A Practical Craft, a Convenient Art

August 26th, 2014

Charlie Chin
charliechin108@hotmail.com

Charlie ChinIn my family, my father and uncles were the gatekeepers of the immense treasure trove of stories, tales, and legends that had been passed down for generations for over the last four thousand years in China. As a child in the early nineteen fifties, I respectfully sat with the other children after dinner and listened as we were instructed in the behavior of the wise and warned of the pitfalls that attended the foolish. Years passed and at age eighteen, when I move out on my own, I put away the stories and proverbs. They were quaint and seem to serve no purpose in the Sixties, an age of psychoanalytical buzz words, and “hippies.”

But in 1970, the call went out for volunteers to collect and record the stories and artifacts of Chinatown, and strangely I knew I had to participate. So forty four years ago, I found myself working in a small museum and artifact collection called The Chinatown History Project in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. Back then, New York City’s Chinatown was a stable community of roughly 20,000 people whose history in the United States reached back to 1700’s.

For over two hundred years, driven by war, poverty, and disasters, Cantonese and Fujian Chinese had been dispersed around the world, even to the distant shores of America. Though there were Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco, the many laws restricting Chinese immigration such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Restricted Quota of 105 people a year in 1943, the Chinese American population had always been small. Politics played its role as well. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, since it was a Communist government, the United States refused to acknowledge its existence and so there was no immigration.

But in 1979, after 30 years, with the realization that it could no longer deny the existence of one quarter of the world’s population, the United States normalized its relationship with the People’ Republic of China and the quota for Chinese was made the same number given to other groups. By the 1980’s Chinatowns across the United States suddenly became bustling arrival points for several thousand new immigrants a year. And many were not the poor farmer and fishermen who had fled the wars and famine of two hundred years before. These twentieth century immigrants were coming with professional education, and often moving to the suburbs at once, completely circumventing the Chinatown experience.

The nineteen eighties was a time when local elementary schools in downtown Manhattan began frantically calling community organizations in Chinatown as they discovered that as much as fifty percent of the incoming student body were ethic Chinese and they knew nothing about them. Libraries, schools, and community facilities were dealing with a large arriving Chinese population and they had no programs to deal with this demographic. As one elementary school teacher confessed to me at the time, “Every year our school does the play, “Snow White,” but I don’t think we can do that anymore.”

Older Chinese American families like mine, who had been here for three, four, and in some cases five generations, quickly became the minority in our own community and today we represent only about 8 per cent of the population of Chinese in America. The other 92 percent has arrived in the last 35 years. The history, culture, and stories of the old timers, tales of the villages, the “Talk Story” of the Hand Laundries, restaurants, and field workers, are as foreign to them as to anybody else.

Storytelling was one of the most requested programs, and my office mates usually “volunteered” me anytime a call came in. The problem was I had a great number of stories but no actual skill or training in an ancient craft considered a respected profession for thousands of years. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher magically appears. I discovered a traditional Chinese Storyteller, Master Leong Chi Ming, of Toisan, China, plying his trade in the busy streets of Manhattan Chinatown and at once begged to become his student. His English was poor and my Cantonese was worse but we were able to converse and for the next year and half, he instructed me in his style. He called it, “A Practical craft, a Convenience Art,” because without “props,” or a stage, one could do a complete theater with many characters, and make the past glories of China come alive. I treasured every session we had.

Today, the men of my father generation are long gone, and even in my age group, there are more empty chairs every year. The stories of coming to the “Land of the Ghosts,” surviving the discrimination and unfair laws, eking out a living with hard work and frugal choices, are the cobwebs of an old attic. At age 70, I work as an historian in the Chinese Historical Society of America, in San Francisco. Most of my work and lectures have to do with Asian American history, and that suits the needs of most school and college audiences. But a couple of times a year, I’m asked to visit someplace outside the Bay Area and tell some of the old tales. It always pleases me to do.

Understanding The Heroic Journey — A Powerful Tool for Literacy.

May 9th, 2014

Jim MayJim May
maystory@earthlink.net

I hope to present students with as many enjoyable and interesting storytelling moments as possible. I believe that if students are going to love to read and write, they will be at an advantage if they have a positive relationship with oral language stories, both in the telling and listening. I believe that the mythological principles below can become a foundation for a lifetime of writing and reading.

The Heroic Journey: This is the map of most good stories. It represents a take off point for the imagination. It reflects the fact that we all are on a journey through life (each one of us as heroic as Ulysses), and gives students a story structure. Some major elements of the Heroic Journey are below:

Problem, Wound, or Call: This element initiates the journey. This changes the hero/heroine’s life dramatically. He/she must take up the journey to change/respond to the situation: Cinderella’s intolerable home life, Luke Sky Walker’s enslaved home planet, the death of Harry Potter’s parents.  On the other hand, some heroic characters merely take up a quest to seek adventure – they are “called,” or “chosen” or respond to some inner destiny.

Mentor(s): The principle helper/guide/teacher. The fairy godmother is Cinderella’s. Luke has Yoda. Harry has Dumbledore. The mentor will help the heroine/hero solve problems, overcome obstacles, and defeat demons. Mentors are usually both kind and challenging (tough love)… The mentor role reminds us that we are not alone and should look for help and allies in real life.

Test(s): This is where we build the character of the hero/heroine. Does she/he show qualities of compassion, bravery, and intelligence under pressure/duress? And yet, paradoxically, the most interesting heroes/heroines are imperfect.

Reward, New Learning, Magic: If the hero/heroine passes the test(s) she/he is rewarded with something: magic, information, power, new insight…that brings to solution the problems set out earlier in the story:.

Problem Solved, (Climax): This is the moment of transformation where the character uses her or his new found power to achieves his/her goals, escapes danger and death, and wins in the end, solving the problems laid out earlier in the story. Cinderella gets the prince. Harry Potter becomes a powerful wizard. Luke destroys the death star.

*Paradox: This is a fascinating and intriguing contradiction in the story that is surprising, confusing but functions to take the reader or listener deeper into the meaning of the story and also into the meaning of life.

Dressed in cinders and rags Cinderella is the most beautiful sister, because she has the most beautiful heart.

The young Luke saves his home planet because the “force” is more powerful in him.

Even though the orphan Harry Potter doesn’t know it yet, he is predestined to grow up to be a most powerful wizard.

• Beauty falls for the Beast.
• The fool is smarter than the king.
• The youngest/smallest prince is the best warrior.
• The baby girl is stronger and less afraid than the big boys.

The element of paradox helps us all enjoy the mystery and surprise of the story and of life, and helps us learn not to judge others or ourselves too quickly, too harshly, or by our appearance and status in the world. The concept and playing out of paradox in the story defeats stereotypes.

*Accepting the paradox that every human being, including ourselves, is imperfect can be a wedge against bullying and oppression of all kinds.

I tell stories to children because I learned many years ago that nothing in my ten years of experience as a classroom teacher held my elementary student’s attention like a story.For some twenty-three years now, I have made my living as a professional, full time storyteller. That storytelling produces a singular, intensely vital experience in my listener’s imagination continues to be reinforced nearly every day of my professional storytelling life.

I remember a particular occasion telling stories to an auditorium full of primary-aged students (grades k-2). After the program was finished, the students filed past the front of the stage where I was standing and greeting a few as they passed. One second grade boy walking by, looked at me over his should and shouted in mid step: “Thanks for the movies!”

I am reasonably sure that he was responding very literally, simply and profoundly to the mechanism in the brain (the cortex where complex thought functions) that produces images in response to oral language. Joseph Chilton Pierce and others have theorized that the brain is activated by oral language in a manner that causes neural brain cells and neural pathways to be stimulated (and even to grow, creating new, neural pathways, etc) in a way that is not possible when image and language are artificially coupled as in television, dvds, computer screens, in which case the most creative part of the brain shuts down because the image is ready made, not personal, original or connected to the viewer’s personal, internal, neural life.

During This Trip, Each of My Parents Agreed to Let Me Videotape Them

March 18th, 2014

Ellen H. Munds
Executive Director
Storytelling Arts of Indiana
Ellen@storytellingarts.org

Fred and Midge MundsIn 2009, I drove my parents to Wilmington, North Carolina knowing that this would be my father’s last visit to his family’s ancestral home. We visited the homestead, the Episcopal church where the Munds’ attended for three generations, and the family cemetery plot where all of my father’s relatives are buried dating back to the 1800s. During this trip, each of my parents agreed to let me videotape them as they recalled their family stories.

Once home, I got busy and didn’t do anything with the recordings. They both died in 2011. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I pulled the recordings out to watch. It was such a gift to see and listen to my parent’s sharing their stories. I felt like they were sitting in the room with me again. I immediately made copies for my brothers to share with their children. I feel good because I now know that for generations to come, the Munds family will be able to share and listen to my parents stories.

Why am I telling you this? Because it only occurred to me to record my parents because of my involvement with Storytelling Arts of Indiana. Stories have value, and unless they are told and retold from generation to generation, they can be lost forever.

Storytelling Arts of Indiana strives to demonstrate the importance of stories whether from a stage or sitting around a kitchen table through such programs as: The Life Stories Project, As I Recall Storytelling guilds, Summer Performances in the city parks, Ghost Stories at Crown Hill Cemetery, Jabberwocky, Weekly storytelling at a local hospital, Storytelling performances from the stage and family storytelling performances.

If you believe in the importance of stories, please help Storytelling Arts of Indiana sustain itself by making a contribution.

The Secrets to a Happy Family

February 4th, 2014

Kim Weitkamp
www.kimweitkamp.com

Kim WeitkampOn December 21, 1968 Apollo 8 was launched into space.

This would be the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit. The astronauts were able to see the far side of the moon, orbiting it 10 times. Finally, mankind’s longing to reach space and see the moon up close and personal had come to fruition. But an amazing thing happened along the way. Once the astronauts entered space, they could not stop looking back, gazing at planet Earth. Their desire to look upon where they had come from became more powerful than looking ahead to where they had not yet been. It became such an overwhelming desire that they named it Earth Gazing.

I think life is a lot like that.

In our youth and in our quest for new and exciting things, we propel forward with great passion and excitement hoping to discover new worlds but then, we hit a certain place where we realize that where we’ve come from is just as amazing and awe inspiring as where we are going.

I am always searching for new experiences, creating new things and trying to discover new worlds but a year and a half ago I realized that my personal history is just as fascinating as the unknown that lies ahead.

I guess I have reached a place where, as I float among the years of my life, I have decided to turn and look back. It is addictive. I cannot stop gazing into the history of me. This is not narcissistic; it’s a natural human desire, to feel a part of something bigger.

I have always told personal/family stories, it’s how I make my living, but a year and a half ago I decided to start digging into my family history. Using online resources I started to uncover information, documents and pictures that helped me see the whole picture of where I come from.

One hour turned into two hours turned into 8 hours turned into a yearlong project and now, an ongoing expedition. I can’t stop. I’ve uncovered pictures of my great, great grandfather. I’ve found documentation of my grandmothers addresses, which gave me a map of her life. I’ve found my great grandfathers marriage certificate, my grandmother’s marriage certificate and…her divorce records. I learned about aunts and uncles and I learned things about my mom and dad. Slowly, my whole world is coming into focus.

Doing this family research led to some deep and meaningful conversations with my parents. They are at the time of life when all they do is look back. When I started sharing with them what I found, they sounded young again…thirsty for information. No matter how many times I called and told them about the latest family puzzle piece I had found, they wanted more.

How sad it is that I was in my late 40’s and my parents in their late 70’s when we began this journey. I wish we had started when I was younger.

Recently Parade Magazine had an article titled, The Secrets to a Happy Family.

Get this.

When a team of psychologists measured children’s resilience, they found that the kids who knew the most about their family history were best able to handle stress. The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem. The reason: These children have a strong sense of “inter-generational self”—they understand that they belong to something bigger than themselves, and that families naturally experience both highs and lows.

Your family knows they belong to something bigger, but knowing it and actually hearing about it…seeing it, are two very different things.

Whether you share your family history by doing genealogy/family research or by sharing family stories at the dinner table…who cares? Just do it. Better yet, do both. Here is the best part; your family isn’t looking for fairy tale endings. Share with them the good, the bad and the ugly. It will help them through their own good, bad and ugly times. Let them gaze upon where they came from.

The main word in history is story. Share your stories. You were designed to.

Mining for Gold, Red Gold

January 20th, 2014

written by Stephanie Holman
libyq@yahoo.com

Stephanie_Holman CompressedI love research! It was my favorite part of high school and college and may be a big reason why I am a librarian. Getting research into a presentable format though, now that is a bit more tricky my friends.

So when asked by Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society if I would like to write and perform a story on Red Skelton, I knew the research would be my favorite part.

Serendipity had already been at play. I had just read an article about the 2013 opening of the Red Skelton museum in Vincennes! It would be my first visit for research. The museum is opening Phase 2 in the summer of 2014 but is already a must see for all Hoosiers. I learned so much from the curator Shirley Ray and from watching the visitors interact with the fabulous exhibits.

Next I read and read and read biographies on good ol’ Red. I watched the few dvds of his skits that are available from his television years. I watched some of his films. I was really starting to “see Red”.

Sorry, bad pun.

Early on I also made a trip to the archives held at the Indiana History Center. I love spending time in their library on the third floor. The staff is so helpful and I culled their Red Skelton files for more background.

Then I had to mine this research for nuggets and find the beginning and end of my particular story in his long life. I felt strongly I would tell the story of his early training ground in poverty and how he beat the Great Depression by making people laugh.

To start the writing, I talked to local greats such as Sally Perkins. She steered me to an article by Beth Horner called “Pipeline Blues: Crafting a Historical Story”. I also took an online class that took me step by step through the writing of the three act story.

As I completed the assignments online I wrote my story, starting with exploring my passion for the story, the theme and premise. Or as Beth Horner would have you ask constantly as you write, “What is this story about?”

I had grouped the mined nuggets of research into subject areas and after the outline of my story was completed, I began plugging elements into the spine of the story. Then the writing began, carving and sculpting draft after draft to show my audience the emotions of Red Skelton’s early journey to theatre.

There were so many great moments in the writing process; the museum visits, talking to people about Red and how much they love him, and the 1952 “Look” magazine my dad found with a great article for example. But my favorite moment so far is finding my voice, my narrator’s voice. I am telling the story in three acts and each will be narrated by a woman in Red’s early life; middle school friend Norma, first teenage love Velma and his first wife and co-writer/manager, Edna Stillwell.

These three gals show through their voices the real experiences and emotions of Red’s early journey in Vincennes Indiana. The antagonist of the story, the Great Depression, worked against Red at every turn but also helped to make him one of America’s favorite entertainers.

The opportunity to tell Red’s story has been such an honor and pleasure. My passion for telling this story is to show how a fellow Hoosier followed his path in life. He made so many people very, very happy at a time in our history when laughter was as valuable as food and shelter. I hope I do him justice when the story premieres on January 31st. Purchase tickets by calling the Indiana Historical Society, 317-232-1882 or order tickets on line.

 

Seamus Heaney

September 11th, 2013

Patrick Ball
Patrick@patrickball.com

ball_celtic-harp-story_200_overSeamus Heaney, Ireland’s greatest contemporary poet, died last week. A sad day for the world. And a sad day for me because I loved his work, the heft, the rub, the grain of it. Perhaps the reason I enjoyed it so much was because I spent quite a bit of time listening to him reading his own poetry.

Now, I have to say that I have listened to many poets reading their own work and almost always found it a pretty unsatisfying experience. Writing poetry and reading it aloud are two very different skills. Seamus Heaney, God rest him, was brilliant at both of them.

He had a lovely, rich voice. And, of course, he had the deepest understanding of his poetry. But, he also had a glorious sense of the sound and rhythm and melody of words. He had a wonderful understanding of how words spoken can bring new power and meaning and joy to words resting on a page. Seamus Heaney’s readings allowed his work to, as Yeats would have said it, “clap its hands and sing, and louder sing.” He was both a poet and a storyteller.

Irish people are generally thought to have “a way with words,” “a gift of the gab.” And, honestly, I think it’s true. Some of them certainly are more eloquent than others. But, all of them, whether they are aware of it or not, seem to be tuned into the music of words. Words spoken in Ireland are not simply tools to get something accomplished, they are notes in a song, they are colors on a canvas, they are steps in a dance. That’s why we Yanks love to ask for directions in Ireland. The answer may not get you where you want to go. But, the lilt, the whimsy and the artistry of the response are always well worth getting lost.

So, it must have given Seamus Heaney great pleasure to read his poems on stage. Not just to hear those marvelous vowels and consonants and silences resonate in the hall and create their world anew. But, for the sheer joy of playing with words and enchanting an audience asking for directions.

But, he must also have found great satisfaction in knowing that his poems will be forever preserved on the printed page. I remember once, many years ago, when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I had a job interview with a rather celebrated chef. I had asked him what it was like being a chef. He replied (in a very aggrieved French accent), “you spend ze day creating a masterpiece, ze diners sit down at ze table, zey eat it, and, poof, it is gone!

Seamus Heaney’s work will continue to be read as long as we crave the beauty and solace of poetry. But, his storytelling is over. For storytelling is a living, breathing, fleeting thing. On the stage of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center or at a crossroads in Ireland, the storyteller creates a masterpiece and, poof, it is gone.

 

I Am A Man Who Listens

August 11th, 2013

Ken Oguss
Professional Storyteller/Public Speaking Coach/Screenwriter
Documentary Film Maker/ Author of Flash Fiction and Short Stories
tvoa@aol.com

Ken OgussI am a man who listens. Most mornings lately, I sit down at my computer with a cup of coffee and listen to oral history interviews. The recordings, up to forty-five minutes long, are being made at several locations across Indianapolis. The people telling the stories come from different cultural backgrounds, different walks of life, different races and spiritual beliefs. Some may have come from other places but they all live here now in central Indiana. They have all responded to the call for Life Stories. I am one of the few people who will get to listen to each and every recording for the Life Stories Project, a cooperative effort by Storytelling Arts of Indiana, WFYI Public Radio, and the Indiana Historical Society.

As the audio engineer for the project I listen for short, short stories within the longer recordings that I can edit and post to the Life Stories Project website, www.lifestoriesproject.net. I listen for stories that can stand alone, stories that will give people an idea of the richness of the collective oral history that we have in this city.

Each story contains little treasures of human experience. Let me entice you with clues to some of the stories on the website. See if you can figure out whose stories these are:

1. Who deliberately moved to a newly integrated neighborhood to learn about the realities of inner city life?

2. Who was born a few days before a terrible fire and then spend most of her life searching for the full details of the story?

3. Whose mother showed him why a pound cake is called a pound cake and taught him how to “measure by eye.”

4. Whose teacher helped him overcome one of life’s greatest fears by encouraging him to join the high school debating team?

5. Whose father’s life may have been saved when her brother had to go to the hospital for a tonsillectomy?

6. Who saved milk tops to go to Riverside Park and then vowed to never go back there again?

7. Who traveled far abroad to visit holy sites and in the process learned about the origins of the potato?

8. Who describes a time in America when the nights were pitch black, families could not travel, and many houses displayed simple flags with stars on them?

9. Whose life would be changed by a woman he met by going to the wrong laundry mat?

10. Who found success in her vision of an interactive learning experience despite theater experts telling her it would not work?

11. What act of violence would turn a future librarian and a future minister into civil rights activists?

Here are a few things I’ve learned listening to these stories. You can’t really tell from a person’s photograph or voice what kind of childhood they had or how many years they attended school. You can’t tell how brave people have been or how hard they have worked or how creative they have been from first glance. But when you sit down and listen to them tell stories that matter from their lives you begin to appreciate who they really are and collectively, who we are. So join us. Come to the website, www.lifestoriesproject.net, listen to the short stories, sign up to tell yours. I’ll be listening!

When History Gets Personal

February 19th, 2013

Dolores Hydock
dolores@storypower.org
www.storypower.org

Hydock Pub PhotoIt started out as a story about gardening.  A local church was planning a benefit concert to raise money for a move to a new location. The organizers invited me to tell a story to lead off the evening’s entertainment, and needed a title for my part of the program. Though I wasn’t sure yet what story I would tell, I suggested “Putting Down New Roots.” That seemed like an appropriate theme, and I was confident that I had some stories about growing, transplanting, and flourishing that would fit the occasion.

Soon after submitting that title, I logged onto my laptop, went to my database of story fragments and ideas-to-be-worked-out-later, and found my file called “Gardening Bits.” Just as I was about to click it open, I noticed another file, two entries up, called “Ellis Island.” I’m not sure why, but I clicked on that file instead, and found three pages I’d written when I came back from a trip to New York City in late December 1999.

The words told of my search for the spirit of my grandfather – my mother’s father – who came to Ellis Island in 1912 as a seventeen-year-old boy. There were also tidbits of stories I’d heard from my mother about her Depression-era childhood in Reading, Pennsylvania: stories about the grocery store that her family ran during the 1930s, about a younger brother who died of diphtheria, about characters like crazy Mrs. Pawnicki and superstitious Mrs. Mahoska who lived in their “United Nations” neighborhood on Canal Street ― stories about the ingenious ways people survived in a hoped-for, but sometimes harsh new world.

After reading that file, I had a new idea for my story for the church fundraiser. It would still be about putting down new roots, but it would be about people, not plants, being transplanted into strange soil and creating a life with the help of family and friends.

I called my mother that afternoon and asked her to tell me more about the Canal Street store. An hour and a half later, I had four pages on a yellow legal pad full of odd names and anecdotes, and over the next few weeks, we talked often to fill in the blanks in the stories.

The date arrived for the church’s event, and I told a version – the first version – of the story. But my mother wasn’t finished remembering. She loved being reminded of the people and places of her life, and enjoyed finding out what she couldn’t recall. She asked a 92-year-old neighbor about the gambling rackets that thrived in Reading in the ’30s. A reference librarian helped her locate books about the local bootleggers and breweries that flourished during Prohibition. She interviewed the women at her Senior Center about the games they played as kids. (“We’d hold the skinniest kid by the ankles and lower him down the storm sewer to retrieve the ball that got away from the kid playing the fire hydrant that was second base.”) And long after that first “Canal Street” phone conversation, the “transplanting” story is still growing.

I was lucky. My mother was only as far away as a telephone call. Her memory was sharp, but forgiving, too, so that talking about old times and telling the old stories didn’t leave her regretful or sad. She was a walking, talking reference library of a particular moment of history and what it was like to live in that moment of history. But she and other walking, talking libraries from my life – relatives, neighbors, teachers – have gone silent. I can no longer call and say, tell me what it was like when you worked in the cotton mill, tell me how you made those cinnamon pastries you used to give us neighborhood kids, tell me what it was like to teach a first-grade classroom with 52 children in it. Those libraries are gone, and now I wish I’d been more curious, more willing to ask and listen for the history they contained.
I treasure the serendipity that turned my gardening story into a personal story that turned into a history story. It reminds me that history isn’t just something that happened hundreds of years ago, or in faraway worlds, or to people only found in archives and libraries. Sometimes history gets personal, and just waits patiently for someone to ask about it.

MAYNARD MOOSE: THE TURTLE AND THE BUNNY

January 29th, 2013

Told by Willy Claflin
Claflin@willyclaflin.com

willy_maynardresizedWhen I was a little boy, living in the woods in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, my father would tell me stories every night. I can vividly remember lying there in the darkness, watching the story unfold like a three-dimensional movie all around me.

When I was eleven, we got our first television. I remember how flat and boring it seemed to me, after those cinematic tales my father told.

I grew up. I got married. I had a son. And like my father, I told my boy stories every night. One day a neighbor of mine came over.

“I understand you tell your boy Brian stories every night,” he said. “My wife and I found this here moose puppet at a craft fair. We thought maybe you could use it to tell your boy stories.” And he handed me a lumpy, friendly and somewhat confused-looking moose.

We named the moose Maynard, and he sat in a little chair by the fireplace. But he didn’t say anything. I couldn’t figure out how I could use a puppet to tell stories. Until one day Brian came home from kindergarten; he was upset, and I asked him what the matter was.

“Well, there’s this kid in my class,” he said , “and he said something really mean about mooses. He said they were really stupid. I thought that would hurt Maynard’s feelings.”

Without thinking, I picked Maynard up, put him on, and sat him in my lap.

“That’s not nice,” he said. “I ain’t stupid. I am distreemely intelligible. Because I have got my education. I go to the Mother Moose Preschool, and we have learned the amphlebep!”

Maynard could talk! We were all delighted, and a family game began. Every day Brian would come home from school and tell us what happened: maybe there was a new kid in school, or maybe he was in a new book group, or maybe they had learned a new song. And then he would ask, “What did Maynard do in Mother Moose Preschool?” And Maynard would get up out of his chair and tell us.

It turned out that for Maynard, story time was the best part of school. And he would tell us the stories he had learned. This turned out to be quite entertaining, because it seemed that moose stories were very much like our own stories in some ways, but very different in others. For instance, here (complete with moose vocabulary and syntax) is the first story I remember Maynard telling:

TURTLE AND BUNNY
Once upon a time, there was a turtle that go real slow: blump…blump…blump.

And a hyperactivated bunny that go real fast: Boing! Boing! Boing!

And the bunny make fun of the turtle: “I’m fast and you’re slow! Ha-ha-ha-ha Ha-Ha!”

That make the turtle so mad, steam come out of his ears. “Oh yeah! You think you’re so special, do you? Well, I challenge you to a race!” “Fine, swell,” say the bunny; “I’ll race you!”

So the very next morning at the starting line in their northern forest habitat, with the skink and the skunk and the vole and the mole, and the porcupine and the white tailed deer, the noble moose said: “On your mark, get set…GO!”

And off go the turtle: blump…blump…blump. And off go the bunny: Boing! Boing! Boing!

And the bunny ran so fast, he won the race before the turtle had gone three feet!

And the moral of the story is: The fastest person wins the race!

When he was done, we said, “Um…Maynard, we have a similar story called The Tortoise and the Hare. But in our story, the tortoise wins.” Maynard said, “That’s silly! You ever watch the Olympics? Guess who comes in first? The fastest person! Or line up and have a race across the playground. Know who comes in first? The fastest person. Know who comes in last? The slowest person! That’s why fast means fast and slow means slow. Don’t let anyone tell you the slowest person wins the race—no; that will just scrumble up your mind! Learn to run fast—it’s good for your body and it’s good for your brain!”

That was a long time ago. We’ve learned a lot of Moose Wisdom from Maynard over the years, and I’m glad to have him as a beloved companion. And I’m so glad I was lucky enough to have a father who remembered to tell me stories every night, so that when I grew up I would remember to tell my son stories every night, and so that a Moose would one day come along and tell us his stories as well.

One single tale told in the dark holds more magic than in all the flat screens flashing in the world.

Thank you, Dad.

Do Stories Make Us Human?

December 27th, 2012

barb compressed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Barbara McBride-Smith
Barbara@barbaramcbridesmith.com

Last spring I pre-ordered a brand new book, sight-unseen, just because I loved the title: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. I had never heard of the author, Jonathan Gottschall, but it turns out that this college English professor gets it! He understands that story is not the icing, it’s the cake! I would have liked to see one more chapter in the book — one about storytelling as a live performance art, but Gottschall never ventures into that territory. He does a masterful job, however, of showing how and why we, as a species, need and crave stories. It’s a fascinating look at how our brain circuits force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. Humans are, the author says, addicted to STORY.

Then, in early October, I had an experience that confirmed for me that Gottschall is right: story is a profoundly powerful tool that can turn Homo sapiens into humans. I was on my way to Jonesborough, Tennessee, for the National Storytelling Festival. I arrived at the airport in Tulsa with plenty of time to spare. For some reason, the relatively short line through security was moving at a snail’s pace. When I finally got my possessions onto the X-ray conveyer belt, I discovered the problem. The local airport security workers were being scrutinized by a team from TSA’s upper management. Everything was being checked and double-checked according to strict standards. Every single bag had to be hand-inspected. The woman just ahead of me, it turned out, was trying to carry aboard a liter of saline solution for her contact lens. She claimed that she had never heard of the 3-1-1 rule. I presumed this woman had been living in a cave for the past decade. The inspection, disposal, and tongue-lashing regarding her contraband took 25 agonizing minutes.

Finally, my turn came, and I was sure I would pass inspection with an A+ since I am a seasoned traveler who always carries aboard my one perfectly packed bag. My tiny bottles of liquids were neatly zipped inside a quart-size clear plastic bag. I had no musical instruments that might be converted into weapons of mass destruction. I don’t even carry a nail file. But, after looking at my bag’s X-ray, the weary inspection woman said to me: “There appears to be a dangerous item in your luggage.” Like what? Waxed dental floss, a flatiron, a tube of lipstick??

“Ma’am,” she continued, ignoring the obvious fact that I had been living in a cave for the past decade. “I believe there is a knife in your bag.” A what!? She opened my bag and, sure enough, there it was: an antique Case penknife that had once belonged to my Dad. And, of course, I remembered exactly how it had ended up in my suitcase. A last minute decision late the night before had caused me to overlook logic, and I had tossed the knife into my bag, thinking only about what a wonderful gift it would make for my only-begotten son who would be meeting me in Jonesborough.

I apologized for my mistake and asked what I could do to make everything all better. The inspector said I had two choices: 1. throw the knife away, or 2. step out of line, go back into the terminal, mail the knife to myself, and come back through the security line again. By this time, the abundant time I’d allowed to catch my flight had been squeezed to a narrow margin. If I had to do the security process all over again, I would most certainly miss the plane. But, my heart was breaking at the thought of throwing my Dad’s knife away. It was one of his few personal possessions I had kept after his death in 1987. I looked at the agent, tears starting to trickle down my face. Taking a deep breath and a big chance, I said to her: “I know how hard you are working, and I appreciate it. You look tired. If you can take a short break right now, I would like to tell you a 5-minute story. Please?”

The agent gave me a quizzical look, and then a slight smile crossed her face. She spoke to me in a quiet voice: “I can’t take a break right now, but tell me the story and I’ll listen.” While she continued to search through my bag, I told her the story of my Dad’s knife — how he had rescued it, kept it in a cigar box for years, and then passed it on to me when he learned that he had inoperable cancer. I explained that I would be telling a longer version of that story at a big festival in Tennessee over the weekend, and that I had planned to surprise my son by giving him the knife, a small memory of his Grandpa, when I stepped off the stage. My hope was that my Dad’s knife would be passed down for many generations, as would the memory of Daddy’s life on this good Earth.

It was a quick telling, lacking all its glorious details, but HALLELUJAH, the power of story prevailed! The kind security agent said to me, “Oh, hon, you can’t lose your Daddy’s precious knife. Give me your address and I’ll personally mail it to you. Now, quick, let’s get this bag closed up so you can run for your plane! I’ll send a message to the gate that you’re on your way.”

No, I didn’t get to surprise my son with his grandpa’s heirloom knife in Jonesborough, Tennessee. But yes, the following week that old Case penknife arrived in my home mailbox and I thanked my lucky stars that we humans are, indeed, addicted to stories.