The Bouyancy of Storytellers

Anne Rutherford

Yesterday I went to a performance by the storyteller Anne Rutherford and was transported from reality to heaven and hell and all over the world – the poetry of baseball games, the humor of Irish wakes and the wisdom of lovelorn peacocks.  She told stories and sang songs around the theme of “The One That Got Away.”  She had two musicians and sometimes played the mandolin herself.  Anne has won first place twice at the Liar’s Contest at the Northwest Folklife Festival and I thought it would be a great way to spend April Fool’s day, in the presence of a woman who can spin a great yarn.  If we are all fools because of it, we are wise fools indeed.

On the way home, my husband commented that it was pretty amazing how she could bring so many different types of stories together in a coherent fashion.  “She’s buoyant.”

It was odd to me that he used that word, because I had been meditating on the buoyancy of storytellers since Friday.

Friday I had joined several members of the Portland Storyteller’s Guild to film storytelling promos at MetroEast Community Media.  MetroEast is launching a story program May called Welcome to the Conversation, East Side Stories.  They’re giving small HD video cameras to people to record stories from their communities.  Serra Schiflett, producer and educator, wanted Guild members to record story promts, pointers and very short stories to help guide and coach the participants.

Anne Penfound
Barbara Fankhauser

Ken Iverson, Anne Penfound, Barbara Fankhauser, Sarah Hauser and I were invited because we all love stories and want to promote storytelling.

Sarah Hauser, the board president of the Guild, called Ken ahead of time and said she wanted to be there, but probably wouldn’t be in any shape to be recorded.  The day before, she found out her assistant choir director had been shot multiple times on the way home from choir practice.  He was still alive, but in intensive care.  It was a senseless, violent act on a dear friend, who was also a husband and father of a baby girl.

Sarah Hauser

We had all shared our sympathies with her and there was no pressure on her to perform.  However, as the taping progressed, Sarah, the consummate storyteller, gave great feedback and positive encouragement, got into the spirit and was filmed for two excellent storytelling promos.  I had to marvel at her ability to be buoyant after having such a shocking thing happen.  For her to be so starkly reminded of the thin line between life and death, between health and sickness, and to still be so encouraging about our little stories was remarkable.

Ken Iverson

Ken told a story about being named after an uncle who died when the uncle was three, an

unexpected accident.  Sarah absorbed it, as we all did, with the reverence it deserved.  Ken talked about how stories keep a person who has died alive, keeps them with us, and gives them a legacy.

Sarah, and most members of the Guild, and most storytellers I know have, I think, have a kind of buoyancy that gives them the ability to get on with life after a tragedy.  Over of life time of listening and telling, stories form a very stable raft on which to sail through rough waters.  They train the soul to believe in itself.  With stories you know there will be endings, but also new beginnings.  Even the fiercest monsters and darkest forests are somehow part of a story that will have meaning, even if the meaning is not a huge comfort.

Sarah has always been very encouraging to me.  I used to feel very special about that, until I realized she was that way with every storyteller.  Then I felt even more special.  Sarah gives the shakiest of tellers a well thought out and encouraging critique.  Her interest in story is genuine and her enthusiasm for new tellers is sincere.  Her insight has made several of my tales deeper and a bit more direct.

I shared a ride home with Ken.  I told him a story about a recent conversation with a 7 year old girl concerning death, the soul and heaven.  I had told her a story which triggered her fears about death and blood.  She is in a safe foster home now, but in her young life she’d already seen brutal events.  Her eyes widened with fear and she stressed out about how she and I were going to die one day.  I immediately assured her she was safe and that when we did die, our souls would go to heaven, where they would be happy.

She asked me what heaven looked like, if there were houses in heaven.  I said I didn’t know; I wouldn’t know until I got there.  My ignorance amused her, and she launched into a fantastic story about visiting her grandfather with wings who lived in heaven in a blue house with many heavenly bunny rabbits.  She has a room is in the attic of that house and she has even more bunnies than her grandfather because they like her so much.  Her grandmother has a pink house next door.  She has a sister in heaven who married God.

Rainbow House

Her whole demeanor changed, the balm of story worked its magic.  Her eyes brightened as she developed rich detail and many plots and subplots, none of them completely resolved, so I’m sure there will be sequels.  She drew pictures, stapled them together and produced her first story book.

Ken and I talked about the significance of her imagery and many interpretations and beliefs about the spirit world and the soul.  He shared how a particular folk story’s meaning had changed over the years and gotten him more in touch with the life, death, and rebirth of the many aspects of himself.

That’s the thing about storytelling.  It ‘s more than find and appreciating a good story.  You take it into yourself.  The story becomes you – it’s rhythms, language, passages and transcendence.

I felt pretty blessed by his insights and the whole story project.  I know that stories have been a raft for me on the roiling waters of my life.  Story helps me in my struggles with depression and chronic health conditions.  I am able to see metaphorical values in life.  I have the words and images to describe what is unfathomable. I know I am not riding these waves alone because I’ve heard the stories of others who have kept afloat in much worse storms.

I saw Sarah again at Anne’s performance.  She was handing out programs and greeting people.  She told me she and the entire congregation of her church are still a bit shell-shocked.  I could see a look of weariness and hurt in her eyes, but there was also a spark of excitement.  We were going to hear Anne’s stories soon and for the next hour we would be transported into a magic place where, somehow, it would all make sense.  Anne told a wonderful story about Michael and Lucifer, ending with the cold, loneliness that the evil, egotistical Lucifer must feel.  We felt that in our bones.

And in our hearts, we felt light and warm, reassured once again that life has meaning and, perhaps it will not end but begin again, maybe with bunnies in heaven.

Once Upon a Time
(Now keep doing the book)

The Wonder Chair video

Here’s a link to me telling a story at MetroEast Community Media‘s Storytelling festival.  While you’re there, check out the other videos of members of the Portland Storyteller’s Guild telling a wonderful variety of stories.  The Wonder Chair is a story about how stories have helped me cope and rise above my disability.  They put a little spark in me — hopefully, it will help you recognize the little spark that’s in you.  The first time I had to use a wheelchair, I was going to hear stories at the Lelooska Foundation, a magical place in itself.  It’s about 30 minutes long.  Hope you enjoy it!

Many Hats, Many Stories

Ken Iverson, Joy, Foster Nuffer, Julie Strozyk

I went to the rehearsal for Mid Winter’s Tales yesterday.  I feel very honored to a part of this group of storytellers.  It will be a remarkable, thoughtful and warming experience.  Ken, Julie and Foster are all wonderful tellers.  There’s a wide range of stories, most leaning toward the contemplative rather than the whimsical, although we have a bit of humor, too.

Julie is going to tell an original poem called the Apple Tree Man and a wonderful adventure story called Katya and the Magic Nesting Dolls.  I will tell the Northwest Native American tale Moon, Otter, and Little Ugly Green Frog.  I’ll also be debuting an original tale called The Blunder Chair, which tells how the Lelooska Northwest Indian masks helped me deal with my mobility issues.  Foster, a Greek myth expert, will tell the story of Demeter and Kore.  Ken will tell a tale of saving spring called Heart of Winter, and a lovely tale of rebirth called The River.

It promises to be an enchanting event.

I wore my storyteller’s hat for the rehearsal, but Julie’s sister Eileen showed me appreciation for my story by giving me one of her hand crocheted hats.  It was pretty cool because I wore earrings that had been given to me by a crafter in appreciation of one of my Chronically Inspired workshops.  When I got home, I realized how much a hat can change your looks — and how the way you wear a had can change you, too.

Hat tied in back
Hat tied in front

I still like my storyteller’s hat best.

Anansi Spider Hat

I got this hat about 15 years ago at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History.  They were doing a West African exhibit and these hats were for sale in the gift shop.  Anansi is a trickster and storyteller in West African culture.  When I tried it on, my former husband said, “Girl that hat is you!”  It’s been my favorite ever since.  I find I can tell a story better when I have a story image on my garments.  I wear animal and moon shaped jewelry.  I try to have tokens of the spirits of the stories with me to help me step into the magic.  Plus, it honors the story to dress up a little for it.

Julie Strozyk made a story vest for her Magic Nesting Doll story.  Wow!

Julie's Story Vest

What we wear becomes us, in some way.  I love how we wear garments on the outside but stories on the inside.  They are the way we dress our hearts and souls.

I hope you dress your heart well and warm, with stories that make you happy.

Come hear me, Ken Iverson, Foster Nuffer, and Julie Strozyk tell stories at the Portland Storyteller’s Guild
January 8, 2011, 7 p.m.
McMenamin’s Kennedy School – Community Room
5736 NE 33rd
Portland 97211

Doors open at 6:30, No reserved seating, early arrival recommended
Suggested Donations: Adult-$5, Child-$4, and $10 for the entire family!