Monday, July 25, 2011

The first time I learned that I was a storyteller

When my oldest son was in grade 2, I talked my way into his classroom. In kindergarten and grade 1, I had been welcome to help prepare crafts, but generally it was clear that a) I would need a babysitter for my younger son and b) parent volunteers were supposed to help with the practical stuff by cutting and pasting and supervising. Somehow, when Cary was in grade 2, I made contact with his teacher and found a welcome.

Both my boys were born in October, and Cary was born on the 30th, so Halloween was an important celebration at our house. I don't much like most of Halloween themes and I dislike anything gory. Also, my boys were being carefully raised to avoid violence and horror. So Halloween would have been a challenge if I hadn't been a student of Irish fairy and folklore. One of the earlier forms of Halloween was Samhain (pronounced Sow ween), a night when the borders between the worlds of the living, the dead and the fairy became thin enough to cross easily.

All the really good stories I knew for Halloween came from Ireland and they were all written about 1900. They were exactly the right mix of scary and intriguing and funny for 7 year olds. They just couldn't be read in the dialect in which they were written. So in order to share the stories, I learned them and then I told them.

I didn't know anything about modern day storytelling schools or guilds or festivals. I just knew I had stories to share and reading wouldn't work. So I walked into a room of grade 2 students, and stood at the front and said, "Let me tell you a story. . ." and magic happened.

As much as my kids loved books, all kids loved stories that were told from the heart, stories where there was no book between the teller and the listeners. We all jumped into the stories together, and met the pucas (pookas) and leprechauns and Sidhe (pronounced she). We all laughed at the incomprehensible spelling of words that could never be sounded out. We all dreamed and sighed and at the end, just for a moment, were silent.

That was the first day in about seven years of telling stories at schools and festivals and guilds. At one time, I knew about 200 stories that I could read through just one more time and then tell to groups from a handful to an auditorium full.

The first time I learned I was a storyteller, I had stories to share and a roomful of children willing to hear me say "Let me tell you a story. . ."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Decorating Cakes

One of my early memories is of entering a cake decorating contest. I was probably nine years old and we were living in Richmond B.C. I have no actual recollection of how I decorated my entry: I just remember how betrayed I felt when I realized that many of the elaborate entries were probably not decorated by the children who entered them.

Five years later, my little sister was born and I became her personal cake decorator. My method was to paint a picture with icing, so that she had a unicorn or a Holly Hobbie doll or whatever she wanted that year on her cake. There was no contest; just a celebration when my work was briefly displayed, and then consumed.

When my own kids were little, I decorated lots of cakes, but I remember almost none of them. This may be a function of being so sleep deprived that the memories didn't stick, or it may be that the parties I threw for them were so elaborate that the cake was just one element among many. For instance, I don't remember the cake that went with the Star Wars party. I do remember the dowelling light sabres that destroyed the Death Star pinata.

One of the last cakes I remember decorating was very simple. My younger son had won a rock climbing party, and so I made a rock climbing cake. I cut a chocolate cake into randomly sized chunks, piled them into a mountain covered by icing, and arranged little lego men as climbers. It was awesome, and it was easy enough for any 9 year old to replicate.

There is something wonderfully extravagant about pouring creativity and hope and celebration into something that will be admired for a few moments and then cut into pieces and forgotten.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The bear and the bunny

Once there was and was not a bear who was quick and funny and somewhat afraid of standing still. Bear loved to run and climb and splash in cold mountain streams. He was strong and fast and when he found other bears, he was equally happy competing or playing. Bear loved everything that allowed him to keep moving.

He didn't love standing still. Every fall, he put off hibernation until the last possible day. Every spring, he burst back into the world, full of energy and didn't stop moving till fall.

Bear loved to watch things moving that were even faster and stronger than he was. He watched eagles soar overhead and wished for wings. He moved along the shore, watching the whales and listening to their songs and he wished he could swim so far and so deep. He watched deer and admired their grace and endurance. As fast as he was and as strong as he was, Bear loved all things that were even faster or even stronger.

Even Bear had to stop to catch his breath sometimes. One day he had been testing himself, pushing himself to move faster than ever. He ran until he could not breathe, and then he stopped. Almost all his energy and focus turned to recovering as quickly as possible so he could run again. Almost all.

Some tiny fraction of his awareness was alert to the clearing around him. From the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of silver. It was moving quickly along the ground. He turned his head and looked more closely. As he did, Bunny stopped moving. The flash of silver became a small, solid, sleek grey bunny, so still it could have been carved from soft grey stone. Bunny was so still that he could see the shadow of her eyelashes and even the shadow did not move.

Bear discovered that his heart was no longer racing. It was beating comfortably, quietly in his chest. He began to notice that the restless movement that was part of his every waking moment was quieter, gentler. After a time, his eyes still on the bunny, he was absolutely still.

Bear was so curious about being still that he almost started to move again! His mind raced through his body, noticing how it felt to be still. For the first time, he let the slowness and balance in his body pull his mind to a new balance. Bunny looked into his eyes. Bear stopped.

Bear stopped moving. He stopped rushing. He stopped thinking. He just stopped. Part of him thought it was funny that a little grey bunny could stop a big brown bear. But he stopped anyway.

And then he held very still as Bunny moved, slowly, without fear and without hurry. Bunny moved toward him. And Bear was so still he even held his breath.

Bunny stopped a foot or two away. He looked down and she looked up. He watched her take a deep slow breath and as she let it out, he breathed with her. For a moment that felt like forever, Bear and Bunny looked at each other.

And so it began.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jumping Mouse

I read blogs, and one of the blogs I enjoy is idealawg. Last week, I caught a tweet from the blogger that said the jumping mouse had been added to a list of protected species.

One of my favourite stories is the legend of Jumping Mouse. So I tweeted back and asked if the writer knew the story. A few minutes later, I had sent the link and said that it was fun to be able to give something back to a blogger whose work I enjoyed.

The course I was training ends with a story circle. One of the early stories mentioned an eagle. Halfway around the circle, there was a story about a frog and a mouse. I ended the circle, as I had planned the night before, with the story of Jumping Mouse, a mouse who is given its long, strong legs by a magic frog. Later, the frog turns the mouse into an eagle.

If I were writing a short story, it would seem too coincidental to have all the story elements appear before I told my story, an overly neat metaphor for the class coming together on common ground. But I wasn't writing fiction: this is simply what happened.

Often truth stretches our belief much harder than fiction dares.