March 6, 2012 – NSN Blog
By Regina Ress
Living from within myth and fairytale, looking with a metaphoric eye, life’s lessons are deeply experienced and learned. Recently I spent two months volunteering for Fundacion Arte del Mundo, an arts and literacy center in the Andean town of Baños, Ecuador. Besides the in-town waterfall and hot springs for which the town is named, Baños offers spectacular close-up views of one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Tungurahua, “Throat of Fire.” Two days before my birthday, it erupted. We were treated to spectacular pyroclastic displays, fountains of boulders and lava, steam, and cinders. All very exciting. Then the wind shifted. Here is what I wrote from my storyteller’s perspective about the rain of cinders and the tasks assigned by Mama Tungurahua.
After a week´s orgasmic display, our Fiery Mother Tungurahua has shown her dark side, showering us with fine black dust, heavy, pervasive, abrasive. The prevailing wind, hot air flowing up from the Amazon, which generally takes the smoke and ash away from Baños, shifted and we received a rain of dust from “La Madre.” Our usual afternoon winds whipped the fallen grey powder through and under windows, doors, clothes, into eyes, into lungs, settling in to all cracks and crevices. Even the gate lock, cranky at best, is clogged with cinder-dust and impossible to use.
Yesterday was unreal. And yet how very very real, really. Reality. But it felt unreal, like a film: Woman in the Dunes comes to mind, sand, sand, sand. Like a story of the end of the world: dark, windy, few people on the streets, many masked against the blowing volcanic dust. All the dogs were grey. And the leaves on the trees. Even the sides of the surrounding green mountains have taken on a sad. grey aspect.
This morning, our little band of captured voyagers (my fellow-volunteers) had to take up brooms and shovels and clear the dust from stairs, patios, sidewalks, gutters, Huge job, as La Bib occupies a corner lot, with a big central courtyard, all open to the dust. All needing to be swept. And so we donned hats, masks, glasses. We took up our tools. We began to sweep.
Images of being captured by Baba Yaga, Strega Nona, and various underworld goddesses floated through my metaphor addled mind. Set to work, we were, to perform the tasks which teach the lessons of life. Keep sweeping. Keep sorting. Pay homage to the witch. She may turn back into the beautiful goddess. Or not. Her choice. We are clearly not in charge. But, oh, if we pay attention, if we remain grateful for the brooms, the shovels, the buckets, each other, and grateful for our Mother who teaches us the literal nitty-gritty lessons of life, we may learn how to live, fully and with deep gratitude for whatever life brings us.
Keep sweeping. All will come clear!
Published in Margaret Read MacDonald’s book
Tell the World: Storytelling Across Language Barriers
(Libraries Unlimited, Westport, 2008)
“Working with or without a native speaker, a storyteller can touch the minds and hearts of al listeners-even those with little or not English language skill. ”This fine book, compiled and edited by Margaret Read MadDonald, is filled with tips and techniques for telling across language barriers. There are also essays on the impact of telling out of the comfort zone of your own language and culture.
Not Just a Matter of Language
Why try to leap across the language barrier and tell stories in a foreign language? Well, for me, it is great fun. I begin with that, because if it isn’t fun, don’t do it! A more serious reason, of course, is that language is a bridge to other people and cultures.
I have told stories in English with sprinklings of Spanish for many years. In addition, a few years ago I started telling stories totally in Spanish. I was traveling each year to a different Latin American country, meeting the people, learning the language, and absorbing as much as I could of the cultures. I was getting so much from my experiences, I wanted to give something back. What I have to give is storytelling.
At first thought, it would seem that storytelling would be a hard art to share because it is language dependent. But, of course, storytelling is not simply its linguistic component; it also includes body language, gesture, movement, expression…the whole range of the performers’ craft. Beyond all this is the interest in and love of a people and their language we display when we try to speak their language, when we cross that bridge to them. Our audience is affirmed and mutual respect and interest is fostered. So it is not just a matter of “language.”
On one of my trips to Peru, I visited and told stories in Spanish in three schools. One was in a school in Yucay, a very small town in what is called El Valle Sagrado, The Sacred Valley of the Inca, near Cusco. Later that day, I was walking around the town, stepping over the drainage ditch in the middle of
the dirt street, avoiding wandering cattle, when some children started pointing and shouting….”La señora con cuentos!” Soon I was surrounded by children and adults, dogs, roosters, and a boy with his cow, and I found myself telling the stories again in the middle of the street. I was there for the better part of an hour. We blocked the whole street. As I stood there, a part of me was witnessing the scene: a blue-eyed norte-americana sharing stories, laughter, and good will with the local folks in a small town in the Andes. Indeed, not just a matter of language!
I have a personal story I tell about visiting a group of Indigenous people in Costa Rica after 9/11. They wanted to learn more about what had happened and I was asked to bring photographs of New York City and of the attack. After an amazing adventure getting to them, which included wading through the river (no puentes/bridges!), I was introduced in Cabecar, their language, by the chief and then in Spanish by the woman who had brought me to them. I showed the photos and in Spanish described the rivers (Rio Hudson, Rio Este), bridges (Puente de Brooklyn, Puente de Jorge Washington), and the skyscrapers, los rascacielos. I had many photos of Las Torres Gemelas, Twin Towers. And then I said the words, “Entonces, las Torres se derumbaron.” (Then the Towers collapsed.) We then went through the book of photos of the attack. You could have heard a pin drop.
I left the book and photos with the Cabecar. After I left, they thought about and discussed what had happened for several months and then performed a three-day healing ritual for New York City and the whole earth. So with some very simple Spanish and some photographs, I brought New York City to these people on a remote mountain in Central America and through my telling the story of my trip there, I have brought their love back out to New York…and beyond. There may not be a physical bridge across the river to them, but our shared story bridges our worlds, affirming the connection of all of us on the earth.
I have also told stories in international storytelling festivals in Spanish and English (with Spanish introductions) in Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tenerife. Although I was nervous about my Spanish proficiency, my listeners were more than accepting. They were delighted with my willingness to leave the safety of my own language and risk telling in theirs.
One great experience I had in telling in Spanish was in June 2004, at La Flauta Magica, a club in Madrid that has featured storyteller Ana Garcia Castellano for more than a decade. I was fortunate to be in Madrid to celebrate her tenth anniversary and was asked to be one of the tellers. I was relaxed enough to “code switch,” go back and forth between English and Spanish, including interacting and even joking with the audience. As I was there a few months after the bombing of Atocha train station, I told a story of the indestructible nature of freedom. The club was packed with people who love storytelling, their city, and freedom. Through the storytelling, I, a New Yorker who had experienced first hand the attack of September 11th, embraced those Madrileños and they embraced me.
Of course, we don’t have to tell stories totally in another language. Simply adding key words and phrases from the original language adds color, flavor, culture and excitement to the telling. I’ve been using Spanish in stories for years here in NY, but recently at a branch of the NY Public Library in the Bronx a family from Brazil was among the folks gathered. I decided to tell the one Brazilian story I know and asked them to help me tell it. I know um pouco (a little bit of) Portuguese, and together we put the Portuguese into the story. What an affirmation! (They confided in me that most Americans they meet don’t even know that the language of Brazil is Portuguese.) At the same time, the Spanish speakers in the audience were learning how Portuguese is similar to and different from Spanish. Everyone loved it.
I am deeply convinced that storytelling, while language based, need not be language bound. When done with good will and care (language is a treasure: as with all treasures, handle with care!), telling stories in their original language or the language of the audience is rewarding to both teller and listeners. It adds color and texture, affirms language and culture, opens the heart and makes new friends. And, as an extra bonus, it is fun!
Her Story, Your Story, Our Story:
an Afternoon with Women who Have Escaped the Troll
Published in LANES Museletter, 2012
By Regina Ress
What message do you want to send to other women who’ve been captured by a “Troll?
“Love yourself enough to leave.”
“Don’t settle for less.”
Last June, I spent time with a group of women in a “resettlement” program. These are formerly incarcerated women who have come through abuse and who are actively in the process of changing and reclaiming their lives. The women are part of a support group that meets once a week at the Community Partners in Action Resettlement Program in Hartford, Connecticut. I brought fresh strawberries from my friend’s spring garden, an old European fairy tale, and some questions.
I am currently helping to launch a non-profit organization, Healing Voices-Personal Story, whose mission is to bring awareness to women’s strivings to overcome abuse through the distribution of film and video. Having worked with women in several correctional facilities, I am keenly aware that women who end up in jail generally have a history of abuse. Bad stories; bad endings.
But do all bad stories have to have bad endings? Is there a way to learn and grow a new story?
The story I brought to Hartford last spring was one of the Grimm’s Tales. It describes the trials of a Princess who falls through the crack in a glass mountain and is forced to be the house drudge of the long-bearded Old Rink Rank. She loses all sense of herself, even forgetting her own name. This young woman is eventually rescued, not by a prince, but by her own efforts. When she hits rock bottom, something shifts in her psyche and she finds her own way back up to the light.
I told Old Rink Rank, adding my own voice, asking a question or two within the telling, but not changing the original Grimm version. It is a spare story. It is a very clear story.
The women in our group listened with great attention, nodding at times, often uttering a chorus of
“uh-huhs” at recognizable moments in this story of abuse and redemption. After the telling, in response to my questions, as well as their own, they fleshed out their understanding…and mine as well…of this classic tale. Our discussion was lively, filled with recognition and gritty wisdom. The women very much took control of the conversation, finding questions and answers themselves, often engaging in a kind of debate over issues raised in the story. We looked at how easy it is to fall though the cracks, losing ourselves to the “trolls” ever waiting to use us for their own purposes. The story does not tell us how and why the Princess turns her situation around. But these women knew:
“All that hard work gave her strength.”
“When you hit rock bottom, when you are fed up, that’s when you make the changes.”
We also discussed two possible endings. The Princess, having trapped the old man by his long beard, sets him free once she has returned to the world. In the Grimm version, her father, the King, has him killed. We looked at the justice of this. Then we looked at a more forgiving model, the possibility of not taking revenge. A different kind of justice.
As our time was quite short, we did not get in to our own personal stories. However, it was clear that all of us, group members, case workers, and I, recognized aspects of our own lives in this timeless tale. And working with it in this way helped us all clarify and enlarge our understanding of our lives.
Two of the women commented to me on their way out that they never understood that “those old stories actually meant something.” Ah! This storyteller quoted a favorite adage in the storytelling world: The stories are not good because they are old; they are old because they are good.
And they do, they most definitely do “mean something.”
Storytelling is not just kid stuff. We, the storytelling community, know this. Indeed, we know that “kid stuff” can be….and should be…meaningful at its core. Life long learning begins with those
bedside stories of survival, of compassion, of what life holds, offers, and teaches. And for those
whose stories takes some bad turns, stories and storytelling can help us find our way out of the
woods and home.
Published in Storytelling Magazine, December 1999
In the Spring of 1999, at the height of the Kosovo “ethnic cleansing,” I was invited to teach the Holocaust in the schools of Palm Beach County, Florida. (Florida is one of seven states that mandate Holocaust studies.) This was an amazing invitation, or as I saw it, “assignment.” I created two different programs, one, a poetry process for classrooms and the other, a storytelling assembly.
In preparation, I searched for folk tales and other stories that dealt with themes I might address. I read a lot of material on the Holocaust, talked with a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, and forced myself to look at photographs. On the plane to Florida, I read Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. I arrived in Forida two days before the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The day after the shootings was my first day in the schools.
Between the ongoing images from Kosovo, my immersion in the Holocaust, and the news coming out of Littleton, my heart was torn open. I found myself crying suddenly, at odd moments. I was working principally in Middle schools and on wide open campuses. There were bomb threats at a couple of the local schools and feelings were running high, both of sadness and apprehension.
I questioned myself, “What are you doing in the schools at this moment?”
My answer was, “Doing something for the kids.” I was wading into the situation; introducing a topic hard and painfully relevant; bringing information, metaphor, opportunity to question; offering a means of expression and a chance to be heard.
In my classes and assemblies, we looked at the need to stop hatred and violence before it gets out of control and affects the whole community (see “The Duel of the Cat and the Mouse” , Tales of Mogho, Guirma, ed.); we looked at strength and power vs killing (see “Strength” in Margaret Reade MacDonald’s Peace Tales); we looked at megalomaniacal leaders (see H.C. Andersen’s “The Wicked Prince”). In the poetry process I led the students through, we looked deeply at personal loss. I then shared with them the history of Terezin concentration camp and the art and poetry created by the children imprisoned there. (See, …I Never Saw Another Butterfly… Volavkoya, ed.). We talked about prejudice, inclusion, compassion. We talked about whatever the students brought up.
The students’ responses were varied…as varied as the schools and grades I was working in. In my three weeks residency, I taught in grades 4-10 in private, public, and an alternative school for potential drop-out children of the sugar cane workers out by Lake Okechobee. Many of the young people wanted to share things they knew about the Holocaust. Some asked really good questions. One seventh grade student asked about how much the United States knew and what did we did to stop the killing. “That’s a very good question,” I replied…. and before I could find my way in and out of that enormous topic, another student brought up the incident of the St. Louis, the ship filled with refugees the United Stated refused entry to. (It returned to Europe and most of its passengers perished.)
One of the poems about personal loss, written by a tenth grader, was about losing the “ground beneath my feet.” What an incredible springboard from which to talk about what happened to the victims of the Nazis! The discussion in that class about losing everything in one’s reality… physical, relational and even personal identity…was rich and deeply serious.
The stories, too, were marvelous springboards for discussion. With “The Duel of the Cat and the Mouse,” the discussion led to the many excuses we make not to get involved, the “bystander” issue. The fact that we often equate bullying, hitting, and even killing with “power” and “strength’ is shown starkly in Mac Donald’s story. After my telling of the Andersen story, there were discussions not only about Hitler, but other historical tyrants, the situation in Yugoslavia, and how sometimes young people follow the wrong leaders.
A number of the students brought up Kosovo. And sometimes the topic of the Littleton killings, which hung around the edges of our discussions always, found its way in to the center. In one “gifted” class, it surfaced after a rather lengthy discussion of Holocaust issues brought up in our story/poetry session. I left them with their teacher, hotly debating the role of the media in reporting school violence. They needed to talk about it, and our session had provided a forum.
To be in the schools, at that moment, was an enormous responsibility and a grand opportunity. Without talking directly about Littleton, a minor incident in the history of the world, but, at that moment, a major incident in the world of America’s schoolchildren, we addressed some of the issues swirling around their reality. And I was there not simply with hard facts, endless statistics, and terrifying images, but with stories and poetry. I was there with images that touch the soul, spark the imagination and invite compassion.
The week after I returned to New York City, at a New York Storytelling Center Board meeting, we began talking about the Littleton, CO massacre. Mike Seliger’s son had shown him something from the internet about how young people feel we grownups would do as usual: agonize over the Littleton incident and then forget about it…and them.
“Let me speak to that,” I said. Having just returned from my experience in the Florida schools, I spoke about the opportunities we storytellers have to address, both indirectly and directly, the serious concerns with which our children are wrestling. Indeed, we storytellers are a blessed group. Through image and metaphor, through the seemingly simple vehicle of story, we have the chance to address the BIG themes of the human soul. As always, I am grateful to be working with story.
Published in Tantagora, Spain’s Storytelling Magazine, October 2007
From time to time, waves arise out of the cultural sea. They make a run for it and often are dashed against an out-cropping of the harder historical reality. But sometimes, just sometimes, they run beneath the surface long enough that they clear all local obstructions and have a good long ride across the ocean of time, unlikely rides that then take hold and become historical movements.
In the USA, in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was just such a sea change with diverse movements arising out of the general culture…each encouraging and strengthening the other in what became known variously as “the folk scene,” ”back to the land,” “the “hippie movement,” and “the 60s.” The storytelling revival in the USA was a part of that cultural wave.
Some observers date the beginning of the US storytelling revival to one specific folk festival held in the tiny town of Jonesborough in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee in October 1973. The inspiration of the town mayor, Jimmy Neil Smith, the first National Storytelling Festival drew 60 people, storytellers and listeners combined, sitting on bales of hay and listening to old time stories under the Tennessee sky. This event set the stage for what has grown to an annual festival which attracts over 10,000 people. Out of that festival grew an organization, the National Storytelling Association, which now has two branches: the National Storytelling Network, a membership organization focused on storytellers (www.storynet.org), and the International Storytelling Center, focused on the power of storytelling itself and its many applications in the world (www.storytellingcenter.com). Many believe that the early and on-going work of this organization sparked the storytelling renaissance.
Other people who have studied the history of storytelling in the late twentieth century say it grew naturally out of the revival of interest in folk music and folk arts in general which began in the 1950s and found its flowering and transformation in the “hippie” movement of the 1960s. The American culture had become very “corporate,” dominated by business, materialism, and conformity. In the mid 1950s there was an upwelling of resistance to this “buttoned-down” and “plastic-fantastic” vision of life. Individual expression flowered. The renewed interest in the folk arts brought the music and the stories out of the countryside and into the mainstream.
The rise in popularity of storytelling itself began in the 1970’s. When Diane Wolkstein, one of the pioneers of the revival in the US, began telling stories as New York City’s “Official Storyteller” in 1967, she didn’t know anyone else, other than librarians, who were doing it. Laura Simms and others who were those original “professional” tellers say they, too, felt alone. One of America’s most famous storytellers, Jay O”Callahan, writes, “the early days were full of discovering gifted artists; Diane Wolkstein, Laura Simms, Jackie Torrance, Ed Stivender, Connie Regan-Blake, Brother Blue. . .so many when I had thought I was alone!”
Milbre Burch, one of the greatest of the ”second generation” of American storytellers says, “The conferences and festivals in Jonesborough were like storytelling camp for the next generation of tellers. A wonderful crucible of community”.
The National Storytelling Festival brought together tellers and listeners. The organization that grew around it provided a center for the movement, networking opportunities, and inspiration for the formation of other organizations across the country which sponsored concerts, other festivals and conferences. There are dozens of regional organizations such as LANES (League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling : www.lanes.org) and the Northlands Storytelling Network, (www.northlands.net) in the upper mid-west states); there are hundreds of local organizations such as the New York Storytelling Center, founded in 1982 by Laura Simms, Gioia Timpanelli, and Diane Wolkstein, (www.storytelling-nyc.org). And, of course, there are festivals, large and small, across the USA.
In the past few years, the National Storytelling Network has sponsored SIGS (Special Interest Groups) which are devoted to specific aspects of storytelling such as storytelling in higher education, business, youth storytelling, etc. (www.storynet.org/Programs/SIGs/) One of the most active is The Healing Story Alliance (www.healingstory.org), which has an ongoing discussion on the power of story to heal both individuals and communities. These SIGS are now holding conferences of their own.
There has also been another wave in the storytelling revival in the US in the past decade, the emergence of interest in telling and listening to stories by young, “hip,” urban professionals. This is best exemplified by The Moth (www.themoth.org), which hosts theme-based story “slams” and story concerts in New York, San Francisco, and other urban centers. The stories are generally original and “personal,” not from the folk tradition; the storytellers are not professional performers, but more likely bankers or lawyers. This new wave of storytelling is extremely popular and has given rise to many discussions in the storytelling community on what, “exactly,” IS storytelling! It certainly has come a long way from folks sitting on bales of straw under a Tennessee moon listening to “old timey” stories of “haints and haunts.”
Whether the movement spread out from the Jonesborogh festival and NSN, or whether NSN and the festival gave a focus and opportunity for networking to the far-flung, often solitary storytellers, it is agreed that the storytelling movement gained momentum due to the inspiration and ongoing work of NSN. But just as the US is a vast country with diverse cultures, both indigenous and immigrant (long established and new), the storytelling “renaissance” here has deep roots and very diverse fruits.