Tag Archives: Storytelling

The Nature of Looking Up

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The other day, as I worked in the barn, I noticed a trapped barn swallow flying helplessly back and forth through the rafters, futilely looking for the way out.   With alarmed chirps, it kept returning to the quatrefoil window set high up in the gable.   I understood what was happening – that was the highest opening and light streamed through it.   It was in the swallow’s nature to seek it out for escape.   The window had been sealed off with wire years ago.   So the frightened bird would just perch on a section of the wire and look out into the world it was so desperate to rejoin.   

There were a few small openings in the barn that were large enough for a little bird to pop right through, but those were closer to the floor and the swallow was focused on the highest points – always looking upwards.   I realized just how many ways it could escape if only it would look lower, but the barn swallow couldn’t help it – looking up was in its nature.  Every so often, I would hear its chirps and catch a glimpse of it making another flight around the rafters, vainly seeking its freedom.

As I worked, I worried and fretted to myself about the fate of this little trapped bird.  I attempted to help it in what ways I could and opened the entrance for stretches of time to provide a way out.   The trapped swallow would make its rounds high above me, but it never made it to that open doorway.  I talked to it, tried to reason with it, explained the ways it could escape, but, of course, that was silly, foolish, ridiculous – a childlike attempt to help.

High up in the barn

I’d observe the swallow again and again as it perched at that quatrefoil window, so close to what it was seeking.   And I’d feel a twinge of sadness watching this little creature as it watched the outside world.   I wondered if it knew the hopelessness of its situation – did it sense what this meant?   Its instincts that had helped it survive were now failing it.   The swallow didn’t consider coming down to the ground when it was part of its very being to stay up high.  It couldn’t help it, it was in its nature.

Before I left for the day, I tried one more silly pep talk about how it could escape and promised to return in the morning.   As I closed and locked the door, sealing the barn swallow off from what seemed to be its best chance of escape, I felt a sinking feeling, reluctant to accept the harsher realities of life, as always.

The next morning, I opened the barn door with a mixture of hope and apprehension.  I called out to rouse the swallow, but no answering chirps followed.  I turned on the lights and sought out the bird.  I looked up to the quatrefoil window last, dreading that I would see the swallow so hopelessly perched there, not wanting to revisit that sadness of watching it as it watched the world.

Relief…a little joy…renewed hope for good things…the swallow wasn’t there!

It had escaped at some point. Maybe it was finally able to find whatever little hole it had entered through high up in the rafters.  Or maybe it actually was in its nature to look down when it really needed to, after all.  I walked out of the barn with a sense relief and peace and hope about the nature of things.

On the walk back to the museum, I noticed a little dark shape on the ground along the path.  It was a dead barn swallow.

My spirit revolted at the senselessness of the whole situation.  Was there some lesson to be learned here…something about cruel twists of fate or death not being cheated or a balance being kept? Or maybe it was less ominous – a lesson about learning to accept life’s realities and what’s beyond our control or understanding.

I don’t know…I really don’t…

What I do know is this:  I’m beginning to dread that barn.

My Wolfman Wears Yellow

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What color does your Wolfman wear?  Mine wears yellow.

Mustard Yellow Plaid FlannelTo be more specific, my Wolfman wears that 1970s mustard yellow – in plaid.  For as long as I can remember, I have associated the Wolfman with that color.  I’m not talking about the modern movie Wolfman that turns into a quasi-wolf.  I’m talking about that 1941 Wolfman that looks more like a guy with really out-of-control facial hair.  Actually, it’s probably the 1979 Wolfman now that I’m thinking about it.

Anyway, the people at a company I worked for a few years back really liked Halloween to the point where everyone in the office was expected to show up at work in costume that day.  A work-appropriate Halloween costume can be a challenge – no sexy witches or naughty nurses (not that I’m the type anyway).  I thought it over for days  trying to find something not too cutesy, something relatively easy…I then I remembered him – my Wolfman in a mustard yellow plaid flannel shirt.  I headed to Target for costume supplies and there, hanging right near the aisle, was a mustard yellow plaid flannel shirt.  Obviously, this was fate!  I picked up Wolfman hands and made my own wolf ears.  Wolfman AccoutrementsAnd when I headed to the office on Halloween, I felt good (a little silly), but truly good.  I vaguely wondered why I was so happy with that costume and why I was insisting on that mustard yellow shirt, but time moves on & so did my thoughts – until a month or so ago.

I began rethinking childhood memories for my storytelling class and was focusing on times when I felt happy.  A couple of long forgotten memories resurfaced.  Watching as an iron was lifted off of a mustard yellow shirt and smelling that strange plastic scent of an iron-on decal.  Running out the front door between the lilac bushes while wearing a mustard yellow turtleneck, and feeling good, truly good. How could I have forgotten that shirt with the Wolfman head decal ironed right on the front???

And there it was – I finally understood! In that moment of my childhood I was channeling my inner Wolfman…well, all that can be seen as good about the Wolfman. My timid, chubby, young self felt strong & brave with that Wolfman emblazoned on my chest – as if I could face anything.

After all these years, I still have a fondness for the Wolfman. I haven’t rewatched the 1979 version. I prefer to avoid the disillusionment. But I think I just might try to find a vintage Wolfman iron-on decal and – now as a timid, chubby, older self – work on channeling all that is good about the Wolfman one more time.

The Stories Remain

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I’m weird.  I like cemeteries.

Mt Zion Cemetery

It’s not a morbid fascination with death or an interest in the supernatural and for a while, I really couldn’t explain why I liked them.  But now I understand – I like them because of the stories they tell.  Years ago, I purchased a book called “Stories in Stone:  A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.”  I learned about the meanings of many of the symbols used in funerary art and stopped there for a bit.  Reading a book about it was one thing, but tromping through old burial grounds for fun would be quite another.

Birdsboro Cemetery

Years later, my husband gave me a digital SLR camera as a birthday gift – purchased with literally pennies and pocket change that we had been saving for over 15 years.  So, I had this nice camera and I was looking for subjects – preferably free places, since our spare change had just been used up.  The time had come…I began my hobby of heading to grave yards.

My husband, kind and indulgent soul that he is, usually comes out with me.  He’s into mobilography, so there’s no fighting over the camera.  What’s really interesting is how we each have a different focus, so we “read” different stories on these visits.  I notice the symbolism and the art

work and I think about what stories the grieving families, and sometimes the deceased themselves, were trying to tell.  He notices the family names and dates and is able to see stories of bad years and big families.

Benjamin Franklin once said “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.”  He understood that cemeteries tell the stories of a people, stories that remain.

Additional Information:

Remember me…

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I have a coworker (I’ll call her Cathy) who loves – I mean LOVES – to talk.  She’ll talk about anything – sometimes she talks about work, sometimes she maps out her plans for dinner, and, every once in a while, she’ll share a story that just sticks with you…

Cathy had been working at a historic site that got a lot of student field trips from the inner city.   She talked about how kids would show up without food for lunch.   Some wouldn’t even have a coat in the middle of winter and they’d shiver through the hour-long outdoor tour of the site.   This would happen so frequently that Cathy brought in her sons’ old coats so the kids could be warm,  if only for the few hours that they were there.  She also kept peanut butter, jelly, and bread on hand.

During one of these school trip visits, a young girl approached Cathy with a little folded note in her hand. The note had a small pink heart drawn on the outside of it.  The girl held the note up to Cathy and said “Will you keep this for me?”  Cathy opened the note, I guess expecting it to be another little drawing – maybe a flower or bunny – the type of things that young girls like.  Instead, written inside was this simple message: Remember me.

I wonder what was happening in that little girl’s life that made her reach out to Cathy.  I wonder what has happened to the girl since and where her life has taken her.  – And I wonder if she remembers giving Cathy that note and if she wonders if it made any difference.

I’ve seen Cathy tell that story several times – each time, ending with a few tears.  So – the note did make a difference.  I wish I could let that lost little girl know that Cathy followed through on her promise.  She does still remember her…and now I do too.

Lincoln and the Lessons of Stories

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I recently saw the movie Lincoln, a little late – I know, but just indulge me.

During the movie, I was struck by Abraham Lincoln as storyteller.  Lincoln as a skilled storyteller is general knowledge, but actually seeing it in film made it more meaningful for me.  If I had not been taking a class on digital storytelling, I might have vaguely noted that he liked to tell jokes and stories and just moved on, but I found myself paying particular attention to when he told a story, watched how he was portrayed during the telling, and speculated as to why he told it at times.

Abraham Lincoln

Photo credit: Library of Congress

Some stories were applied as purposeful evasions – meant to point to answers without directly providing ones.  Walt Whitman praised Lincoln’s skilled use of stories as “weapons.”  At other times, they were used to put things into a different perspective and get the listeners to draw their own conclusions.  Lincoln understood that stories are “economical” and “sticky”- concepts that have come up in multiple readings for our class.  A good story can capture people’s attention right from the beginning and quickly get to the point allowing listener’s to fill-in the blanks in their minds while the teller focuses on the overall message – leading the proverbial horse to water.  Stories are easy to remember – and repeat.

At other times, his stories didn’t seem to have a point beyond the joke, some little bit of humor to inject into tense situations.  Lincoln is quoted as saying “if I did not laugh I should die.”  So maybe his jokes were not meant to be much more than a release – something to help him cope.  But, I kept thinking about a study by Princeton University in 2010 that found that a listener’s mind actually syncs with the teller’s mind as a story is being told – an instance of “neural coupling”.   I continue to wonder if those humorous anecdotes and jokes did more beyond relieving a bit of tension.  I wonder if they actually set people up to be more receptive to whatever Lincoln needed to communicate during that discussion by literally syncing up with the listeners – a mind meld – to make them more receptive to what would follow.

Talk about being on the same wavelength and getting on the same frequency…

Who knew that Abraham Lincoln was into neuroscience?

Further reading:

Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom:  Abraham Lincoln’s Stories and Humor – http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/Library/newsletter.asp?ID=30&CRLI=110

Stories of Speakers and Writers:  Abraham Lincoln the Storytelling President – http://storiesforspeakers.blogspot.com/2009/05/abraham-lincoln-storytelling-president.html

Discover:  Study:  The Brains of Storytellers and Their Listeners Actually Sync Up  – http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/07/27/study-the-brains-of-storytellers-and-their-listeners-actually-sync-up/#.UVnwQxfZ-jS

PNAS:  Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication – http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/07/13/1008662107.abstract

Is it the class or is it the coffee?

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I’m having trouble sleeping at night… and I can’t help wondering – is it the class or is it the coffee?

coffee

I’m taking a class on Digital Storytelling.  It’s requiring a lot more thought, and work, and downright soul-searching than I had expected.   Each time we get an assignment, it’s like one more session with my inner psychologist – working through what things mean to me, thinking about memories, trying to pull insights from life.

At the beginning of each week, I decide I’m not going to do that again – I vow to come up with a lighter story – just

I stay up at night thinking about the story assignment – not intentionally, but my mind winds up churning. I try to make sense of things & build the story. What can I leave out? What needs to stay in? What’s missing?something fun & light without getting in too deep – but it never works out that way. Really, who knew I was so serious???

Right about now, I’m thinking that what’s missing from my stories is the lightness – the humor that can make it entertaining instead of a serious & controlled.

Ok, next assigned story, I’m talking to you: you will be light & entertaining – I mean it, I’m serious…

The Stories Visitors Tell

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The Stories Visitors Tell

Like so many things, the meaning of an object is determined by what we bring to it – the life experiences we have that make the object significant to us.   I am currently working at a historic house site, a mansion full of objects generally viewed as “significant.”  When giving tours, I always find it interesting to see which objects people connect with or comment on.   It varies from person to person, but the common link is that people are most interested in the objects that inspire them to share their own personal stories.

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Part of the tour includes a changing exhibit.   One of our recent exhibits featured lace & lace making.   Staff speculated on how successful it was,  on the engagement of visitors,  & on the “significance” of the objects (many being loaned, instead of family pieces) – the general opinion was lukewarm.

In retrospect, I have a renewed appreciation for that lace exhibit.   Sure, on the surface, the content didn’t seem to have the mass recognition that, say, the current exhibit about the Civil War does.   But those objects – little lace doilies,  old lace tablecloths,  summer gloves – did something really wonderful – they inspired visitors to share their stories.

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These “objects to remember by” served as seeds for stories about family dinners replete handmade lace tablecloths, visits to elderly aunts’ homes with doilies on the sofas, and times spent with a grandmother learning to crochet or sew. These conventionally “girly” objects had the power to speak to men & women alike & spanned generations. By stirring up old memories, they invited visitors to share a bit of their “intangible heritage.”

I think I will listen more intently to these stories visitors tell on tour. I’m realizing that more is happening than just an exchange of information – these visitors are sharing a bit of themselves.

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