Thursday, September 19, 2019

If Not Now, Then When, Beth?

If Not Now, Then When, Beth?

I have been performing since I was 7 years old, playing Gretel in a musical version of the fairy tale. I know
the safest place on the planet is a stage, because the audience is waiting for you to be wonderful. I
know that leaping from the local arena to the national arena is a huge leap, and that opportunity comes
rarely, if ever. When I was directing shows on a regular basis, I wanted to make the leap from the local
theatre community to regional theatre. Couldn’t figure it out. Couldn’t find the opening, which I found to be frustrating and disappointing.

When I shifted from theatre as my creative outlet and expression to storytelling, I was content to be a
large fish in a very small pond. I was content to teach storytelling and facilitate workshops because of the difference it made to the participants. And then I entered Act III of my life.

I am 69 years old. If not now, then when, Beth?

I finished my Master’s degree in storytelling when I was 61 years old, in 2011. To celebrate that
milestone, Mylinda Butterworth and I traveled to Utah to the Timpanogas Storytelling Festival. I had
never been west of the Mississippi River. I was mesmerized by the enormity of the mountains and the
vastness of the landscape. We challenged our bodies (that live at sea level) to climb the mountains to
the Timpanogas Caves. And then we went to the Timpanogas Storytelling Festival.
Mylinda and I had just completed a 5 day intensive workshop with Antonio Rocha and Milbre Burch at
ETSU, and both were performing at Timpanogas. We felt privileged to know some of the tellers
personally. loved every minute of the festival. We laughed until we cried, and cried until we laughed.

And we said to each other, “Someday, I will tell at this Festival.”

For several years, I had visited the Timpanogas Storytelling website, and thought about applying. And
then that little voice inside said, “If not now, then when?” The audition process included having a
professionally recorded story – either audio or video. I had made the Distilling Hope CD in 2017, and finally had that professionally recorded piece. I applied.

I was accepted.

I was one of 2 tellers chosen for the TimpTells Teller slots. When I received the letter inviting me to
come as a teller, I had to give the letter to my beloved to read…just to make sure I was reading the black parts on the page…not what I wanted to read. It was real.

“I am not giving away my shot!” which is the opening line from ‘Hamilton” became my mantra. I had
this one shot on a national stage. It was an honor and a privilege to be there. I wanted to give it my best shot. So I asked for help.

Asking for help is not my strong suit. I did it anyway. In a workshops at the National Storytelling Summit,
I had discovered 2 personal stories. I asked Andy if they were worthy of the Timpanogas stage. “Oh
yeah!” was his reply. I asked Donald Davis for his advice. He said, “Tell original stuff. That will make you
stand out.” Donald also encouraged me to have 4 stories prepared just in case one that I planned
wouldn’t work following another teller. I arranged for Andy to coach me. In a weekend intensive, I
road tested those stories. We realized that one of those stories would work, and one would not. I had
to find another story. I searched my repertoire for another original story that I knew like the back of my
hand. I agonized over that choice. Finally I settled on a ghost story I had created for Furnace Town, a
living history museum, and a Scottish legend. I prepared all 3 and worked hard. I had a dress rehearsal
at my home with 15 friends. I called another storyteller shared my stories, and got feedback.
We flew to Utah for the festival. I was giddy with excitement. Finally, I stepped onto the stage, and I
was home. I remembered the feeling of being onstage and giving my best to an audience so that they
may be temporarily suspended in time, transported to another realm, and dancing with me as audiences
do. For the first time in a long time, I trusted my preparation and my talent to make the experience memorable. I succeeded.

Back at home, the Timpanogas Storytelling Festival seems like a dream, a fairy tale, a silver box
experience. The memory is stored in the silver box in my heart. The coach has turned back into a pumpkin. The dream recorded on this page.
Many thanks to everyone who made this dream come true.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Recording for Race Bridges Studio

Blog 11:  Recording for Race Bridges Studio

I had just finished a story that had been cooking for several years. It began in a workshop with Megan Hicks, and went to subsequent workshops with Donald Davis. It captured a painful memory for me about wanting to date a black fellow student when I was a senior in high school is 1968, and the serious fallout that occurred when I broached the subject with my parents.
Several months before the National Storytelling Summit, Sue O’Halloran sent all of the presenters an email asking if we had stories about civil rights that we would be willing to share on the Race Bridges Studio website. If so, would we please send her a copy?  Sue is part of this non-profit organization that provides free resources to educators, leaders, and parents to “explore the challenge of creating bridges of cooperation and community in a very diverse and often polarized world.”

The timing of her request was not lost on me. This website gets tremendous traffic, and I couldn’t purchase that kind of marketing. Was the Muse rewarding me?  Maybe my story was worthy of being posted.  Self-doubt is often a companion of mine, but despite all doubt, I sent the story off, thinking, “If not now, then when, Beth?”
Susan loved the story and wanted me to record it for the website.  And what an opportunity!  There would be a professional hair and make-up artist, a professional photographer, and a professional videographer at the NSN Summit to record our stories.  AND…the photos and the video would belong to the tellers.  The tellers would give Race Bridges Studio permission to use them! I was beside myself with excitement!
The taping was Saturday of the Summit. When the make-up artist was finished with me, I burst into a chorus of “I feel pretty! Oh so pretty!” from West Side Story.  I was giddy with excitement.  In fact, I was so flustered that the initial recording of my story was 11 minutes.  Susan was concerned.  “If a story is longer than 8 minutes, people don’t listen.  Let’s record this again in a bit.”
The second time we recorded my story, it was exactly 8 minutes long.  I was elated!  Susan was as generous as she was professional.  I am so grateful to have had this experience.  Thank you, Susan! is a communications ministry of the Chicago Province of the Society of the Divine Word.  The Society of the Divine Word (S.V.D.) is an international religious Order of the Roman Catholic Church. The materials on this site are nonsectarian in content and are meant for wide use by people of faith or no formal faith in the common task of building bridges of understanding and cooperation between very different peoples.
Please visit their website:

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


Blog #10

At the National Storytelling Network Annual Summit
Fresno, California
July 25-28, 2019

The annual gathering of storytellers at the NSN Summit is a rich and diverse tapestry. Storytellers of all levels of experience, from brand new baby storytellers to the veteran and world famous, gather to share their love of story and the myriad of ways it can be experienced and learned. Here are the highlights from my trek to the West Coast.

One of the first tellers to cross my path was Michael McCarty, a teller from California who works in prisons just as I do.  I was having breakfast with Donna Washington, a storyteller from North Carolina, when Michael joined us. 
“You’re Michael Mc Carty! You work in prisons!  I wanted to meet you!”
“And you’re Beth Ohlsson! I include a copy of your article from Storytelling Magazine when I hand out information on my program in prisons! I wanted to meet you, too!” I was dumbfounded, to say the least. 

Michael works in 11 prisons in California, and considers it a ministry of sorts.  He also believes in giving away books, materials, and himself in search of the stories that will heal the broken souls in our prisons.  He is a person in long term recovery, as am I, and an absolute inspiration. We were old friends just who hadn’t met yet.

From there I went to a master class, “The Magic of Podcasts” with Anna Sussman, Managing Editor and Senior Producer of “Snap Judgement” which airs on 400 NPR stations.  It was a crash course in creating meaningful podcasts, full of practical advice and guidance from a woman who has reported on the ground in 15 countries.  Again, an absolute inspiration and call to action.

The keynote address by Charlotte Blake Alston was another call to action.  She said that the stories she tells, and encouraged us to tell, go “from the middle of me to the middle of you” …right to the heart.  She was adamant that telling the stories of our nation’s history is critical to the times in which we find ourselves, as those who do not know the history of our land are doomed to repeat it.   Almost 20 years ago, I had begun work on the story of Elizabeth Sewell, the first woman doctor in the United States, and shelved that project.  Charlotte’s talk nudged my Muse, who then nudged me, to pull it back out and finish it. Thank you, Charlotte!

And then there was my workshop.  I presented “Reaching through the Cracks” my prison storytelling program to 14 storytellers.  I had written and printed my curriculum so that anyone who would be so inspired could replicate it.  The word of mouth of those 14 storytellers inspired requests for 14 more copies of the curriculum!  Woo-Hoo! Planting those seeds was immensely satisfying!
I can only hope that those who do create a prison program in their home towns will let me know of their successes and challenges.

There is so much more to tell. In the course of attending other workshops, I discovered 3 new stories that are begging to be told. Thank you Anna Sussman, Andy Offutt Irwin, and Liz Mangual and Bob Kanegis! The discovery process is such a joy!

So my friends, rest assured that the National Storytelling Network will reconvene next summer in Atlanta, Georgia, to inspire us all once again!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Loving Yourself Into a New Story

Several times in June, I was asked to bring my particular point of view about recovery into new venues.  Both organizations wanted me to propose a new point of view about recovering (from something) and adopting a new perspective about the journey ahead.  Both presented a challenge.
One organization wanted me to take a workshop that I had facilitated previously and make it fit into a theme that seemed like an impossible stretch to me.  The other organization had nothing to do with recovering from a substance use disorder, but had everything to do with recovering from a life threatening and potentially fatal disease.
After all was said an done, it simply came down to one simple strategy - Loving yourself into a new story.  So many of us come into recovery, or into some other difficult and challenging period of time, with very little idea of what loving one’s self is all about, and how very necessary it is.   
I came into recovery with no idea of how to love myself.  Not only that, but I had so little self-awareness that I had no idea what my favorite color was…or my favorite food…or my favorite anything. My self esteem was based on what you thought of me, how hard the accomplishment was, and what the acknowledgement of that accomplishment might be.
When I found myself at my “bottom” (what I hope will remain the lowest point of my life) I had no idea who I was dealing with.   It took months of painstaking self-examination through re-working the 12 Steps that I began to understand who and what I am.  I had to learn that taking care of me meant having more to give, not less.  I had to learn that taking care of me sometimes meant saying, “No,” and that “No” is a complete sentence.  I had to look at the choices I had made, the times I sold out, and the fantasies I had been chasing.  Then I had to find the good parts of me.
Then I recognized what I had really accomplished in my life, and that selling myself short didn’t serve me.  I recognized that the best example I could set for my sons was to be a sober, relatively successful, and happy human being so that they would know what that looked like.  I had to re-frame my life as an heroic journey.
Which is what I shared with both organizations.
I hope I was successful.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


Trying to teach an 8-week course that has a rhythm and a momentum of its own is damn near impossible when the prison routinely locks down. When a facility is locked down, the inmates are in their cells for 23 of 24 hours. A lockdown can happen as a disciplinary measure for a part of the facility, or the entire facility may be locked down as it was for 9/11.  The length of the lockdown varies and does not appear to be predictable.
My latest session of “Reaching through the Cracks” began March 5, and was scheduled for 8 consecutive weeks.  We completed the workshop May 28, 13 weeks later. Frustration doesn’t begin to describe the feelings of powerlessness that I get from the early morning call that says, “Prison is locked down.  No class today.”
In all fairness, we did miss a week because I was in Portland, Oregon at the Writers and Publishers Conference 2019.  I haven’t yet learned how to be in two places simultaneously, despite my best efforts!
That being said, it is disconcerting to see how little control the staff has over the continuity of its programs.  I understand that maintaining control in order to ensure the safety of all is paramount. But I cannot express how horrified I was to hear the warden of a detention center say that, “a good day is when everyone goes home alive.”
The inmates don’t go home.
Intellectually, I know that rehabilitation is supposed to happen through the programming available to the inmates.  However, when the rhythm and the momentum get disrupted by a lockdown, the attendance drops. Why, you ask? Because when a week or 2, or 3, or 4, or even 5 is missed for whatever reason, the class loses its importance.  Sometimes, the participants forget, or go to recreation, or simply don’t get called by the correctional officers assigned to the blocks or tiers. Sometimes, they don’t get called by the CO’s because the CO doesn’t deem the particular class a mandatory one. Sometimes why the participants aren’t called for a class or a group remains a mystery.
Rehabilitation doesn’t happen in a cell, or on a block, or on a tier.  It happens through education, treatment for addiction and/or mental illness. It happens through programming that gives new meaning to a life derailed by the conviction of a crime. That could be attendance at religious meetings or services, attendance at support groups, or peer counseling. It happens when someone cares.
It’s hard to know anyone cares when everyone is locked down.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Book Signings

One Day at a Time Gift Shop, Rehoboth, DE

When I was at the Association of Writers and Publishers in Portland, Oregon in March, I witnessed book signing
after book signing. People just lined up to get a book signed. I had dreamed of such events for
“Distilling Hope: 12 Stories that distill the 12 Steps”.  With 22 million people in Recovery and another 22 million
who could be, or should be, I thought that people would flock to my work in droves, clamoring for a signature that
would increase the book’s inherent value. My naivete was obviously showing.
Book signings can be very strange events, especially as an unknown with a published work about the Recovery
But then, there are the gems hidden in the nooks and crannies of the Recovery world.  
I was privy to one of those nooks, and it was just delightful!

Amylynn Karnbach has a lovely shop in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware geared toward the 22 million in recovery.  
While I doubt all of them will frequent her business, those who do are the precise audience my work needs.
Amylynn had an open house to celebrate her first year in business and invited me to tell stories and do a book
signing.  It was a beautiful spring day, and Amylynn had set up the patio entrance for a garden party, complete
with chairs, tables, and abundant food. As the afternoon wore on, people drifted in and out of the store, and I
drifted in and out of the storytelling. I told the stories from the book as an unabashed effort at promotion.
Books were sold, and signed, connections were made, and a good time was had by all.

What’s really behind those bars and walls?

Reaching through the Cracks:  Connecting Incarcerated Persons with Loved Ones through Story

Despite the conventional concerns about working with incarcerated individuals,
I can happily report that I have never experienced any of those fears, nor any of those situations which one may
consider hazardous to one’s health.  I’ve worked behind these bars for many years now, and this is what I find
every time:

I find people who have been thrown away,
Dismissed, discarded, and

I find people who have suffered trauma…
By a random act of violence, by the world they were born into,
By family action, or inaction.

Catastrophe due to addiction, mental illness, or both,
Wreaking havoc, one person at a time,
One soul at a time, five minutes at a time.

I find the power hungry and the apathetic,
The burned out and the burned
Some there for a paycheck, some for a payback.

I find human souls that have been caged, both willingly and unwillingly,
For years at a time, or perhaps a lifetime,
Devoid of hope because they are disposable.

I thought disposable described diapers.

© Beth Ohlsson, 2019

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