Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Who is Molly MacGregor?

Blog #23
Who is Molly MacGregor?

Molly MacGregor tells the very best folktales and fairy tales.  I inhabit her body and soul each month when she tells stories to the tiny humans and their grown-ups at the local library.  She has evolved over a period of years to become someone I am quite fond of, and she has asked that I tell her story.

Molly is a storyteller from Once Upon a Time, a place where there are heroes and dragons, fair maids and feisty ones.  She was a cook by trade, before she was summarily dismissed by Old King Cole because he is not a “merry old soul.”   She lives with her son, Jack, who you might think you know because of that story about a giant and some magic beans. Molly swears that story is “poppycock and balderdash!”  Molly will tell you a story about Jack that is true.

Molly also tells tales from the far corners of Once Upon a Time, not because she has travelled, but because the stories had.  Learning about a new place, or a new story brings joy to Molly’s heart.  Sharing stories with you makes her soul sing. She is a figment of my imagination, but her evolution was not a single act of creation. 
Molly burst forth after collaborating with The Muse.

Molly is a name I have always loved.  In fact, I wanted to change my name to Molly because my mother always introduced me as, “My daughter, Beth. No, it’s not short for Elizabeth.  It’s just plain Beth.”  I didn’t want to be “just plain anything!”  My parents would not hear of a name change. It was the 1950’s.

My paternal grandmother was from Scotland, and a MacGregor.  We didn’t know much about my dad’s family, much less the history of the Macgregor Clan.  Apparently, it wasn’t considered important.  When I went to Scotland several years ago, I didn’t want to leave.  The Scottish Highlands called to a part of my soul, grounding me and uplifting me all at the same time, which I didn’t understand.  When I returned and was sharing the photos with my niece, I tried to explain this experience.  
Her response was, “Did you forget we are Scottish?”

Fast forward a couple of years.  Although I had been telling stories at our local library once a month for over a decade, attendance was dwindling. It was true for all of the library programming, not just mine. That offered little comfort.  Some Saturday mornings, no children wanted to hear a tale.  Disheartening and discouraging.  Needed to up my game I thought, make it special. So, after conferring with the Muse, I donned my costume, picked up the accent I reserved for Celtic Festivals, and gave my storyteller a name. Molly MacGregor.

Costumes were expected when I began telling at Celtic Festivals. While they didn’t need to be entirely authentic, the costume did at least need to suggest a much earlier time.  As a theatre person turned storyteller, I welcomed the chance to dress up. 
That was many years ago.  

I have since heard storytellers voice opinions about costumes, both positive and negative, and a storytelling uniform versus a costume. I have seen storytellers run the gamut from costume to uniform to “Are you really going to get onstage wearing that???” From where I stand, storytelling is a performance art with at least as many variations on that theme as there are tellers. Each unique, each wonderful, each bringing stories that remind us what it means to be human.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When things come full circle…

Blog 22
When things come full circle…

Once upon a time in a land faraway, a storyteller named Meliss Bunce said to me, “I see you telling stories of American women who are significant, but not necessarily famous.”  Hmmmm…..
The first piece I developed was the story of Libby Beaman, the first American, the first white woman to set foot in Alaska.  I had stumbled upon her journal from that time that had been published by her granddaughter, Betty John.  I read the journal and was completely captivated by this woman.  

Libby was a free spirited, daring young woman confined by the conventions the Victorian era. She managed to break free of those conventions so that she could use the brains and the talent that were bestowed by her Creator.  It was that daring that allowed her to choose her husband to be and then make that union possible.  It is, indeed, a love story against the backdrop of life in government service during and after the Civil War.

Not long after I had developed this piece, I purchased a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first lady doctor, which held a different appeal than Libby’s.  Her story was inspiring. But then I got busy, really busy, being a single mother and starting over in a land far from home.

Healing story became my focus, and I loved that stories could be a vehicle for it.  It was the subject of my Master’s Thesis, and enriched my work as an addiction counselor. The publication of Distilling Hope: 12 Stories to Distill the 12 Steps, was the culmination of that work, and was immensely satisfying, taking me to the NSN Story Summit to present a workshop.  

At the 2019 Summit, Charlotte Blake Alston gave a truly inspiring keynote about the stories that need to be told right now.  Women’s rights were under assault. Immigration had become politically charged.  Suddenly I realized that Elizabeth Blackwell’s story was very timely. Not only did she live when women were fighting for the right to vote, she was an immigrant.  Add to that the disadvantage of becoming disabled.  A trifecta of issues in one woman’s story.  Charlotte’s keynote, and the conversation that followed it, watered that seed Melissa had planted over 20 years ago. It was time to tell Elizabeth’s story.

The more I get to know this woman, the more I love her. She saw her path to become a doctor as a spiritual journey; doing what she believed her Creator needed and wanted her to do. Elizabeth faced challenge after challenge, persevering despite the odds, trusting her faith. She prevailed. 

As I work to tell Elizabeth’s story, I am reminded of my dear friend Melissa, the seed she planted, her encouragement…and I smile.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Virtual Storytelling

This Brave New World of Covid-19 is weird….really weird.  It has spawned all manner of creative solutions to our shared limitations and has allowed us to stay somewhat connected while sheltering in place.  Suddenly performers, of all types, found themselves out of work…out of gainful employment…looking to survive in this virtual world far, far away from any physical stage or platform on this planet. And thus…Virtual Storytelling became a Thing.

Having performed in several of these venues, I have come to the conclusion that Virtual Storytelling is weird.

For most of my life, storytelling has involved the gathering of people for the purpose of entertainment. Perhaps the story’s purpose is to educate, sell, convince, or affirm as much as it is to give pleasure. A storytelling event can allow the listener to escape into that “Once Upon A Time” where good conquers evil, incredible creatures and adversaries a soundly defeated, and love conquers all. Good stories create empathy, and allow us all to remember we are all part of the human race, with human foibles, dilemmas, and downfalls. As a performer, I depend on that connection with the audience to deliver the best possible experience. Virtual Storytelling cannot deliver that in real time.

I sit at my laptop awaiting my entrance onto a Zoom Platform.  It’s my turn.  The Camera is on me. And suddenly…I am telling this story to myself!  Say What???   But don’t look at yourself!  Look up! Directly into the camera. Yes, look at that tiny light just above your screen, so the audience thinks you’re looking at them, even though the only thing I can see is me! So, there I am, telling my story with all the gusto I can muster from a seated position.  Seated???  Yup, seated.  The computer cannot deliver a decent performance that would allow standing, or any large movement.  Even the small motions need to be carefully rehearsed so that a hand gesture doesn’t leave a trail or is too much out of proportion with the rest of me making me look like some mythical creature from Loch Ness. And then there’s the added annoyance of that virtual caution from Zoom itself. “Your band width is too low.”  Great! Like I can do anything about that while I’m telling!  That low band width pixelates the transmission, or freezes it momentarily, which does nothing good to the delivery of said story.  In fact, it creates a robotic delivery for a few moments, or minutes, which is the antithesis of what I trying desperately to do!
The story ends.  There is silence. No applause. No indicator of how the story played, how it landed. Oh wait! There is a chat room.  Lots of comments from the audience members to indicate my success or failure.  I cannot read them while I am telling.  I can only enjoy the comments after the fact.  The immediacy of a live performance in front of real people is gone.

So, I am left with a choice.  To spend my time mourning that which is gone from my life, or accept this Brave New World and be glad in it.  I can be grateful for the 21st century with all its technological wonders or commiserate with the naysayers who whine that life just isn’t the same. No it’s not the same.  But it surely beats the alternative!

In the meantime, watch for my next Virtual Performance…coming soon to a computer near you!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Women’s Storytelling Festival

Blog #20:  Women’s Storytelling Festival
Fairfax, Virginia

The first Women’s Storytelling Festival took place March 13 and 14, 2020 in Fairfax, Virginia amid the Coronavirus pandemic.  At that point, people were advised to avoid crowds greater than 250 people. Jessica Piscitelli Robinson worked with the officials in Fairfax to be sure the festival would be compliant with guidelines, should it be allowed to go on as planned.  We got daily emails from Jessica about the status of the festival. 
As of Friday morning, it was on.

So, we went.  We arrived with tempered expectations.  The recommendations and guidelines were changing almost hourly it seemed.  Friday night was held at the Auld Shebeen, which was perfect.  Alas, the crowd was small, and several of the showcase tellers had to back out. That didn’t stop those who were there from taking the stage and giving the audience their best with an interesting mix of material, styles, and stories. I was thrilled that so many local and regional tellers had been included.  It’s so hard to find a way to break out of one niche and leap to the next level, and the opportunities are few and far between.

Saturday, we got a full day of stories, lasting into the evening. Sheila Arnold, Megan Hicks, Jessica Piscitelli Robinson, and Donna Washington, the featured tellers who were able to attend, were glorious.  The size of the audience, which was small, didn’t faze them. We heard historical stories, folktales, and personal stories, each rich and satisfying. There were showcases with different tellers at lunch, and a story swap for audience members who were so moved.   Truly, something for everyone.

It is a relatively small world – storytelling.  The community of storytellers is tightly woven, but never exclusive.  All are welcomed with open arms and hearts. Under the circumstances, we were all careful not to hug and kiss each other as is the way of storytellers.  That part was awkward, and created a longing in me that I hadn’t expected. 
This, too, shall pass.

Here’s what’s really important.  The first, very first, Women’s Storytelling Festival went on as planned and without a hitch.  Jessica Robinson is to be applauded for her vision and her leadership.  I am proud this festival gave the local tellers a bigger audience and a bigger event.  I expect that there will be a second Women’s Storytelling Festival in 2021.

I will be there!

Ben and Lyle

Blog #19: Ben and Lyle

The Ben and Lyle stories are the remnants of a gifted and talented moment I had in between working full time, trying to parent full time, and maintain both a home and a marriage. (I was only successful in three of the four demands on my time and my psyche.) 
One night, when I was so tired all I wanted to do was cry, my younger son, Kyle, pulled out “Good Night Moon” as his story, and the older one, Sven, pulled out “Cat in the Hat.”  While both of these are wonderful children’s books, one can only say, “Good Night chair. 
Good Night noises everywhere,” so many times without coming completely unglued. 
I was there.

The next night, I decided not to read to my boys.  Instead, I told them a story about 2 brothers, Ben and Lyle, loosely based on them and what they had done that day.  Kyle got story time first, being the younger sibling.  The most amazing thing happened.  He was still.  He listened without interruption.  And when I said Lyle was doing or saying something, he would beam and say, 
“That’s me, huh Mom!”

Then I went into Sven’s room, and repeated the same story.  I must admit, the second telling was better than the first, but that’s how it is with storytelling.  Sven figured out right away that he was Ben, and listened as raptly as his little brother. The coolest part of the whole experience was that I could slip in a moral, or a lesson, or talk about hard things without lecturing my kids.
And so began this storytelling tradition in our home.  I enjoyed it as much as they did. We did stories at bedtime almost until middle school, and we all loved it.  When I would go into their elementary classrooms and tell a Ben and Lyle story, they would puff out their chests and announce, 
“I’m Lyle!” or “I’m Ben!”  They were so proud.

 It’s been many years since I invented a Ben and Lyle story, but several of them have survived the test of time.  I tell those stories as the opportunity presents itself.  I have realized that many children deal with the tough stuff in some of those stories.  “Where Did Pop-Pop Go?” is about the death of their grandfather, the first death they had experienced.  “The Other Left” is a story about having dyslexia, and being able to laugh at one’s self.
And some are just fun.

 In “The Magic Crayfish” the boys have a magical friend who helps them solve problems.
Recently, a book entitled, “It’s Hard to Be a Verb!” was given to me by my daughter-in-law. She found it for her son, who has ADHD.  And guess what! Ben and Lyle have ADHD, too!  I contacted the author, Julia Cook, to see if I might adapt it into a Ben and Lyle story to tell from the stage.  
She replied with one sentence: “I would be so honored!”

Now there will be a new Ben and Lyle story!  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Equipment Failures

I have just completed the 16th session of “Reaching through the Cracks: Connecting Incarcerated Parents with their Children through Story.” The culmination of each workshop series is the recording of the stories that the participants have created for their loved ones and transferring them to a CD or flash drive to send.  Those CD’s or flash drives are then sent to the person for whom a mailer has been addressed.  It doesn’t matter to me who they are or where this final product lands.  It is their creative work and I have no rights to it or any say in where it goes.  I do, however, caution the participants not to send anything should any restraining order be in place.

I am technologically challenged, as are many people over the age of 60.  BUT I have never had such a series of equipment failures stalling the mailing of these stories.
I recorded 9 stories on January 21, 2020.  On January 22, I sat down and proceeded to download the stories from the audio recorder to my computer.  There were only 6 stories that could be retrieved. The other three were no where to be found.  I went through every file on the recorder and…nothing.


I went to my local Best Buy to see if the Geek Squad could help me find the missing story files.  
The conversation went like this…
“Ma’am, how OLD is this (audio recorder)?”
“I bought it in 2008.  It got me through grad school and through 15 storytelling workshops at the detention center and the prison. Never had any problem with it until now,” I said with confidence, 
and just a chard of attitude.
“Ma’am, you might want to retrieve whatever you can and throw this one away.  It may not be dead yet, but its close.”
“Seriously?” I said.  “It’s never given ME any indication that that it was failing.”  (As in, “How dare this audio recorder die! It’s only 11 years old!!! It still has work to do!)
“Uh…yeah...it’s about done.
Just throw it away and get a new one.”
“What!?! Buy a new one?”  I was not happy.  Did not want to shell out the price of a new one just then.  And didn’t my audio recorder know that it was beloved?  A valuable part of my storytelling venture?  How could it possibly let me down?
Well, I bought a new one.  I went with the newest generation of the same brand and model.  I left Best Buy a tad poorer than I had been an hour before.   While that problem was solved, the problem of the missing stories was staring at me, and left me feeling quite chagrined.  An equipment failure.  Who knew such a thing was possible? Meanwhile, I made the CD’s for the six stories I was able to download and mailed them.
I had to contact the prison and explain the situation.  Fortunately, my point of contact had no problem with my coming back and meeting with the three participants whose stories disappeared into those digital Netherlands. As it turned out, they were actually pleased to have a second chance to record and were most pleased with their performances.  Whew!
I came home and sat down to complete the remaining CD’s.  Downloading from the new audio recorder was much simpler than before which was awesome.  Then I plugged in the external DVD Writer to my laptop.  That funny little noise that says, “I’m connected!” was music to my ears.  I opened Windows Media Player to burn the drive and….
It didn’t recognize the DVD Writer.  My laptop did not believe there was anything plugged into it besides the mouse, and the mouse certainly doesn’t know how to burn a CD!  I was confounded, and not very happy.  We had spent a bunch of money for the Geek Squad total protection so we would have help for just this kind of situation. So, I called the Geek Squad for help. It took an hour on the phone for me to get to the technician who could perhaps fix the problem.  After all, didn’t I know that the DVD Writer could be bad and the agreement didn’t cover that?  WHAT?!?  It took the better part of that hour to convince him that the DVD Writer was working just fine and that it was my laptop that was the problem.  After all, just a week ago it was working just fine.
Finally, there was an agent who diagnosed the problem and fixed it. HURRAY!  Turns out that a new driver needed to be installed, which really isn’t a big deal if you know to look for one. I sat down and quickly burned the remaining CD’s and put them 
in their respective envelopes.  
And Series #16 can be put to bed.
I realize that none of you reading this have ever had such experiences, but perhaps you know someone who has.  Please let them know they are not alone!

Friday, February 7, 2020

Grow or Go

One of the phrases I often heard in my early sobriety was “Grow or Go!”  While I haven’t heard it much in a long time, it is that slogan (or admonition, perhaps?) that keeps me engaged in the recovery process.  
It applies to other areas of my life as well.
I have just completed another 
“Reaching through the Cracks…” storytelling workshop at the prison, my 16th, in fact.  After the 15th workshop, I published and copyrighted the curriculum in the hopes that if I shared it with enough people, maybe some of them would try and replicate the workshop.  Little did I know that I would continually need to adjust and adapt my precious curriculum to meet the participants where they are.
There is research that indicates the majority of those currently incarcerated have a substance use disorder which led to their incarceration.  Whether it is a direct  or indirect cause of incarceration isn’t always clear.  Given that, my own history working in the addictions field, and my experiences with “Reaching through the Cracks,” led me to make addiction and recovery a large part of the course content and story making. Until now.
There is a dreadful lack of addiction treatment services in Maryland prisons.  Only a tiny percentage of inmates receive any treatment at all, so the vast majority of them simply kill time while they are wards of the State, and never address the issues that led to the behaviors that led to incarceration.  Most of the participants in “Reaching through the Cracks…#16” fell into that category.  
I was stunned.  They were stunned that I was stunned.  
And then several of them dropped out…never to return.
I had to step back and let go of any attachment I had to my precious curriculum that was conceived in love, just like a baby.  When I was able to do that, I realized their defenses were high.  Their definition of an addiction was limited to substances, but did not include alcohol or marijuana.  They did not believe in process addictions like gambling, sex, drug dealing, or the like. Any statement that could be construed as passing judgement on them and the path that led to their incarceration was met with denial and hostility.  I was at a loss.  How to connect with them enough to proceed with the business of story making baffled me.  Finally, I gave in to their positions, and simply asked that they reflect on the path that led to their incarceration.
In the past, those addiction stories were re-framed to be age appropriate for their children, so instead of real-life characters, animals could be used.  Sometimes, the language of fairy tales with knights in shining armor and princesses and dragons was used.  Sometimes a super hero motif was used.  I had always been delighted with the end results.  I had no clue how this set of stories would manifest. Would they even craft a story?  
I held my breath.
The day that we recorded, we had 9 participants show up and record their stories.  Even the most resistant and defiant participants put their egos in their pockets to create something unique for their children.  And truth be told, each and every story was about bad decisions, bad choices, and having to deal with them.  These stories weren’t so very different than the stories of those who owned their addictive behavior and wanted to pass on wisdom that they had not been given growing up.  I was not only delighted, I was blown away, which I shared with them.  As they left for the last time, I had to wonder how much I had missed by using the research about them instead of responding to them.
As I left the parking lot that day, the slogan, “Grow or Go,” floated across my consciousness.  I had to grow to continue to be successful in this setting with this clientele.  It really doesn’t matter what I know about incarcerated people.  What matters is that I get to know them, and accept them for exactly who they are, and who they are not.  I can continue to pray that they find recovery, and find the sweetness of a life well lived inside the laws of the land.
To be continued. Series #17 begins March 10.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Blog 16: A Story Well Told

Today I was part of the Winter Institute at the MAC, Inc. Area Agency on Aging and it was a delightful experience. The description of my program included, “come experience the magic of a story well-told.”  
I didn’t know that would actually happen.
A bit of background. In 1996, I performed as a storyteller for the very first time, ever. A storyteller named Beth Vaughn gave me that first opportunity at a time when everything in my world had fallen apart and I needed something wonderful to happen.  The Potomac Celtic Festival happened in June, in Leesburg, VA and it was a massive two-day festival. Sadly, that festival has gone the way of many such events, but it was a grand affair in 1996. Over the course of those 2 days, I told a total of 4 times, and then closed the festival in an olio with all the tellers participating.

That final olio was emceed by Michael Gaudreau, a storyteller from Baltimore. Michael was not the typical emcee. He was far more creative than that.  He used the Irish folktale, ”The Man who Had No Story” as an umbrella tale. In the story, Brian O’Braonachiain, a basket maker, depletes the supply of rods for basket making in all the surrounding villages. In desperation, he goes to Alt an Torr for he hears there are rods to be cut, despite the warning that Alt an Torr is a fairy glen. Brian is pulled into the land of the fairy and finds refuge in a warm cottage with a kindly old man…until Brian confesses that he has no story to tell. Then, Brian is magically kicked to the curb but once again finds refuge.  This time, he stumbles into a wake, and at the insistence of the woman in charge, does things he swore he could not do with people he swore he did not know. When he is transported back into his own time, he no longer wants to cut rods and make baskets. He just wants to tell the story of all that befell him in the land of the fairy.
Michael wove each and every teller into that story. I didn’t remember how he did that, but that experience was etched upon my heart, to be pulled out 20+ years later.
When I was invited to be a part of the Winter Institute at MAC, Inc. Area Agency on Aging, I needed to come up with a 90-minute program. Ninety minutes is a very long time to be telling stories without a break, and part of the idea of the Institute was that some kind of learning take place.  After calling on my Muse to help me, the idea for the program emerged.  I would tell stories for the first 40 minutes, have about 30 minutes of interactive, spontaneous storytelling among the audience members to coax the closet storytellers to show themselves, and then incorporate those stories into “The Man who Had No Story” to end the program, just as Michael Gaudreau had done all those years ago.  Once I found printed versions of the story, I began to look for the exact place where Michael had incorporated the storytellers in his tent. I realized that there would be no weaving of storytellers.  There would need to be a substitution.  What part of the story could be cut so that other stories could be added?
I decided to cut the experiences Brian had at the wake were cut from the story, in order to add the stories of the participants…which gave a slightly different ending to the story. I had distributed story prompts from Donald Davis’ gem of a book “Telling Your Own Stories” among the audience members.  They were given time to share the story that the prompt brought to mind in small groups of three. As they were creating these stories with strangers, the energy in the room changed. The room was alive…charged with positive energy…warmth…love.   I then asked for the closet storytellers to come out and make themselves known.  There were three.
I launched into “The Man who Had No Story” trusting the power of story to manifest in these three tellers.
The first story that was shared was the story of a blind chicken that had been brought to her to be rescued. With the help of her 8-year-old grandson, the chick was saved and allowed to grow and mature.  She and her grandson had become most attached to this bird, and when they went out to the chicken coop one morning to visit, this American Beauty chicken laid her first egg.  It was blue. The chicken not only survived, it thrived! There is a photograph of her grandson holding this first blue egg.
The second story was the story of how this woman made her father proud. She talked about his high standards and the feeling that she could never measure up to those standards… until she did.  She broke away from the family business and started her own business. It was the same type of business, but it was hers.  By now her father had retired, so she wasn’t competition for him, but she was still his daughter.  He drove his truck to her place of business every day to watch her progress.  When he could no longer walk, she bought him a wheelchair so that he could go inside and see her place of business. As she wheeled him through, he said to her, “This is the best business I’ve ever seen.”  She had finally won his praise and made him proud.
The third story was about the first major purchase that this woman had every made.  She had wanted to purchase an electric typewriter so that she could more easily type her papers while in college.  It was a major purchase back then.  Her father said that he would pay for it, but she had to pay him back.  At that time, she was working in the library part time making 75 cents/hour.  It took a long time to pay Dad back.  But she did, and it taught her that nothing comes for free. And oh, by the way, she still has that typewriter.
The Muse was in the room. I channeled that energy. Three stories from the heart. Spontaneous. Wonderful. The power of story connected us and made magic.
Tell more stories. It creates the intimacy we crave and it doesn’t cost a thing.