if it is not ‘appropriate’ in one set of standards, it may hugely appropriate for the person in question.

You never know.

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