Storytelling as a respite

Storytelling is my profession, my passion, my vocation. It is also my respite from cares of the world. 

You may have heard about "the healing power of storytelling." By this, people usually mean that the listeners are healed. I know that stories can be healing but--and this is vital to understand--I am not in charge of this. I can choose stories with powerful themes to tell at times when they may be needed, but it would be sheer hubris to say that I heal others with my stories.

At the same time, telling stories is a way I find solace in times of sorrow. Sometimes it is the story itself that helps me, sometimes just the act of telling stories; sometimes it is eliciting laughter or contemplation in the listeners that brings me to an easier place.

When I'm feeling low during slow seasons, I invite myself to a preschool or two to tell stories. It works like a charm.

When my father died ten years ago, I was performing in Belgium. At the moment he died, I was telling one of his favorite stories, "The Twist-Mouth Family". I often tell that story in his memory now. 

What stories have you told that offer respite? What stories have you heard that bring you solace?

Stories for grownups and older kids

The first time I told stories to adults in a performance in 1989, I was wearing silk parachute pants. I was nervous. My knees shook and my trousers shimmied. My palms were sweaty. Still, I kept the story strong in my mind and in my voice. The story I told then is one I still tell.

I grew to love performing for grownups. I mix it up, telling personal stories (often personal fiction), folktales and stories from books. My puppets stay home. I seek to connect emotionally, of course, but also to surprise the listeners, open a door to other points of view, offer shelter. I hope to delight. Often, listeners are surprised at how much they enjoy stories.

I gave a house concert not long after 9/11. One of the audience members said, "Thank you. For two hours, I wasn't thinking about world events." Often adults take stories in without showing emotion. For many performances, I thought one of my regular listeners was bored because of the way she sat, face static and arms crossed. At the end, she would come up to say, "That was great!" I now watch for this listening stillness. If the listeners are fidgeting, I consider why I'm not connecting. Maybe my story needs tightening, maybe I have left out a crucial piece of information that seemed obvious to me, maybe there's a problem with the venue.

With the advent of storytelling events such as the Moth, the general public is getting used to hearing stories for adults, specifically personal stories. Some of these are excellent, some are deadly therapy on stage. The best take a personal event and make it universal. To those who have just discovered personal storytelling, it's new. To the rest of us, it's as old as the hills.

On Tuesday, Valentine's Day 2/14/17), I'll tell true, slightly true and absolutely false stories to grownups, in a performance called "And they lived happily ever after...Or did they?" here in Lawrence, Kansas at the Union Pacific Depot at 8:00 p.m. Admission is a love offering,of course (passing the hat). Come see what I mean by stories for grownups.

Community

My friend Kareen King prompted me to choose a theme for the year, a word to focus on. Almost immediately, it came to me: "community." In truth, I've been thinking about this word for a little over a year, since I moved back from KC to Lawrence. I moved back mostly because I missed my community. I live on the same street I moved from in 2010, just a half block east. I'm close enough to downtown that I can walk and often when I do, I run into friends. 

How can my storytelling add to this community? One way is through the Story Nights I do in the backyard. I had five last summer and will do more this next year.  

My cat Frankie even attended!

My cat Frankie even attended!

I'm also thinking about how the stories we tell can build up or tear down a community. I want to tell the stories that build up community. Sometimes that's through shared laughter, sometimes it's through specific ideas the listeners get from the stories. Last week I told Grandmother Bear and the Hurtful Words to a group of 2nd graders. We talked about what one might say after using hurtful words. I explained that "just kidding" isn't kind. One little girl raised her hand and said, "But what if you were really just kidding." That gave me pause. I suggested that it might not be a good way to kid, because it could truly hurt somebody's feelings. Sometimes the stories we tell can encourage kindness in a world that doesn't always feel kind.

I'm going to veer off topic from storytelling but still on the topic of community. I've been the recipient of great kindness from friends and family, that is, from my community, in working on my house. Some has been moral support, some financial, much has been actual hands-on-let's-make-this-place-livable work. I'm deeply grateful. Here are a few pictures of the results: 

The freshly plastered yellow wall, freshly painted trim and green wall of my office, thanks to Kate, Tim, Samrat, Mary, Andy, Marie, Paul and Janelle.

The freshly plastered yellow wall, freshly painted trim and green wall of my office, thanks to Kate, Tim, Samrat, Mary, Andy, Marie, Paul and Janelle.

The freshly plastered dining room, thanks to Thomas, Kate, Tony and his guys, Sarah, Mark, Tim. 

The freshly plastered dining room, thanks to Thomas, Kate, Tony and his guys, Sarah, Mark, Tim. 

The painted living room, thanks to Kate, Paul and Anthea.

The painted living room, thanks to Kate, Paul and Anthea.

The bedroom, with help from Kate and Deborah.

The bedroom, with help from Kate and Deborah.

The puppet room (they're just out of sight)--oh, I did this room myself.

The puppet room (they're just out of sight)--oh, I did this room myself.

And most recently, the bright and clean kitchen, thanks to Kate, Thomas, Paul, Marie, Robin, Susan, Bonnie, Aaron, Jamie, Diane and Tim.

And most recently, the bright and clean kitchen, thanks to Kate, Thomas, Paul, Marie, Robin, Susan, Bonnie, Aaron, Jamie, Diane and Tim.

I had immeasurable help also from Mary, Rick, Mary W., Andy, Jeanette, Mike, Bob, Kareen, Tzveta, Marie G., Joanna-banana, Dave, Steve, Tom O., Sarah, Joyce and all of you who listened to me drone on and on about the house. I hope I haven't left anyone out.* Thank you all. You matter. WE matter. Community matters. 

*I also had professional help from Earl Moise of Rising Son Plumbing, Jeff Hardie of Electric Plus, Andy Martin of Martin Hardwood Floors and Tony Backus. They all did a great job!

Another China storytelling tour post

I had a great time telling stories in China. Most of the performances were tremendous fun. Generally, the level of English was quite good and the students were engaged. The teachers and administrators were easy to work with, often going out of their way to make sure I was comfortable. I love these tours, even with the intense schedule of 64 performances in four weeks (four per day, four days a week). I was in eight schools in five cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi and Ningbo.

Enough statistics. Here are pictures from the schools:

On my last day, I performed at a preschool, in a cute little theater. Notice my booties? They take great care of the floors, so kids wear only-indoor shoes and guests don these maroon lovelies.

On my last day, I performed at a preschool, in a cute little theater. Notice my booties? They take great care of the floors, so kids wear only-indoor shoes and guests don these maroon lovelies.

I had a workshop for the teachers at the preschool. Here, we're playing a circle game, "Thorn Rosa,".

I had a workshop for the teachers at the preschool. Here, we're playing a circle game, "Thorn Rosa,".

I almost always show the map of the US while telling the students where I'm from and where my siblings live. This gets them used to my voice before the stories begin. It also makes them laugh, since there are seven of us (a much larger family than is found in China). 

I almost always show the map of the US while telling the students where I'm from and where my siblings live. This gets them used to my voice before the stories begin. It also makes them laugh, since there are seven of us (a much larger family than is found in China). 

This group of young children in Ningbo was delightful. We carried the DreamOn banner with us to all the schools. At one school, in the Q & A, a child asked who the boy on the banner is. I don't know! 

This group of young children in Ningbo was delightful. We carried the DreamOn banner with us to all the schools. At one school, in the Q & A, a child asked who the boy on the banner is. I don't know! 

Some groups were quite large. This one was local stream, that is Chinese students with no international kids. At most schools, I had either international stream or mixed. 

Some groups were quite large. This one was local stream, that is Chinese students with no international kids. At most schools, I had either international stream or mixed. 

Even the big kids liked the baby.

Even the big kids liked the baby.

It's a pleasure for me to see kids enjoying the stories.

It's a pleasure for me to see kids enjoying the stories.

The Great Wall

I had to see the Great Wall. I was in Beijing, so really, I had to. My tour manager Alberto and I decided to visit the lesser-known Huanghuacheng Section, known to those of us who speak no Chinese as "Lakeside Great Wall." We hired a car and driver to take us out of Beijing on one of the bad pollution days. 

We passed the IBM building on our way out of the city. You can see the pollution haze.

We passed the IBM building on our way out of the city. You can see the pollution haze.

It took about an hour and a half to get there. We left the driver and walked first through a small village to get to the entrance of the park. As with most tourist sites, there were vendors lining the way.

Walking sticks for sale.

Walking sticks for sale.

Roasting chestnuts.

Roasting chestnuts.

We stopped for some sweet dried tomatoes and plums.

We stopped for some sweet dried tomatoes and plums.

At last, our first view of the wall, by the entrance to the park.

At last, our first view of the wall, by the entrance to the park.

There were large groups of students touring the site. Just inside the entrance, they were having activities.

Teenagers jumping rope.

Teenagers jumping rope.

Time to ascend the wall. This site is by a reservoir, so first we had to cross a bridge. The willows reminded me of the willow pattern plates we had when I was a child. 

Look! No other people! All the pictures I've ever seen of the Great Wall have had lots of tourists, but this site is only recently opened and on a weekday, it wasn't crowded at all. 

Look! No other people! All the pictures I've ever seen of the Great Wall have had lots of tourists, but this site is only recently opened and on a weekday, it wasn't crowded at all. 

It was a beautiful day, with wonderful views. It's amazing to think that we were standing on the longest wall in the world, first built around 2300 years ago. This is not the original wall, clearly, but a reconstruction. We did see ruins in the distance, though. 

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I love how it snakes through the hills. You can see the reservoir down below. We walked down to it, had a snack and took a boat across. 

To get back to the entrance, we walked under the dam.

We worked up an appetite so on our way back to the car, we stopped at a little restaurant. We chose it because it had such lovely flowers.

Alberto speaks some Chinese. He ordered chicken and something else--he wasn't certain what, but he thought duck.

Dishes in some restaurants are wrapped in plastic.

Dishes in some restaurants are wrapped in plastic.

The chicken arrived and was not very good. Feet, beak, skin, grease. Nothing else seemed to be forthcoming, so we wondered if we had possibly not ordered another dish. We stood up to ask for the check. Some women working at a table nearby motioned for us to wait. One of them rushed outside to get the man who took our order. He came back in a few minutes with the most delicious herb-encrusted fish I have ever eaten. It was so tasty I didn't even think of taking a picture. He had probably told us that it was the specialty of the house. He grilled it just outside the restaurant, on the street. 

All in all, with the exception of the chicken, it was a delightful day. 

Ningbo and Wuxi encounters

One of the things I love about travel is the unexpected encounters with people. Today I had a day off in the city of Ningbo. My substitute tour manager Fiona and I were strolling through a garden after lunch when we heard music. Turned out to be a group of older folks singing in a pagoda. We peeked in.

Ningbo singers
Ningbo singers 2
Ningbo singers 3

They were startled and pleased to see a, gasp, foreigner enjoying their tunes. I asked Fiona to ask if I could take pictures. Of course! And they wanted pictures with me as well. We took several, inside and outside the pagoda. There was a lot of interested chatter as Fiona told them where I was from. They smiled and patted me, making sure I was right in the middle of the pictures.

Ningbo group

I think we all found this encounter highly entertaining and satisfying. 

I had another good one on Monday, in the train station in Wuxi on the way back to Shanghai. 

Wuxi station 2
Wuxi station 3

It's all about connection, isn't it? 

Schools in China so far

I'm three weeks into the China tour, so maybe it's time to write about the schools. I've been having a fantastic time at all of them! 

First, let me answer two questions I am often asked: what language am I using? Do I have an interpreter? I am telling stories in English. The tours with DreamOn are focused on telling stories to students who are learning English as a second language and ex-pat kids. I do not have an interpreter, though I have a tour manager to help me outside of the shows (and sometimes during them).  I perform for everybody from preschool to high school. 

This preschooler has just put her shoes back on after the performance. In the primary school at the Suzhou Singapore International School, children take their shoes off before entering the library.

This preschooler has just put her shoes back on after the performance. In the primary school at the Suzhou Singapore International School, children take their shoes off before entering the library.

Like at home, when I perform for preschoolers and elementary school children, I use my puppets. They are essential when the students understand less English. Everybody understands when Trixie brushes her hair with her toothbrush. Everybody understands when the baby pops her binky out of her mouth. It's more of a challenge when the students are in middle school but have limited English. 

Even the big kids love the baby puppet.

Even the big kids love the baby puppet.

I've been at four schools so far: two in Beijing, one in Shanghai and one in Suzhou. The performances have been in the library and in the auditorium.

Alberto and I with BIBA librarian Stoyana Popovska. She, like the other librarians I've met here, is a fantastic librarian, committed to encouraging kids to read.

Alberto and I with BIBA librarian Stoyana Popovska. She, like the other librarians I've met here, is a fantastic librarian, committed to encouraging kids to read.

The BIBA library is lovely, full of color and light.

The BIBA library is lovely, full of color and light.

The SSIS elementary library has lovely murals. There are different language collections in the library, to suit the different nationalities. 

The SSIS elementary library has lovely murals. There are different language collections in the library, to suit the different nationalities. 

I wasn't the only one sharing stories. At lunchtime, the Head of School at Suzhou Singapore International School and other dignitaries read to the kids in the library.

I wasn't the only one sharing stories. At lunchtime, the Head of School at Suzhou Singapore International School and other dignitaries read to the kids in the library.

Given my druthers, I prefer the library. In Shanghai, though, Shanghai United International School had a new auditorium. I was the first performer there, so the kids were hugely excited to be in the hall. 

Before the show at SUIS.

Before the show at SUIS.

I had some challenges here. The little children were really too small for the seats, and trickier still, the armrests held desks. Alberto made a genius suggestion, which was to ask the kids to take those desks out at the very beginning of each program, then put them away and NEVER TOUCH THEM AGAIN. This worked. Children are naturally curious, so this was a way to satisfy their curiosity without it being a big deal. I also have to show kids my crooked little fingers before I begin, for the same reason. If I don't they get distracted by my hands and forget to listen to the stories.

For the most part, the audiences have been wonderful. They've joined in nicely and at the end have asked good questions. The teachers and librarians have been welcoming. I've felt that many of them would go out for coffee with me if we lived near each other.

I have a week left, with a tough schedule: four days of work in four schools, each in a different city. No complaints, though. I signed up for this adventure and am eating it up with a spoon! The Chinese kind of spoon, as in the next picture.

The spoon is upside down in this delicious smoky eel dish. I just couldn't resist adding a food picture to this post!

The spoon is upside down in this delicious smoky eel dish. I just couldn't resist adding a food picture to this post!

Snack street

My school work didn't begin until Tuesday of my first week in China. On Monday, Alberto and I went to a Beijing "snack street," to check out some delicacies. 

Snack street entrance

Snack street entrance

Starfish on a stick, anybody?

Starfish on a stick, anybody?

These scorpions were still alive. Not for me, thank you.

These scorpions were still alive. Not for me, thank you.

Little birdies. Speaking of birdies, I've seen people in public park batting around badminton birdies.

Little birdies. Speaking of birdies, I've seen people in public park batting around badminton birdies.

Ginger taffy, yum!

Ginger taffy, yum!

I'm not certain what is in this pineapple. Possibly red rice.

I'm not certain what is in this pineapple. Possibly red rice.

Tasty!

Tasty!

Aren't these cute?

Aren't these cute?

Oddly enough, I didn't take pictures of the delicious fried dumplings and the sesame brittle I ate. I wasn't terribly adventurous on snack street, though I was completely fascinated by the selection.

Forbidden City

My apologies for the slow bloggage. There are two good reasons: the Internet connection here in China is iffy at times and I'm pouring my energy into the performances (twenty last week at one school, an exception from the usual 16 per week). 

I was lucky when I arrived in Beijing. The weather was good and pollution was low. As the week went on, the pollution got worse. I'm so glad I got to visit the Forbidden City when it was a good day. Here are some pics from that beautiful site. 

Obligatory picture outside the gates.

Obligatory picture outside the gates.

Not only are there lots of people touring the site, many of them have selfie sticks.

Not only are there lots of people touring the site, many of them have selfie sticks.

All of the buildings are beautiful. 

All of the buildings are beautiful. 

I love the details, including the gold figures on the eaves.

I love the details, including the gold figures on the eaves.

The gardens of the Forbidden City were lovely (and slightly less crowded).

The gardens of the Forbidden City were lovely (and slightly less crowded).

These ladies were rubbing this special tree for good fortune and (I think) prosperity. They then smoothed the luck over their heads. I followed suit.

These ladies were rubbing this special tree for good fortune and (I think) prosperity. They then smoothed the luck over their heads. I followed suit.

Not a lion but one of the nine sons of the dragon in Chinese mythology.

Not a lion but one of the nine sons of the dragon in Chinese mythology.

Speaking of sons of the dragon, here is another.

Speaking of sons of the dragon, here is another.

Throughout the grounds, there were huge vats, used for firefighting. These are the massive handles.

Throughout the grounds, there were huge vats, used for firefighting. These are the massive handles.

Here's Alberto, my friend and tour manager, in the garden by a tree that has an unusual arch.

Here's Alberto, my friend and tour manager, in the garden by a tree that has an unusual arch.

My first full day in China was fascinating. After we toured the Forbidden City, we wandered through a nearby neighborhood, stopping for some dumplings. Then on by subway to a proper lunch at a restaurant. 

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From there, we went to Walmart (yikes!) to pick up a few things. It had some items I've never seen in a US Walmart.

Fresh live crabs.

Fresh live crabs.

Dried mushrooms in bulk.

Dried mushrooms in bulk.

Duck. No, I didn't have Peking duck while I was in Beijing.

Duck. No, I didn't have Peking duck while I was in Beijing.

More blog posts on the way, Internet connection allowing.

On the way to school

The school work began successfully on Tuesday. We took a taxi and despite traffic and pollution, we arrived on time. On Wednesday, we were going to another school, one closer to the hotel. Because there's a small window for getting through rush hour, we had trouble getting a cab. Yikes! What to do? Take a tuktuk! I didn't get a picture of the one we were riding in, but I did get views during the ride. Yes, we were facing backwards.

You can see lots of commuting styles in this picture.

You can see lots of commuting styles in this picture.

This motorbike is getting very close to our tuktuk!

This motorbike is getting very close to our tuktuk!

Tuktuks carry goods as well as people.

Tuktuks carry goods as well as people.

Some of these vehicles are incredibly cute!

Some of these vehicles are incredibly cute!

The gray haze isn't fog but pollution. 

The gray haze isn't fog but pollution. 

A mask is a good idea. I like the ears on the hood. I think there's somebody else on the back of the scooter--or maybe the driver has four arms?

A mask is a good idea. I like the ears on the hood. I think there's somebody else on the back of the scooter--or maybe the driver has four arms?

We arrived at the school on time. Being in the tuktuk meant that we could zip in and out of traffic, rather than getting stuck in it in a taxicab.

Where I am staying in Beijing

I'm here in Beijing, sitting on my bed in the hotel room, one day before the storytelling begins. I arrived  on Saturday, after a 12-hour flight from Chicago. Did you know that the airplane goes north and then west to get here? Here's a view of the horizon, from the plane.

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Alberto, my friend and tour manager, was waiting for me at the airport, to my great relief. We had a Plan B, which involved me getting a taxi by myself to get to the hotel. I'm glad we didn't need to use that plan. 

This is the modest front entry to the hotel.

This is the modest front entry to the hotel.

The hotel is in a non-touristy part of Beijing, just around the corner from where Alberto is staying. It's quiet and clean, with a giant buffet breakfast. Today, for example, I had watermelon, dragon fruit, garlicky noodles, sauteed tofu, snow peas and black mushrooms, scrambled eggs with peppers and tomatoes and cantaloupe. They don't serve coffee or tea here.

Seating area in the room.

Seating area in the room.

View from my balcony.

View from my balcony.

The bed is large, with just enough room to walk by it to the bathroom.

The bed is large, with just enough room to walk by it to the bathroom.

Marble-lined shower with glass doors.

Marble-lined shower with glass doors.

View out the bathroom window!

View out the bathroom window!

So far, it's very comfortable. 

Yesterday, we went to the Forbidden City. I'll show pictures of that next. Right now, though, I'm heading downstairs to meet Alberto for coffee.

Tips on telling funny-scary campfire stories (repost from 2009)

I've been transferring posts from 2012 to 2015 to this blog, as I upgrade my website. In the process, I've dipped into my old blogspot site, Storytelling Notes. I began blogging in 2004 and had some prolific years. In 2009, for example, I wrote 71 posts and in 2008, I wrote 163. Holy cow! I'm going to have to up my game.

Here's one from 2009, with updated photo and video. 

Night has fallen. The campfire flickers and pops, coals glow, listeners creep closer to the fire and the storyteller. It’s time for scary stories. But wait…some of the listeners are too small for the stories of La Llorona or hookman. It’s time for a funny-scary campfire story, just enough for shivers, not enough for nightmares. As many of you know, I’m best known for telling The Ghost With the One Black Eye, and many other classic funny-scary campfire stories. Here are a few tips for effective campfire storytelling for the youngest listeners.

1. Notice the body language of the listeners as you introduce the story. Suggest that the smallest children sit with an older sibling or adult. Some small children like very scary stories, but it’s kinder to the adults who have to be with the child later on to tell gentler stories to young children. 

2. Let the listeners know right away that this will be a funny-scary story, not a scary-scary story. 

3. Choose a story with a joke ending. You can find a few of these in Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series, in Simon Bronner’s American Children’s Folklore, or ask a ten-year-old who has been to camp. 

4. Err on the side of goofy characters, not scary, for young listeners. Build in a hand movement or repetitive phrase so the audience can join in. 

5. Sometimes even a funny story can scare a small child. Reassure the individual child that it will all be fine in the end.

6. For a little shiver, pause just before the punchline. This builds suspense and creates an even bigger laugh at the funny ending.

7. Don’t be surprised if children say “That wasn’t scary!” at the end. This is most likely not a true critique, just an observation--and sometimes a way a slightly scared child has of finding courage.

Once the little ones have gone off to bed, and you’re sure that those who are still around the fire can handle it, if you have time and inclination, then tell the truly scary stories.

Puppet profile #2, Trixie Decaphobia

The inimitable Trixie Decaphobia

The inimitable Trixie Decaphobia

Name: Trixie Decaphobia, commonly called Trixie. Some children occasionally call her Triskie.

Age: 111 (the next picture has an egregious typo).

Creator: Folkmanis. She is no longer being manufactured. She came with a black pointy hat but she is not one of THOSE, despite her greenish tint. She changes hats from time to time. She currently sports a leopard spot beret, to match the puppet bag.

Construction: Fabric.

Disposition: Variable. Mostly she's a bit crabby, sometimes forgetful, often silly. She suggests stories for me to tell, then falls asleep during the telling.

Favorite food: Candy corn and if the next picture is to be believed, rocks. 

She has an oversized toothbrush in her bag. She is likely to brush her teeth in the middle of a performance and then, horror of horrors, she brushes her hair with her toothbrush. Will she ever learn?

If I leave her mouth open a little, she looks much friendlier, not quite so scary. Or maybe she's not so scary because she tends to put her foot in her mouth. Literally. 

She gets along with the baby, but there's a problem: she thinks babysitting is sitting on the baby. On her head. Squish. 

I found Trixie at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence in 1994. She has accompanied me on most performances for younger children since then. Truth to tell, I've had to replace her several times (I find her on Ebay). 

Because she's constructed so I put one hand in her head and one in her hand, she's versatile. She can rub her eyes (allergies), scratch (fleas), lift up her skirt (show of her kicks, as she was once a Rockette). On long drives, I sometimes put her on and slow down so cars will pass us. She waves. 

Trixie also has her own Facebook page! She doesn't post often, but it's worth checking out. 

 

On puppets and dinos and taking on new projects

I've been fortunate to have found the work I love. I have stories I tell over and over and they never get old. I learn more about the stories, about audiences, about myself as I perform. 

And then there are times to take risks, to say yes to new projects. In the winter, I was approached by the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, KS about doing a show for their Kids' Dinner Theater. What? Dinner theater for kids?! This would be their third event, they said. Oh, and could I do something about dinosaurs or prairie ecosystems? There would be a special dinosaur exhibit.

The entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

The entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

Glass entryway to the Flint Hills Discovery Center, storm coming in.

Glass entryway to the Flint Hills Discovery Center, storm coming in.

No. I don't have dinosaur stories or prairie stories. But wait, what about taking familiar stories and making them dino tales, with the help of the kids, who would surely know more about dinosaurs than I do? I agreed to do it. 

I spent time reading about dinosaurs, working out which stories I could fit them into. I also took the opportunity to, ahem, buy a new puppet for the occasion. 

Triso, the triceratops, and me.

Triso, the triceratops, and me.

I found Triso on Ebay. Wish I knew who built him. He was made of foam, shaped with a Dremel tool. He has a deep goofy voice and I discovered that his horns are ticklish. 

When I arrived at the museum early, after a fun show at the public library in the morning, I first toured the special exhibit. Dinosaurs are so dramatic, especially when you can press a button to hear them roar. I was happy to see that the museum has a collection of puppets and a puppet stage for kids to use in the hands-on gallery. 

Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Flint Hills Discovery Center

First the kids had supper, a buffet of veggies, cheese slices, goldfish crackers, chicken legs and fruit. Only a few parents were there, those who had 4 and 5 year-olds. The crowd was made up mostly of boys age 4-10, with a few girls. Two of the boys had a duel with chicken legs at supper, tapping each other on the head with them. I took a deep breath before the performance, ready for a boisterous audience. One young sir fell off his chair twice, or rather, fell and then the chair tipped over on top of him, during the stories. It didn't faze anybody.

The show went okay, especially for a first time. We made up some stories using dino facts the kids already knew, we plunked dinosaurs into Goldilocks, we sang some ridiculous songs. The children seemed to enjoy it. 

Then it was time for the crafts. At my station, we were making glove puppets. Here are some:

Dino glove puppet, blurry due to the great excitement of the puppeteer.

Dino glove puppet, blurry due to the great excitement of the puppeteer.

This one has a pompadour

This one has a pompadour

This one must have had good vision.

This one must have had good vision.

The kids crawled under the table I'd draped for a stage and put on show after show. 

It didn't matter that I'd intended them to do the puppets over the table. 

It didn't matter that I'd intended them to do the puppets over the table. 

Here's my favorite picture of the evening:

View of the puppeteers' legs sticking out the back of the table.

View of the puppeteers' legs sticking out the back of the table.

Was it a perfect show? No. Was it fun? Yes. Did the kids enjoy themselves? Yes. Did the parents have a good time? Yes. 

Sometimes it's worth obeying the first rule of improvisation: say yes, even if it's something you haven't ever done before or maybe especially in that case. You never know what will happen, and there's a good chance it will work out.

Telling the real story

I'm reading a great collection of essays by Ann Patchett called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. In the essay "Fact vs. Fiction," she says this:

Who makes things up? Who tells the real story? We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species. We retell our experiences. We quickly learn what parts are interesting to our listeners and which parts lag, and we shape our narratives accordingly. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t telling the truth; we’ve simply learned which parts to leave out. Every time we tell the story again, we don’t go back to the original event and start from scratch, we go back to the last time we told the story. It’s the story we shape and improve on, we don’t change what happened.
— Ann Patchett at The Miami University of Ohio Convocation Address of 2005

Last week I attended and told at the Lawrence Story Slam. This is a Moth-style storytelling event, where people tell true stories, up to 8 minutes long. The day before, I decided to tell the emotionally risky story of the good beginning and bad ending of my last relationship. My ex-boyfriend no longer lives in the area, so I wasn't worried about his reaction, though at the same time, I left out identifiers such as his name and profession. 

I was aware of the tightrope I was walking in telling about this, wanting to tell  a story that resonated deeply with myself and with the listeners, to be honest about the difficulties I'd experienced, but not wanting to do therapy on stage. I don't want the audience to feel as if they have to take care of me. I hope I succeeded.

It was good to tell this one. It's a story I'll keep working on. As Ann Patchett says above, we shape and improve upon the story, we don't change what happened.

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

Puppet profile #1, Billy Turtle

I've decided to do an occasional series on my handpuppets, starting with Billy, who was my first. Judy Stoughton, my boss at Russell Library in Middletown CT asked one day if I wanted to try puppets. "No. I don't use puppets." I was adamant. "Let me just give you a quick lesson." Famous last words. I was hooked. 

BillyTurtle1

Name: Billy Turtle

Creator: Leslie Larson of 'And Puppets

Construction: Velour and corduroy

Disposition: Sweet and gentle

Favorite food: Grasshopper, though he gets the hiccups (similar to Peeps, who will be profiled later).

Billy came to all of my preschool storytimes at the library. He made the segues between stories and songs and was also comic relief at times. His mother was a box and his father was a snapping turtle. He says he likes to wear turtlenecks. 

BillyTurtle3
BillyTurtle2

Do you have any questions for Billy? He's happy to answer them!

Nesting

I've been nesting lately. At long last, I got the upstairs in my house in good enough shape to be able to work. I find it hard to concentrate when my surroundings are in chaos. Not that everything is neat and in its place, but at least I know where things are. Because of the chaos of getting my Kansas City house ready to sell, selling it, buying the house in Lawrence, moving, storing many of my belongings and renovating this old house, I've put many projects on hold. At last, I've emptied my storage unit. Almost everything I own is in this house. My office and Puppet Room are in pretty good shape. There are still piles of miscellany, but I'm working on them. Here are a few pictures of my work spaces.

This is the view into the Puppet Room from my office.

This is the view into the Puppet Room from my office.

Here are the puppets in their natural habitat, a display stand I bought from Borders Books when it went out of business.

Here are the puppets in their natural habitat, a display stand I bought from Borders Books when it went out of business.

This office has seven windows. Light!

This office has seven windows. Light!

There are still drifts of paper, but at least I can now work at my desk.

There are still drifts of paper, but at least I can now work at my desk.

Looking across the office to the Puppet Room.

Looking across the office to the Puppet Room.

Here's a panoramic picture of the office. An added bonus: the little file cabinet in front of the heat register is a great place to put  bread to rise. 

Here's a panoramic picture of the office. An added bonus: the little file cabinet in front of the heat register is a great place to put  bread to rise. 

Now that I've cleaned, painted, plastered (no kidding!) and unpacked, I'm ready to get back to work. The Bulgarian stories I discovered on the Fulbright last year--was that only last year?!-- are calling to me, begging to be translated and told and told and told. 

 

 

Where I've been

I just showed this redesigned website to a friend, who said, "Wouldn't it be cool to show where you've told stories in the world?" Many years ago, I made a little poem about the places in Kansas where I've performed, but since then, I've traveled to many more states and countries. Here's the poem:

And here's the map of where I've been.

Hello, World!

Kindness, compassion and courage: telling stories for character education

Since I came home from the Fulbright in Bulgaria in July, I've been quietly working on some of the stories I found there. There's one in particular that I've told in schools that has pushed me in a new direction. It's a story that every Bulgarian child knows, one I call Grandmother Bear and the hurtful words. Directly translated it is Grandmother Bear and the bad word, (Баба Меца и лошата дума) but when I introduced it that way, the students were puzzled, as there were no curse words in the story. 

This is a story of a man inadvertently hurting his good friend by speaking thoughtlessly. It's not a subtle story but one that hits hard. I've never liked stories with blunt lessons. Too preachy. When I first found this story, in fact, I passed it by. As I searched for stories, I kept on encountering different versions of this story and finally thought, "Hmm, maybe there's something here, maybe I'll try it out." 

I've been telling it to students from second to sixth grade since September. Each time, I've discussed it afterwards with the kids. I ask them what they think of it, how it made them feel and what they might have done in the man's place. I also let them know that they have permission not to like all the stories I tell. Because it's such a serious story and maybe because the students are used to funny stories from me, the listeners seem to welcome the chance to talk about it, to reflect upon it. Generally they like it—and teachers have been overwhelmingly in favor of the story. In one fourth-grade group, as I was leaving, the teacher asked the students to pair up and talk to each other about the story.

This has led me to create a new program for kindergarten through sixth grade called Kindness, compassion and courage: telling stories for character education. In it, I tell stories that highlight character traits. We reflect and discuss these traits after each story. I've just finished the accompanying study guide.

This is a shift for me. I've always believed that the stories should be strong enough to stand on their own, without my interference in the listeners' interpretations. In order not to be preachy or overly didactic, I must have a light touch with the stories and the follow-up. In this program, my goal is not to impose my ideas but to approach the students with genuine curiosity about their reactions and to stimulate thought and discussion. My hope is that they'll take the best from these stories to apply to their own experiences.

Let me know what you think!

The Big Sidetrack

I've mentioned before that I most likely have attention deficit disorder. I prefer to think of it as "diffuse attention" and I think it serves me in storytelling. Because information is coming in at many levels during a performance, I'm aware of details in the stories and the audience and the space all at once. I'm able to react quickly to the unexpected. Useful. Not so useful is the downside: I have a zillion unfinished projects. There are stories I've worked on and abandoned, puppet ideas, half-baked themed programs, thoughts on marketing that I haven't followed through on. Right now, I've got Bulgarian stories to work on from my recent Fulbright, among other projects. 

So here's the big sidetrack: in October I moved back to Lawrence KS from Kansas City, to the same neighborhood I lived in from 2000 to 2010. My new house is smaller than my last and a real fixer-upper. The former owner lived in the house for 25 years and didn't have the same taste as I do. We've ripped out the carpet and tossed all of the frilly curtains. We've taken down two closet walls. Lots of odd decor has gone. This was in the bathroom holding spare rolls of toilet paper (you may have seen it on Facebook):

Now there is wallpaper to strip,

walls to paint,

a garden and yard to uncover, 


and much more. I've had phenomenal help from family and friends so far. This is going to be a long project, most likely lasting years. I hope I can sustain the attention for it. 

Fortunately, I get to go out and tell stories, to remember what I do and why. I'm learning a lot in the house renovation, but I often feel incompetent. As a storyteller, I am at home in what I do. I had a nice Halloween season, with lots of library performing, the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration, a piece in a public radio benefit performance and a show at Children's Mercy Hospital. Next up is a week of storytelling and writing with kids in Salina, KS.