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It was over my morning cup of coffee today that it occurred to me that as much as I like to think of myself as a spontaneous and free spirit, there are realms in which I am very much wedded to my habits. The coffee itself is a case in point. If there has been a day in the past decade that I didn’t begin the day with ‘the black water medicine’ I can’t recall it. I can stumble out of bed, dreams still clinging, barely awake, and make my way, eyes closed if I wanted, and find the drawer with the filters, the cabinet with the ground beans, the bottled water dispenser, the electric pot… each in a different place, and complete the morning ritual. At about 6AM everyday, you will always know just where to find me.

And so it was with the philosophy students and the beggar. Each day, a certain beggar would cross the bridge into the university district, and occupy his customary spot, propped up against the wall next to the coffee shop. Tin cup in hand, he would bless those who offered him a coin or two. At precisely 3PM, he would rise, proceed to the corner grocery for the makings of a simple meal, and walk back across the bridge to his humble home.

It happened that that he became an object of curiosity and discussion for the students, who at the time were engrossed in a heated back and forth about the nature of constancy and change. “It is clear the everything changes, and yet, it appears that for some, nothing changes at all. Take the beggar for example. Day after day, year after year, no matter the weather, there he is, at the same place at the same time.”

They wondered if it might be possible to disrupt the constancy of the beggar by drastically changing his circumstances. To this end, they found a way to put the proposition to a test. Each of the students contributed a gold coin, and this small treasure was deposited in a brightly colored small chest. Just before the beggar passed by the next day, one of their party, placed the open chest with gleaming gold on the bridge where the beggar could not possibly miss it.

Remarkably though, the beggar did not pause, nor slow, nor show the slightest interest in this treasure that would have substituted for a years gleaning from his battered cup. He continued on his way, then took his place by the coffee shop just as he did every other day.

A fierce debate now ensued about the beggars state of mind, his convictions, intentions,the vagaries of existence, the persistence of habit, and other associated matters of more or less great depth. But by the end of a long evening, they could agree on very little, other than that it might be best to ask the beggar himself about his experience earlier that day.

The following day they gathered outside the coffee house to question him. “ We often walk the same path across the bridge, and were wondering if you noticed anything unusual yesterday morning?”

“It’s so interesting that you would ask,” the beggar replied. “No, I did not see anything different or unusual at all. But then I actually didn’t see anything usual or unusual. This morning, just before I crossed the bridge, a curious thought came to me. What a creature of habit I am! Everyday it’s the same thing. Day after day after day! So yesterday, I wondered, just for a change, just for fun what life would be like if I was blind. So I walked across the bridge with my eyes closed. Blessings to you, young men. May your studies serve you well!”

(I’ve adapted this tale from a wonderful collection called Walking into the Sun, Stories My Grandfather Told, Collected by Jon Schreiber, California Health Publications, 1991)

I took my coffee out to the back porch. It’s the time of year now that the hummingbirds predictably return southward from their earlier spring migration. I closed my eyes, Suddenly the close buzz and whoosh of tiny wings woke me once again to the moment.

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Once again I was approaching the Canadian Customs and Immigration station on the Klondike Highway. Looking ahead I could see that the wait would be at least 15 minutes if not longer.  We  had just crossed the summit of the White Pass, and images-8I’d been telling the guests on my tour bus about the “one ton rule.”  During the 1898 Gold Rush, the Mounties required the Argonauts as the gold seekers were called, to carry an estimated one year supply of food with them as a condition for entering the country.  Now as we waited at the border I considered what story I might tell to pass the time as we sat there waiting to show our passports before proceeding into British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory.

Then it occurred to me.  The border!  Why not give the Gold Rush a rest and tell a smuggling story!  “Folks,” I confided in a mock conspiratorial tone, “let me tell you…”

I introduced them to  Mullah Nasruddin, or the Hodja as he is also known, the often foolish but somehow wise hero of hundreds of tales told in coffee houses across the middle east and beyond.

Once a week Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise.  One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have been dates, or bottles of rosewater.  Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, produce the necessary  paperwork, the border agent would examine his cargo  then wave the Mullah through.  But the agent always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.  Try as hard as he could though to catch him in the act, the agent couldn’t catch him in the act.  Week after week, month after month, and then year after year, a wheelbarrow full of this, that or the other thing  and  the agent growing increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Now it was many years later.  Both men had retired and one day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.images-12

“Nasruddin,” you old rascal.  “You can tell me now.  I have no authority, You’re beyond the reach of the law.  All those many years when I would see question you each week, I suspected that you’d been smuggling something .  Admit it! Admit it now and ease my mind.

“Oh yes, indeed my friend.  It is true. Your suspicions were well founded and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo.”

“Tell me, tell me,!  must know or it will drive me crazy!  Just what was it that you were smuggling?” the agent fairly begged.

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “ Wasn’t it obvious?  I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”images-9

I would have occasion to tell it dozen’s of times over the course of the summer while waiting either to cross into Canada or back into Alaska. Once, I even told it to one of the U.S customs officials as we sat at a cafe at adjacent tables in Skagway.

“ That story is truer than you even think,” he told me, and then related that when he was working at the U.S and Mexican border, there was a guy who came across often with a bicycle heavily laden with merchandise.  Eventually the agent figured out that he was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling… bicycles!

Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on to something ‘hiding in plain sight.’

In one venue or another, I’ve been telling the Nasruddin wheelbarrow story for years, but it was just the other day on the way to the Taos storytelling festival when I saw this story in a way that I’d never thought about it before.  This is not uncommon for storytellers.  .  Another layer of the onion peels off to reveal  a previously unrecognized  dimension of a tale. Here I am thinking that I’m bringing people to a wading pool, and unknown to me someone in the audience is off in the deep end of meanings and associations.

Storyteller as “Smuggler!”   Wittingly or unwittingly, we carry messages across borders and boundaries, stealthily slipping in meaning that is reveals later when the time or conditions are right.   I thought I was telling a story about smuggling wheelbarrows and lo and behold, I finally figure out that it can be construed as story about smuggling stories!

When they could afford it, the Klondike gold seekers would hire Tlingit packers to haul their good up the passes.  Their strength and endurance was legendary.
Still, all who watched one day were astonished when one Tlingit man strapped a cast iron stove on his back and without faltering proceeded to make the long ascent the summit.  As a crowd at the top looked on in astonishment, he put the stove down, then opened it’s door, and took out a 50 pound sack of flour!

Storyteller!  You approach your listeners with a story. You’re at a border. ( of the storyteller/story/listener)  Here’s the agent waiting for you with a question.  Just what are you packing in that story bag?

images-11(Fellow storytellers… what story have you discovered hiding in your stories?)

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What follows is a slightly expanded version of a message I sent to PUBYAC, a listserve discussion group for Public Library services for Young Adults and Children.  Many libraries (schools too of course) are looking for ways to tie their programs into the educational initiative known as STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)  STEM has been extended by others to STEAM with a well placed acknowledgement of the Arts!  PUBYAC librarians have been discussing how to provide relevant programming and particularly to the youngest of their patrons.

 

Reading the compilation of STEM related activities prompts the following musings…

imagesThe great environmentalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Everything is indeed connected and knowing this offers a reassuring compass when thinking about how to develop programs tied to STEM, STEAM and other science related themes.

I’d like to invoke another wise elder of the environmental tribe… Freeman Tilden,  whose Principles of Interpretation have guided Park Rangers, Nature Center staff, Living History, and Museum folks, etc. for generations now.  What Tilden passionately promoted was engagement with an audience.  It’s for this reason I’d like to share  3 of his 6 principles and then make what I hope will be an encouraging  comment or two.  Quoting Tilden now…

“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. “images-2

“Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”

“Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.”

I particularly like Tilden’s idea that provocation trumps instruction, and I think this is particularly true when we try and program STEM/STEAM activities for the youngest of our patrons or audiences.  Science in in broadest sense is about curiosity, observation, speculation, developing and testing theories about how the world works.  Pre-schoolers are almost all natural geniuses with all of these traits and tasks!  And because everything is connected, you can start just about anywhere… anywhere that is that in some way observes principle 2(within the experience of the visitor)and lead a scientific exploration.

YOu don’t have to limit STEM/STEAM to science or non-fiction books.  I just went to my shelves and pulled out a copy of  Chris Raschka’s Five for a little one. 1250242
It begins, “Noble nose, sniff and smell…you do it well… Contrast, compare… Sample scents of flowers and foods, oceans and woods…” SCIENCE!

Folktales are often full of references to  the natural world ….when I tell a story about how hummingbird got it’s colors… there are endless age appropriate opportunities to ‘provoke’ and relate to kids experiences with birds, flight, nests, behavior…Many traditional Native American folktales have very purposefully embedded important information and lessons about plants, animals, the weather and paying attention to their signs. SCIENCE!

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Note the direction of light, and the play of light and shadow in the illustrations of many of your favorite picture books and you have an opening to talk about the course of the sun across the sky, the reasons for the seasons… SCIENCE!

Well, I hope there is at least a little provocation and grist for the STEAM mill here!  It’s a wide world out there and you can find it “hitched’ to science at just about every turn!

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Right now, there are a lot of people across the country shivering and digging out from another big snow storm and that has got me to reflecting on my years in Alaska.

A few evenings ago I was sitting in the sauna at the gym and thinking about what a wimp I’ve become, following that though to the time that Storytelling Saved  My Life. Now this is a bit longer post than I usually share, but if you stick with me  you’ll be glad you did because what I’ve got to say might just help save your life too.

I probably was getting a little light headed from the heat in the sauna when the words of Robert Service’s most famous poem, The Creamation of Sam McGee came to me…

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

And  then came the unsettling  realization that in the 43 years since I’d spent winters in the Yukon and Alaska, I’d become less the hardy northerner and more of Sam McGee. Maybe you had to learn the poem and remember that Sam exacted a promise that if he froze to death his pal would stuff him in the boiler of an old derelict paddle-wheeler.  A promise made is a debt unpaid, and so Sam got his dying wish.
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

The very first  three  weeks I spent in Fairbanks Alaska, the high, the high temperature was 40 below zero. If I remember correctly it hit minus 58 for a couple of days.  Of course, I’ll admit it was always nice to be able to end a day in my own personal log cabin sauna at the close of those short days. It was heated by a wood fired Yukon Stove and there was nothing better than finishing up a session with a  jump in the snow  and then  stand stark naked watching the aurora borealis dance in the black starry night. The day that I first arrived in Fairbanks  was no stove oil for the heater  in the house, so I stoked up the sauna and spent the night there.  Not a steam boat furnace but mighty cozy nevertheless!

I’m usually a pretty social guy, but there are times I really like to have a sauna all to my lonesome.  I admit that it’s not something I should be bragging about but I know how to clear out a crowded sauna pretty fast.  I just keep pouring water on the hot rocks until it gets unbearably hot for everyone else. And the reason that I can tough it out is that I learned a little secret from an 85 year old Athabascan man that I met in the village steam bath on the Yukon that summer I’d kayaked the 2000 miles to the Bering Sea.  That’s the trip I’d started with the Sam McGee Memorial Poetry reading on the marge of lake Lebarge. Meska Savage was his name and he taught me to stuff my nostrils and the lining of my mouth with the seed tufts from the Alaska Cotton plant to keep the mucus linings from drying out and singing up.  Of course now I was taking shortcuts and using cotton balls from Walgreens.

What I really want to say here is that in the 12 years I lived in the north country, I learned a lot about taking care of myself in extreme conditions .  I learned these things from Eskimos, Indians, Tlingit, Haidas, some of who  were over 100 years old, and I learned from guides, hunters,  trappers. miners, loggers, and  fisherman.  Navy seals might know a little more about survival skills than I do now, but not much.

I learned so much and so quickly  that the prospect of spending a night out with wind chills below minus sixty held no more anxiety than flicking off one of those monstrous Alaska  two pound mosquitoes you might have heard about and hopefully have never had to fend off.   I came to Alaska as a Cheechako (that’s Alaskan for greenhorn) but after a couple of years, some of the old timers were already calling me Sourdough Bob.  Heck, by the end of that first month I was already a full fledged member of the 5 mile 50 below club… you earned that distinction by walking the 5 miles to town from our little log cabin ghetto called called Wolf Run in 50 below .

But the the truth of the matter is that by the time I actually arrived in Alaska I was already pretty well prepared for the rugged life of the far north. I had been in training since 1955 when I was a seven years old.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember the Quaker Oats commercials from back in the mid fifties?  1955 to be exact.  That’s when Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog King started offering One Square Inch of the Yukon in their ads for Quaker Puffed Rice  ( shot from cannons so they said)
I was 7 years old in 1955 and when I  sent away for the deed to my very own first square inch of the Yukon, believe me, my destiny was set… there was NOTHING that was going to get in the way of my getting to the Yukon and Alaska.  I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read about the land and the people, and became  especially interested the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-tThe stampede that started in Skagway Alaska… and was made famous by Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.  In 1971 I made it to Skagway, then on to Lake LaBarge,  and then the paddle to the Bering Sea. The following year, I met  and heard the stories first hand from a number of old timers who actually prospected in ’98.  I even got to meet a native american man who guided some of the boats through the infamous Whitehorse rapids.
But going back to 1955- I wasn’t just reading about the Yukon. As soon as the deed to my one square inch arrived. I began training for it, and preparing for my eventual arrival in that northern clime where I was now a land-owner.  My grandfather Morris had a kosher butcher shop in East Boston and on one of our family trips that year, I asked him if I could see what it felt like in the big walk in freezer at the back of the shop. He didn’t see any harm in that.  It was COLD in there with all those chickens and sides of kosher beef, but I toughed it out for a full five minutes.  The next day I stayed for ten.  Lucky for me, I could talk to my grandfather about things I didn’t necessarily want my parents to know about. I told him about my plan.  We spent a whole week in Boston on that trip and by the time we headed back to New York, I could spend an hour in that freezer without even wearing a sweater.
Eventually there was no more hiding my motives. Over the years I kept coming back to that freezer and thickening up my blood. Lucky for me my father was a research scientist and he got interested in my “project.”  I guess  at  that time in his career when he was trying to make a mark, he didn’t have a lot of compunctions against human experimentation. He got interested in how long I could stay in that deep freeze and he kept careful records.  I went back and checked in my scrapbook before I started writing this. It was from Dad’s scientific training where I also got instruction and  firm guidance in being very careful about reporting  only the truth of things. That’s how come I can say  that by the time I graduated high school I’d worked up t four days, 13 hours and 6 minutes exactly . I  have to admit though that I did get some extra help from my grandmother. Every eight hours like clockwork she’d dash into the freezer with a hot bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup for me. Sometimes she even stayed in there with me for a couple of hours telling me stories of the old country and those cold Lithuanian winters. So maybe there were some genes working in my favor too.
So like I said, by the time I finally made it to Alaska I was ready for whatever old mother nature was ready to throw at me.  I was ready for the cold, I was prepared for avalanches, for falling overboard in icy water, I was ready for moose, bear, wolves and I even knew how to handle myself if I was ever attacked by a flock of those those two pound mosquitoes that Alaska is so famous for.
But there was one thing that I WASN’T ready for and that was my own arrogance  and stupidity and it damned near killed me.  The only reason that I’m alive now and here to tell about it is that STORYTELLING SAVED MY LIFE.
I had to think hard about whether I’d write about this.  It’s embarrassing and puts me in a bad light.  But after I’d made it out alive, I told myself that if I could save even one other person’s life by this admission then it was incumbent on me and I had an obligation to tell about it.  So here goes.

I’d become known to the old timers as Sourdough Bob, but I had  another nickname too,  my own personal private nickname.  I called myself “One Match.”
I could, and I still can start a stove, fireplace or campfire with one match. I can do it in the damp, I can do it in the rain,  I can do it if the wind is blowing forty miles an hour. I was so confident in my fire-starting skills, that on principle I never carried more than one match.  Of course I kept it dry in my old Boy Scout double sealed, waterproof container.  There was no sense taking chances.

I’ve mentioned how much I learned from hunters, trappers, fisherman, loggers  and such. Of all the old timers I ever met, I learned the most from Poopdeck who I met when he was 78 and who passed away in Homer Alaska at 97  (still swimming in the town pool just a few months before the end).  He’d done all those things and more.  So naturally he knew a few things a young fellow like me ought to know. No one was less inclined to give advice when it wasn’t asked for or to push his own opinions on any one else. He must have got wind of that one match brag of mine though and so this one time he took the liberty of telling me,

“Bob,” he said, “I want you to remember this. When you camp be sure to take PLENTY of matches and keep them dry. This One Match business is a dangerous flibbery flabberty.  And while I’m telling you what you didn’t ask for let me remind you of a couple of other things.  Always… I mean always be careful, look around and pay  close attention to where you pitch your camp.  And when you set out on the trail ALWAYS let someone know where you’re going even if you’re only going out on a day trip.  Alaska can be an unforgiving place when things turn bad.”

I guess I stopped listening after Poopdeck said… Plenty of Matches. I know you’re thinking,  ah, that ‘s how he got in big trouble.  But that wasn’t it.  One Match means One Match. I know how to build a fire and I’ve never failed. It was the other two pieces of advice that I ignored that almost cost me my life.

At the time I’m talking about, The Day that Storytelling Saved My Life, it was a gorgeous late September morning. I should have stuck to my original plan and made sauerkraut that day. A darn moose had gotten into my cabbages and eaten every last one except for that puny one in the northwest corner of the garden that didn’t get as much sun.  The moose had even eaten half of that one too but at least there was still about eighty or ninety pounds of it left give or take an ounce or two.  (I did let my record keeping slip a little during that summer)

When I looked out my window and saw that the bay was as flat as a mirror, and checked the charts and saw that he tides were perfect, I thought, wow, this is a perfect day,
a great day to paddle across the bay and hike up to  Grewink Glacier. I was so eager that I almost left without setting the mosquito traps. I baited them with a couple of puny thirty pound king salmon I’d kept on ice for just such purposes and launched my kayak and caught the outgoing tide.

It was so calm I barely had to paddle… those enormous Kachemak Bay tides carried me past Bird Island and easily across the 5 miles to the roadless side of the bay.I  saw the usual assortment of sea birds, dolphins and orca whales on the crossing.  But watching those two baby grizzly bears skinny-dipping was a real treat. A lot of people have asked me about how I took the photo. The mama bear was nearby and she was the one who helped me out with that.  It’s a little bit out of focus but it was a small camera and kind of hard for her to hold it still.Crossing Kachemak Bay

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At Glacier Spit I beached the kayak and headed up the  faint trail. It was a glorious day. Being early fall there was a veritable riot of berries. I feasted on blueberries,crowberries, and cranberries and saved some for the trip back to share with the bears. I watched eagles circle and soar, and as I followed the rush of glacier meltwater up to the source I delighted in the great swaths of late blooming fireweed still blanketing the meadows in magenta majesty.

After reaching  Glacier lake  I took a  look at my watch and saw that I still had plenty of time to take a little nap and get down the trail and catch the outgoing tide for the trip back.  I used the leading edge of the glacier as an alarm clock.  On previous hikes there and with my careful record keeping I’d discovered that if I stood in exactly the right place facing a very particular place on the glacier, I could shout and perfectly figure how much time would elapse before the echo came back.  I positioned myself for an hour and fifteen minute snooze- that would give me time to get back to the shore before the wind was likely to pick up- I shouted “ Time to get up Bob” towards the glacier and dropped off to sleep.  Climate change deniers… you are wrong!  Because after this was all over I realized that the glacier had receded a foot or two, throwing off my calculations.  The echo wake up call didn’t come back for an hour and twenty minutes and that five minutes that I overslept might have made all the difference.

I tried to make up those five minutes racing down the trail, But by  the time I got back to the beach, the calm bay had just turned into a churning, whitecapped  fury, pushed by 40mph winds. It wouldn’t matter how strong the outgoing tide was running… there was no way I was going to make it back across the bay that day.  I’d have to spend the night in the woods and wait for the predictable calm in the morning.  But I wasn’t worried one bit.

I’ve always said, you’d have to be a fool to starve to death living by Kachemak Bay.  Food was not going to be a problem.  Besides the abundance of berries, at low tide you could pry loose more mussels in 5 minutes than you could eat in 5 weeks.  Have you ever tasted a mussel freshly harvested and steamed open over an open fire?   Food was not going to be a problem.

Shelter was no problem either. I hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag… but I had my big buck knife and I went right to work cutting spruce boughs and making a nice tight little lean- to.Then I hollowed out a fire pit, and gathered enough  tinder, kindling and logs to keep a roaring fire going all night.  And all it took was One Match to get it going!  I was feeling kind of proud of myself.
Food… no problem .Shelter… no problem. Fire …no problem…I even had my evening’s entertainment,  a well weathered copy of Jack London’s short stories in the back pocket of my Carthart Jeans.  I loved Jack London’s stories ever since I’d read Call of the Wild and  White Fang and To Build a Fire, all in one weekend I spent in Grandpa’s freezer.

Thanks for staying with me this far. You’ll be glad you did, because this is where I’m getting to the details of How Storytelling Saved My Life and remember I’m only sharing this with you because it might help you out of jam some day.  Have you ever read to Build a Fire?  If so, you might start thinking about how it ends with the hero freezing to death.

As darkness came on.here I was, snug as a bug an and twice as smug…One Match had done it again… the fire was roaring and  my belly was full.. I’d steamed the mussels with  seaweed and and ate a  perfectly cooked Dolly Varden trout I’d plucked from the stream with my bare hands just before the sun went down.  You can’t eat better than that at Ivar’s Acres of Clams….and that’s the best seafood restaurant in SEattle!  Don’t miss Ivar’s if you have a chance.

After dinner the bay was still churning,the wind was still blowing, the temperature had  dropped below 32, but it didn’t matter. the fire was throwing plenty of heat and I soon drifted off to sleep.  I must have been thinking about the mosquito traps back home. I was in the middle of a  dream about getting drained dry by one of those suckers when I woke for a moment, shook off the dread…looked around and to my surprise it was snowing!  Kind of early for Kachemak Bay but not really all that unusual for September.  Big heavy flakes of wet snow had drifted down and covering the ground about two or three inches.  But no problem… the fire was going strong, so I went back to my dream.

It was just when I was being carried off by two of those mosquitoes and one of them was saying, “Let’s eat him now so the big ones don’t take him away and eat him first” when I was startled out of the dream by that fateful crack.   It almost sounded like the report of a high powered rifle, followed by something that sounded like more like a groan… and then a snap! Then then came the avalanche!

Yes it’s true.  Just like in Jake London’s Story , where the hero built his fire too close to a pine tree,and the weight of the snow, cracked a branch and an avalanche of snowed slid off and put out his fire and would soon put out his life.  My fire was cold out- buried in a food of snow that had slid off the Sitka Spruce I was camped under.

And now Poopdeck’s advice came back to me loud and clear now. “Bob…be real careful about picking your campsite. I’ll admit to a brief moment of panic.  But I got right into action.  I remembered seeing a big hollow log I’d seen not far from the campsite when I’d been foraging for firewood.  It wasn’t going to be the Hilton, it wasn’t even Motel 6,  but it was a place I could get out of the cold, get out of the damp breeze, warm myself with my own body heat and at least survive the rest of the night.

I know what your probably thinking- that there was bear in that hollow log.  No there was not bear. I’m not that foolhardy. ’d rattled a stick in there first just to be sure.  t was vacant and exactly the right size… just big enough around for me to squeeze into, and long enough to leave me about a foot on either end.  I crawled into that life-saver with a strange mixture of emotions;  feeling stupid for my cheeckako mistake, yet proud of my sourdough resourcefulness.  And then exhausted from the long day, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When I woke up the sun was already high in the sky. The storm had passed and it was a gorgeous  Indian Summer DayI  looked out from the head end of my abode and could see steam rising from the beach rocks… the snow had melted… all of it….the birds were singing in delight… and I could see the Bay… calm and inviting for my return paddle.  It was STILL Paradise!

Until that is,  I tried to get out of the log. And that’s when I discovered  that I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t move backward.  I’ve never really been able to explain this scientifically.  It has something to do with temperature and expansion and contraction… but somehow because of the rapid cooling then warming of that  hollow log, the ‘hollow’ had shrunk, and the log had had filled in the spaces. Just enough to trap me in a wooden prison.  I’d been in plenty of claustrophobic situations before, during my cave exploring days, and I’d learned that you could always wiggle a bit…change the orientation of a hand or  arm, leg or foot and pry oneself loose.  This time though all such efforts were in vain.  I mean I was Stuck, capital S Stuck.  I wasn’t going anywhere.

And then…I remembered that last piece of Poopdeck’s advice.  Always tell someone where you are going. That’s when the fear and dread really hit me.  I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, nobody would be looking for me. I was well off the beaten track… the chances were almost nil that I would be found  before I died from lack of water, or hypothermia or just plain being scared to death.

I  now had plenty of time to think about just how foolish I’d been before I finally expired.  Yes, the One Match thing along with a lot of my other wilderness bragging was just so much flibberty flabberty after all.  After awhile though the panic, and the disgust with myself subsided and a strange kind of peace and acceptence washed over me.

It’s true what they say about being close to death.Some of you may have experienced this yourselves.   Your whole life runs like a movie before your eyes or in your mind.  In this case. I started reviewing my life and adding it up… Of course I thought about all my loved ones, and friends so far away and out of reach and that made me sad. But an interesting thing was happening. The more I reflected on my life, the better I felt about it.   I’d been a good person.  A great friend.  A hard worker.  Kind to strangers and animals. I thought about all the good I’d done for other people… and the more I thought about it… the more I came to realize and appreciate that I had lived a truly exemplary life!

Just when I was feeling so good about myself, I remembered something I shouldn’t have forgot. There’s always two sides to every story.  I needed to also take stock of my shortcomings. And so thought, and thought and thought.  I thought about it for a good hour and twenty three minutes ( I did record that in my log later)
But as hard as I tried,  I  simply could not find another side of the story.I could not think of one thing, not one single shortcoming… not one.. As much as II wracked my brain, in the end I had to admit. I had truly lived a truly flawless and exemplary life. And I might have expired right there and then in blissful reverie if a deeply buried memory hadn’t bubbled up. I WASN”T perfect… I remembered ONE lapse.  It all came back to me.

It was only one time… just once…  but one time. I ‘d been telling a story  and  I had stretched the truth. I was in New York and telling some friends i that I had hitched all the way from Alaska on the back of one of those 747 sized mosquitoes…. and the fact was that it wasn’t true. That mosquito had only made it to St. Louis before it tuckered out and broke into that blood bank and left me stranded on Route 66. I’d actually taken a greyhound the rest of the way back East.

Yes… it was only one time. But the fact of the matter was that  I had  stretched the truth. I was NOT that completely exemplary person I’d just made peace with.

And folks at that  very moment when I came to grips with that awful realization …it made me feel  small… so small… so small…
that I shrunk a full notch and that was just enough to be able to wiggle out of that log… grab a ride  on the back of a passing killer whale, get back home- skin that mosquito that had blundered into my trap… sell the fur… and by myself  the lap top computer I’m writing this from today.

So you see, that’s how Storytelling Saved My Life.  I hope you’ll never have to stretch the truth but if you just don’t have any choice, it just might save your’s sometime too.  I know my dad would be proud of me about how careful I was with the truth in sharing this account with you.  I’ve never forgot what he told me. “ Son, you be careful and never and I mean never, let the truth get in the way of telling a good story.”

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Robby's first bookHi Folks… I originally posted this a year ago.  My mom died recently and I though it a good time to republish this piece…..

Although my somewhat dazed expression in this photo from 1950 may not reflect it, I’ve had a lifelong love of reading, which I attribute in no small part to my mother’s lifelong love of reading.  As of this writing, mom has been continually engaged with the same book club for well over 40 years!

I got my first library card when I was about three.  There I stood looking up at Ms. Heitman from her perch at the reference desk at the Finklestein Memorial Library in Spring Valley N.Y.

“ May I have a library card?” I asked (I’d already been instructed in the difference (between may I and can I?)

“How old are you?” asked Mrs.Heitman,

I counted on my fingers…”Three!”

“Can you write your name?”

“No.”

“You have to be able to write your name to get a library card at The FinklesReadingTogether-1tein Memorial Library.”

“I’’ll be back!”

And I was , and motivated as I was it was within a few weeks. I’ve been haunting libraries, and surrounding myself with books ever since.

Our son Chris has been visiting us this week, which among other things presented an opportunity to look through family photos.

This photo of Chris and Renee’s daughters, Maya and Raina is a treasure.  Maya is eleven, Raina is one and to see Maya reading to Raina is a treasure. Maya is reading a book we gave to her some years ago.

DSC00600Now here’s a picture of Liz and I reading to Maya when she was about 2+.  We’re reading  one of the Golden Book classics, Big Brown Bear, published in 1948  the year of my birth. It’s the first book I have a clear memory of and which in another post I’ll credit with pointing me to ten years of adventure in Alaska (that as they say is another story)

So there’s a lineage here of the love of books and reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy gifts recently and suddenly I pictured Maya and Raina, together someday far in the future, two venerable old sisters, poring over a family heirloom- this photograph of the two of them, and a rendering of the moment by my incredibly talented artist friend Peter Menice. Peter recently created this Dig Into Reading poster for me for my 2013 Summer Reading Library Tour.  I figured this could make a great Christmas gift for the girls and Peter was just the person to pull it off.  granddaughters reading peter

Let me just say that when I presented the idea to Peter it was a like lighting a firecracker with a short fuse.  Peter just about exploded with enthusiasm and burst of possibilities.  That’s Peter always ready willing, eager and ready to take an idea or concept, collaborate, create, and find an opportunity to express his passion and find a way to bring his core and essence to his life and work. (Find Peter at PeterMenice.com)

REVISED EDITION- Here’s how that photo of Maya and Raina became one of Peter’s interpretations and creations.

“The best way to to squeeze the wine out of good fortune is to dance on it with ready feet.”  So I have heard.  What good fortune to have a friend like Peter, What good fortune to have been given the legacy of the love of reading.  What good fortune to have    had an opportunity to pass it on.  What good fortune to watch my granddaughters grow,  and to be  truly curious kids and what greater good fortune can there be than to see their love for each other.

So here’s to the love of books and reading, here’s to families reading together, and here’s to the creative and collaborate spirit. I invite my friends and readers to follow as Peter renders this though his imagination, spirit and talent.

I really welcome and encourage comments, reflections, memories that this process may spark and would also be grateful to those who see fit to share this post/process with folks who you think might appreciate it.  Thanks!

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And like a thunderbolt he falls...He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
(Tennyson)

In 1969 I was booted out of my college poetry class for sticking tenaciously to the opinion that Tennyson’s Eagle would have a different resonance for someone who had experienced the soar and dive of said avian majesty.  “The import and meaning of the poem lies wholly within the poets words.” That or something to that effect was the considered and inviolable position of the esteemed professor.  That’s what he was clinging to and my dissent earned me my eviction. I had no experience of eagles at the time. But that was about to change.  It was experience I was after, not talk about experience, and after one more anthropology class that began with about four weeks of debate about functionalism vs. structuralism, I found myself hitchhiking to Seattle in the middle of the winter, and soon after on a ferry headed to Alaska.A month later,I was one of two white people in a small Haida fishing village, trying to learn my way around lines, nets, winches and for the first time in my life a culture not my own.

Not long after, I was taking a dreamy siesta on a rocky beach when I was startled out of my reverie as a bald eagle came swooping down almost directly over my head from his Douglas r perch- and made a stab at a herring 50 or so yards off shore.  The feeling was visceral and left me almost breathless.  A few years later on a remote island where I was doing field research for the Alaska Fish and Game Department, I had another even more visceral encounter with our national bird.  Perhaps it was the bright orange rain slicker that I was wearing. I was clearly something that didn’t belong. The eagle saw fit to editorialize by taking aim from about 500 feet, carefully calculating wind speed and current and anointed me with the remains of it’s fishy breakfast. But at least I was finally vindicated.  Tennyson’s poem conveyed nothing of the immediacy of the impact or aftermath. Nor so the words of that other great master of poetry and the English language, Steve Martin.

Pointy Bird
O pointy birds, o pointy pointy,
Anoint my head, anointy-nointy

Call it self serving or congratulatory but with an additional 40 years under my belt (and an expanding waistline to prove it) I clasp even more tenaciously to the proposition that experience mediates experience- that “been there, done that” deepens what I now look and listen for, how I reflect on and synthesize my experiences, what stories I choose to tell whether personal or folkloric, how I weave them together,  how I tell them and how they have come to subtly shape how I continue to lead my life.  In short and to borrow an academic term, my narrative intelligence has increased. To put it in terms I’m more comfortable with, more and more I am thinking like a storyteller and living a storied life.

Does this make me a better storyteller?  It depends.
I can’t help but think of the sign I saw a few years back on billboard for a building supply company.  (A modern way of keeping proverbs in the public eye)

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens- Highly Recommended!

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens- Highly Recommended!

It depends whether I choose to bring myself to the edge of the story, to the heart of the story, to create a bridge to the next story, and of course whether I do this judiciously and skillfully.

It’s harvest time here in the mid-Rio Grande Valley now, a time I like to tell a story that appears in various  guises, but is best known as Tops and Bottoms.  Rabbit gets the best of Bear in three negotiations about the division of labor and the division of the harvest for a plot of land they share.  Rabbit generously lets Bear choose whether he’ll take his 50% from the tops or bottoms of the crop. Only after he makes his choices does Rabbit choose what to plant.  (I love Janet Steven’s picture book of this story)

Probably costs more than $5

Probably costs more than $5

When I was about 8 I was obsessed with such things as seashells, fossils, skeletons and perhaps because of a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Room, mummies.  So when Tommy (name changed in a generous gesture in case the author, editor and judge of The Book of Life is keeping score and has not yet apportioned Tommy’s place in eternity) sold me a sight must remain unseen genuine cat mummy for a very hard earned 1956 five bucks, I gladly forked it over. It was with great anticipation that  I reached  into the brown paper bag Tommy handed me and pulled out a very flat, and not totally dried feline specimen of not so vintage feline road kill.

Do I tell this story as a preface or postscript to Tops and Bottoms?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Again it depends.  But either way, the knowledge that I’ve been on the receiving end of an ill-considered deal, creeps into my telling.

One for the Storyteller One for the Listener One for the one that Heard

One for the Storyteller
One for the Listener
One for the one that Heard

 

Here’s a proposition fellow storytellers.  We are more than our repertoires.  Even with traditional stories, our willingness to bring more rather than less of ourselves into our tellings adds flavor, juice and sustenance to those three apples that fell from heaven.Take a bite of the most local apple you can   find- chew on it for awhile and let me know what you think!

(This is the first in a series of posts on “You are More than Your Repertoire)

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I’m excited about the artwork my friend Peter Menice created for next summer’s library tour. Take a look and please forward to libraries and schools who you think might enjoy a visit from  The Storyteller!  I’ve already booked programs in Chicago and  South Florida.  It’s always an interesting adventure to see where the invitations come from and where the Tales meet the Trail!

I hope you’ll  also take a chance to look at some of Peter’s work at http://www.petermenice.com and http://www.buddhasdogcomic.com

Little Bear has a dream.  One of my dreams when I was a kid was to be a Protector of Nature.  I’d go down to the little intermittent stream that began at a spring in the woods at the bottom of the street where I live, build and take down little dams, remove sticks and little log jams from the water, and keep a sharp eye out for poachers!  They built a house right over where the stream used to flow… but it found it’s way through other channels… and still flows into the mighty Minisceongo and eventually into the Hudson River.  I made a pilgramage there late last  August, just after Hurricane Irene. The woods were littered with black walnuts that had blown down… walnuts from the very same tree I remember from 55+ years ago!  I hope… oh heck, I believe that I am living up to my childhood dream… doing my part through my storytelling,  of inculcating a love of  and respect for nature that I hope translates into new generations of young people connected to the source of wonder and wisdom.

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