Sunday, October 22, 2006

My gift to the storytelling community

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Overlooking the Mississippi River from our retreat site

Just this past week, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage at a storytelling event with Reid Miller. Over dinner between programs we talked storytelling, which is not surprising, since everyone at the table was a storyteller. Reid commented that every storyteller, once they've largely moved beyond the stage of "paying their dues," should host an event to give back to the storytelling community. Reid has certainly done so. Last spring, he did a number of relief tours throughout the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, providing a moment of laughter for school kids and others with his programs.

As a person who strongly believes that a measure of humanity is our ability to share freely, I appreciated Reid's thoughts. We never did get around to defining what he considers to be an "event," but I do hope that one I hosted last month qualifies. After enjoying the community and work on storytelling provided at Kevin Strauss's Boundary Waters Storytelling Retreat last winter, I decided I could do this myself. Last month, heading down river to charming Lansing Iowa, I hosted my first "Down by the Riverside Storytelling Retreat." There were moments during the planning process where I was worried I'd lose my investment financially. I needn't have worried. Three wonderful women joined me for a lovely fall weekend of stories and sharing at Uncle Charlie's Cabin.

While I awaited the arrival of my first guest, I enjoyed the river view on one of the decks. Others might have taken the strafing flight right over my head of a Turkey Vulture as a bad omen, but as a birder, I was delighted beyond words with this close encounter, as I watched about twenty of these graceful flyers soar near their roosts in the bluff just behind the cottage.

By the time the sun had sunk below the horizon, my other two guests arrived and we settled in for the weekend with some homemade soup and wonderful bread. Getting acquainted, sharing our goals for the weekend and playing a few storytelling games set the stage.

Well rested, we shared breakfast before starting to work on our chosen stories. There is an element of community that is impossible to describe, but understood by all who have experienced it, when people join together around a meal, free of any electronic "conveniences" or timetables to just talk and linger over coffee or tea. Once more, I worried that we weren't getting to the "agenda," but reminded myself that in order for all of us to expose our new material to one another, we had to build a sense of trust. What better way to do that than around the table?

Eventually, we did manage to begin our work. Each teller would have three blocks of time throughout the weekend to receive appreciations and feedback as desired. Each teller was in complete control of her session. Colleen started us out by sharing a story she wanted to do with young children at a northern camp setting. Colleen is a gifted and experienced teller, and one I've known for most of my own career as a teller. Though I've had the joy of hearing her perform many times, it was a rare treat to be invited into her story development process.

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Colleen is a moose in a muddle!

Others took their turns as well. I had a story I'd long thought I wanted to tell, but something ephemeral was troubling me. With the feedback and ideas shared by my friends, I was able to pinpoint the source of trouble. I don't know if I'll tell this story or not, but opening it to the group allowed us to discuss the pitfalls and identify the troubling aspect of it for me. I am grateful to them for helping me reach this point.

Of course, all this hard work requires some more nourishment and perhaps a break. Lansing Iowa offers all of this. We had a wonderful lunch together, then set off to explore the town a bit more. Quilt shops, resale clothing stores and the unbelievable Horsfalls all beckoned. So too did an old time ice cream shoppe.

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The spirit of a meal shared

We went back to work, then enjoyed firing up the sauna. Taking breaks from the heat under the night sky, looking up at the Milky Way, we talked story and the bigger story of life. Orignally I'd hoped to arrange a public storytelling program, but once more, this was just what everyone wanted at this point in the weekend.

After further story work and evaluating the weekend, we all headed back to the workaday world of family and responsibility on Sunday morning. Was this a successful event? My evaluations suggest it was, and I hope to make it an annual one. It might not be a big disaster relief tour or a community concert, but I do feel that in some small way, it is my gift back to the storytelling community that has nourished me.