Thursday, December 28, 2006

The best things in life sometimes are free!

I am a member of a worldwide internet "family" called Storytell. Storytell is a listserv hosted by Texas Women's University, and over the 10+ years I've been participating, I've been fortunate to meet many of my fellow posters IRL (in real life for the non-Net savvy)! Two of these wonderful tellers have been my roommates at the Northlands Storytelling Network conference the past few springs, and I could not have asked for more fun, along with a definite New England accent to add spark that matches the color of the speaker's hair!

Not too long ago, one of the discussion threads centered on "getting the good quote." Storytellers are always open to ideas and advice when it comes to presenting themselves to potential audiences, and the listserv is a wealth of knowledge shared freely by those who have forged ahead of us. The "good quote" refers to little snippets that look good on brochures, websites and other publicity materials. I have a few quotes on my homemade brochure, but not one of those "good quotes." That will change very soon, when I finally get a professionally designed brochure.

I have a son who is a junior in high school, and lucky for us/unlucky for him, his English teacher has a website on which she posts all the assignments for each day. Checking this site a few weeks ago, I was delighted to see that she was including a unit on "storytelling" as part of the folklore curriculum. I sent her an email, sharing that "although Taylor probably won't volunteer this fact, I'm a professional storyteller and I'm off work next Tuesday."

The teacher was thrilled to hear this, and invited me to come as a "special guest speaker." I spent the day, in other words, telling stories to my son's 16 and 17 year old classmates. Sound fun? It was.

When I first dove into storytelling, these kids were in preschool and kindergarten, ready audiences for my practicing. Their teachers were all too happy to have me come in every week or so and share a story, and it was great practice for me to find stories that matched their current curricular focus. Some of these kids got to hear me more than once; I also was a regular at Cub Scout events and my church.

The kids had no idea who this "guest speaker" would be, and as each class filed in, someone would recognize me and squeal, "Oh, it's YOU!" One girl even gave me a big hug, like long lost friends. The boys weren't quite so bold, but a few of them said, "I loved your stories in 3rd grade." One girl asked if I'd tell "that story about a spider." She wasn't sure what it was, what happened, but she remembered that she "loved it." I told that class "Anansi Steals the Stories," and that was the one she recalled. My first ever special request!

I shared a couple stories with each class; all the kids heard one from Kenya called "The Tail of the Linani Beast," which I tell using my djembe. Gets them every time. After that, I told each class a different story from my repertoire, then shared tips for learning and telling their own stories.

I could tell the kids enjoyed the stories. Because so many of them knew me, they didn't have to adopt this "cool" attitude. When Taylor got home from school, he told me "Everyone loved the stories, they all want to come over here and have you tell more."

The real prize came a few days later. Taylor came home with a couple of thank you cards, one from the teacher, and one signed by many of the kids. Lots of the comments were great, but this one is priceless.

"I loved your stories when I was 5 and I still love them at 16! Thanks so much!" Susannah M.

I could have paid lots of money to a publicist, and they still wouldn't have written such a great quote. Susannah has granted permission for me to immortalize her words in my new publicity materials.

Thank YOU, Susannah!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dog tales.....or is that "tails?"

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This is a fearsome dog? I think not.

For many years, I've enjoyed telling a story shared by Joseph Bruchac in his book, Dog People, called "How Dog Came to Live with People." Mr. Bruchac has kindly granted permission for me to share this story as one from the Abenaki people, encouraging me to continue to learn as much as I can about his people and their ways. When I share my version of the story, I create an Inuit string figure known as "Little Dog with Big Ears," guaranteed to bring smiles to the faces of all sharing the story with me.

I've always liked dogs. Never knew all that much about them, however, since never in all my years have I shared my life with a canine friend. Until now.

I do believe there is a rite of passage in our culture that never, ever gets covered in any parenting books or magazines. I know one of my brothers and I both partook in this rite. It goes like this: kids beg their parents for some pet or other their entire childhood. Kids grow up enough to pretend they are adults. Kids acquire their very own pet. Kids discover adulthood isn't always staying up late and eating ice cream instead of peas, move home. Bring pet with them. After attitude adjustment, kids move out again, finding apartment that doesn't allow pets.

I very intentionally got myself a beautiful blue point Siamese cat, known as Molly McGuire and living to the age of 19, traveling with me through grad school, marriage and the birth of two children. Molly moved with me when I moved out once again. My brother Fritz acquired two cats, then almost immediately left them in care of our parents, who, after years of telling us "no pets" immediately doted on these two furballs.

Our older son has recently made this passage himself. True to his personality, he did things bigger and bolder. Moving out for a whole month, he managed to rescue a two year old female pit bull terrier. Named Loca. Spanish for "crazy," in case you didn't know.

When we found ourselves holding the leash to this dog very suddenly and unexpectedly, I took her for a long walk while my husband went to Petco to get housing and a good strong tie-out cable. We have another cat here, you see.

In those first weeks, it was anxiety all over the place, both from us and poor Loca. Seems that our son had been her third owner already. We played this "upstairs/downstairs" game, in which she could go into the kids' domain there at night, separating any prolonged contact with the cat, who doesn't know any better than to stare down 52 pounds of solid muscle.

It's not a perfect solution, but I've lost about ten pounds walking this girl every day. I could quit my job, spend each day walking from here to the Mississippi River and back, the distance of a marathon, and she'd be thrilled. As it is, most days it's 45 minutes at 5:30am and a similar walk in the evening. Longer ones when we don't work.

We struggle with the one unfortunate effect of pit bull breeding, that of dog aggression. We hope that learning to use a Gentle Leader will help with this. She sits. She almost stays. She shakes hands, a useful skill for such a people friendly dog. Yes, people friendly. I read a description of pit bulls as having an "easy going Irish temperment that thinks every person is their best friend." Indeed she does.

Most of all, she insinuates herself into our family, making us laugh with her energetic antics. Anyone who thinks these are killer dogs should see her when our son puts an old pair of boxer shorts over her skinny butt, the tail poking through the fly front, wagging like, well, like loca.

All those years of telling our kids, "No, we can't have a dog, they are a lot of work," it's true; they are a lot of work, most of it work of a joyful kind. One that helps middle aged women easily drop 10 pounds, by the way!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Journey from darkness.....

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It's cold. The days are growing shorter. The winds are bearing down from the north with a vengeance that belies the balmy temperatures of only a few days ago. It's the season of darkness and retreat to the indoors, at least for those of us in the northern latitudes. Every single world culture has stories that are told this time of year to bring hope, and to explain this annual retreat of the sun. In Greek mythology, Demeter loses her daughter Persephone to the underworld for half the year, her return to Earth signaled by the longer days and verdant greens. In the stories of the Northwest Coast Native Americans, Raven brings the light to the people by shapeshifting and stealing the light from the chief. Along with the stories, most of the world's religions celebrate the return of light during this season, whether we call it Christmas, Hannukah, Eid or Diwali. Since humans put words to their world, they have sought to express hope at those darkest of times.

Seeking the light is almost a primal urge. Look at any campfire, and you'll find those gathered around mesmerized with the dancing flames. When the moon is full, faces turn to bathe in that magical light. In my neighborhood, and many others, the lights right now are electric rather than solar powered, but they still draw our eye as they twinkle after dark. I enjoy looking at all the light displays I pass, but find those simple electric candles, flickering out every window of a home, the most compelling display, perhaps because they shine hope in their utter simplicity.

We seek the light, because the light is a symbol of hope. In my own family this year, even as we race toward the longest night of the year, we celebrate that a symbolic long night for our son is finally coming to an end. He's fought his dragon and come out victorious. In just four days, he will leave the family home in these cold northern latitudes, starting afresh in the sunny desert of Arizona. Sure, he's seeking a geographic change to help him through this next phase of his hero's journey, but it seems somehow appropriate that as he comes out of his own personal darkness, he hastens the return of light and hope by moving toward it.

For the past few years, we've asked nothing more than to have our son back, tossing out this "imposter" who'd taken up residence in his skin. Finally, this Christmas, we've received the gift of our son, returned to us, even as he spreads his wings and flies away. For those who share our faith, this is almost akin to the grander story of this season, the one that has a Son visit earth for a time before returning to his ultimate destiny.

Enjoy the season. May your darkness fade in the light of hope, whatever your spiritual path.