Friday, September 30, 2005

Dreams DO come true!

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This is my brand new journal. It's a storytelling journal. I just finished creating it by altering a small cheap journal purchased at the bookstore. It's a physical manifestation of a dream about to come true.

Hmmm. What kind of dream might that be, you ask? I'm glad you asked, even though it's possible you're simply rolling your eyes about now. Well, here's the answer. At this time next week, I will have already spent a day in Jonesborough Tennessee, enjoying stories in the tents and on the street corners of this historic town. It's the weekend of the National Storytelling Festival, which has taken place here in October ever since its humble beginning in 1973.

Friends from all over the country, other storytellers, will be there. As much as I'm looking forward to the storytelling itself, I look forward to enjoying it with my friends. In fact, my fun will begin Wednesday night, as long-time storytelling friends Jim and Karen Decker, known to the storytelling circuit as "The Double Deckers," will let me crash on their couch, so that I'll be able to join a bunch of other storytelling enthusiasts on a bus trip to the Festival. I'm sure on a bus full of storytellers, I'll have no problem passing the time until we arrive in Tennessee.

The dream gets even better, however. Along with twenty-seven other storytellers, I authored a chapter in a new book that will be released at the Festival, titled "Telling Stories to Children." My chapter is on telling stories to children with special needs. That was cool enough. Then I started receiving emails a couple months back, inquiring as to my attendance at the festival, in order to set up author booksignings!

Add to that an invitation all the authors received to attend a reception hosted by the Board of Directors of the National Storytelling Network on Saturday night at the Chester Inn, honoring past Board members, featured tellers and donors. All because I wrote a little chapter on telling stories to an often-marginalized group of kids.

What could be better? Historic small town in the foothills in autumn, storytelling's best and brightest for three days, hanging out with friends and an honest-to-goodness booksigning!

It isn't just in fairy tales that dreams do come true!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

A story of resurrection

In my never-ending effort to simplify and downsize, I've discovered something wonderful--freecycle. Freecycle is like a swap and trade, without the trade part. There are freecyle groups all over the internet, separated by geographic region. The premise is simple; if you have something to give away, you list it on freecyle as "offer." Looking for something? You tell the list by posting "wanted." The main rules are that the items are completely free and legal. It's a great way to give new life to old stuff.

One area of my life that could stand a huge degree of simplifying is my scrapbooking habit, oh 'scuse me, I mean, "hobby." This hobby, like many, seems to cause cancer-like growth in the corner, then closet, then entire room, that is devoted to storing and using supplies. Freecycle has been a great way for me to give new life to old scrapbooking magazines and idea books. I list those things and within an hour, ten people are asking to have them. It's a sad commentary on my life when I have made several such offers on freecycle as I go through my piles of stuff. Not too long ago, I made another such listing, and of course within the hour, they'd been snatched up.
A couple days after I listed those, I saw a post on my freecycle site; "wanted; household." The poster went on to say she and her kids had left a bad situation in another state, leaving everything behind. Due to my simplifying and freecycling, I didn't have anything to offer her.
I felt bad about that, as I realize it must take incredible courage for these women to take that step, and I feel strongly about helping in any way I can.

It's a funny thing in life. Just when you think there's nothing you can do about a situation, some serendipitous little chain of events allows you to look again and see that nothing is impossible. A day or two after seeing that post, I got an email from her, inquiring about the scrapbook magazines. Shortly after that, I was going through my closet yet again, when it hit me; I had this 20 year old 35mm SLR camera sitting there on the closet floor, fully outfitted with all the instruction books, a 75-150mm zoom and tele-extender and an external flash. Collecting dust in its case all these many years since going to Canon products. No one really wants an old film camera these days, not with everyone going digital. But this woman wanted scrapbook magazines. If she was interested in those, perhaps she'd left behind a camera as well. She had children with her. Maybe....

I emailed her back, expressing my regrets that I didn't have the magazines anymore, but offering up the old but still good camera set-up. She graciously accepted, gave me drop off information, then right after telling stories at Grounded Specialty Coffees, I made the drop off. She wasn't there when I stopped by, but I left them with the person who answered the door. She was staying in a transient neighborhood of the city, one that isn't far from the Place of Grace Catholic Worker food ministry house where I've spent time serving and telling stories. I felt just slightly out of place in the neighborhood, dressed as I was for work and driving my nice car. I'm so glad I've placed myself into situations, like serving at Place of Grace or spending time in mission in Kenya, that I can quickly pull back that comfortable curtain called "middle class" and move into acceptance.

Still, I wondered if she even got the camera. It would have been nice to present it in person. I didn't have to wait very long. I received an email a couple days later from her. "thanks so much, I got the camera. I love it now I can take pictures of my kids."

It seems like a small thing, when someone is fleeing a bad situation, to have something as frivolous as a camera to take photos of the kids. I'm glad that my camera, long collecting dust in my closet, has found new life taking photos of kids, kids who with their mother, are finding new life.

I challenge anyone reading this to look through those things from your past, things that no longer define you but you can't seem to let go, and give them new life for someone seeking a new life. Maybe it's frivolous, but when you're looking for the absolute basics, a bit of frivolity can be the touchpoint that tells you it will get better.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sublime moments of a storytelling festival

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The festival is now nothing more than fond memories...but oh, what fond memories they are! We could not have asked for a more perfect weekend; warm pleasant breezes, clear skies, that harvest moon rising over the tent both nights. Saturday morning brought our workshops. Attendance at these was still low, but from what we heard, well received. Jen Maggio and I had a blast with our workshop, in which we combined playing with string figures and puppets to ease into storytelling. Jen suggested that the puppets could be used for character development by tellers working on their stories, and we broke into groups to play with that concept, to much laughter.

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All fun and silliness with puppets over, it was time for the telling to begin. The disc golf players nearby were no doubt startled when the distinct strains of Scottish bagpipes opened the festivities of the day. Two tents, the Main Tent and the Children's Tent, would be filled with storytelling and music continuously till 9pm. True heaven on earth. Several of the Bluff Country Talespinners would be telling in the Main Tent, including yours truly, acting as "opening act" for our three featured tellers, Celia Farran of Sheboygan, Kevin McMullin of Spooner, and Teju of Milwaukee. I told my original story, "The Blue String," and felt good about my telling. Nods of recognition among the audience, laughter at the right places, and the wonderful collective sigh at story's end. I'm sure the highlight of the afternoon had to be Sara Slayton telling the story of the "Oleo Gang." I've heard Sara tell this tale many a time, one in which she relates the story of her travels with her "gangster" aunts and mother across the Illinois state buy oleomargarine. Why would this then be a highlight? Well, in attendance that afternoon was the "Oleo Gang," her two aunts and mom. I didn't get to see their reaction, but I talked to them later, and they were suitably embarrassed by the attention, but not enough, apparently, to prevent them from standing up and waving to everyone when pointed out by Sara. Where was I when all this happened? Telling stories in the kids' tent, one of two of my stints in there.

It wasn't all stories and music, though. Several artists and craft vendors were on hand to sell their wares. Annie Gaspar of Mindoro was doing a brisk trade with the storytellers, all of whom seemed to buy one of her handpainted scarves. Lisa Belzer did a brisk trade in face painting, executed beautifully with watercolor pencils instead of paint. There was food, of course.

I had time to catch some of the featured tellers in between my own telling sets. I'd met all three at other festivals, even shared a stage once with the incredible Celia Farran at the Rockford Celtic Festival. I wish I had her voice. I wish I had her moves. I wish I had that wild red hair, which she says she has a great relationship with; it doesn't bother her and she doesn't bother it.

Our featured tellers this year all shared musical gifts; Celia her guitar, Kevin his fiddle and any number of instruments, and Teju..well, Teju has a djembe and shekere, but most of all, Teju has himself. Expect lots of energy when Teju's on the program!

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The evening concert was filled with just as much magic as throughout the day. It started with a set-up by Teju, done in cooperation with Kevin and Celia, that took everyone by surprise and delight. It ended with Celia bringing the two men onstage with her, musical instruments in hand, to help tell the story of "The Bee, The Mouse and the Bumclock." I've been officially active in the storytelling world since 1997, when I attended my first Northlands conference in Elkader Iowa.
Like that first encounter working with "real" storytellers, this final story of the festival showed once more that storytellers are not afraid to help each other out, and to put their egos aside to make the event better than each would be alone. The Third Annual LaCrosse Storytelling Festival was clearly a success, a class event.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Flash! Festival is off to a great start!

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

I know the thousands of readers of this blog have probably clicked here to see what fascinating things I have to say, and have been disappointed by the lack of activity. Well, get off the computer and come to LaCrosse! Our storytelling festival started last night with the "Tales of the Creepy and Scary." A perfect night on the banks of the Mississippi River. Our new sound system mastered at last. The campfire-in-a-stubby-grill-apparatus lending just the right mood. And best of all...full moon rising over the Julie Belle Swain across the river.

The stories started out just a teeny, tiny bit scary with Phyllis, telling everyone that was the scariest story she could stand. The audience was wonderfully large this year. A hundred chairs had been set up. They were filled. The hay bales down front were filled. Blankets on the ground were filled. Lawn chairs carried in filled the edges. More chairs were brought over from the tents. Wonderful. Many families attended, and many small kids were still there after the break, when the stories took a turn for the creepier and bloodier. Mine was one of those. As I looked around and saw all those little faces, rapt in the stories, I asked Terry Visger, who was doing a wonderful job as emcee, what she thought. It's a dilemma faced by most tellers who tell scary stories. Do you tone down your story, or forge on ahead? The program was advertised, announced and progressed. They chose to stay. As Terry pointed out, "These kids play video games where they kill each other."

I was introduced, and looking out across the crowd, difficult to see beyond the little faces up front because of the spotlights, I moved them into the time "long ago," when a woman was walking with her husband, a husband who didn't take her advice, through the forest on a moonlit night such as this. The crowd was silent as she warned him about staying the night in an abandoned lodge. No one breathed as she crept closer to the door over hours, so as not to alert the vampire skeleton that had eviscerated her husband, hoping to escape.

I mastered the distance from the mike for the screams of the skeleton. As the skeleton transformed into a fireball, then Great Horned Owl at the climax of the tale, I called convincely like the owl it had become. My pauses were right on. The final line about the "story of the man who didn't listen to his wife" allowed everyone to laugh and release the tension.

All the stories were perfect. The night was perfect. My reward came afterward, when a little girl of about 7 found me.

"That story about the man who didn't listen to his wife was REALLY scary!"

I told her I hoped she didn't have any bad dreams. She shook her head and said, "I don't know."

I looked her in the eyes and said, "You won't have to worry. I can tell you're a good listener."

So, get off the computer, down to Pettibone Park and enjoy the stories. Bagpipes open the festival at noon. Food, music, art for sale and best of all a day full of storytelling. Oh, and the weather is again perfect!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Just a friendly reminder......

If you live anywhere near the LaCrosse area and need something to do this weekend, may I suggest taking in the Third Annual Storytelling Festival in Pettibone Park this Friday and Saturday? Featured tellers are Celia Farran, Teju and Kevin McMullin, all of whom I highly recommend. But wait! There's more!

Friday night from 6-9pm or thereabouts, enjoy a Ghosting, with stories by Celia and several local tellers. I'll be telling "The Vampire Skeleton" between 7:30-8:00. The stories start light and get creepier as the night goes on. Mine can be adjusted up or down in goriness, depending on the audience, thus my mid-way placement on the lineup.

Saturday morning there will be several workshops, including one I'll be offering with Jen Maggio, on telling stories with puppets and string. In the afternoon, I'll be telling in both the children's tent and the main tent. But wait! There's more!

Saturday evening, the featured tellers will be performing the final concert of the festival. In between all this excitement, you can enjoy the music of Teresa Roellich or Amadans, peruse the sales displays and enjoy a meal in the lovely gazebo in the park. The forecast promises lovely early fall weather, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one of the riverboats pass by in the background. Sounds like the makings of a perfect day to me. But wait! There's more!

This sounds like it couldn't get any better, but it does. The festival benefits the LaCrosse Citizen Advocacy program. Lovely weather, river vistas, good food, good friends, good stories, good cause. Hope to see some of you enjoying it!

Monday, September 12, 2005

I granted two interviews in the last five days!

It's not as if I've never given an interview to the press before. I have. Exactly three times. Once after I returned from a mission trip in Kenya in 1994, once when we hosted students from Kenya at our church the following year, and once when I was coaching 7th grade storytellers at my school. That last one was probably around 1999. It's been awhile.

Now I have spoken with members of the local press twice in the past week. A woman right in town here owns and edits the local city magazine, and she was doing an article about our storytelling guild. She was including very short features about some of the members, and it was my turn. That should be available at a kiosk in grocery stores near me soon. No photos, which is often a blessing. Who wants to get new photos taken, anyway? I just got a hip new do, and I'm hopelessly unhip, trying to struggle to keep it looking cute. Any photos right now would be a serious mistake in judgement!

For the past few days, our caller id has been showing the smalltown weekly paper's phone number. We cancelled our subscription this past summer, and had been called once already to encourage us to resubscribe, so we just kept ignoring it. Tonight, as I walked in the door between torrential downpours after work, the phone in the kitchen rang. The one without caller id. It was one of the writers for the paper. He wants to do a short feature about my upcoming family stories workshop in association with the town Founders Day celebration.

So now I have to go out and buy the paper when it comes out. Sigh. I just need to remember---press is good, press is good. Besides, I need to know what time I should show up to do my workshop. And where.

Update: I bought the paper. I made the front page, for crying out loud! Here's a link to the story online, which was edited a bit from the print version. I blame my poor expressive language skills on the fact I'd just walked in the door between bolts of lightning and my thoughts that it was a subscription renewal request!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bittersweet stories...

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Gwyn and Jul do the winery circuit

Growing up, I heard my share of "momisms." One that I heard throughout my teenage years, particularly when I started a job along with everything else, was "You shouldn't bite off more than you can chew." Like I said, a momism, one I ignored much of the time.

That particular momism seemed to haunt my weekend just past, though. Some time back, I received a call from the pastor of a nearby church about doing storytelling for their Sunday School kickoff service. I hadn't had a call for a paying gig in a long time, and was starting to frankly feel like maybe, just maybe, I wasn't a Real Storyteller after all. So when I got this call, I was thrilled, and accepted. It would be a fun program to plan, one revolving around gifts. I tossed around lots of different stories over the following weeks, trying them on for fit. It was fun.

Then the weekend came crashing in before I knew it. I've been back to work now for two weeks, so that jarred me a bit. My son is in the thick of soccer season, another draw on my time and honestly, my ability to remember small details.

It's those details that escaped me. You see, I would be heading four hours away on Friday for the conference planning board meeting of Northlands Storytelling Network. I told my fellow board members I'd just have to leave by 6pm Saturday, so I could be home and ready for the storytelling gig this morning. Running through the last bits of business at auctioneer pace as the clock approached 6, we finished with most of the business that needed to be recorded by the secretary--me. I got my hugs from all my friends before heading off on the road, feeling sorry for myself. Why? Well, anytime I get together with these folks it's a party, but the day was given over to work. The real fun would be starting about the time I hit Janesville, and I was wishing at that point I'd allowed myself to go a bit longer without a paying gig. It would be okay, I told myself. November and the next board meeting isn't that far off.

Arriving home late last night, my husband said, "Julie was wondering about your home-cooked meal you promised them."

Oh no.

That's right, this was the same weekend our good friends Jon and Julie were in town for the dedication of the new church addition. I'd offered a home-cooked meal Saturday night, totally forgetting I'd be getting into town late. My husband and our friends had a great evening over dinner, laughing and sharing stories, along with the meal.

I missed that, too. No time with my storytelling friends, no time with my dear friends now of California. Oh, I saw them at church, slipping in halfway through after my storytelling gig, just in time to hear Jon preach. That was bittersweet, too. Of course on my visits to California I can hear him, but it's not the same as those ten years he was preaching the word here, instead of in St. Helena. The church was packed for the occasion, people I haven't seen in months--or ever--were there. I was able to offer my dorkness as excuse, and of course being great friends, they completely understood. We'd been together just a month or two ago in Madison, and they'll be back.

My husband has even agreed that maybe, just maybe, he'll brave air flight with me on my next visit to Napa Valley. Good friends are too important to dismiss. I know. I had to more or less dismiss two different groups of friends this weekend. I'm thankful that the storytelling gig was such a pleasant one, or it would have been a weekend even more bittersweet than it already was.

Here's to good friends, whether they're storyteller friends, or friends so intentional, the friendship is fast and strong, in spite of 2200 miles and three and a half years separation.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Slowing the pace...

School started again for me. I have one child in college now. When did all this happen? Where did my summer go? How did my son get so big, navigating campus halls and buying architectural drafting supplies for his coursework? It's trite but true, an age old story; they grow up in the blink of an eye. One day it's crayons and fingerpaint, the next, retractable drafting pencils and architectural triangles and templates.

The saying goes, there are two sure things in life, death and taxes. I'd add a third to that list...the march of time. Fortunately, we can ease back into the school year, since this is the Labor Day weekend. To help me slow back down, I was out of bed early, heading to the wetlands to see what birds I could see. Supposedly the fall migration has begun. I missed an awful lot of warblers in the spring, so I was hoping to catch them on the trip south.

Not so easy. What our weatherman refers to as "valley fog" was thick, rolling across the marsh waters. Not so good for spotting tiny warblers high in the tree, but just what was needed to slow my attention span down and allow me to observe.
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Instead of always craning my neck skyward, I found myself looking just at trail's edge. Though the fog made for lousy birding, it created some wonderful works of arachnid art, dripping with the morning dew.
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Moving slowly and watching for hummingbirds in the jewelweed, I might have missed the sight of the morning. Looking out over the cattails and sedge meadow adjoining the marsh, movement caught my eye. Peering back at me just above the grasses was a pair of soulful eyes. Aware of my presence, always alert, but not panicked. She moved off, then dropped her head, but the flag was still down. Watching, waiting, I saw that she was not browsing, but providing a wake up call.
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The morning continued in much the same fashion, moving slowly, waiting for the next discovery rather than aggressively seeking images. Though I shared the marsh with multitudes of runners, dogwalkers and other hikers, I had five hours to slow my pace and just be. It would be a much better world in which to live, I think, if once a week, everyone could slow their pace, enjoy the natural world and await the treasures around the corner, whatever they may be.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The story of life.

I have never been to New Orleans. Most of my adult life, it's been one of my top five US cities I've wanted to visit. The rich history alone makes it attractive, but along with that the jazz, the French Quarter, all those charming aspects of the Big Easy as seen in movies or through books have called to be enjoyed.

I have never been to New Orleans, and I now have to believe that should I finally get the chance, it will not be the New Orleans that drew me all these years. I have learned that in this modern age of instant images, it is best for me to leave the television off. The scenes shown on my local nightly news are more than enough to let me know the scope of the heartbreaking devastation to the area, and the hardship and suffering of those in the hurricane affected areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. Watching our Green Bay Packer QB Brett Favre, whose childhood home was destroyed in the wrath that is Katrina, puts a personal face on the destruction. He is one of Wisconsin's icons, MVP many times, tough as nails, threw a touchdown after spraining his ankle---just stunned at the decimation of all the places he knew. He told of family going to the roof, of brothers trying to get his 90 year old grandma to rooftop safety.

There are other faces, thousands of them, equally affected with equally heartrending stories. Though I've avoided most of the telecoverage, I've heard of the images of looting and violence in the wake of the storm. We need stories also of strangers pulling together for someone whose story they hear. One story revolves around a woman I've never met, Jlyne Hanback. She and her family live near Biloxi, and they left when warned, but thought it would be short term and ran out of gas, leaving her stranded in her car with her husband and three kids. No food, nothing. At last report, Jlyne and family were finally out of Biloxi, on their way to Tennessee and safety. How did I hear Jlyne's story? She's a regular poster on a scrapbooking website I visit, two peas in a bucket.

Another story I've heard is one of indomitable spirit in the wake of utter destruction. Dianne de las Casas is a storyteller from New Orleans. I know Dianne from another internet community, the storytell listserv hosted by Texas Women's University. However, I've also had the pleasure of meeting Dianne, as she has attended the Northlands spring conference the last couple years. Dianne is full of energy, a dynamo of ideas about marketing what we can offer, and generous to a fault in sharing her ideas. She and her family had to evacuate New Orleans, leaving with only the bare essentials. She is being told not to expect to come back to her home, or whatever might be left of her home, until at least December. Her kids have enrolled in the schools where they are staying for now. Dianne, unlike me, earns her sole income as a storyteller. Most of her work is in the New Orleans area. Most of her bookings have obviously been cancelled. Through it all, Dianne continues to share her experiences, maintain her ArtsBiz e-newsletters, and look for the positives in a horrific situation.

The stories of both these women have touched people who don't even know them. The scrapbooking community has pulled together on behalf of Jlyne. People are searching through their magazines to set aside those with designs she's had published, since all of hers were lost. Collections are being taken to help them buy the basics they need. Companies with products are stepping forward to help her rebuild the studio in which she creates her art.

The storytelling community is working on behalf of Dianne and other tellers to help them keep on telling. Folks are offering to send cash donations to PTOs in the area she has resettled for now, to allow schools to book her for performances. Northlands Storytelling Network is looking into serving as a financial agent for any kind of donations or benefit performance monies that might be collected. In the generous spirit of the storytelling community, the Story Tsunami movement that raised relief funds through voluntary storytelling events all over the world after the tsunami last winter is being mobilized once again to raise funds.

Anytime disaster hits, most people allow their inherent goodness to kick in, once they find a way they can help. Instead of the stories of wanton looting, let's tell the stories of neighbor helping neighbor--even if those "neighbors" have never met and live in different states.