Monday, July 30, 2007

Sometimes we get lucky......

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This is my young friend Sam, working at a service project in Freiburg Germany as part of a People to People delegation two years ago. Though I'm not traveling this year, the previous four summers I spent three weeks as a teacher-leader for such delegations, visiting different corners of the world, with 30-40 high school aged students in tow. The year Sam traveled with me, we were part of a program titled "Cultures of Europe." Sam actually did a wonderful job documenting her experiences in a website she created. At the time of the trip, Sam had just finished her freshman year of high school. On every one of these trips, there are a variety of "types" of kids who travel. It's one of the true wonders of the program, in my opinion, that freed from their jock/geek/valley girl roles, these kids cross those boundaries and make true friends that last beyond the three weeks of the trip. If I were to put Sam in one of those "groups," she'd probably be "alternative." I like those kids, they have interesting insights into the world and life that many kids don't, so I enjoyed those times when Sam and I would find ourselves next to each other on the bus, the dinner table or the cruise ship down the Seine. She knew what she liked and didn't try to be something different.

Sam has kept contact with me to varying degrees since returning from the trip. She sought my name as a reference for a job hunt. "My parents say it's about time I pay for some things!" She asked if I could recommend her for another travel experience to Russia, one she completed last summer. I hadn't heard from Sam until right before she left for that trip, although one of her friends traveled with me last summer and filled me in.

Imagine my surprise, when I arrived at the Childrens Tent at Riverfest, to see Sam sitting there with a couple of friends. The friends were from Russia, keeping up the exchange tradition, and she said she "thought maybe I'd be there." They stayed for the entire set and we visited for awhile afterward, talking about her plans following high school and other things. It was good to reconnect for a few moments.

Fast forward in time to this past Saturday evening. I was one of the tellers at our annual event, "Tales in the Tent," a fundraiser for the LaCrosse Storytelling Festival. As one of the other members of the Talespinners and I stood around scarfing up the remains of the food, she asked me if my young friend found me at Riverfest. Seems that Sam had seen "Bluff Country Talespinners" on the schedule, knew I was part of that, and came to listen. She caught Teri's set, then approached her afterwards to find out if I'd be telling anytime during the festival. Teri got her number, got the info, and let her know I'd be there the next day.

Any of us who work with people, especially young ones, often wonder whether we've made a difference to them. One of my signature stories shares an experience I had when I realized that I did. It would seem that Sam has given me the bones for another such story. All too often, we go to our graves wondering if we reached anyone. I am happy to know that at least twice, I have. In both cases, storytelling was the connecting link. I can't help but think the power of story shined through the normal chaos of life to help make those differences happen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

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I once had the experience of riding in Loren Niemi's Jaguar, "the car storytelling bought," he told us, adding that it was used and not that much more expensive than a new Taurus that way.

It was a nice ride to the store to buy libations for our Northlands Board meeting wind-down. Can't argue that point. It is probably no small measure of difference in both our storytelling earnings AND our personalities that I am now the proud owner of
"the kayak storytelling bought." The personality difference comes in when I say that had I earned the kind of money from storytelling Loren has, I'd have bought the more expensive composite version of my Kestrel.

Up to this point, the greater majority of any storytelling earnings has gone to one of two places; a favorite cause, like our local storytelling festival or Operation Migration, or things to grow my storytelling, like a bodhran or business cards. This past spring was especially nice to me as far as storytelling went, and I had a nice little sum of money to ponder. Our family has been experiencing a high degree of stress the past few months, and I decided that I would be my favorite charity this go-around! I could picture the quiet waters, paddling silently closer to the birds I enjoy watching, fueling my spirit.

Lucky for me, I was able to take an afternoon and spend it during a local outfitter's demo day. Over and over that afternoon, I'd climb into a kayak, paddle the channel nearby and then return the kayak, climbing into the next one that looked like a possibility. One kayak felt right for me over all the others, the Current Designs "Kestrel." In fact, I think I tried that one at least three times to be sure it wasn't my wishful thinking that my kayak be named for a bird, but reality of comfort. I swiveled with my binoculars, paddled afield and did every other stupid thing I'm likely to do in a kayak. It passed all my tests.

Next day I was at the store ordering up my very own. My husband and I enjoy canoeing together, but after one family sea kayaking trip, he proclaimed that kayaks are not for him. I'm on my own with this one. Actually, my friend Betty, an avid paddler, is with me. My technique has a long way to go. I keep thinking that's a canoe paddle instead. Doesn't matter. I can move through the waters and get new looks at the world that lives in or near the water. On my kayak's maiden trip, I enjoyed watching a family of Belted Kingfishers playing tag for at least half my journey. Close looks at that dive-bombing avian clown are best obtained from such a vantage point. I look forward to many more days on the water, enjoying my first big purchase from my storytelling earnings.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


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Storytelling has been good to me lately. Though I would certainly not eat well from my earnings, I've been staying busy without even trying too hard to find bookings. In fact, I strayed from my usual practice of donating storytelling earnings to a couple of favorite causes and donated to my own cause, buying myself a nice kayak. Life has been stressful for me the past few months and I felt as if I had become a cause worthy of donation!

A constant source of discussion among the storytelling world is what constitutes a "professional." The immediate response is often "someone who gets paid to tell stories." There are those who will debate this point. We have all heard stories of groups that hired a storyteller and don't want to do so again. Why? The storyteller was someone who had built up confidence to put out their business cards, but wasn't prepared for all the many unknowns that can happen. People with their cell phones. A dog walking through the stage. A drunk standing up right in front of you, annnouncing loudly "I gotta take a piss!" Of course, in school settings there is always the PA system and the rambunctious children in the back row. These are all true life examples I've faced over the years. Those people who don't know how to manage these disruptions and recapture the story will alienate potential clients from considering storytellers for a future event. They aren't professionals...yet.

A couple months ago, I was contacted by someone about telling stories at an event for free. I will consider such requests very carefully. If an event sounds fun, supports a vision in which I believe, and doesn't require me to come up with new material, I might accept such an invitation. I don't accept them as often as I once did, however, because over the years, I have had plenty of practice in front of an audience and don't need to take on freebies for experience. I have experience.

The event was the Grand Opening of the T. Denney Sanford Pediatric Center at the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic? I had to think about this one. Though not far from my home, with gas at its current prices, I had to weigh the benefits of accepting a non-paying gig. The event organizers had chosen the natural world as the theme, and were seeking unplugged entertainment to get the visitors reconnected with the joy of nature and live entertainment. These are ideals about which I feel strongly. I was assured that there would be an actual stage, that I could put out any brochures I wanted and they'd cover my parking.

I still had to think about it, but not for long. When I posted my consternation on the storytell listserv, fellow tellers worldwide knew the Mayo Clinic. I called my contact back and accepted.

The day I arrived, I entered the new center and saw people milling around all over the place. A young man was on the stage singing and playing guitar. I thought to myself, "Yikes, no one's listening!" I sat down and became his audience while taking in the incredibly beautiful new Pediatric Center. The center was redone with each wing reflecting one of the biomes of Minnesota. The main lobby had support pillars that look like birch trees. Look carefully and a bunny might peek out of one of the holes. The ceiling baffles were giant birch leaves floating overhead. Fireflies flickered in the walls. The whole place is serene and gives visitors much to explore visually. I would never have seen this had I not accepted their invitation.

My turn on the stage arrived. At this point, all those years of experience paid off. I pulled a nearby child on stage to hold a puppet for me. Her parents sat down to listen. A few other children pulled their families over to see what was happening. Then the story drew them all in.

I used this approach throughout my hour of telling and had nice audiences, given the open house setting. Even folks over by the mural were turning and listening to a story before moving on.

I realized as I was heading home that this is the mark of a professional teller. Instead of panicking at the challenging setting, I assessed it, modified my sets and made a performance decision that pulled in audiences. Having this epiphany was worth the donation of my time. The new booking I got last week as a result of it is just gravy.