Just a Second

World in a second-2One of the many reasons I read “children’s” books is that they keep my sense of wonder and hopefulness alive, even when the world seems bleak. And even though they have a simple and familiar structure, sometimes a book meant for children not only encapsulates a moment, but resonates throughout my life and thought processes.

I’m participating in an inter-generational storytelling group here at my community Bridge Meadows.  Bridge Meadows is set up to support families adopting children out of the foster care system.  We have single family housing for those adopting children, and affordable housing for people 55 and over who help provide support to the families.  We’re like the village that it takes to raise a child.

Two of the women in our support team created the group Once Upon a Time.  Elder residents and children ages 7 – 12 use storytelling, play and theater to help build community, connection, empathy and self-esteem.  That’s a way of saying we meet to tell stories and have fun.

The facilitators bring a suitcase of props and a book to help prompt our own stories.  Recently, they brought The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martin and illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho (Enchanted Lion, 2015).  It had big bright illustrations of what can happen in a second.  In 23 scenes, it takes you all over the world and shows what is happening in one second:  a boat caught in a sudden storm in the Baltic Sea, dogs feeling a tremor in the ground in Venezuela, an orange falling in a Portuguese orchard.

The illustrations have strong lines and deep color.  The characters represent all races, cultures and many lands in the world.  It’s a great book to explain the concept of time, of the earth’s movement, and the geography of our diverse planet.  At the end of the book there’s a world map and a chart of all the places illustrated in the book – as well as the time it would be in each place – 1:32 p.m. in Xangongo, Angola, is 9:32 a.m. in Florianopolis, Brazil.  Sharing this book with a child will inspire many conversation on time, geography, culture, and even animal behavior.

Our facilitators used scenes in the book as story prompts.  Our group of about 12 elders 001and children broke up into small groups to create the stories.  My group of 2 women, a 9 year old boy and an 11 year old girl, got the prompt of people being stuck in an elevator in a New York City skyscraper.  The children were given large scarves to wear anyway they saw fit.

The boy wrapped his black scarf around his head.  He was going to a costume party.  The girl unfolded her blue scarf and tied it around her shoulders so it flowed like a cape behind her.  She was the queen of the deep blue sea.  She was not stuck in the elevator.  She was the person we were all going to see on the top floor of the skyscraper.  We acted out being stuck, the boy acted out calling for assistance, and the queen opened the doors to free us all.

We watched the other groups act out their stories – “a thief opens the door,” and “a book reaches the end.”

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The children were boisterous and the energy in the room was high.  They wanted to jump and spin and climb on the furniture.  But when they acted out a scene, they did their parts with utmost concentration.

At the end of the session, one of the facilitators made an announcement at the request of one of the children, the girl who played the queen in our group.  She was moving to a family outside our community.

And in just a second, all the boisterous energy in the room deflated and my heart felt the puncture wound.

We’d known that the girl’s situation was in flux.  Sometimes, in spite of the best efforts of everyone, a foster situation doesn’t work out.  Families are complicated and those with foster children doubly so.  We knew that changes were in the works for her, but it feels like a defeat when a child moves away from us.

redwing blackbird

The queen of the deep blue sea, however, seemed happy.  She’was moving to be with a family she was familiar with, and was looking forward to living with them.  She’d be back to visit the community, maybe even once a week during our Happiness Hour, where we all gather to eat and share news.

The children all raced out of the room to play together in the courtyard for the few minutes they had to themselves before being called home to dinner.

We adults stayed in our seats, pressed down by the weight of uncertainty, our fears of the big mean world, and the loss of a bright child from our midst.  We’re all committed to helping children find permanence, but it’s not always a commitment we can fulfill.  We talked about what we could have done differently.  What part of the story could we have influenced to assure a different outcome?

In reality, in spite of our best efforts, we can’t know how a story will end.

I left the Once Upon a Time group dazed and sad.  When I got to the building foyer, I saw the girl by herself, doing cartwheels across the open space.  She’s always been a buoyant girl, although she’s been through things no child should have to go through.  She once told me, “I like being happy.  I try to be happy all the time.”  I know her ebullient spirit will help her as she navigates her journey to find a family.  I know we’re all a part of her family – not just those of us who know her, but the whole world, every person – we’re all part of what makes a world safe or unsafe for a child.

Hopefully, we’ve planted a story seed in this girl and she’ll grow up wanting to tell hers.  And who knows, maybe it’ll be a story powerful enough to shift the world towards goodness.  After all, the whole world can change dramatically in just a second.  Who knows but this queen of the deep blue sea may one day open an elevator door and help us all rise up into a better world.


…in a darkened room, a very old woman closes her eyes to sleep

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)

Child of the Sky

I did some stream of consciousness drawing this morning — otherwise known as doodling — with my Graphitint pencils.  These are graphite pencils tinted with color that get more vibrant when you add water.  I drew and washed a few colors and this face came alive.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of really beautiful children, the children here in my community, and I’ve learned a lot about their histories — moved from home to home, witnessed violence and murders, and felt the chill of losing loved ones.  Yet here watching them play in their new families, it seems a bit like they dropped out of the sky, full of hope and full of shadows.  Everyone hopes we can give them a real childhood and that Bridge Meadows will provide them with the stability that will help them thrive.  Already we see them growing and learning and playing.

I decided I needed to do series of these sky children and I got some great feedback from fellow artists at my Oregon Womens Caucus for Art meeting today. I will create composite drawings, not actual portraits, and try to capture the spirit I see in children.   The muted color of these pencils seems perfect for the project, especially since it’s often grey and misty in Portland.  The deep often cloudy life of children is rich soulful territory and I remember it well from my own childhood.

This first one is in my watercolor sketchbook.  Tomorrow I’ll start on a bigger, denser piece.  I love it when a stream of thought leads to an entire project.