Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Sixth Day!

The sixth day of Kwanzaa is Kuumba! (Kuh-oom-bah)

Today is all about creativity!!!!

Leave the world a more beautiful place than when you found it with art, music, dance and stories!!!!

Tonight is the feast of Karamu!

It is the evening we eat foods that are traditional to the African American experience. Make some black eyed peas or benne cakes!

It is also my anniversary! Thank you, honey for 20 years of wedded weddedness!

It is also my parent's anniversary. They have been married for 51 years!

go and make the world more beautiful!

Happy Kwanzaa!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


I have been remiss in my Kwanzaa posts here! So, let this one stand for the rest of the season!!!

December 26th Umoja (oo-Mow-juh) Unity

We must work together

December 27th Kujichagulia  (coo-gee-cha-goo-lee-a) Self Determination

We must stand up for ourselves and not let others tell us who we are

December 28th Ujima (oo-Gee-muh) Collective Work and Responsibility

We must work with those in the community to make it a better place

December 29th Ujamaa (oo-Jah-Muh) Cooperative Economics

African Americans should strive to open and maintain businesses
(Shop at your local independent stores to support a healthy community!)

December 30th Nia (Nee-uh) Purpose

We must live our lives with purpose. This gives us hope and our community a way forward

Tomorrow is my favorite day of Kwanzaa!

I'll Post something fun for that!

Happy Kwanzaa!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Second Day of Kwanzaa

Today is the second day of Kwanzaa!
Traditionally, we greet people with the phrase, 'Habari Ghani!'
In Swahili it means, 'What's the news?'
You respond with the Nguzo Saba or Kwanzaa principle of the day.
Today's Nguzo Saba is Kujichagulia (coo-gee-cha-goo-lee-a)
It means Self Determination!

We define ourselves, love ourselves, take care of ourselves, decide who we are for ourselves, accept ourselves, believe in ourselves, trust ourselves, and we don't let anyone else decide who we are, or limit us because of the color of our skin, our abilities or background.

You are an original, don't ever forget it!
Happy Kwanzaa!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Let Somebody Know You Care In The Season Of Love and Light.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stories, Ethics, and Students: Happy Holidays Everyone!

Jessica Clark Makes Pine Art 

Last week I was invited to a school to perform. They'd requested Native American stories. I explained to the PTA rep that I was 1/32 Cherokee from my dad's side, but that hardly qualified me to tell stories from Native American traditions. I tell a handful of stories from these traditions, but only because I have been given permission. The PTA rep was cool with that, and said it didn't matter. That was back in September.

When I got to the school, it occurred to me that the teachers might not have been given this information. 

I asked the person helping me set up the space if she had gotten the message about Native stories, and, surprise, she hadn't. I asked why they asked me to come and tell these stories. She said that they study the Lumbee people in fourth grade. I really don't have permission to tell any of the Lumbee stories. 

The parent told me that they just wanted someone to tell the stories well. 

Flattering, but not useful when it comes to content.

When the fourth graders got into the room, I informed them of the problem of just telling any stories you like when the tales are part of a living tradition. Both the students and the teachers were fascinated by this idea.

The teachers had no idea that the stories were still alive and living in the traditions. They also did not know that it was not okay for storytellers to appropriate any material they liked.

I got some interesting questions.

Student: Will the police come and arrest you if you tell one of the Native American stories you aren't supposed to?

Me: No. There are no storytelling police, but that doesn't make any difference. It is unethical for me to tell you these stories without permission. It is wrong for me to take these stories out of the cultural context and share them with you.  Even if nobody knows I did it except you, that doesn't make it right. I think our character is based not on what we do when everybody is watching, but how we behave when nobody knows what we are up to.

This occasioned a discussion about the things the kids were doing in their lives because they knew it was important. They were very proud to show that they understood the importance of doing the right thing even when nobody was looking. It was fascinating. 

One kid, however, wasn't buying any of this.

Student: I don't understand. Why can't you tell these stories? Why is it wrong?

Me: Imagine that you had a story about your grandmother. It was a story that you told amongst your family members, and you all knew and loved that story. Then, pretend someone overheard that story, and they started telling it. They told it as if it happened to their own grandmother, or they made fun of your grandmother because they didn't understand your family or how it worked. How would you feel about that? 

Student: (She looked wounded, as if I'd actually just done what I described) I would feel bad about that. I wouldn't like it.

We spoke more about cultural appropriation, and how in the past people had taken the stories of native peoples from all over the world and used them against the people who'd created them. Then, I offered up the few stories I do have permission to tell with the context of why I tell them. The students had a great time.

I ended with The Strawberry Story. I use the Cherokee tale. I told the kids it was a wedding story. In other words, I tell it at weddings.

When I was finished, one boy was very confused. He raised his hand.

Me: Yes?

Student: You said it was a wedding story.

Me: It is.

Student: But there was no cake! How could it be a wedding story if there was no cake?
A Western-Centric article about wedding cake

Me: When we started, you all told me things you remembered about studying the Lumbee people. You told me about their marriage practices. Was there cake there?

Different students: No (Others reflected on that, and some actually retold the process of getting married in a jumble)

Me: Customs and traditions have to start somewhere. They all have a beginning. Weddings haven't always been celebrated with cake. In fact, here is some homework...find out when cake started being used in wedding ceremonies.

Student: Homework? (He was outraged) But its Friday!  (Everyone started laughing)

Me: Christmas is coming up soon. There are lots of traditions we do at Christmas. They had to start somewhere as well.
A Possible History of the Christmas Tree

Student: There is no such thing as Santa Claus

Me: (Ignoring the student) If you want to find out why people do a thing, you can do the research, and usually, you can get a good idea where it originated.

Some Santa history

Student: I said there is no such thing...

Teacher: That's enough. 

I changed the subject.

It is always amazing to me how many subjects we can discuss, probe, and understand when we put them in the context of the stories we tell, love and honor.

My first thought when I approached that fourth grade class was to explain to them that Native stories are sacred, but I'm glad I didn't do that. Not because they are not sacred, but because that doesn't mean anything to a fourth grader.  They don't understand the word sacred, but they totally get what sacred is.

They get that the things they hold dear are important. They get that you don't make fun of some things. They get that you hold some things special in your heart. They get that if you cross certain lines, it can really make another person upset. At times, they get this better than grown up people.

This is the Season of Light, when we are supposed to shine our best selves in the world to combat the darkness. This is the season of miracles. The season when the sun, which has been drifting further and further away from us in the night sky, returns to warm us anew.

Days like last Friday, when I get a chance to share the joy and the responsibility of caring for our past and our present so that we can go into a better future, make me glad that I've chosen to be one of the keepers of story.

So, to everyone who stops by this space I wish you a happy holidays. Shine the light as brightly as you can.

I'll be back in this space again at the turn of the year.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Happy Hanukah
Merry Christmas
Happy Kwanzaa
Joyous Solstice

Happy Merry Joyous to one and all!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

S.T.E.A.M - Butterflies and Chocolate

Grandma Esther
One summer when I was eleven or twelve years old, my family traveled to Beaumont, TX to visit my maternal grandmother. As a point of reference here I'd like to point out that this is the same grandmother who told me that if I slept with my mouth open a witch would come into my room, put a bridle in my mouth, and ride me around in the air like a horse. Keep that in mind as you read through this little tale I'm about to share.

And before you ask, yes, many of the people in my family would qualify as 'characters'.

That summer my sister was five or six, and one afternoon, to entertain her, I spent about an hour telling her Greek Myths.


Grandma Esther was busily preparing dinner. She listened to the whole thing. My sister left the kitchen after the telling was done, and my grandmother turned from the gumbo pot and faced me with a look of heavy disapproval.

Grandma: You know what you told her isn't the truth, right?

12 year old me: What do you mean?

Grandma: Those are just stories.

12 year old me (confused): It is Greek Mythology, grandma.

Grandma: She (meaning my sister Duyen) knows that those aren't real stories, right?

Gratuitous Picture of My Gorgeous Sister

12 year old me (feeling cheeky and pre-teeny): They are real stories, grandma, that doesn't mean they actually happened, though.

Grandma (loves me, but not having it): They aren't true!

12 year old me (still confused): Of course not. They are just stories. All stories like that are just myths.

That was the day I learned that there were grown-up people in the world who believed in the literal truth of the story from Genesis about the talking snake and the woman who ate an apple and discovered she was naked.

Up until that moment I just assumed that people learned that story wasn't true about the time they threw out the Easter Bunny, Santa and leprechauns. I assumed you just got to a certain point in life, discovered that the magic of your childhood was for your childhood, and you grew up and got over it.

These are not real

I didn't even think the priests actually believed in Noah's flood. I thought the whole thing was happening on some kind of symbolic level.

Mostly, however, as I spoke to my fiery grandmother who started preaching at me after about five minutes of discussion, I was appalled at her utter lack of anything that resembled an understanding of basic science or logic as she went through the books of the Bible and informed me they were all one hundred percent accurate. Anything else I'd ever been told was flat wrong.

This is one of my favorite stories!
When I attempted to point out that snakes are physically unable to actually speak, she called me a blasphemer. I had no idea what that was, but it didn't sound good.

My grandmother is no longer with me, and I still think about that afternoon, but instead of my very shocked pre-teen sensibilities, I always remember it with fondness.

Why, you might ask, am I brining this up in this post?

Well, this week I am telling in some Mesa schools in Arizona. I am doing sets that are not typical for me. I have k - 3 and 4 - 6.

Since the age groupings aren't really composed well for age appropriate material, I tend to do lots of naturalistic beast fables. These tales have lots of things to offer for such diverse groups. The information can skew older while the characters can skew younger. The introductions and framing are for the older kids, the structure and characters can keep the younger kids.

One of my favorites to tell to either of these groups is La Mariposa, which I learned from Carrie Sue Ayvar. There are a number of variants of this tale in South and Central America. Carmen Deedy has a book called Martina The Beautiful Cockroach which is another play on this theme from Cuba.

The version I tell explains why the Monarch Butterfly is orange and black; why it is poisonous; and why it has the longest migratory pattern of any butterfly in the world.

The whole tale deals with a butterfly being courted by a dog, a cat, and ultimately by a mouse.

It is not reasonable to think that this is a true story, and yet, there are always a few children who ask if it is. An image of my grandmother always flashes through my head when I get this question. I can't help it.

I always tell children that it is definitely a story, but there is no chance it actually happened.

These entertaining stories can teach children basic behaviors of animals. Possum is able to survive being bitten by snakes, frogs start out as tadpoles and gradually lose their tails, spiders liquify their meals before drinking them, giraffes eat the leaves of the Acacia, and other such tidbits about the natural world.

I think that is one reason I like them. What I discovered was that my assumption that the audience already knew these basic facts was mistaken. Just because I know something is an actual behavior of an animal that the story is exploiting doesn't mean the entire audience realizes this.

I wish I had been old enough that day at my grandmother's table to tell her that just because I don't think a story is 'true' doesn't mean they don't hold some 'truth' for me. Alas, that line will go unsaid between us. The children who ask me if stories are true, make me think about this fact. There are elements of the beast fable that are actually true. Why not celebrate that?

Two years ago I began making a point of commenting on the bits in these fanciful tales that are actually scientifically accurate.

So far this week I've told La Mariposa almost every day. At one point in the story, the butterfly is annoyed with her suitors, and demands that they spice up their proposals with some romance. She suggests flowers and chocolate.

Neither the dog nor the cat have flowers or chocolate. Today, for no reason than it occurred to me, the dog tells the butterfly that he doesn't tend to carry chocolate around because it is poisonous to dogs.


 To my great joy, some of the adults in the audience nodded with a smile on their faces because they already knew this, and a large number of the kids looked surprised.

When the butterfly demands the cat give her chocolate, I repeated the same phrase because chocolate is poisonous to cats as well.


This time, most of the adults opened their eyes wide in surprise. It was interesting. I think the line stays in the tale.

The longer I tell, the more I learn about what I do, and what stories can do.

I often think back to that afternoon in my grandmother's kitchen when I learned a thing or two about the world. I got a fully illustrated definition of the words 'fire and brimstone' that day. The world got bigger as I sat at that table, and every day I encounter new stories, ideas, and thoughts it continues to grow.

I don't think I will ever cease to be amazed.

Stories have been teaching me things for a long time.

Oh, and just in case you aren't sure...



Happy Learning!