Thursday, December 27, 2018

Kwanzaa! it is once again time to celebrate!

A guide to new celebrants!

Yes, it is once again Kwanzaa time!  Time to eat benne cakes, roll out the Mkeka, set up the Kinara, light the Mishuma Saba, pass around the Kikombe Cha Umoja,and reflect on the Nguzo Saba!

Before we begin...

Kwanzaa is not a Christmas substitute for African Americans...Kwanzaa doesn't have anything to do with Christmas at all.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday.  Kwanzaa is not about religion!

If that is what Kwanzaa is not, then what is it?  Well, it is easy enough to explain.  Kwanzaa is the African American Festival that occurs at the end of the year.  It was originally created by Dr. Mulana Karenga in the late 1960's.
A picture book about the spirit of Kwanzaa!

Why have an African American inspired celebration?

African Americans have been an integral part of the history of America since the beginning.  Despite that, there are no national celebrations that recognize the contributions of African Americans to our country.  There have been and still are African American inventors, soldiers, entrepreneurs, cowboys, farmers, firemen, and America even has a black president.   In the '60's and all through my childhood, as a matter of fact, there was no acknowledgement that African Americans had much impact on the country at all before Martin Luther King was born!  Kwanzaa has two main components that encourage celebrants to consider their place in the world as well as reflect on the contributions of African Americans.  The first is the Nguzo Saba, and the second are reflective readings.

Kwanzaa is a truly American celebration.  it is based on First Fruits celebrations in different parts of Africa, but it is not like any of them.

So, That's as much history as I'm giving!  Now, on to the steps!

First you need a mat of some sort of natural fibers.

MKeka (M-ke'-kah) - this mat is the foundation of your Kwanzaa display and it is the foundation that we use to build our lives.  It represents the African American culture and traditions.

Mishuma Saba (Mish-oo'-ma So'-bah) - The candles.  Three green, three red, and one black.  These are the colors of the African American Flag.  The red is for the blood we all share no matter where our ancestors were born, the green is for the hope of new life and a better world, and the black is for the color of the African American ancestral heritage.

Kinara (kin-are'-ah) - The candle holder.  The proper way to set up the Kinara is to put three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right and the black candle in the middle.  You light the black one first.  On the second day you light the red one.  On the third day you light a green one.  You continue to alternate between red and green for the remainder of the festival.

Muhindi (moo-hin'-dee) - These are ears of corn, there should be one for each child in the home.  The corn should be dried.

Mazao (mu-zow') - These are fruits and vegetables added to the Mkeka that represent crops, the bounty of the earth, good things and plenty.

Kikombe Cha Umoja (ki'-cOm'-bA chah' oo'-mO-jah) - The unity cup.  We drink communally from this cup as well as pour a libation for the ancestors.  Honoring the ancestors, those who came before us is an important aspect of Kwanzaa.

Now that the Mkeka is set up it is time to get on with the celebration!

You can give Zawadi, (zu-wo'-dee), which are small presents, typically handmade, but they can also be things like books, but gifts are not the main thrust of Kwanza.

We begin our Kwanzaa day with the words, Habri Gani! (Hu-bar'-ee go'-nee).  It means what's the news?  The answer is the principle or Nguzo Saba of the day.  So what are the seven principles of Kwanzaa?  Here they are.

Umoja (oo-mO-jah) - Unity.  We must stand together if we are to overcome our difficulties

Kujichagulia (coo'-gee-chah-goo-lee-ah) - Self-Determination.  We must not let anyone else decide who we are.  We must speak for ourselves and not let others speak for us.  Just because someone says you are lazy or useless or worthless does not mean it is true!

Ujima (oo-gee'-mah) - Cooperative Work and Responsibility.  We must work together to build the world of which we wish to be a part.  We must look after each other and understand that we are responsible to ourselves, our families and our communities.

Ujamaa (oo-jah'-mah) - Cooperative Economics.  We shop at stores owned and run by African Americans to make sure that we are supporting small business.  (My family has opened this out to all small businesses in our area.  Mom and pop are under attack from Big Box.  Support small businesses when you can.)

Nia (nee'-uh) - Purpose.  We must move through our lives with purpose and we must understand that our lives have purpose.  Approach your life with goals and actions that help you achieve good things.

Kuumba (k-oom-bah) - Creativity.  Leave the world a more beautiful place than when you found it.

Karamu (kAr'-um-moo) - The feast of Kwanzaa where you eat traditional African American foods, sing, dance, tell stories and celebrate!

Imani (i-mah'-nee) - Faith.  You must have faith in yourself and in the hope that we can build a better world.  (You can apply this to religious faith if you like, but my family does not)

The last part of the celebration deals with reflection.  You can do readings of African American artists, poets, teachers, and philosophers.  You can discuss how you plan to make the Nguzo Saba a reality in your life.  You can talk about what you have done in the past year to live up to the principles of Kwanzaa.  That bit is up to you.  Here are some readings to get you started.

So, get out there and see if you can find a Kwanzaa event!  Reflect on what you can do to make the world a better place.

Happy Kwanzaa!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Peaks and Valleys: The Gig Economy Can Eat You Alive

The Gig Economy can rip your heart out.

January you have so much work you don't know if you can do it all, and February you have one gig and it was a 'take it because I need something' type of show.

March and April are a wasteland, and then May turns out all right just in time to deal with the desert of June and the pittance of July.

Sometimes you go through years with lots of work before you hit a slump that lasts eleven months.

I am king of the world!!!
You could struggle for years and one day become the cat who fell into a vat of cream.

There is no predicting it

Anybody who has been part of the Gig Economy knows that sometimes you are flying so high you can't see the ground, and sometimes you are feeling so low you have to look up to see the dirt.

When you are flying, sometimes it feels like you will never land. It is all horizon.

This guy is a forensic botanist. I didn't even know that was an option!

When you are crawling low, you wonder why you didn't do the sensible thing and become a botanist. Botanists have good health plans, steady work, and their paychecks don't fluctuate wildly depending on the fundraising efforts of an enthusiastic eight-year-olds selling candy bars.

Nobody needs advice about flying high except to make sure you have a good parachute handy, because at some point you will need it.


1. Save what you can while you can.

2. Support people who need help. You are definitely going to need to ask for something at some point!

3. Pay your advice forward to people who need a hand with whatever you are mastering at the moment. It will come back to you when you need it.

4. Create community with others in the gig world, they can help you get through the slow times.

5. Make sure you are not spending your wish or if come!

Unfortunately, when you hit a valley, everybody has advice and all of it makes you feel like a failure or that you are somehow not working hard enough. What you really need is a life preserver.

Life Preserver:

1. Don't be afraid to ask for help or talk to others about what is happening. You will find that lots of artists are not only sympathetic: they will feed you.

2. Don't let the downturn stop you from improving your art! Work on that novel; read some new anthologies; paint: knit; institute a rigorous workout schedule; learn other words, accomplish something. It will make you feel better and when it is over, you will have a new skill or a new love or a smaller waistline.


4. Visit a relative who will feed you and pamper you. Pampering is good when you feel low.

5. Tap into the community of artists around you. There is gold to be mined and it might help you look at things in a different light.

6. Whatever you do, DON'T ISOLATE.  That way lies depression. Even introverts need a little reach out in these times.

Good luck on this wild trip!

Happy Telling!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Taming The Wild Personal Narrative

My Uncle Pete loved cats. he had a million of them. His favorite one had one blue eye. The other eye, whatever color it might have been, had been missing as long as I'd been alive.

"Uncle Pete," we'd ask, "tell us how that cat lost his eye!"

My uncle Pete would roll a cigarette real slow while we sat there waiting. He'd seal it with his tongue, press it hard together and then light it. He'd take a long drag, blow out that bluish smoke and settle back in this old beat up armchair on his front porch.

"Well," he'd say, "that's quite a story."

Then, he'd launch into the tale of how the cat lost its eye.
The story was always interesting.
The story was always exciting.
The story was always unbelievable.
The story was always different.

Thing is, we didn't really care how that cat lost its eye. We just loved listening to Uncle Pete tell stories.


Personal narratives. They've become the mainstay of storytelling at festivals and in the commercial storytelling market.

Five minutes of some emotionally shocking thing that happened to you. Five minutes of your pain or someone else's pain on stage. Five minutes of your life for consumption.


Then, there are longer personal narratives about all sorts of things. We hear stuff that we wouldn't ever ask about because it would be rude. We hear about stuff we wouldn't ask about because we don't want to know. We hear about things that we don't care about because it doesn't resonate.

Every now and then we hear a story that speaks to us beyond the here and now. Every now and then we hear a tale that is actually about what it means to be a human going from one moment to another.

I don't write much about personal narrative, but I just took a workshop with Bill Harley about personal narrative, and they are on my mind.

So, to that end: Here are some tips I give to people about personal narratives.

1 - Is this a "Me" story or a "We" story?

Kathryn Tucker Wyndham talked about the difference between a "me" story and a "we" story. The Me story is all about me and it is focused on me and at the end, I am the only reason it is told. The We story is about all of us. It is the story that focuses us on ourselves and invokes the power of who we are as a people to shine a light on something that is true about our condition. We stories transcend the now. Me stories are gone shortly after we hear them.

Q: What on earth was the point of that story about Uncle Pete? Why should we care?

2 - Don't tell a story that hasn't ended yet. That's therapy. You should be paying us.

Personal stories are like molten lava spewing from our soul. They need to cool, harden, and patiently wait until we see which trees, flowers, and animals start inhabiting it. Until the story is no longer living, breathing, or burning inside of us as a now concern, we don't know where it is going or what is going to happen to it.

Q: Why are you telling this particular tale about Pete? Did he die of cancer or was he from a bygone era, or possibly he is now in a nursing home or maybe...Is this story actually over or did you see him last week and hear about his cat. If you did, how are you dealing with that?

3 - Make sure you have some idea about what the story is about.

This is hard. We always think we know what our stories are about if they happen to us, but the truth is that in order to understand a story you have to be standing on the outside of it. From the inside, you can't even guess what is going on.

Bill Harley was talking about contextualizing a story and giving it meaning through your lens.

Q: Is this thing with Pete why you love a good story? Did he die of cancer? Does he have memory loss? Was he a brilliant man who nobody thought two shakes of a stick about? Is this story really about that cat? Have you got a one-eyed cat now? Do you rescue animals? What is this story about?

4 - What is your role in this story?

This is something I learned from Bill this morning.

Who are you in the tale? Frame it in terms of mythology. I've discovered that in one of my stories I'm Eris. In another, I'm as invisible as the air. What is your role in the tale?

Q: Who are you in Uncle Pete's story? A conduit? Do you have some connection to that cat? Do you save, condemn, lead, flee, fight for, or otherwise have some kind of mythic role in this tale?

5 - Be a responsible tour guide.

Personal narratives can get tricky, messy, emotionally complicated, and downright soul cutting. Don't leave your audience bleeding, in distress, or worried that you are about to jump off of a building. If you end a piece and the audience thinks they need to take care of you, that is not a story you should be telling.

Q: Where is this Pete story going? Are you going to tell us what happened to him or why the cat has one eye? Does it matter? If we have questions about Pete or this cat when the tale is over, you were not a safe tour guide!


As for the opening lines of the story above, I would love to answer your questions about Uncle Pete, but since I just made him up to illustrate the way a personal narrative might start, I can't help you.

Feel free to just flesh it out any way you'd like. After all, it isn't actually a personal narrative.

Happy Telling!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Don't Let Ridiculous Speed Overwhelm You

Bullet Trains move at ridiculous speed!
As a touring artist, most of my life moves at ridiculous speed when I am awake.

Ridiculous speed is something many people can relate to.

Got a manuscript to my agent on Wednesday. Hooray! A moment to breathe....not so fast.

Hadn't really cleaned the house for a week while I wrestled with prose. Got that done...mostly. Started packing for the weekend festival. Made necessary arrangements for a couple of other gigs coming up, thought about what I might like to write on next...Agent emailed me a manuscript and asked me if I wanted to edit it. So, the next writing project started almost immediately.

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:30am, had a quick breakfast, took a quick shower, drove an hour to a school, set up my sound system, did two shows, took the system down, drove an hour home, grabbed lunch on the way, packed the rest of my stuff, sent out an artist survey for the school I'd just visited, filed my mileage, made an appointment for my daughter at a spa for her birthday, waited in a forever long line at Costco to fill up my car, drove to Chapel Hill to pick up my husband after he dropped a car off for my daughter, then drove to Jonesborough, TN for the National Storytelling Festival.

Once we got here to TN, we had to go to the opening night banquet to get packets and hug lots of people. After the meeting where we got the low down on how the festival was going to work, The Mister and I walked back to the hotel, stopping about six times to talk to people. It took us an hour to get three blocks. Got back to the room, ended up talking to Sheila Arnold and Darci Tucker until eleven, went over my emcee duty work until midnight...sleep.

Up this morning at 6:45am to breakfast with The Mister, went over the packet for emcee duties, got my introductions laid out for today...I'll worry about the ones for tomorrow later tonight, ironed my outfit, and faced the fact that I hadn't blogged in almost a month.

Artists are the things they live, and right now I am in transition.

I won't stop being a storyteller.
I won't stop blogging.
I'm doing lots of fiction writing.
You wake up one morning and they are gone!
My touring season is ridiculous this year.

By the same token...

My kids are no longer at home.
My parents are aging and needing more care.
My husband and I are starting to work out the empty nest rest of our lives.
I'm trying to decide where I see myself in ten years.

Noticing the transition you are in when you hit it is helpful.

It can help you make decisions in a way that focuses your future. It can also help you decide what you want to keep and what you want to leave behind.

Your brain and body know more about you than the rushing life you lead. If you are exhausted, stress ill, sleepless, discontented, terrified, or worried and you don't stop and address the pell-mell, headlong rush that is ridiculous speed, it will catch up with you and force you to stop.

I learned this the hard way many years ago!

Make sure you stop ridiculous speed every now and then and breathe.
Make sure you stop ridiculous speed every now and then and reflect.
Make sure you stop ridiculous speed every now and then and choose.
Make sure you stop ridiculous speed every now and then and consider what you are actually doing as opposed to what you want to be doing.

Some of us will not be free of ridiculous speed until we decide to switch to a lower gear.
That doesn't mean you can't take a quick break.
Ridiculous speed does not stop on its own.
You have to stop it.

Happy Telling!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sometimes I Forget.....

Storytelling is work

Being a working storyteller is a pretty intense job at times.

Right now the booking season is in full swing and schools, libraries, conferences and other types of performance and workshop venues are calling for dates and shows.

In my brain this translates to the work of storytelling. There are lots of things to remember -

That means....

Putting sets together for various audiences,
Learning new stories
Crafting workshops
Crafting ghost stories
Trying to decide whether I want to apply to fringe shows

Then there are the logistics.....

Where am I going?
What parts of the country am I going to be in and when?
What are the age and make ups of the audiences?
How many plane rides?
Can I drive?
How long do I have to get from place to place?

There are also the social obligations...

Who do I get to see?
Can we get shows in Northern Va around my sister's birthday?How long can I stop at my brother's on the way to Chicago?
Will I have time to have dinner with my friends?
Do I have a day off in Arizona?
Seeing my new sisters all over the country from Florida (Hi, Carrie Sue) To Georgia. (Hi, Carmen) to California (Hi, Diane)

The Travel -

Telling for the Haves and the Homeless in America
Torrential rains
Long haul driving
Twenty hours in airports
Missed a connection
45,000 miles a year on the car
Tiny, fragile looking prop planes
Renting Cars

Let's not forget the self care....

Self Care
Lozenges -
My heating pad -
Netflix....there are days I really need Netflix!
A sleep mask -
Planet Fitness - (sigh)
Ear plugs -
Bath salts-
Comfy house shoes-
Chocolate -

Missing things because of being on the road

Watched the recording of the recital
Watched the recording of my son getting that award
Watched my nephew play that game on Facebook
Called my daughter after her dad moved her into the dorm
Happy Valentines, Birthday, Anniversary from across the country!
Wish I could have been there

Encountering people...

Queen Nur, me, Lynn Ford, Diane Ferlatte

Seeing other storytellers! That's fun.
Lunches with new storytellers.
Asking for critical feedback
Offering critical feedback
Elbows ( I touch elbows with people instead of shaking hands. Cuts down on sharing germs)
Seeing old contacts and making new contacts
Having children stare at me to see if I'm real after watching me perform

The Research -

Sometimes all we have are stories
Encountering new stories and trying to figure out where they come from so I can tell them
Reading about new language studies and seeing if they break new ground
Encountering interesting articles about brain development and the arts
Reading new story collections
Getting recommendations from people all over the country
Learning new things about history
Learning new things about my art form
Practicing new material and getting advice



Getting Paid -

Pricing a show
Who has the check?
Did I forget the check?
Are they mailing the check?
How much are they paying me?
Do I need to send an invoice? Did I know that?
Oops! They forgot the check?
Didn't we already send you a check?
You want us to pay you how much?

So, what have I forgotten?

I forget that this is an art form that transcends the business of doing it.

I've been a performer for thirty one years.

I was at a folk festival this weekend in Greensboro, NC.

It is here I encounter the thing I know about performing that I don't ever focus it touches people's lives. I love it when I get to see it in real time

I am ready for the person who says, "Wow! I never saw anything like that! That was cool!"

I am ready for the person who says, "That was a great show!"

I am ready for the person who says, "I loved that story!"

I am ready for the person who says, "My grandma used to tell that story. I felt like a kid again!"

The thing that always gets me? The thing I forget? The thing I am not prepared for when it appears?

Holding a woman's hand as she stares at me with tears on her cheeks telling me that her kids are grown and they still talk about my work. Telling me that I was an important part of their childhood and a very important part of her life. She is clearly overwhelmed with seeing me and holding my hand.

When I encounter these things I am humbled. I am joyful. I am honored.

My first thought? I wish I had something to offer her. I wish I had something to give her worthy of what she is giving me at that momnet. I wish I could feel like the person she is describing. I wish I could honor how much she loves these stories.

All I can do is thank her, hold her hand, and smile and nod. I tell her she has given me a gift, which she has, and my heart is full.

She wipes an eye and says, "I just wanted you to know."
I thank her. I hope I see her again.

She looks around, notices there are others waiting to say something. I wish I had more to give her other than my trite little thank you, and whatever else I just said. She moves away. Another child, a parent, a grandparent rushes in to say something.

I shake hands (or do elbows during flu season) and smile. Excited parents tell me their children heard my voice and started running towards it. They'd never seen them that excited about a "speaker".  They can't wait to go online and see more stories.

I smile. I say polite and pleasant things.

Storytelling, stories, the art, the joy of the art, the power of it...It is enormous. It is so much bigger than I am.

Sometimes I forget that I stand in the shadows of what is so universal and deep inside of each of us that it moves people. It dwarfs me and extends out beyond anything I can see or do.

I leave the venue and  go back to the work. I return to the business of storytelling.

Failing and trying again

I lose myself in preparing the work. I love sharing the work. I enjoy playing with an audience.

I move on to the next thing.

The story behind this picture is wonderful
Sometimes, I forget what I leave behind...
What remains after I am gone is the reason for doing this at all.

Happy Telling.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

"Reading Up" As A Literary Strategy

My son loved this book when he was three
Emergent readers are typically children, but they can also be adults, who are just beginning to learn the forms of grammar and written syntax found in literature.

To Read Up in this context means to have someone read something to you that you do not have the ability to read to yourself.

Babies learn how language is put together by listening to the people around them use it. Emergent readers pick up on vocabulary, grammar, structure, and style by listening to people read to them.

The best time to start this process is right after birth! Babies easily learn the difference between speaking and reading.

Parents often tell stories about watching their preverbal child pick up a book or other paper and pretend to be reading it. If you listen, you can tell that their voice patterns when they are "reading" are different from when they are "speaking".

Reading Up also allows you to model the kinds of behaviors to emergent readers that successful readers do.

Stopping to consider the text
Working out difficult language
Rereading a section if you are not sure what it says
Not continuing if you need more context
Looking up unfamiliar words if you don't know what they mean

My kids found this intriguing
As emergent readers get older, selecting books that are out of their reading range continues to be important.

As a family, we read aloud at the dinner table, on car trips, around the fireplace, and when we had some time together.

We read Ender's Game, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Artemis Fowl, The Howliday Inn, 13 Clocks, A Wrinkle In Time, The Most Timid In The Land, Shel Silverstein's poetry, and many others.

Then, somewhere in the last couple of years of high school, the tables turned, and the kids started reading aloud to us. They had books we hadn't encountered and they wanted to share them.

These books came from genres we didn't tend to read. There were phrases we hadn't heard, turns of slang we didn't know, and usages of language that were unfamiliar to us. They really enjoyed teaching us what was what.

Reading Up is not about plowing through the text. It is about soaking in the language.

So, here are some ideas about Reading UP.

1. Stop every now and then and ask for predictions.

ex. Wow. What do you think is going to happen to Ramona?

ex. Do you think Bunnicula is really a vampire bunny?

2. Stop and reflect on language that you like or don't like.

ex. I love that word! Collapsable. I like the way it rolls out of the mouth. Do you have any words that you like to say?

3. Stop and reflect on how the text might make you feel. What associations do you have with the text?

ex. Okay, that was exciting. I loved the way the author surprised us! I always think about visiting my grandmother in Texas when I read that part.

4. Encourage the listener to stop you if they don't understand a word, by stopping when you get to a word that you struggled with, or that you still have to think about for a second, or that you find interesting because of definition.

ex. So, a Lepidopterist is someone who collects butterflies? Cool.

5. Reading Up should always be an active experience. Use that time to help the emergent reader interact with the text in as many ways as you can!

6. Encourage the emergent reader to read aloud to you when she/he finds something they like.

7. Make reading aloud a part of everyday or as often as you can manage it. This process can be a great bonding experience.

8. Don't get discouraged if the book you've selected isn't interesting to your audience. You can always stop and start a different one.

9. Ask the reader if there is a subject they want to hear more about.

10. Read things you enjoy! Reading aloud shouldn't be a chore.

And it shouldn't be something you only do with small children.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Li Chi Slays The Serpent


This story has been sitting in my body for days. It wants to be shared.

Long ago, in China, there was a fearsome serpent who lived in the Yung Mountains.

His head was as big as a large rice barrel and his body was fearsomely long. When the magistrates tried to travel over the mountain for business, they ran the risk of being eaten.

To assuage the serpent, the people of the region sacrificed ox and goats to the horrid monster, but it was not enough. It kept picking off the men in charge of the district.

Then, one night, the serpent appeared in the dreams of the people of the region. The serpent announced that it would leave off eating the men if, once a year, they sent up a girl child of about twelve or thirteen. If they sent him this sacrifice, he would leave them all in peace.


The magistrates thought this was a fair trade for their lives. Besides, what else could they do? They were scared.

They chose girls whose fathers were criminals or girls who were bondmaids (slaves). These girls were the least amongst others, and so were thought expendable.

The children were taken from their mothers and fathers, or from the only homes they had known, and imprisoned until the appointed day. Soldiers marched them into the Yung Mountains and left them at the mouth of the cave. The serpent would appear, and swallow them whole.

This ghastly sacrifice continued for nine years.

In one of the provinces lived a poor man named Li Tan. He had the misfortune of having seven girls. His youngest daughter was named Chi.

When the magistrates began the search for the tenth victim, Li Chi went to her father.

"Father," she said, "I am going to volunteer myself for the serpent."

"What?" Li Tan couldn't believe it. "Why would you even say such a thing? I am not a criminal! You are not a slave girl. You are perfectly safe from this fate."

"Father," she said, "You have seven daughters. You might as well be childless. None of us will be able to care for you in your old age. If I volunteer, the magistrate will give you money. It will not be much, but it will be better than you spending money to feed and house me for years before I leave and give all of my labors over to a husband and his family."

Her parents were proud of her sentiment, but they refused.

Li Chi went to her grandmother. "I have told my parents I mean to go to the serpent. They need the money. Since they will not allow it, I will go in secret."

Her grandmother nodded. She understood Li Chi's feelings.

"All I ask," said her grandmother, "is that you come and see me before you go."

Li Chi went to the magistrate and told them she would offer herself to the serpent, and they promised to send the money to her family after she was gone.

The night before she left, Li Chi went to see her grandmother. The old woman gave her sweet sticky rice balls to eat, a basket to carry them, and an old sword.

"This was your great grandfather's sword," said her grandmother. "I have kept it hidden. If things got bad enough, I meant to sell it, but I think you need it more than we do."

The edges were still keen and sharp. Li Chi thanked her grandmother and went down the road in the darkness.

She climbed most of that day, and arrived at the serpent's cave before the sun went down. She took out her great grandfather's sword and sharpened ten stakes. She pounded them into the ground near the serpent's cave. Next, she put six of her grandmother's rice balls between the stakes. Lastly, she climbed up onto some rocks above the cave and waited.

As the sun set, the wind changed direction and blew into the cave. Li Chi knew the serpent was going to be huge, but she was shocked by the immensity of it.

The serpent's tongue flicked out sampling the air. It licked up the first of the rice balls, moving into the maze of stakes. It licked up the second and third. She waited until it took the last one. Its giant head was now over all ten of the stakes.

Li Chi leaped off of the rocks and with all her strength, plunged the sword through the snake's head. The snake reared up, and she was thrown clear. When it brought its head down the spikes speared it. In agony, the serpent thrashed and rolled, driving the sword and spikes ever deeper until it pulled its enormous body clear of the cave, rolled into a field, and lay dead.

Inside the cave, Li Chi found the skulls of the nine maidens who had gone before her. She gathered them up with great sadness.

"It is ashamed you had to die because of fear." She retrieved her sword and headed home.

The tale of Li Chi's bravery spread across the land. The Emperor himself came to hear of it. In time, he asked Li Chi to marry him, for what emperor would not be graced to sit beside such an incredible woman.

Li Tan, her father was given a position in the royal court, and all of his daughters married men of means.







In the face of injustice by those in power, these are all we have.

Yours in Story -

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Justice: Fairy Tale Style

Over the course of my storytelling life, I have marveled at how kids react to villains.

Depending on what that character is doing, kids turn on a dime. They will love that character right up until the moment he betrays them, and then that character is dead to them.

They don't care what happens to the villain as long as he/she gets their comeuppance and they are happy to punish the character in whatever horrible way the story decides.

Rumpelstiltskin is a great example of this.

actor Robert Carlyle as Rumpel in Once Upon A Time
He shows up at Anna's great need, and spins the straw to gold. The first two times he takes baubles from her. The kids find the little elf man funny. Whenever he is about to appear I make a specific sound and hand movement.

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! (My hands open and close as I move them in a circle. This happens every time the little man is set to appear. By his third appearance, they have this down to a science and they take over doing it in the story. I become the audience for them.)

He has a funny voice and gestures, and moves in a quirky manner. He sings a little song as he spins, and they start doing it with me by the the second time through. They adore him.

Then he crosses that line from savior to sinner. He asks for her baby in return for his services. 

The children gasp in disbelief and shock. They can't imagine he's serious. They beg Anna not to agree. She speaks to herself, but really to the sea of shocked children,

"What if the king is lying? Maybe he won't marry me. Even if he does marry me, maybe I won't have a child. Some people don't have children. The future could be anything, but right now? Right now I'm in trouble."

So, she agrees to give up her child. The children are upset. They still spin gold with the little man, but the tide has turned. They are no longer looking forward to seeing him.

The next series of events unfolds until the queen has a baby. Usually one or two children whisper, "Oh no." under their breath. 

I continue, "Then, one morning, she heard a sound she hadn't heard in almost two years. What sound was that?"

The children make the sound, but they are not enthusiastic about it.

When he shows up to collect the baby, they are now pulling for Anna to get the right name. Some kids, the ones who know the story, can barely hold themselves together. Most of them don't remember the name. Those who do are trying to reassure their classmates sitting around them that it is going to be all right.

The first two days she does not guess correctly. 

Then, the maid arrives with the little song that breaks the whole story open.

"My lady, I saw a strange little man. He was dancing around a fire and singing this little song."

Today, I brew
Tomorrow I bake
On the third day
The queen's baby I'll take!
The queen must guess
This game she can't win

At the end of this little song, the audience lets out a collective breath and the kids get really excited.

The queen says, "Thank you." 

I give the audience a knowing look and say, "A few hours later, you know what she heard."

Now, up to this point in the story, whenever the children made the dinging sound and the hand movements, they mirror the way I did it with exactly the same gestures. Some of them actually stop making the sound after he asks for the baby. They want no part of bringing the little horror back into the story.

 This last time, however, when they know Rumpelstiltskin is about to get his comeuppance, they all lose their collective minds.

The exuberance with which they start making that sound, and the forcefulness of their hand motions is amazing. It always startles the educators and adults in the room. At least, it startles the ones who aren't participating. The grown ups who are participating are just as excited as the kids.

That horrible little man who they loved so well at the beginning of the story is about to get his little green clad butt kicked, and they cannot wait to see it.

Personally, I always felt sorry for Rumpel. I mean, he was helping Anna out. True, he did get greedy at the end, but if her father hadn't told that horrendous lie to begin with, she wouldn't have been in that situation in the first place.

I always thought he got a bum rap.

The kids in my audiences don't have this problem. 

I wonder if I would have had their experience if I'd had a storyteller tell me the tale as opposed to hearing it on a record. I wonder if I would have felt the same if I'd had that little man in my body and voice as he betrayed the helpless girl who was at the mercy of an exaggerating father and greedy soon to be husband.

I'll never know. My audiences, however, are not the least bit confused about why he should get punished.

The last half of this year I was telling social justice tales in schools. These are stories about people with power taking advantage of people who had no sure way to face them.

The children had no trouble identifying when the person in power was doing something wrong. In fact, they would yell at him/her. 

When one character decided he didn't want poor or ugly people around him, I heard about it vociferously from my audience. When one character stole from another, I heard about it. The kids had no patience for injustice. They were quick to call it out and let me know it was no bueno!

My favorite moment was when the West Wind stole cornmeal from Willa and offered her a ratty old tablecloth as a a fair trade when he could not return it.

I said, "Willa looked up at the North Wind, then she looked at that ratty tablecloth and said..."

Before I could get the next line out of my mouth, a third grader sitting a couple of rows back shook his head and said, "Bro!"

The kids around him nodded. That was the only possible reply one could give to somebody taking something valuable and then offering you a big rag as compensation.

I replied, "Pretty much," and went on with the tale.

I was quite proud of our children all across the country. 

I hope, as they get older, they keep their ability to recognize injustice, cruelty, liars, hatred, and intolerance. I hope they call it out when they encounter it. I hope they feel the same outrage in the world around them if they witness the abuse of power, and I hope they choose to stand against it in times to come.

Happy Telling - 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jet Lag

Getting ready to fly to Rotorua, New Zealand.

Staying up way too late tonight.

Ah, Jet Lag!

Looking forward to the trip. Telling. Teaching. Sight-Seeing.


Happy Travels!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Nightmare Gigs: A Story From The Trenches

There are few things worse than blundering into a performance situation that is annoying or horrible.

We all have types of shows we won't do. For every performer who runs screaming, another would do the venue at the drop of a hat.

Some people like birthday parties.
Some people like small classrooms.
Some people like outdoor venues.
Some people like farmer's markets.
Some people like animal farms.
Some people like street fairs.
Some people like fairs of any kind.

Either way, if you agree to the terms, you show up and do the job.

Over the years, The David and I have gotten very good at asking the right questions to make sure that I am not walking into a situation that will prove aggravating at best, or downright infuriating at worst.

He tries to avoid situations where I am not graceful. There are situations in which I am really not graceful.

Twenty years ago I was asked to tell at a festival for a school.  It was called 'Viking Days' or something like that.  

They didn't offer much money, but I was new to the area, knew a family who sent their kid to the school, and thought it would be helping them out of a tight space.

The school was a deep-pocketed academy, and I think I had it in my mind that this exposure might turn into a good gig down the line.  

I arrived to find a 'story room' on the other side of the building, away from the festivities. They'd hired me to tell for an hour and a half straight to whoever just popped into the room. 

I was annoyed. 

 I realized a couple of things at that point.

1)  This was not a great venue for a performer

2)  I needed to voice to someone that if they wanted a story room like this they should just get parents or older kids to read in there and not bother to get a professional storyteller.

They didn't even need anything particular.

A quiet room with a storytelling recording or even soft music playing would have been fine.

This was a time-out room from the 'fun'.

If your kid was on the verge of losing it after partying, this was the place to take them.

A live person dealing with the sporadic, often toddler aged, mostly unaccompanied random children, who popped into the room over the course of the hour and a half full of sugar, with swords, hats, tummy aches, adrenaline, and meltdowns from being way overstimulated was crazy. 

I am usually pretty even-keeled but as my time in that tiny room stretched towards infinity, I became extremely annoyed.

I compounded my first mistake of taking a gig without getting the details with my second mistake because I can be a stubborn, grumpy, whiny thing when I get really annoyed. 

I talked to an organizer at the event instead of going home, thinking through my response and sending an evaluation of the experience.

The next year, I got an unintended note. One of the organizers had sent an email to the committee, and I was accidentally cc'd on it. 

She's good, but she is high maintenance.  She was upset about something last year, but I don't remember what it was.  You can contact her and see if she'd do it again.

I had two choices.  

Either I could let them know I had been cc'd by mistake, or I could just listen in to the rest of the conversation.

I chose the first. 

I sent out an email to the entire committee. I let them know what my concerns were, gave them suggestions for better activities in that room, and told them that the fee I accepted the year before was very reduced and wasn't a reflection of what a professional performer usually needed. I apologized if I'd been disruptive the year before, informed them that I didn't want to do the event again, and wished them luck in finding an appropriate experience for that room.

I have no idea what the upshot was.

It doesn't matter, the point is, I made a poor showing of myself with them.

So, here are some quick, but obvious tips...

1. Make sure you know the venue, what you are expected to do, and who is the expected audience to the best of the organizer's ability.

2. Make sure you get a contract.

3. If you have suggestions or concerns about the venue once you arrive, do the show as long as it is both safe and possible, but wait until afterward to give them an evaluation if you feel they could better meet the needs of a performer and audience in the space.

4. Sometimes people hiring you know exactly what you do and how to fit it into their programs and sometimes they don't. Don't assume. Discuss.

Good Luck Out There.

Happy Telling!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

What Does It Mean To Be A Successful Storyteller?

Storytellers tend to feel it when we hit it out of the park. When we leave a stage or a classroom after having been incredibly successful, we can feel it all through our body. There is the energy, the excitement, the lavish praise, the joyful expressions and the contentment 

Alas, not all events are that successful.

Sometimes we leave and we feel like we did a good job, but something was missing. Maybe things didn't land the way we hoped they would. Maybe we feel like it was good, but didn't rise to great.

Sometimes we leave and it seems we did an adequate job, but there was nothing that made the experience stand out.

Then, there are those shows where we feel like a train hit us on the way out the door. What happened? Why didn't the story or stories connect? What went wrong?

When I was at Northwestern, Jay O'Callahan came to visit. He is a remarkable man who danced and told his way through one of my all-time favorite original tales called The Herring Shed. When he was finished, I was exhausted and in love with the images dancing in my head. It was obviously magic. 

My first set watching Jackie Torrence perform Brer Rabbit tales was beyond amazing and I sat there watching Brer Snake tempt that possum while laughing my fool head off and drinking in the sound of her voice. I never could have imagined anything so breathtaking as being part of an audience with her at the helm. I could actually feel the magic. 


I wanted to hit the stage someday and be that magic or as close to it as I could get. I wanted my audience to be that spellbound and joyful when they left me. For a long time, I worked to achieve that. Only, in my eyes, when I became a magic person, would I be a successful storyteller.

Unfortunately, there are no manuals about how to create actual magic. There are no books that explain how to actually turn dross into gold or any other useful thing. I suspect that it is this underlying quest for the keys to magic that has forced me to spend so much of my adult life researching storytelling and the human brain.

Many years have passed since those early days of youth and ignorance, and I've seen many storytellers and told many tales. I've worked to refine and challenge myself as I learn and work with audiences. 

I've had magic moments and moments I hope to never relive. 

In the end, I've figured out what success really means to me.


Success for me means I look at each audience and give them what I have. I also strive to meet them where they are. I hope they have a good time. I hope they get something fun out of it. I hope I learn something about humans or literature or nature or how people think or how to time something in a story. I hope I get just an ounce better each year. If you are not growing, then you are either atrophying or dying. Learning is the only thing that makes us better.

Sometimes I miss the mark entirely and the stories don't sing. I dissect the choices I made and debate what I might have done differently. If I learn something that helps me in the future, I succeeded.

Sometimes I partially miss the mark, and the stories limp through. I look through the stories to see what worked, what didn't and what I could or didn't do to help. Sometimes the problem is I stand in the way of the story. If I work out some bit of business or figure out a way to make something transition more smoothly, I succeeded.

Sometimes I do a credible job of giving what I've got and we all have a good time, but not a transformational moment in any way shape or form. I look through those shows and see what can be learned from the interactions with the audience and the amount of animation or energy I threw off during the set. If I can find anything at all to work on, I succeeded.

Of course, every now and then, I manage the thing I always strive to do. Every now and then, I am able to apply all of those things, those hopes, those techniques I spent my life practicing, the audience is hungry for the stories, the situation is perfect and I float into that sweet spot and we make magic.

The magic happens, but I was wrong about where it occurs. I thought it came off the storyteller, but the truth is, it comes through the storyteller. We are brilliant when we are conduits. 

Jay O'Callahan is a magic person to me. Jackie Torrence's magic changed my life and instructs me as a storyteller even unto this day. 

As for me, I feel like I've got a handful of magic beans and every now and then, I manage to plant one. 

There are many ways to measure success as a storyteller. I have learned to settle for learning, striving, trying and never getting knocked down for good even when I am discouraged. 

I make my living as a storyteller. 

In that, I am succeeding.

“If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you're a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
Come in!
Come in!”

― Shel Silverstein

Happy Telling.