Friday, February 24, 2006

Dogged Persistence of Cross Country Skiing

Image hosting by Photobucket
Overly friendly White-Tail Deer, Goose Island County Park-- Paper from Grassroots

Storytelling isn't the topic of this post. Instead, it's a story, of sorts. It's my blog. If I want to babble about my day, it's my choice!

This so-called "winter" we've had has been a source of frustration, to say the least. While others are cheering the minimal amount of snowfall, I have spent the past two and a half months in mourning, grieving the melting of the white stuff not long before Christmas. We had a pile of snow last week; we even had the kids' and people who teach kids' joy, a snow day. Unfortunately, along with that snowfall came record low temps. All I could do was look out the window and dream.

Yesterday, I'd decided this was enough. I packed my skis and clothing in the car along with my school bag, determined to do a little skiing after work, taking in the small trails at the county park close to my school. When 3:25 came, I was in one of the teachers' restrooms, changing into my ski pants and anorak.

I realized that as the weather had warmed, even with our snowfall yesterday, things would probably not be ideal. How right I was. Stepping out after being trapped indoors all day, it felt balmy---and I could see large patches of dead grass all around.

So what? I was still going. Getting to one of the trails, I changed into my ski boots and was all set to go----through the leaf-covered, barely snow-covered trail. Is there no justice in the world? There were places where the snow had completely melted, forcing me to step over those sections of the trail. I would just get settled into my rhythm, only to be confronted with another bare leafy patch to catch my ski and nearly throw me to the ground, much as catching a tire on a sandy patch can throw a car into a ditch.

This was the point at which I told myself that if I'd wanted to ski a world class trail, I should have sent my money in and been on my way to Cable for tomorrow's American Birkebeiner. Since I hadn't, I could take another approach; enjoy hat-free skiing, the light whoosh of air across my skin and any sights that chose to present themselves to me.

It wasn't long after that decision that my first sight appeared. This park is well known for the extremely tame deer that live here. Look at the photos here, and except for a little touch of snow, this is the scene that greets anyone driving through the park. It was different today. I was in the woods on a trail all alone, when suddenly, right in front of me, a deer stopped in its passage through toward a pond. We looked one another in the eye; I didn't move. The deer appraised me, then calmly continued its journey across my path. Two quick kicks, and my skis were covering the tracks left in its wake.

Heading over to another trail, I hoped that the greater amount of shade would afford me a bit more snow. Not really. Slapping on another layer of wax, I headed into these woods, experiencing similar frustrations, followed by the resignation I'd felt about an hour before. I studied the signs of life here; large rectangular holes in dead trees, sure signs of Pileated Woodpeckers. Raucous calling across the forest, White Breasted Nuthatches sharing the news. A wild rattling call overhead told me a Belted Kingfisher was heading toward open water to fish. I was just about finished with my little jaunt when I heard it; a clear but distant "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?" I've had conversations with this owl before in this place. Though it happened two months ago, it is still a vivid and magical memory. Maybe I could have that experience again! Finding a deer path off the trail, I undid my skis and walked slowly in. I heard it again, a bit closer this time. I tried calling once myself. Moving a few feet at a time, scanning, watching, listening, I'd hear a call. Perhaps it was a female on her nest. I didn't call anymore. Simply listened. Moving further and further in, I saw and heard nothing more. I'd nearly crossed this part of the park to some open water, when a sound startled me in the final moments of sunlight. Looking toward the sound, a deer at water's edge had frozen. For several long moments in time, we watched each other, never moving. I hadn't met my owl again, but a deer and I communicated on some primeval level of the sort rarely experienced by those of us living in the rush of modern life. For a few moments at the end of the day, I felt what those who were here long before the artificial boundaries of a county park must have experienced on a daily basis--connection with a wild creature. Though the skiing was lousy, this was a window to the past for which I am grateful. Sometimes dogged persistence gives unexpected rewards!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Family legends

Image hosting by Photobucket

One of the storytelling workshops I offer involves helping others--- storytellers, scrapbookers or simply the family raconteuer--- to save and share their own family legends. The whys and hows I've shared freely in several venues, but one that is easily accessible to anyone reading this entry is but a click away.

You might have guessed by the images beginning this post that this bit of family lore involves cooking. It does. The images above are absolutely not my mother, but Artist Trading Cards left over from a swap titled "Oh sh**, I've become my mother!" I've started a new fun venture for myself releasing leftover art projects into the world as found art. I honestly can not recall my mother ever burning our dinner. Quite the contrary, Mom is an excellent cook. We ate well as kids. Home made bread every single meal. None of that yucky Wonder Bread! Mom liked to try new things and most of her experiments were tasty. Except one.

Mom had the notion in her head that our health and well being would be ensured if only we'd eat enough liver. Another bit of family lore says that as a small girl, I used to gobble it up, proclaiming to anyone whose jaw had dropped upon witnessing this act of carnivorous delight, "I love liver!"

I think that's probably not true. Legend. Maybe I loved the fried onions. To this day, the only thing that makes liver even slightly palatable in my mind is the fried onions.

Anyway. Mom would try every so often to sneak some liver into our diet somehow. Most often, this was done on nights when Dad wasn't home, because Dad hated liver as much as the rest of the family. Dad, like Mom, was a child of the Depression, and it was one of the rules in our household that no one left the table until our plates were cleaned. I don't think we ever heard the "starving children in China" guilt trip. It was simply wasteful to throw away food. I really can't disagree with this viewpoint. I still find it almost criminal that grocery stores throw out food that's perfectly fine but no longer "pretty." Too many hungry people living near that grocery store would be happy to have that food, myself included.

I digress from the legend, however. One night at dinner, we were being served meat loaf. Unlike Randy in "A Christmas Story," my brothers and I loved meat loaf. On this particular evening, however, the meat loaf tasted really strange. Not like spoiled meat or anything. More like a tough, chewy piece of ground leather.

No one said anything. We didn't want to hurt Mom's feelings, after all. Silent looks across the table told the story. This stuff was disgusting! What in the world had she done to our favorite meat loaf? It must have been a food experiment gone bad!

I dimly recall that it must have been nice outside, because I had this sense that the fleeting evening hours playing outside were slipping away as I tried to chew and chew...and chew. My younger brothers Erik and Fritz were similarly preoccupied. We just could not down this stuff! We knew what was at stake, freedom to run in the warm evening sun if only we could clean our plates before sides were chosen in the neighborhood "Starlight, Starbright" game. All three of us struggled, aching to get out there but unable to swallow quickly enough.

Looking around, we noticed Dad was not moving much faster. Finally, he voiced the suspicions we'd all harbored.

"There's liver in this meat loaf, isn't there, Betty?"


All eyes were on Mom at that point. Would she really have gone to the trouble to grind up liver and make it into meat loaf, all in the name of an iron rich diet? Wouldn't those cool Flintstones vitamins have worked just as well? We'd always hungered for the fun shapes advertised between "Underdog" and "Mighty Mouse" on the Saturday morning cartoons.

Finally, she spoke.

"I just thought that maybe this way, we could get some liver into the kids without them gagging on it!"

Without a word, Dad walked over to the trash can, plate and knife in hand, and for the only time in my life that I can remember, scraped the offending liver loaf into the garbage.

Turning to the three of us sitting stunned at the table, Dad said, "You don't have to eat the liver loaf. Betty, don't ever try this one again!"

We could hardly believe it. Without stopping to give him a chance to reconsider, the three of us were right there behind him, dumping the glop into the garbage and gaining our ticket to freedom.

Mom never did try to feed us liver loaf again. She relinquished her fight to get the stuff into us, waiting instead for those times when she could make herself a plate of her beloved liver to enjoy like a forbidden treat.

She can have it. As for me, I'd much prefer a plate of her homemade fudge. Same color as liver, far better in both the taste and forbidden qualities department.

So, share your own family food legends in the comments. Is there anyone whose mother tried to feed them anything more gross than liver disguised as meat loaf?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

So you wanna be a storyteller?

You've been reading my blog and have become completely inspired to pursue becoming a storyteller yourself? Good for you! Now, the only thing you need is help. Never fear. Northlands Storytelling Network is here to help.

Fellow storyteller, Board member and all around good guy friend Hardy Garrison has just put his techno-skills to work, placing all the information you'll need onto the Northlands website for the annual spring conference in Madison Wisconsin. Always the last full weekend in April, always a weekend of learning, listening and fun, this year promises to be better than all the rest. It needs just one more thing--all you newly inspired storytellers!

To learn all the nitty-gritty details, check out the Northlands Conference website. I'll see you there!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Life's stories

My storytelling occurs most often in settings typical for a storyteller; community festivals, local museums, schools, churches, Scout banquets, that kind of thing. The stories I tell reflect the setting and audience as well, or at least I hope they do. Adult audiences get stories that might have a little more snap to them; "The Tail of the Linani Beast," a cautionary tale about male/female relationships. "The Telltale," a wonderful Japanese story about the dangers of infidelity. Little kids get more participatory fare. "Lazy Jack." Anansi stories. Other audiences, like church groups, might get personal tales, like "The Blue String," one of my signature stories about that moment in time when I realized my life's work, teaching, made a difference.

Storytelling has been reaching new and different audiences and venues in recent years. There is a whole movement of stories in the healing arts. Its practitioners might be working with hospice patients or domestic violence shelter clients. Storytelling in business is a growing trend as well. The corporate world is realizing their message can be stronger when couched in story, kind of "3M meets 'Truth and Story.'"

One place where storytelling has always been a tool, though perhaps not by that name, is in counseling. Really, what is counseling but telling one's story and hopefully changing the way it will end? I've known this, of course, but reading I Don't Want To Talk About It, by Terence Real, has made me think more deeply about the stories of our lives.

Right now, my older son is writing his hero's journey story. Joseph Campbell has written eloquently of it in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces; it's the story of the young man leaving home and facing all kinds of adversity, returning at last a better and wiser person. I'd say at this point, we're still on Episode One with our son. It hasn't been an easy journey for him or for us, and though he grew up with story on a daily basis, he probably can't even see that's his current plot. As I think back, I don't really recall having that awareness for myself until perhaps age 25. We know parenting is the toughest job on earth, yet when the big challenges come, we feel helpless. There is a reason so many of the world's cultures have hundreds of versions of this story, from "Lazy Jack" to the "Odyssey;" it's a universal tale. Some have humor along the way, others horrible tragedy. For most of us, the reality is somewhere between these extremes. Knowing that these stories have been told through millennia allows a parent to let go just a bit, so that the journey can truly begin. Knowing that most of these stories, even those with tragedy along the way, end up with the hero returning home stronger and wiser, allows parents to let go with just a snippet of comfort that this is the right thing to do.

I wonder about the stories being written today among young men and women trying to start their journeys. How many of them have even heard these tales? When I was a child and doing what children do, calling for help when none was really needed instead of just saying, "I need a hug," I knew, as did all kids, what my mother meant when she said, "Remember the story of the little boy who cried wolf?" Kids don't hear that one any more. It does give the wolf an undeserved bad image, but it also serves as cautionary tale. Those stories might have had their share of blood and false information about predators, but the wolf was never really an animal. He was an allegory, and a powerful one at that.

I tell stories to young children at school every day. Many of them have never heard of characters that were part of playground lore for me. I can only tell stories to so many children. Many more aren't hearing them at all. They haven't been given the examples for life stories to come, the sage warnings to watch out for strangers offering pretty ribbons or smooth talking gentlemen along the path in the woods. We can tell them all they want to "just say no," but when that moment comes, what story will they remember as their guide?

If the story they remember isn't the one we told, what story will help them through that dangerous path to adulthood? Words, we know, have power. Put those words into story and the power they can unleash is multiplied many times over. Consider this. One group of people, the Moken or "sea gypsies," escaped the devastation of the horrific tsunami that hit the Andaman Sea last year without a single loss of life. Why? They recognized the coming disaster when they saw the waves behave as described in one of their stories, and headed for safety on high ground.

What kind of safety net are we providing with the stories they hear today? Will they recognize impending disaster when it comes, or will they wander unwittingly right into the mouth of the dragon they're intended to slay? Next time your child asks you to tell them a story, do just that. Help them prepare for the dragons we know they'll have to confront some day on their journey through life.

8/5/06 I'm honored that this entry has been accepted for publication in the upcoming Northlands Storytelling Network Journal. I would be even happier, were it not for the fact the story my son is writing is not heading for a happy ending right now.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A cloud of words

A storyteller's stock in trade is words. Imagine my delight when my bird-blogging friend Cindy shared a link to create a Word Cloud from my blog! Save time; read my Word Cloud and you have the gist of my thoughts, don't you?

Image hosting by Photobucket

You can create your own Word Cloud here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Why it's hard to get rid of things.....

As a member of the board of Northlands Storytelling Network, I participated in a retreat a few years back to help us define our mission as an organization. Part of the retreat also allowed us to do the same for ourselves as storytellers. One topic that somehow came up was "stuff" and what to do with it. Seems that for many storytellers, an accumulation of stuff is an occupational hazard, because once the question was broached, most of us said, "YES! What do we do with our stuff?"

I have stuff. I admit it. I have been trying very hard to divest myself of much of my stuff, and I'm making progress. Readers of this blog know, for instance, that I happily gave away several hundred dollars worth of camera equipment last fall. I regularly give away books and scrapbooking supplies I no longer need or will never use. I admire the homes of others that are spare and serene, creating space to think. I don't know if my house will ever be such a house, even though I'm really trying to keep only the things that matter.

Problem is, everything matters. I am realizing this as I have gathered up some more things that I'll never use to give to someone who will use it. I have a nice stack of lovely all-natural fabrics, ready to go to an area Waldorf school for use in handwork projects. This fabric is the remaining stock from a small cottage business I had about twenty years back--"Fleecy Friends." I was making Waldorf style dolls to custom order, and these fabrics were my stash for making the clothing. It has been years since I made any of these dolls, but I still have two of them.

One for Cooper.

One for Taylor.

Both my boys, along with all my nieces and nephews, had their very own Waldorf dolls, made with eyes and hair to match their own. Taylor just kept his doll in with all his other soft toys, never paying it much mind, so it looks almost new.

Not Cooper's. "Dolly," as it was known in our household, had to have a sweater and pjs. He was changed almost as often as the Thursday night lineup on network tv. He came with us everywhere for a couple years. I can remember with a smile one trip to the Como Park Zoo with my sister-in-law, her kids, my mom and my kids. We had brought the stroller along, but my son didn't feel the need to have a ticket to ride. However, Dolly needed to ride, because "he gets tired." There came a point in the day when my mother had had enough of pushing a little doll, albeit one made of completely natural fibers, around in a full-sized stroller in a public place, and told Cooper he had to "take care of his baby now." He most willingly accomodated her request.

Cooper towers over me now. He is struggling to find his own way, stroller-less but driving a Saturn, into adulthood and his purpose in life. Though it's a struggle, I can think fondly of his care and concern, look at photos of him doting on Dolly, and know that the foundation is strong, even if the girders of late adolescence are weak.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Giving these fabrics away is like giving away some of my stories. Each doll made had its own story. So too with all of my stuff. My father is even worse in his "packratting." My youngest brother once wisely commented that what needs to be done is to sit with Dad, let him tell his stories about his stuff, and then he can give it away.

Taking my brother's advice, I've just shared the story of my pile of fabrics and a chapter of my life, just one chapter that tells the story of who I've become, at the same time telling the story of who my son is yet to become.

For those reading who might want a similar doll for their child--and why wouldn't they?--fear not. Magic Cabin, which started as a small family business much like my own, continues to sell online. Check it out!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Oscars? Golden Globes? Who needs those, when.... have Ms. Brewer's 2nd Grade class? I've mentioned before the class at school that eagerly awaits 10:30 on "Day 1" in the school cycle, the day when Mrs. Calvetti comes to tell them a story. Ms. Brewer gets more than her share of challenging students due to her misfortune in having also been certified in special ed. She has seen the value of dropping everything to have me come in to tell a story...any story. For almost two years now, I've told these kids a story every week. Today was no exception.

It was no exception, but it WAS different. They were attending a "World Premiere" telling. I asked if they knew what that meant, and Isabella said, "It means it's brand new. No one else has ever heard it."

I told you. Ms. Brewer has smart kids! They were so excited to be the very first audience, and it showed. I told them the story I'd spent time developing at my retreat a couple weeks back. One feedback suggestion was to include Red-Winged Blackbird's voice somehow. Do you have any idea how hard it is to imitate the call of that bird? Some birds have songs that lend themselves to the human voice, but not this one. Full of gurgles and metallic sounds from a syrinx, an organ not possessed by humans, it required hours of bird tape review and drive time rehearsal. Still, it was good enough for the kids, and really drew them in. This is a river town. They know all about Red-Winged Blackbirds, and each time he called, they were joining in. I'd never thought about this story's potential for participation, but there's lots of it built in.

The kids loved my story. At one point, one of the most challenging young men said, "It's a magic number! Something's going to happen next time Eagle comes by, cause it will be the third time!"

I told you. Ms. Brewer has smart kids! He was right. The story's climax was reached, and after the spell was broken, I asked the kids to tell me how they think I got the idea for my story. Ms.Brewer's kids are smart. They had lots of good ideas, many of them close to the answer.

When I was all done, many of the kids circled me, threw their arms around me and thanked me for allowing them to come to my world premiere. Even kids who just weren't huggers hugged me! The adulation was almost too much.

I told you. Ms. Brewer's kids are smart! Who needs things like the Golden Globes or Oscars when you can invite a bunch of 8-year olds to your world premiere telling of your own original porquoi tale, true critics... and they heap hugs upon you?

Image hosting by Photobucket

The star of my original porquoi tale, "How Red-Winged Blackbird Got His Red Shoulders."