Saturday, January 28, 2006

A story set down in pen and photos

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My husband is happily plunking away on his banjo in the other room, celebrating the fact that after more than half a century, he is finally achieving a goal to make his own kind of music. I have my own goals, of course. In fact, look at the sidebar and you'll find a link titled, "43 Things I Want to Do." I haven't listed 43 yet, but I keep accomplishing a few of them, thus shrinking my list a bit. One of the things that used to be on that list was "Watch the Whooping Cranes in flight practice." I was able to do that, and wrote a detailed account in my other blog here.

Somehow, a blog entry didn't seem like enough, thus beginning something that could easily have been another item on my how best to create a memento of that event. I've told stories about cranes, and that seemed like one good way to honor the hard work of the folks involved in Whooping Crane conservation. Watch any of the crane family as they hunt and you can understand the source of one story, the one about a man and woman who wanted a story, and told the same one every single night about a crane hunting...thereby thwarting an attempted robbery. Cranes figure into many folktales and legends of the world, and watching them lift off gracefully into the air, rising closer to the sky, it's easy to understand the imagery as it's told in story.

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Even the stories weren't quite enough for me, surprisingly enough. Usually, a story is more than enough. Finally, I was able to put together a little something in which to treasure my experience. I'm lucky enough to be part of manufacturer's design team, one dedicated to celebrating cultures of the world through their designs, Grassroots. One of the really fun products I get from them is a platform box. Basically, it's an oversized matchbox, but can be reinvented in so many ways, as my fellow designers have shown. I chose to re-invent one into a book about the cranes. I've done some bookmaking in the more traditional sense, and this project gave me pause to ponder a slightly different approach. Like many things in life I've tried, I'd do it a bit differently next time, but am happy to at last have a keepsake recalling my wonderful foggy morning experience last August.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Picking away...or, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

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Dick, unstrung! Patterned papers from Grassroots, including new designs premiering at CHA, Las Vegas

My husband has loved bluegrass music most of his adult life. Although one look at his CD collection would tell you he's a Deadhead, look closer and you'll find all the recordings old Jerry did in his bluegrass and jug band days as well. In the early years of our marriage, we'd search out folk music events of all types, and as recently as a year ago, went with all the other aging folkies to a concert under the stars at the Trempealeau Hotel, featuring the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Though he loves the banjo, has flirted with the notion of lessons, even, the fact that the man has not had one week of music lessons in his entire life always held him back. He'd find excuses every time the announcement of a new session of banjo lessons appeared in the newspaper. Finally, as often happens in any kind of relationship, someone else took control. I bought a session of lessons for him for his Christmas gift! As I type these words, he is probably tuning up in the large group instruction room at the music store, getting ready to learn the next lesson. He was even more relaxed about going this week, the third week of his six weeks of lessons.

When he opened his gift box and saw the slip of paper with the information, his face went ashen. Our older son simply said, "Make sure he goes, no excuses!" having taken eight years of piano lessons from second to tenth grade himself. We keep telling him he'll never regret that we "made" him take those lessons. He is unconvinced at this point in time, but he's only 19.

My husband was similarly unconvinced. He announced that he would practice an hour a night. I explained that no one can do that after just one lesson, you don't know enough. I underestimated my husband.

Three hours. Solid. I think he stopped to get a drink one time. After about two hours, he was excited.

"I figured out twelve of those things."

"What things?"

"Those dots," he shot back, as if I was beyond ridiculous. He forgets I play French horn, piano and dulcimer, and know a thing or two about music. He meant "notes." I explained that tidbit to him.

"Yeah, whatever."

He practiced every single day until his second lesson for three hours. Since the second week, he dropped back to an average of about 1.5 hours, sometimes logging two on some days. Every single day.

When he came home from his second lesson last week, he was completely excited.

"I wasn't the worst one in class. One woman practiced everything backward! Len said I have good technique!"

Research has shown that one of the surest ways to avoid the effects of Alzheimer's disease is to learn a new skill that requires you to use your mind and body together. Learning a stringed instrument is high on that list of good options. Not only did I give my husband the gift of making his own music, perhaps the gift is also one of mental longevity. We aren't getting any younger.

Excuse me now while I practice my dulcimer. He might come home ready for ensemble playing if he keeps up this learning curve!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Retreat to advance

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Having returned from one of those "mountaintop" experiences, I'm now facing the return to my daily grind. I spent the weekend at a remote resort in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, holed up in this cabin with six other storytellers, no phone, no television, no internet....and we never even turned on the radio. It wasn't necessary. We're storytellers!

My friend Kevin Strauss, storyteller from Ely, has organized his Northwoods Storytelling Retreat for the past six years. As he tells it, he first started it simply so he could go to a storytelling event and not have to travel. For me, though it was a long haul, the distance and remoteness of the setting was part of the magic. As I headed up into the boreal forest of my natal state, I realized I was being transported into another world. For one thing, they have snow up there! The night skies were filled with millions of twinkling lights and nothing else. I could see the Milky Way here. Though I didn't hear any wolves or owls, I also didn't hear anything else. Complete and utter silence prevailed.

Kevin started us off making our own stone soup, playing ice-breaker games, and that's all it took. We didn't know each other, any of us. By weekend's end, these strangers had become friends. The heart of our weekend involved working on whatever we wanted, each in turn. Everyone had complete and focused listening from the rest of us. I heard stories of elegance, some punctuated with whimsical poetry, others with wonderful drama, all unique.

I worked on my own story, one I've held as just a kernel of an idea since last summer. At my first turn, I just shared that kernel and asked for ideas for developing it. By my last session, I'd begun to tell it. I felt safe in falling flat in front of my new friends...but I didn't. Like the Red-Winged Blackbird in my original story, I not only didn't fall flat, I soared. The story still needs plenty of telling and refining, but in this setting, totally dedicated to my art, it finally began the transformation from vague idea to story told. In between all this, I enjoyed closing out our concert to an all-adult audience at the incredible facility of the International Wolf Center. By joining this retreat from the world, I have advanced my art and look forward to growing my story of How Blackbird Got His Red Shoulders. I wish to thank Kevin and my five new storytelling friends for helping me plant the seed.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A walk in the woods

Despite there being no snow for cross country skiing, despite there being no sunshine for over a week now, despite all the disappointments of the season for someone who loves the way winter is supposed to be, I wasn't about to sit inside on New Year's Day. My year has begun well; instead of a common sparrow for my first year bird, I looked out the window to see the beautiful--and frustrated--Cooper's Hawk that has been hanging about. I say frustrated, because try as she might, she was unable to flush any sparrows from deep within their hiding spot. Life as a raptor isn't easy.

By mid-day, I'd had enough of the indoors, and my husband and I headed out for a New Year's Day hike. We went to one of the county parks situated along the Mississippi River, and went into the campground area, now abandoned. Along with watching no less than eleven Bald Eagles on the ice, we spotted movement scurrying right along the bank, then heading up the side of a tree snag. Looking closely, we could see it was an opossum. I'd come to think of them as nothing more than spooky looking rats encountered on the back roads at night, or more often, as roadkill during the day. As we stood and watched this little one, frozen in its place, we couldn't help think it looked more like a stuffed animal, and the plot of a Cherokee story often told at festivals came to mind.

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Long ago, Possum had the most beautiful, full bushy tail--and he knew it. He made sure to remind everyone at the slightest provocation to take a look.

"Don't I have the most beautiful tail? The Creator smiled upon me when handing out tails."

Everyone agreed--and everyone silently grumbled and tired of Possum's ceaseless bragging, none more so than Rabbit. Rabbit was the messenger of all the animals, running about to tell them of a meeting of the Council. It was on such an occasion that Rabbit saw his opportunity.

"Possum, our chief Bear has asked that you sit right next to him at the Council meeting, and that you speak first, because you have such a beautiful tail.'

Possum smiled. "Well, I should speak first. No one has a more beautiful tail than I."

Rabbit smiled to himself. "Agreed. But your tail is a bit dirty, and we can't have that, can we?"

Possum looked behind himself. "You're right, it does look a bit snarled and dirty, doesn't it? I wouldn't want that. All the animals should be able to admire its beauty during the meeting."

Rabbit smiled to himself once more. "Possum, it just so happens that I have some special medicine that can be smeared onto your tail, making it thicker and more luxurious than ever, while making it clean and shiny. It also just so happens that I have some with me."

Possum could not believe his good luck! His tail would shine and draw the envy of all the animals at the Council. That was how it should be, he thought. Rabbit smeared his medicine onto Possum's tail, and it was so strong, it would dissolve every last hair. He then wrapped the tail with an old snakeskin, telling Possum it would keep the medicine right where it could do the best job, and to leave it there until just before the meeting.

The Council meeting was the next day. Possum took his place of honor next to Bear, waiting for just the right moment to speak. He watched as all the animals' eyes fell upon him, and he began to smile widely, holding his tail, still in the snakeskin. The moment was right.

"My friends," Possum said, a huge grin on his face,"I have been asked to speak first, because among all the Animals, my tail is the fullest and silkiest." Possum was unwrapping the snakeskin as he spoke, still with that smile on his face, full of pride at his good fortune. As the last bit of snakeskin fell away and he looked at his tail, he froze.

It was completely naked! It was ugly! All the animals were looking at him, and with that grin still frozen on his face, he fell over as if dead. He stayed that way, too embarrassed to move and face the ridicule of all the others. He didn't move until the meeting was over and all the others had long since returned to their homes.

To this very day---like our hike today---whenever Possum feels threatened, he freezes, that foolish grin still on his face. Because of his pride, he has the ugliest tail of all.

There are many versions of this story, but all of them emphasize the consequences of hubris. My retelling is based on a version found at the site "Felids and Friends," a Florida non-profit organization devoted to animal welfare. It has educational information and many activities suitable for teachers and naturalists.