Stories everywhere: "I got bit once"

I love that there are stories everywhere. Some good, so bad, some just plain weird. Some stories need coaxing out of hiding. Others leap into our ears unbidden.

Yesterday a friend and I went to the Goodwill Outlet*. We’d never been there, but had heard about this place. The goods—I use that term loosely—are sold by weight and are all higgledy-piggledy in big blue rolling carts.

Goodwill_outlet

Periodically, an announcement is made over the loudspeaker about new carts coming out. The customers stand reverently, silently, waiting for the carts to be rolled into place. They may not approach until the signal is given. Then they can rush the bins and start digging. It was fascinating.

Customers waiting for the signal to dig in

Customers waiting for the signal to dig in

As we poked our way through the clothes, furniture, games, shoes and more, we felt like tourists. Janelle mentioned to a woman digging into the clothes that this was our first time at the outlet. She stopped her methodical search to shake her head and say, “I pity you.” She didn’t elaborate, but I think it was because we’d missed this experience for so much of our lives.

After a little more conversation, the woman said. “I got bit once.” Bit? I immediately wondered if it was a flea or a rat.

Janelle asked, “What bit you?”

“A person.”

A person? A person! We immediately needed to hear the story. Our protagonist had found some shoes in a bin. The other woman wanted them and so used her choppers. Our acquaintance then said to the biter, “You don’t want to go there with me” In a menacing tone. She bought the shoes. We later realized we’d been so fascinated by this spontaneous storytelling that we hadn’t asked where she had been bitten. We also guessed that she would have kept the shoes even if they didn’t fit, after the indignity of being bitten.

We left the store with a few pounds of thrift store dregs** and a story. Guess which will last longer?

*While I do shop occasionally at Goodwill, I don’t think it’s a great business. They get stuff for free, and the CEO has a gigantic salary. Still, it keeps things out of the landfill and allows me to buy clothes and other things at prices I can afford. Modern dilemmas.

** I got a TV antenna. It doesn’t work as well as the one I already had, so it will go into my next yard sale. It cost $1.82.

Perspective and backstory

Every story is told from a particular perspective, from a specific point of view. When I’m working on stories, I find it helpful to shift that perspective, to stretch myself. I see the story from new angles, noticing aspects I didn’t earlier understand. I’ll tell myself the story from the point of view of a peripheral character or the dog. I don’t usually tell the story this way, but use it as an exercise to anchor the story firmly in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about perspective since the flooding in May when I saw this blue heron. Normally, we only see these magnificent birds from below. I took this picture standing on the bridge looking from above. I had no idea they were this brilliant!

blueheron

I love working on perspective and backstory, understanding aspects of story characters that I’ll never put in the told tale. What color does the big sister in The ghost with the one black eye have? Pink. Do listeners need to know this? No. If I told you every detail, you’d be bored long before the end of the story. It’s helpful to me in order to create characters that are fully formed in my imagination.

If I find myself losing interest in a story, I may change the image in my mind. I picture the family in The ghost as African-American. I’ll imagine the little girl in The Gunniwolf as Asian. Again, I don’t tell the audience how I’m seeing the story in my mind. They have their own pictures. Doing this freshens the story up.

When I teach kids about backstory, I tell them that I need to know everything about the story, that I should be able to answer any question they pose, without even thinking. Then they start slinging me questions!

And speaking of backstory, here’s the picture I took just before the one above.

blueheronwalking2019



Grimm for Grownups for Humanities Kansas

Last year I joined the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau, offering my program Grimm for grownups. It’s a different kind of program for me, involving more lecture and discussion, and as the title implies, it’s not for young kids. The organization subsidizes the performances so that far-flung communities will have access to interesting programs. Here’s what they say about what they do:

We believe that stories carry our culture and ideas change the world

Since our founding as an independent nonprofit in 1972, Humanities Kansas has pioneered programming, grants and partnerships that share stories to spark conversations — drawing people together and generating new ideas. These stories and ideas inspire each of us in Kansas to play a part in strengthening our communities and our democracy.

My program feels like a good fit. So far, I’ve enjoyed working with Humanities Kansas. Earlier this year I did the show in Goodland and Oakley, Kansas, for two very different audiences.

The backdrop to my storytelling at the Goodland Public LIbrary. In Lawrence I live a half block from the train tracks, so I felt right at home.

The backdrop to my storytelling at the Goodland Public LIbrary. In Lawrence I live a half block from the train tracks, so I felt right at home.

In Goodland, I had an evening performance for about twelve women. I told a mixture of Grimm tales, from the truly gruesome Juniper tree to the story Cat and mouse, which I also tell to children (though it has a bad end for the mouse), along with other tales. I talked about the Grimms themselves and why they collected stories, how they edited them, what was happening in the world at the time, and more. Discussion was lively, veering off into the art of storytelling in general. It was great fun!

In Oakley, the performance was in the afternoon. Along with the crowd of older folks, there was a group of high school students, mostly boys. These kids came a little early, so I told an extra story. It’s vitally important to engage kids immediately, or they’ll check out. Hmm, that goes for everybody, but adults are better at hiding boredom. At any rate, I told them a gruesome English folktale, Mr. Fox, a version of Bluebeard. During the program itself, I told a Grimm version of the same story, The fitcher’s bird, as well as the stories I told in Goodland.

As in Goodland, the Oakley audience listened intently. They had lots of comments and questions about the lecture material. Our discussion ranged widely, and included two of the students telling short scary stories. When we talked about storytelling, I mentioned The ghost with the one black eye, the story for children I’m best known for. One of the adults called out, “Tell it!” After checking with the teachers that I could keep the kids past the hour, I did. A student raised his hand and said, “My mom used to play us a cassette with that story.” He recognized my voice., too. I put that cassette out in 1996!

After the performance, the librarian served gingerbread and apple slices, shades of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and The Juniper Tree! The whole experience was excellent.

I’m looking forward to presenting Grimm for growunups later this year in Coffeyville, Wichita and Dodge City, and I hope elsewhere. For more info on booking this program, check out the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau.


A Galaxy of Giggles for next summer

How do you get an astronaut baby to sleep?

You rocket!

Baby is getting ready for our show A Galaxy of Giggles for next year’s Summer Reading Programs, which has the theme A Universe of Stories. Baby even has a jetpack!

Photo by Heather Harlan, Oct. 2018

Photo by Heather Harlan, Oct. 2018

It’s true. A couple of months ago, on my way to the Missouri Library Association performers showcase, I found myself at a Build-a-Bear shop in the mall. There I found the perfect pink jetpack, exactly the right size for my baby puppet. I ran to the car and got her so she could try it on. It fit! The pink even matched her leggings.

This is part of my process for creating a summer reading program. I think about what I already have that would fit the theme, I do research for new material, and I keep my eyes out for accessories for my puppets. For months now, I’ve been gathering space-related stories, songs, fingerplays and puppet hilarity. I’ve got a special puppet for the show and am working on possible voices and miscellany.

I also name the show and write a blurb. I keep it general enough that I can add ideas, but close to the prescribed theme. Here’s next year’s show description:

A Galaxy of Giggles

Hop on board this story shuttle for an out-of-this-world mix of stories, songs, stretches, puppets and general silliness with storyteller Priscilla Howe. Warning: there may be aliens!

Have suggestions? Let me know in the comments or by e-mail!

"What are the differences between writing and oral storytelling?"

This was a question a participant in a storytelling workshop asked the other night. My answer then was nowhere near complete, just as what I write here also will miss some salient points. Here's what occurs to me now:

Oral storytelling 

  • Is an older artform than written.
  • Does not require that the listener be literate.
  • Requires teller and listener to be in the same place (hmm, unless it's on a recording, which places it closer to written).
  • Is not in set form. The storyteller may change the story depending on the audience, circumstances, time allotted, mood of the audience, mood of the storyteller, venue. 
  • May be more concise--too much detail can bog the experience down.
  • The storytelling/story listening experience is usually shorter. Of course there are exceptions for cultures in which epics may last over days, or with serial stories.
  • Depends on nonverbal as well as verbal communication--facial expression and body language, volume, pacing, attitude, etc.
  • May use repetition and mnemonics to help the audience remember people, places and action.
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Written storytelling

  • Requires literacy. Even with a read-aloud, somebody is reading it. 
  • Is usually experienced by the reader without the writer being present. The writer is unaware of the reaction of the reader.
  • Is in set form in each edition (with some exceptions for online experiences).
  • Requires the writer to show attitude, emotion, etc. using words.
  • Have a wider range of length, from flash fiction to multivolume sagas. 
  • The reader may flip the pages back to remind herself of something that happened earlier. 
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Of course, a good story is a good story. One artform is not better than the other. Oral storytelling can enhance writing and writing can enhance oral storytelling--I often write about the stories I tell, in order to understand them.

What did I miss? 

Puppet profile #4, Peeps

Peeps and me in Costa Rica

Peeps and me in Costa Rica

Peeps was a surprise. I had no intention of buying a new puppet when I wandered into the Toy Store about eight years ago, on a break between performances at the Lawrence Arts Center. He jumped onto my hand and there we were. At first, I called him Peep, but in that first performance I called him "Peepee" by mistake. Peeps is much better. 

He's young, just out of his shell. In fact, when I bring him out of the puppet bag, he's all the way inside the shell, scared. I coax him out. I love how quiet the audience is with the anticipation as his head appears slowly. If they aren't quiet, he goes back in the shell. 

Peeps has a problem, though. He's always hungry. The audience throws him worms, until he has so many that, HIC! he gets the hiccups. Then we try to get rid of them. The listeners suggest remedies. They don't work, usually, until someone (sometimes it's me) suggests peanut butter or a spoonful of sugar. Those always work. 

After that, Peeps is tired again, so he goes back into the puppet bag for his nap and we go on with the show.  

Peeps in Chile

Peeps in Chile

The children at Everest Masculino school drew pictures of the performance, including this portrait of Peeps.

The children at Everest Masculino school drew pictures of the performance, including this portrait of Peeps.

 

 

I learn by going where I have to go

I love the line from Theodore Roethke's poem, The waking: "I learn by going where I have to go." I often don't know where I'm going until I set out. In renovating my house, I froze in the face of the massive project. I couldn't do anything for days, despite friends and family offering to help me organize the project. Then my dear sister-in-law Kate suggested I just prime one room. Once I began, I saw that I could continue. I learned by going where I had to go. 

IMG_4674.JPG

Starting is what moves me along. One coat of primer moved me to choose the final color, which pushed me in the direction of the trim, which led me to blinds and curtains, and so on. 

So it is with stories. I often need to start in order to know where I'm going. Like my house, stories are also never finished. I'm always shifting my telling to the audience or even to who I am at the moment. Sometimes starting out is, as Donald Davis recommends, just telling about the story. Sometimes it is a small piece of research that awakens my curiosity. 

With every new story, as with every house project, I learn to trust that whatever comes out will be fine. Or if it isn't, I can make a new plan, change the story, change the design, just keep creating as I go along.

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Storytelling live-ish

Imagine this: students in five schools in different parts of the world listening to one storyteller (me) in their own classrooms, and asking the storyteller questions via chat. I'm in my studio (otherwise known as my dining room). The stories are tailored to the audience. The schools pay a fraction of the price of a regular storytelling performance, with none of the travel fees. They can use smartboards, projectors or individual screens. The teacher clicks a link and they're in the session. 

Over the last ten months, I've been testing live online storytelling events using the Zoom platform. From the comfort of home, I tell stories to listeners wherever in the world they are. Here's my setup:

Online storytelling setup

The first try was a short puppet workshop for a group of teachers in Brazil. The next was a presentation for a middle school in Texas, with a goal of bringing kids into an existing storytelling troupe. Then I told stories to two homeschooling families (full disclosure, they were already fans). Today I had two middle schools, one in Florida and one in Tennessee. The school in Tennessee had me in multiple classrooms at once. (Thanks to Mariana, Sue, Melanie, Kelly, Tom, Elizabeth and all the other teachers for being my testers.)

Here are a few things I've learned in the guinea pig sessions

  • Make sure the cat is outside before beginning. He is charming, but a distraction.
  • Mute the audience during the stories, or there will be a lot of extraneous noise (chairs scraping, the intercom, etc.)
  • Use a wired connection, not wireless, for the strongest possible signal.
  • Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
  • Don't use a lot of fast hand gestures. Movement on a screen can get blurred. 
  • Dim the brightness of the laptop screen for less glare on eyeglasses.
  • Plan for extra time for questions, since it requires using the chat window.

I still prefer telling stories in person, but this is a great way to get more stories and workshops out into the world.

I'm ready to go live, er, live-ish. Soon look for pricing on my website for full performances, workshops and "story snacks" (5-10 minute mini sessions).

Have questions? E-mail me or put a comment below. 

Advice on telling jump tales

When I tell stories to older kids, I often start with a jump tale. You know, the kind of story where there is a sudden bit that makes the listeners jump. Afterwards, the kids usually turn to each other to laugh and talk about the jump. In order to bring them back to a place where they can listen, I give advice on how to tell these stories. Here's a clip from a show at a school in Quito, Ecuador last month, thanks to videographer Sandro Rota.

Staying healthy on the road

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I love performance tours. I am deeply thankful to do this work and for the privilege of traveling to do it (thanks, DreamOn Productions!). I'm writing from Costa Rica, where I'm telling stories for a week. Last week I was performing in Ecuador. (I promise to post pictures soon.)

Alas, I have a headcold. I work hard to stay healthy, especially on international tours, but sometimes I succumb to germs. 

A couple of weeks before I leave for an overseas trip, I start taking echinacea and goldenseal, to boost my immune system. I also take Vitamin D. I pack these, along with multivitamins, ibuprofen, Pepto-Bismol, anti-diarrheal pills, night-time and day-time cold medicine, sinus rinse packs and my neti pot, bandaids, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, Tiger balm and zinc lozenges. 

On top of this pharmacopeia, I drink lots of water. Lots of water. This is the best way to keep my voice in shape, along with vocal warm-up exercises before performances. If I feel throat irritation, I buy lozenges at local pharmacies and health food stores. I'm partial to those made with propolis and honey. I also buy ginger, lemon and honey, which I simmer to make a soothing drink. It's good hot or cold. I find out if the country I'm going to has safe water. If not, I drink bottled or boiled water only. Yes, I have Pepto-bismol, but if I'm careful, I may not need it. 

I try to wash my hands frequently. I tend to forget hand sanitizer, maybe because I don't like the way it feels. Maybe if I'd used it, I wouldn't have gotten this particular cold. Then again, it wouldn't have stopped the person sneezing and coughing on me on the airplane on the way to Costa Rica.

At the first sign of a cold, I take zinc lozenges. Sometimes they can keep a cold at bay. Or at least that's what I tell myself. Warning: don't take them on an empty stomach. They can make you feel nauseous. I do that revolting sinus rinse a couple of times a day so a simple cold doesn't turn into a sinus infection. I've been lucky not to lose my voice on these tours--the only thing you can do in that case is not talk. Yikes!

After a day of work, usually four performances, I take a nap. I like to get a walk in at some point. I also go to bed early--it's important to save my energy for the school sessions. 

Oh, yes, and that's sunscreen in the picture. In Ecuador especially the sun is strong. Sunscreen is essential. Wear it.

Organizing my storytelling library

Confession time: my storytelling library was a blot on the escutcheon of librarians everywhere for the last year and a half. My books were not in any order. The house needed so much work, I just plunked my work books on shelves willy-nilly. This is what about half of them looked like:

storytelling_books_before

Oh, they looked nice. Those homemade bookshelves garnered attention when I posted this picture on Facebook. But, sheesh, when I needed to find a particular book, I spent way too much time searching. Can you see that there's a collection of cat stories right next to a big book of world tales? Sacred Stories is right next to a collection of Scottish folktales, which is next to French stories. 

I know better. My first professional job was as a Slavic cataloger. It's important to have a system, in order to find materials easily. 

Last week, I organized my books. Not exactly Dewey Decimal, but close.

storytelling_library_after

Here's the order I use:

  • General reference
  • Books on creativity, including writing books
  • Reference books relating to folklore and storytelling
  • How-to books on storytelling
  • Collections of world folktales
  • Story collections by topic (e.g. folktales of cats)
  • Story collections by geographic area (e.g. folktales from France)
  • Literary (that is, not folktale) collections by author

It's not exact. Some areas are a little slushy. Eagle-eyed readers will see that stories from Shakespeare are tucked into the English folktale collections--that's mostly because the literary tales are on a shelf that's harder to reach, and because I have a program of folktales related to Shakespeare's plays. No, I don't have a card catalog (though I was lusting after a small one at Habitat Restore last week). Still, it's a great improvement. 

I think I'll go browse my collection for a bit.

Stories of my mother

I know it's a cliche but it's true: people live on through the stories we tell about them. I'm writing this two days before my mother's funeral.

My mother, Carol Edgelow Howe, grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. She and her three sisters often visited their grandparents in Westmount, Quebec. One Christmas, when she was about three, she was put to bed while her parents and grandparents ate supper. Little Carol was certain that Santa Claus was down the street by the corner.  She got out of bed and left the house alone on that snowy night. The family dog, a Newfoundland named Caesar, followed, then got in front of her. He pushed her back up the steps of the house. She was furious with him! How dare he keep her from Santa Claus!

Maybe that visit? Mom was headstrong, even at that age.

Maybe that visit? Mom was headstrong, even at that age.

Mom had a powerful imagination, a lively mind and a wicked sense of humor. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1945, though the story is that the Dean had to call her father to discuss my mother's errant ways--reading novels rather than her assignments and dating boys. She was a looker!

I suspect she was a big daydreamer. In her later years, after my father died, we discovered that it was also Mom who was the dawdler. When I was in school, she was insistent that we not be late. I found some of her grammar school report cards and discovered that in fourth grade, she was late dozens of times!

After working at a florist shop and a nursery, as well as a lifetime of gardening and raising houseplants (her Cattleya orchids were always in bloom), Mom wrote garden columns for newspapers for forty years. Her last column was in September 2016 at age 93. Whenever I asked her for gardening advice, she always gave the same answer: "Why don't you call your Extension Agent?"

Mom was deeply invested in her church, St. Columba's in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and involved in the church's mission in Belém, Brazil. Not surprising, as my father was an Episcopal priest.

My parents, early in their marriage.

My parents, early in their marriage.

Mom was concerned with issues of hunger and poverty. When she went to church, she always brought at least one can of food for the pantry. In her gardening articles, she suggested people "plant a row for the hungry," an initiative of the Garden Writers of America. Mom loved to spend time outdoors, to sing, to read--she belonged to two book clubs in Maine, where she spent the last thirty years of her life, until last October when we moved her to Kansas to be near three of her seven children.

Mom in 2016

Mom in 2016

All seven of her children in one place for the first time in ten years, 2017

All seven of her children in one place for the first time in ten years, 2017

We moved Mom to Lawrence, Kansas because none of us was close enough to Maine to help in an emergency. This proved to be prescient. In late February, she had a stroke. She'd been in assisted living, but moved into long-term care with hospice. All of her children were able to come to Kansas to say goodbye. We had the luxury of nine weeks with her after her stroke. My in-town siblings, Mary and Thomas, their spouses, and I spent time with her every day. She loved visits from my siblings' dogs, too.

The stroke took a bit of her short-term memory and her ability to process writing, but Mom did not have dementia. She was aware and coherent for the few hours each day she was awake. She loved hearing e-mails and cards from family and friends. We read to her, brought her flowers from our gardens, fed her and advocated for her. We even had cocktail hour with her a few times. After the first one she told the nurse that she'd had almost a whole beer. Well, actually, she had three small sips and a couple of goldfish crackers.

In March, I wrote a blog post about storytelling as a respite. Now you know why. 

Mom died with a slight smile on her lips on Sunday, April 30, 2017 at 11:50 a.m. My sister Mary and I were at her side. 

RIP Carol Edgelow Howe, 1923-2017. 

If you feel so inclined, plant a row for the hungry or take some nonperishables to your local food pantry in her honor.

 

 

 

 

Puppet profile #3, Baby

Baby is the one on the left.

Baby is the one on the left.

Baby came to me from Molly, who beginning at the tender age of three was a fan of my puppet Trixie. Once she invited Trixie over for a sleepover. I was not invited. When Trixie hesitated, Molly suggested maybe just a playdate. When Molly was about ten, she got her own puppet, Baby. Alas, Baby wasn't as engaging as Trixie. Molly's mother Stacey called me to say that Molly would like to give me a present. 

As soon as I put Baby on my hand, I knew we were a good match. The combination of the old-man look, the wide blue eyes and the binky (a.k.a. pacifier, a.k.a. dummy, a.k.a. passy) are irresistible.

The binky is what pulls most listeners in. Baby pops it out, even when she says she won't. Usually it's a resounding "pop!" but sometimes it's more like a raspberry. Even after I put her back in the bag, after she has vanished from sight, the listeners hear the passy pop. 

Baby doesn't have another name. She's content to be like Cher or Madonna. Baby. She has many activities in the puppet bag: playing poker, making up ridiculous songs, eating tuna fish sandwiches. She prefers that Trixie not sit on her head, as that is not a good way to babysit. 

Oh, and Baby has a new binky as of last summer. It is, as she says, "Only for special, not for every day." 

Baby keeps this special pacifier in the pocket of the puppet bag. It's her Super Mario binky or her Groucho binky, and when it's upside down, it's a soul patch. It pops out of her mouth just as well as the regular binky. 

Thanks, Molly, for this amazing character!

Making a living as a storyteller...

...is not easy. I think it was Elizabeth Ellis who said, "If anything can keep you from being a full-time storyteller, let it." If nothing can keep you from this work, then and only then, should you take it on as a full-time job. So that's where I am, where I've been since 1993, wanting only to tell stories, play with puppets, teach workshops, coach other storytellers. 

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

I love storytelling. It's massively fun. It is also my business, make no mistake. I market my work, write contracts and invoices, track income and expenses, record mileage, file taxes (done, whew!) and all the rest of what it takes to keep a business going. 

Sometimes I need help. I'm fortunate to have been a participant last year and now a peer facilitator in ArtistInc, a rigorous program that trains artists and performers to be entrepreneurs. I've taken other classes like this in the past, such as Sean Buvala's Storytelling Bootcamp, but this is right here in my town. We meet for eight weeks to work on our arts businesses, and in the process, create a core group of artists in many disciplines with whom to work. We've maintained many of the friendships we made in last year's group.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

In ArtistInc, we set goals and rely on each other for accountability. We've had sessions on budgets, taxes, writing about our work, legal issues and more. Our homework assignments are practical. This week, we're reviewing artist statements. Here's my latest artist statement:

I live in my head. A lot. I make stuff up, I borrow from old tales, I reinterpret new stories. As a storyteller, I’m a tour guide to that space in my brain. I work without a script, without costumes, without props. When I’m doing it right, listeners laugh, smile, sigh and breathe together, connected in the space of stories. I perform at schools, libraries, festivals, special events, and in my own backyard, literally. My mouthy hand puppets come along to shows for kids. I tell more grownup stories to, well, grownups and older kids. We play together. Apart from being the oldest educational method in the world, storytelling is just plain fun.

The final session is a Pecha Kucha style Powerpoint presentation, using a set of slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds. My work is usually live, so last year was the first time I ever used Powerpoint. I'm redoing my presentation for this year. When I get it finished, I'll post it here. 

Soon I'm going to roll out a new business project, one that ArtistInc has helped me refine. Watch this space!

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. 

IMG_6465.JPG

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?