One Halloween night a few years ago I had a gig from 5:30-8:00 PM a block west of Sixth Avenue, two blocks from my apartment, which is on the east side of the Avenue. This put me on the wrong side of the massive Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. This meant…I couldn’t get home.
You must understand that what had started as a small and very local parade here in the Village back in the day…and yes, I lived here back in the day….this local, heavily gay, drag queen and cheering supporters, and fabulous puppets, and such…this yumminess of a let-it-all-hang-out local event was at some horrible point discovered. It morphed, monster-like, into a massive, sound truck laden destination-excuse for tourists from world to let their inner-crazy out. Yes, there are still great costumes to be seen. And some good bands. But if you live here, don’t try to go anywhere. Or, to come home for hours before, during and after the Parade.
I live on the east side of Sixth near Houston Street and the Halloween Parade starts a few block south and proceeds a mile or so up the Avenue. Streets are blocked every which way. Far too any people in various stages of array and disarray fill the sidewalks and those blocked streets. Thousands of cops, uniformed and not, hang out on every corner and the barricades are up. If you are not participating in the dense revelry, it can be a daunting to go anywhere. So….that particular Halloween night, I couldn’t get home from my gig on the wrong side of the parade. Knowing that the staging area for the Parade was a just few blocks south of where I was, I wandered west a couple blocks and then south on 7th Avenue and then east to Spring and Sixth, figuring I could go below the staging area and cross Sixth and thread my way back up my side of the street.
Once I got to the Spring Street staging area, however, I found myself in a huge party. Wow. OK! It was a beautiful, warm night and I was feeling the good vibes, so I hung out watching floats and groups and the wonderfully costumed spirits who were entertaining themselves and each other, keeping their energy up and partying while they waited to join the already in full swing parade. I stayed there watching, dancing, and talking to people for about an hour and then I insinuated myself into the middle of one the samba bands as it moved out of the staging area and on to Sixth Avenue.
I had draped my wildly skull-and-bones patterned shawl over my back, which counted as a costume, so I could legitimately join the parade. I worked my way to a place in the middle of the big samba drums and danced my way home. It was a very, very slow walk home, though a very, very rhythmic one, for sure. Indeed, it must have taken at least half an hour to go the few short blocks to my corner. But I was having such a great time, I didn’t leave the group. I stayed with the band till we got up to Waverly Place, a few blocks north of my apartment. That probably took another half an hour. Lots of stopping. Lots of dancing, (And occasional quizzical glances from the leader of the band trying to figure out who the hell that dancing woman was in the middle of his drummers.)
I left the parade at Waverly, not wanting to go the full route. I’d had enough. And I did want to go home. But, I felt energized and washed clean by the vibrations of the drums and the shakereis. There I was on a balmy night in the middle of a huge street party in the ‘hood. By moving with it, instead of trying to “cross” it, I had danced my way home— past the fire house with its memories of 9/11, past the corner where I’ve lived for more than 40 years, past the Waverly Movie Theatre-now the IFC, past a lot of my past..and present. I got home, feeling filled with gratitude for the music, for the movement, and yes, for the wildly exuberant Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. I hope my future brings me more samba!
I wrote this article in 1999….about working as a storyteller in schools during the week of the Columbine High School shooting.
It holds true. It holds.
(originally 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.
This past few days for me has been about Manhattan…the tv show about the Manhattan Project which created a town that did not exist on a high plateau in northern New Mexico near Santa Fe. The town is Los Alamos. In those days, it was a post office box. Manhattan: the atomic bomb project, not the island along the Hudson River I’ve lived on most of my life. I was contacted to write a part of a diary of a Russian spy for a prop for the show. I was contacted because I am old enough to write “old school” handwriting: cursive. Sometimes age is a benefit.
I picked up the diary (several in case I screwed up) and 5 fabulous pens at the warehouse where the Prop-master, is making props. I walked in and jumped back. “My God! That’s an atomic bomb!” Yup…that’s what he was working on. This week they are filming the Trinity test. I knew what I was looking at having recently been to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos. Yes, I had braved the checkpoint and driven into the town “on the hill.” And what went on “on the hill” 70 years ago STAYED on the hill. At least until two days in early August, 1945.
I had a great kibitz with John. He says I am “adorable.” I’ll take the compliment. (remember, I got the gig because I am old enough to know how to write cursive!!)
I took it to them early Monday and was on set, which is on the campus of
Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where I have a faculty meeting on Thursday…
for about an hour. I was walked through the “checkpoint/gate” to the town that had no name,
and I watched as they geared up for the day’s shoot. 1940′s cars, old army vehicles, actors in costume (army and civilian), and lots and lots of technical equipment in that dusty street between barracks, science labs, the old telephone booth and that gate with its big sign: What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, STAYS HERE. Los ALamos, 1945.
Various people looked at the diary and it was decided more pages were needed. I’d been given some text…with the entry for Feb. 4 needing to be at the top of the right hand page about three quarters through the diary. They all decided that my handwriting looked great, but more of the book needed to be filled. So I went home and after getting the final “yes” from the final-say-guy, I made up more entries. I had great fun adopting her tone, dropping in the code names of the guys she’s spying on, and bitching about “Athena” who is always “stirring the pot.”
Tuesday early early my alarm woke me in the middle of a dream I was having about Siva.
I staggered around, had a cup of strong black tea before I left the house. Neither John nor assistant prop-master Doug were there on set when I got there. I was asked to wait for them if I could.
For sure! Willie (local guy, prop guy) said…help yourself to coffee or anything. So I got a cup of crew coffee with sugar and ate a cliff bar and then when John showed up I had a Dunkin doughnut with him. When in Manhattan, do as the crew does. I’m wired on sugar. caffeine. and 11 grams of protein in that cliff bar.
Again various people looked at the diary and OK’d it. It was then given to the only black person I’d seen
on set…a woman wearing a Brazil soccer jersey…who was instructed to take it and AGE it. I was thanked and told to send an invoice billing “Atom Productions, Inc.” Of course. What a caper!
For breakfast today, I ate some golden stars. I remember the first time I ate star fruit. Russell Down took me to one of the abandoned “camps” of the sugar workers near Pahala, Hawaii where he was a doctor at the hospital run by the C.Brewer sugar plantation. The company had moved all the workers into town. The old, charming green board and batten houses had been lifted and brought into town as well, closely clustered around the cranky, clanking sugar mill. But the fruit trees, so lovingly tended by those workers–Japanese and Philippine mostly–the trees were left behind in the camps up the slopes of Mauna Loa.
Russell took me to the old “Japanese Camp.” Locals, including a small group of what would loosely be called “hippies,” knew where all the good fruit trees were in the district. And Russell, though a doc working for C.Brewer, hung out mainly with the out of town crowd and had been introduced to the local hunter-gatherer economy.
We found a star fruit tree, with dead ripe fruit on it. I remember standing by the tree, eating the fruit, so lovely in form and color, so gently sweet in taste. Welcome to off-the-grid Hawaii. Last week, I discovered a beautiful star fruit in the nearby produce stand here in Largo, Florida. I bought it and have watched it ripen into perfection. This morning I sliced it open. Sweet fruit. Sweet memories.
Fruit is best eaten locally and in season. And it is particularly sweet when eaten from the tree, with thanks given to those who planted it, tended it, loved it. There are many stars in this life. Today’s is a golden fruit from Florida.
When I am in New Mexico, I volunteer at the Santa Fe County Adult Correctional Facility, or more simply put, the county jail. I work with women and the class is called “Stress Management.” We do a variety of activities, all focused on helping them to cope with their time in the jail and in their often very difficult lives beyond it.
In today’s session, I worked with 7 newly booked women. They arrived pretty ragged. Our opening Talking Circle helped to focus them; our Body Poem movement/meditation centered them; our story and discussion opened them up a bit. And our SelfExpression writing/drawing activity gave an opportunity for integration of what we’d been doing. They walked out smiling, steady and breathing better. I’d call that a successful morning in the jail!
At first I saw a huge grin, then looked at what he was waving at me from behind the counter: a New York Public Library Card. “The library,” he said to me. “The library. I see you in the library. Stories.”
I was at a Puerto Rican restaurant on Burnside Avenue, deep in the mid Bronx, picking up chicken, yucca and morro rice to bring home with me. When I go out to the “neighborhoods,” I generally bring home food not found in my way-too-trendy neighborhood in lower Manhattan.
I had just told stories to .. and with… children in the Frances Martin branch library. Scary stories, but not too scary….hobgoblins and skeletons and such. Then the children wanted to tell some too, one 9 year old improvising a story that wove most of the characters, images and themes from the stories I had told in an on-the-spot re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood. (Lets hear it for Maya!) As I walked along University/MLK Avenue, I was passed by two young guys popping their motorcycles and doing amazing wheelies. When I crossed the street, I was almost hit by a guy on a fast moving bicycle going through the red light. Boys on wheels.
I got to the restaurant and ordered my pollo, yucca (which I pronounce juuca…a habit picked up from 10 years of teaching ESL in Washington Heights) and rice and beans. As I waited, chatting in my lousy Spanish with a young woman so new to selling pollo in NY, she didn’t know the English word “chicken,” this guy…maybe 30 years old, flashes me the smile and the library card.
“Which library? Donde?” And he says, “Fordham.” Ahhh! The Bronx Library Center, which I haven’t been to in a couple of years. He remembered me from telling stories there. We smiled at each other and nodded a lot…universal language. He was so excited. And I was too. I almost cried.
What we do, we itinerant tellers of tales and bringers of joy, imaginative wondering, acknowledgement and …dare I say it?…truth; what we do matters. It really matters.
Thanks Bronx! See you at the library.
I am on the board of a small film company, Healing Voices-Personal Stories. We make films to raise awareness of domestic violence. Our film Cheyanne’s Story, about teen-dating violence, has been chosen to be in the BolderLife Festival. BolderLife is an incredible organization that promotes living lives “in courage.”
Healing Voices-Personal Stories’ film Cheyanne’s Story has been selected for the Bolder Life Festival this October! The story of a courageous high school girl who found herself in an abusive relationship and who not only managed to get help and extricate herself from it, but who, while still in school, became an advocate for domestic & teen violence awareness is a perfect fit for BolderLife.
“To live in Courage” What jumped out to me from BolderLife’s statements about its mission on its website is its advocacy of living a life “in courage.” Indeed, the title of this 501 (c) (3) organization, BolderLife, implies a life lived with confidence, strength, clarity and risk. The word “courage” means to have “heart.” To live a life with heart and strength. And Cheyanne, the young woman in our film, is a wonderful model for young people in how to find that strength and confidence while maintaining heart. The frightened high school girl emerges as a courageous young woman.
How do we encourage our young people….and, indeed, all of us, to live “in courage” as opposed to fear. BolderLife seeks to bring the message of courage to counteract the many messages in our popular media of fear and shame. Through its festival and other outreach programs, BolderLife uses the arts as a vehicle for exploring life, fostering social and emotional education, and inspiring change. It hosts local high schools and middle schools for a day of films and conversation. It “introduces difficult and taboo topics through a variety of arts and “deepens the conversation with professional speakers and workshops that help audiences explore discomfort, cultivate mindfulness” and..yes, “to live in courage.”
We at Healing Voices-Personal Stories are so honored that Cheyanne’s Story will be part of this fine festival with its focus on both art and education. And in particular, we are delighted that the festival’s focus this year is on domestic violence. 50% of the programming proceeds will be donated to SafeHouse Denver, a non-profit organization which serves victims of domestic violence through both an emergency shelter and non-residential Counseling and Advocacy Center.
The BolderLife Festival will be held at the Holiday Event Center, 2644 W. 32nd Avenue, in Denver the week of October, 13th-19th. Check out this impressive organization’s website.
DVD’s of “Cheyanne’s Story”
We are pleased that DVD’s of this film are available free of charge for shelters and organizations to help education and provide an example of a domestic violence survivor. Included on the Cheyanne’s Story DVD is “A Teacher’s Story” in which Cheyanne’s teacher talks about having her as a student and about Cheyanne’s class project about domestic violence. If you would like to receive a copy please email email@example.com. You can also go to the Healing Voices website and stream both “Cheyanne’s Story” and “Peggy’s Story”. User Guides are available on line.
Healing Voices-Personal Stories website is hv-ps.org
(This is a blog written for the National Storytelling Conference, Fire and Light, July 2014)
I learned how to tell stories while substitute teaching in the New York City public schools. Talk about boot camp! I was often working with “at risk” children, many of whom were…shall we say…deeply disengaged from the classroom activities. When I began to bring in stories… not read them, but tell them…my ability to engage the students and my relationship to the students and their relationship to me shifted radically. I used to joke that before I told the story, the kids were throwing the chairs out the window and as soon as I finished, they continued; but during the storytelling, all eyes and minds were with me. A bit of hyperbole, but essentially what I experienced. There was something going on between us during the telling that radically changed the behavior of these children and atmosphere in those classrooms.
As well, of course, there was a lot of teaching and learning going on. I realized quite quickly how much information was being transmitted effortlessly while I told and they listened to those stories. Being a trained teacher, I began to note the cognitive skills along with some basic social/emotional skills that were embedded both in the stories themselves and equally in the experience of listening to stories. And, of course, once they began to fashion their own stories and tell them, a world opened up for these young, often marginalized, New Yorkers.
Great teaching, like great storytelling, is about communication. It is about contextualizing information, creating Aha! Moments, journeying into new territory to find hidden treasure, sharing a passion and meaning making. Sound heavy? Not at all. Teaching can be fun, as much fun as telling a good tale.
We know that storytelling has been used throughout human history not only to entertain, but to transmit information, explain cultural codes, and problem solve (to name just a few of the applications/uses.) We now know it also enhances interpersonal and cross-cultural awareness and encourages personal expression. It engages participants of all age and all levels seamlessly and deeply in the subject at hand. It’s a natural teaching tool and I have used it from pre-schools to University Master’s Programs, in after school offerings for children living in homeless shelters, as an English language teacher for adult immigrants and with incarcerated women, both on the east coast and currently in New Mexico. And, of course, I’ve taught teachers … both for professional development workshops in the schools and, for the past 10 years, for New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre and the TESOL/Foreign Language Program. I know the power of storytelling to fire up a classroom.—
I’m bringing some stories and some terrific activities to the National Storytelling Conference, FIRE and LIGHT, in Arizona this summer. We will easily and with great fun experience the power and efficacy of storytelling in the classroom and beyond. The workshop is called Storytelling: The Fire in Great Teaching. Come help me heat up that room in Mesa!
Showing up…in the County Jail
Once a week I lead “Stress Management” workshops at the Santa Fe County Correctional Facility. (the county jail) One of the challenging things about working with the system is that I don’t ever really know who will be in the group. This is, in part, because there is such a constant turnover of inmates (the average time spent is, I believe 9.5 days). As well, even when I ask for a particular “pod,” hoping to get some of the same women I worked with the week before, often I am brought a different group. So my job becomes to show up. And then they…whoever “they” are…show up. And then I decide what to do. Of course, I come in with a game plan or two, but often that needs a shift, if not a total change. I show up, they show up, the session proceeds from there.
Good News Circle: Reciprocal Engagement and Gratitude
My sessions have a particular structure within which is plenty of open space to accommodate the necessary fluidity of the situation. We begin with a Council Process circle, asking each other three questions: What is your name? How are you feeling right now? (in one word or sentence…not a long explanation) What is your good news? (again, short…one to three sentences…and not about getting out of jail.) And if no good news can be thought of, the default is “I am alive.” It encourages us to think beyond the immediate situation of being in jail and to realize that as long as we are alive, have eyes to see, friends to listen to us, etc, we do, in fact, have good news. Each participant asks the next in the circle. We each ask, we each answer, we all listen to each other. This becomes practice in reciprocal engagement in each other’s stories and in gratitude.
The Body Poem: a Moving Meditation
We follow this with variations on a beautiful moving meditation I learned from Elizabeth Cogburn many years ago. As we bend and stretch, breathe and return to balance, we have images for each movement …”glyphs” Elizabeth called them…which connect us to the natural world and to our own internal beauty, strengths, and the individual gifts we offer each other and the world . The Body Poem, while encouraging these incarcerated women to move and release held tensions, also deepens connections to the wider world and strengthens self esteem.
And, of course, we work and play with story. Old stories and new ones, and their stories as they wish to share them. I bring in old tales with themes that are familiar to these women, themes such as finding peace in the middle of chaos; dealing with trolls and crocodiles; finding the value in our “imperfections”; friendship and the power of community. We talk about, write about, draw, role-play, change and create new stories. So much richness to work with! And such an open and responsive group to work with!
“Who Wants to Go to Stress Management??????”
The women who answer the guards’ loudly yelled, “Who Wants to Go to Stress Management??????” are curious enough to leave their rooms, bored enough with the routine, and often are actively seeking to change patterns of behavior that landed them in those razor-wire encircled concrete walls. They show up in that cramped classroom. And we ask each other our three questions: What is your name? How are you feeling right now? What is your good news?
And when asked for my good news, I often respond: “My good news is: you came to the group. Thank you for showing up.”
I have been working once a week with women in the Santa Fe, NM, county jail. Today, upon hearing the news of Maya Angelou’s death, I brought some of her writing in. The women did not know who she was. We talked a bit about the title of her book, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. These women knew about being caged birds.
Do they “sing?” We did not go there. However, after looking at/talking about a few things, we did some free writing about anything we ‘d talked about in our time together. They chose to write about other topics in our discussion. I chose to write about caged birds and their singing.
I do not know Maya Angelou’s answer to her evocative question, but here is what I wrote, madly writing along with 3 incarcerated women in a concrete room in a concrete building surrounded by razor wire and the high desert of New Mexico.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There is a life force that will push through even the hardest concrete. It sings out, “I am alive.” It sings out, “My spirit is unbroken.” It proclaims, “I am me, I have a song to sing, and I will sing…to the world, to the universe and to and for my own heart’s ease and joy. . I exist. I have a beautiful song. My gift to the world is beautiful. No matter where I am, in what circumstance, surrounded by barbed wire, literal or figurative; faced with those who do not see my beauty, who do not hear my song, I will sing, out loud and beautifully: Here I am and I am alive.”
That is why the caged bird sings.