Thursday, May 23, 2013
So much of the time we hear about how badly schools are doing - how they are overcrowded, filled with violence and dysfunction, how learning is a joke, and teachers are frustrated and heart broken. And, yes, these conditions do exist, and, yes, we need, all of us, whether we have kids or not, need to address these issues, and ask that our public officials do the same - but this past week, I had the AMAZING, AWESOME experience of, in just one day, being in two schools that are not are not broken. Two PUBLIC schools where two committed, hard working, big hearted librarians are making a difference in the lives of the children they serve. I know it is almost antiquated to even say,"Librarian" these days - most schools have Media Centers, and Media Specialists run them - and believe me - I am all for it, but there is something special about LIBRARIES - the place where physical books, with their heft in your hand, and the smell of those pages still reign supreme. And the keepers of these jewels where the wonders of stories both real and completely fictitious live, are some of my favorite people - librarians!! This past week at PS122 in Queens, I told stories for the fourth year in a row to students who were well read, full of thought, and great listeners as part of their annual Read to Me Festival. Through the hard work of their school librarian Virginia Hood, the whole school is awash in stories - some through the reading of books, and some through the type of storytelling I do. This is a school where the math teacher is a former student, and hopes one day his young children attend, this is a place where eight graders, who at this time of the year have every right to be "squirrely" and ready to jump out the window on a beautiful spring day - gave me their full attention, and asked mature, thoughtful questions. It was heaven, and what really made it even better to me, is that it is a public school - a place anyone can go. Virginia's library is a place where there are clearly books for all ages, it is organized, and, though it sounds cheesey - it is filled with love. A subway, PATH Train, and frustratingly slow car ride later, I was in Glen Rock, New Jersey at the Central School's Storytelling Festival. I had told stories over three days to the ENTIRE school as part of the kick off to their storytelling festival back in January (literally right before I left for India!) Every year for a very long time, Marcia Kaiser - the second heroine of a librarian in this tale - has a storyteller come in to tell stories to inspire the kids (for years it's been one of my favorite tellers - Julie Della Torre), and then the kids - EVERY CHILD IN THE SCHOOL learns a tale to tell. In May, they all come together to hear their "school story" a lovely folktale about friendship from Haiti called 'Tipingee". This year, since I had told stories to the whole school, I joined Julie Della Torre (we like to call ourselves Julie Squared) to perform "Tipingee" in front of the entire school. It was such an incredible experience to see the whole school clap their hands, and sing the refrain that runs through this story that they have heard and loved so very, very much. After we told came my favorite part of this amazing day - the children broke out into groups, and they TOLD STORIES TO US!! Marcia was genius in that it isn't just one grade together - we had second graders with fourth grades, third graders who had listened to the first graders earlier. The way the students supported and listened to their peers was the sweetest thing I had ever seen. It was the way we should all listen to other people - with respect and attention, showing that everyone, be they younger or older than us has something valuable to say. I had to run to the third part of my day then - teaching a yoga class - but my heart was full with gratitude that I got to be part of both of these celebrations of things I love: stories, books, children, libraries, librarians and STORYTELLING!!! Thank you Virginia, thank you, Marcia - you are proving that libraries matter, that storytelling educates, as well as entertains - you are making a difference!!
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
You know that expression - if I had a nickel for every time I...then I'd be RICH!! Well, if I had even a quarter of a penny, for every time I read or told a story that began "There once was an older couple who's only wish was to have a child..." I'd be having tea with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, and picking up the tab!! The motif of an older childless couple comes up again and again in folktales, and almost always, that child born of that intense longing and love turns out to be special - brave, wise, and strong. He or she becomes a hero - doing some task, taking on some journey, not for themselves, but for others. They are loved, not just by their parents, but by others, and many times by the king, who showers then with gifts. I have been thinking a lot about this motif lately, as I watched my brother at 53, and his wife at 51, adopt their first child. At an age when most folks are taking the money they have saved and planning where they will go, what adventures they will have, Robby (my brother), and his joy filled wife Helen, who only married two years ago are blazing a different path - they are opening their lives and their hearts to my newest nephew, Joey. As I gazed down at this latest nephew of mine (now my score is - including those I married into - nieces: 7, and nephews: 7 - even!!!) I couldn't help but think, that I was holding a future hero - and how could he not be? A child that loved, that wanted is as blessed as any child in any of the stories that I tell. Fairy Godmothers may not have flown into his room, and sat by his crib, but the love that surrounded him, as he was introduced to his family, beats any magical wand in my opinion. And so now - whenever I pick up a folktale collection, and read those words, "There once was an couple, that everything they wanted except a child." I will think of little Joseph Alexander, who has fulfilled the wishes of my brother and his wife, and by giving them someone to love, has become their hero!!
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Why I got all the way to India, and skipped the Taj Mahal, and other realizations – big and small. I have to get this out there, because before I left on this two week pilgrimage to India, I would ALWAYS say, “And, I’m going to see the Taj Mahal, because when will I ever be back here!” I said it time, after time, after time. Friends probably already had room in their draws for the “My friend went to the Taj Mahal, and all she brought me back was this lousy tee shirt!” souvenir they envisioned me bringing them. Oh, yes, I would say, I’ll snap a photo in front of it – maybe even with a red nose on, while doing a yoga pose, so that I could use it as next year’s holiday greeting. But, a few days ago, into my second week of this trip, I realized, that I would have to let that side trip to the Taj Mahal go – and that I was perfectly fine with it, because there were more important things that I wanted to see, do, and experience than just a pretty building. Having been in India for almost two weeks now, I can honestly say that I don’t feel the Taj, represents the India I have seen in any way – yes, it’s beautiful, and India is bathed in beauty – but not like that. As most everyone knows India is a land of contrasts – Bollywood and slums, call centers and beggars, garbage all over the place and women in the most beautiful saris and outfits imaginable. In the cities, the call of the car horn is a constant, as is the clearing of phlegm from the throat. And in the countryside, the out stretched thin arms are everywhere. Yes, it’s all true – but what is also true, is the beauty – a luster that is more than cosmetic. It is in the way, the poorest of the poor will offer you the delicious hand made bread (the only thing they will eat that day), with a warm smile on their face. The way the women, adorned in their saris, bangles, and earrings – whirl with their hands in the air as drums and bells sound. It’s in the bold color of the buildings, and the way the people push their way to the front of their temples, to see the altar – almost the way people in America reach out for a rock star. It’s in the music - the deep riffs, and drum beats that defy you to do anything but move your body. India is life at it’s fullest – it is brave and it is bold, and it challenges you, and if you take the leap, you will be rewarded for it. I will leave here in two days not having seen the Taj Mahal – it is true – but I will have: been at a flower festival – where all during the day men and women work to assemble the most gorgeous and fragrant flower garlands, and then later watch them rain down on worshippers at a temple, until there is a mush pit of dancing and whirling in a pile of petals that were up to my ankles. Danced and sang through the streets, and have people not only be okay with it, but join in, and take my hand, and lead me in their dances. Worn a sari – not easy to do – and dance away in it – without it falling off – even harder to do. Been to the home of one of my personal idols, the great soul and Indian, Mahatam Ghandi, and read his letter to ask Hitler to stop his ways before it was too late. Sang kirtan (a call and response type of chanting) in temples that were ancient and sweet, or new and bright. Sat at the feet of swamis – real ones – and heard their teachings about being compassionate, and loving. Gone to a school, where children – especially girls – who are the POOREST of the poor, are given a safe haven, a meal, and an education. There I got to clown and tell stories for several groups of kids, serve them lunch, and hopefully help the life of a little girl who I will now sponsor, so that she can stay in school, and hopefully avoid an early marriage. I have also gotten to know – at least a little bit, the wonderful people who are in this little group – caring, inquiring souls all, who floor me with their compassion and devotion to wanting to open themselves up to something greater than themselves. And, of course, I heard stories – stories of the many deities in the Indian pantheon – told on starlit nights in a hidden little temple, and on hillsides, while a bright eyed elderly woman offered us her only food, and on the roof of a cow barn, as candles twinkled in their banana tree holders. Stories not told by “professional storytellers” – but some of the most astonishing tellings I’ve ever witnessed – because they were from the heart. In India, people don’t think of their tales as “fiction” – they believe that legends, really do live up to their real meaning, which is “that which is said to be true” – and these “lilas” as they are called, are believed to still be happening in places – just beyond our view, and only those who have eyes to see them can view the wonder of this world, where baby Krishna has the universe in his mouth, or Hanuman leaps to Sri Lanka, carried by his father the wind god. As morning after morning dawned in a dense fog, I could feel, that if I but only steeped myself more in this mysterious land, I would be able to see the people, animals, and gods that populated these tales – and some nights, like one two nights ago, as I was zipping through the night on a rickshaw, I thought I did – where those women just walking, or were they the “gopis” – the cowherd girls, I have heard about in the “lilas”? India is a place that stretches the imagination, the mind, and the soul– it breaks your heart to see the poverty, but it humbles you the way people will give you the food out of their mouths, because you are a visitor. It makes you feel fortunate that you have water that you can drink, and electricity that is pretty reliable, but it also makes you feel foolish about the things you whine about – including rats (they may be in the NYC subways, but they won’t go after your bananas or sunglasses, like the monkeys here will!). The Indian people are bold and brave, and live not with themselves in the center of their own lives, but always, always, putting others first. The stories I heard were all about love, and ways to be more loving. While I’ve been here, I have seen so much, felt so much, that TRULY, HONESTLY, REALLY – I feel like my trip has been rich and complete, without seeing the Taj Mahal. And, there is one other reason I can get on that plane back home with no regrets – I KNOW that one day, I WILL BE BACK!
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Considering I am in between tellings at this REALLY sweet elementary school, on the day before I am leaving for two weeks to India, there are a lot of things I SHOULD be doing. I SHOULD be finding out why my mailing list seems to have disappeared from this computer (luckily, it's backed up, but still - where the heck did it go??) I SHOULD be reading more about this exotic, full bodied place that I am about to plunge myself into. And, maybe I SHOULD be writing about the AMAZING librarian who is organizing this three day residency I am in the middle of (and I will - Marcia Kaiser - YOU ROCK!!!) But, for this moment, my fingers want to type about a kid, and I say kid intentionally, that I saw two weeks ago. A KID, that has been the guest of the Morris County Youth Detention Center for quite some time, and when he leaves there will be going to an adult facility for a LONG time (read: years, not months. read: he will be a full grown man when he gets out) "W" I will call him, captured my heart from the very first. He is the kid who is smart, though maybe not educated, a great listener, though he is careful not to show you just how much, and full of insight and wisdom, that I am afraid he and the rest of the world will never really realize. He listens to my stories with the "side of his eyes" sometimes, looking forward, but I can see his eyes slide to my face and hands, I notice the grins, the laughs, and the way he looks at his "pod mates" when he finds things particularly interesting or funny. He is the "alpha" in that group, but not because he puts it upon the others, it is just they all, as I do, feel his inner power, his intelligence, his "something else". The head of the education department that brings myself, as well as four other storytellers into this Center, said of him, "He's the one you wish you could have gotten to earlier." Because, no matter his behavior now, he has done so many "bad" things, his dye is cast - when he turns 18 in the spring, I will tell him his last story, and he will be gone to a "regular jail", where it is my fear he will only grow better at the things that got him in trouble in the first place. It is for him that I prepare my stories and my follow-up activities. In a desperate attempt, I suppose to warp him in my stories, so that maybe, maybe he can hang on to a few nuggets of the imagination for GOOD, that he so clearly has. To help visualize, even just for a breath or two, a world that is not bars, and jump suits, and mandatory lights out. I try to show all the young men and women that I will not judge them, that I see only their humanness,and not their crime, but it is on him, without a question, that I want my words to most fall. He teased me once, when I said too often that I was glad to see the young men in his "pod", but not to see them HERE. 'Julie," he said, with a smirk. "Come up with another line!" He was right. In my wanting them to know that I SAW them, I made a bad joke worse. And, so I don't say that anymore. When I see him, still there, I just say, 'Hey", and I nod, and I tell my story the best way I can. And, I watch him connect with it, with the sides of his eyes.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
I've never been shy about using my imagination. I love giving it a workout as much as I love feeling my quads burn after a nice long cardio session on the stairmaster. I love imagining what the characaters in the tales I tell look like, sound like, move like. I walk down the street dreaming up ways to entertain the kids in the hospital, special gifts for my husband and friends, ways to indulge in the travel that I so love, on a performer/yoga teacher salary. What I come up with may not always be the best, but I have no problem going back to the drawing board of my mind, time and time again, and creating something new, something different, something unique. My brain does not like sameness, or repeating, so sometimes, even when I want to "rest" my grey matter, I simply cannot shut off (even with a lot of yoga!) the little voice that says "What if you???" And so, I've always been a little sad when I've heard people say, "I don't have an imagination." Oh course, it's not true, we all have them - but like a muscle we never use, this fabulous thing called our imaginations can get flabby and weak, if we don't use it. We stop letting our minds soar, and so they become grounded - and not in a good way, but in a stuck way, in a "if it's not in front of my face, it can't possibly be" way. It used to be that this type of they call "in the box" thinking was the domain of adults alone, but lately, I have begun to see more and more children, even as young as seven or eight, leave the land of make believe behind for the land of literal and linear, and I'll say it - drab!! In folktales all sorts of fantastical things occur - animals talk, the sun and moon live as brothers on earth, and in the sky at the same time, young men turn into bears - it breaks my heart, when I hear a kid say, "Yeah, but that can't really happen!" or "That never happened!" Says who????? Who's to say what happened in that time of long, long ago? We know there were dinosaurs - how unbelievable in a way are they - creatures like giants, with huge claws and teeth - are some of the things in stories anymore believable that that? I sit here typing on a tiny keyboard, that will somehow connect me to people around the world - how believable would that have been to my ancestors? Of the fact that I can speak to my friends in Argentina - not just hear their voices, but see their faces as well, or that a big metal bird can fly through the sky with hundreds of people in it? All of the things that we use without thought today, were once, just figments of the imagination. They were all the unlikely dreams of someone at sometime who were not afraid to use the inquisitiveness we are all born with. And that, is the power of the imagination. Yes, it's nice I can use that part of my brain to bring a character to life, but an even more important use of my brain was the way I thought of being a storyteller in the first place. The day I dared to say, "What that lady - Carmen Deedy - is doing on that stage - I can do that!" And once I conjured it to my brain, I began the process of making it come to be, just as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and all those guys, first saw our technology in their heads, and they worked to bring it to fruition. As I stood in front of a college class recently, and talked about why stories are so important, the importance of imagination in building ones life came to me in a flash. I said to them that until we can imagine something more than we see, how can we ever hope to have more than what we see, more than just the status quo, more than what we have been born into and see around us? Yes, work will be involved - hard work, and maybe failure, too, but before we can know any of that, we first must see it in our heads. We must have the blue print, the road map, that our imaginations can give us. And that is why, I love folktales and fairytales, because it says to our imaginations, "Yo, get off the couch and start working out!!" It's like the exercise that you do that doesn't feel like exercise, it just feels like you are doing something engaging and fun, that, oh, yeah, just happens to be good for you. Having an imagination isn't just for kids, and certainly isn't babyish or childish, it is essential. It's like the ABCs of building a life, without it you can't even begin to bring into existence all that might be within you, and that would be a waste, and a shame.
Monday, November 5, 2012
I am oh, so happily sitting in a lit room, with heating drumming it's way up the pipes, three days after Hurricane Sandy knocked the NY/NJ area on it's ear, and every day pleasantries right out of my apartment. I try really hard to remember to be grateful for the "little things" - light, plumbing, drinkable water. Each time I have returned from Haiti, I am always ACUTELY aware of just how blessed not just I, but EVERY American is. But, after a little while the sense of entitlement seeps right back in, and I find myself becoming annoyed if the train is a tad late, or if - GOD FORBID, my cellphone acts a little strangely. I forget that things I take for granted, are not rights, they are perks - privileges that I should constantly be thankful for, and in awe of. So, I look at the past three days, and to however long it takes to restore my beloved PATH and subway service back to their under appreciated, but when you really think about it AWESOMENESS, as a time to cultivate that most important of qualities - gratitude. And, I will try really hard to be the model of patience, as people who have far more skills and knowledge than I do, work their tails off to restore a mass transit system that allows people like me to zip in and around the area, car free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for just a few dollars. And so, if you see me telling stories in the next few weeks, don't be surprised if this next one comes out of my lips, because every time I tell it, I am reminded that patience is indeed a virtue. And one I need to grow in myself. "There once was a man who returned from a war, completely changed. where once he was loving to his wife, now he barely looked at her, and spoke harshly when he did. The wife, saddened by all this, went to the town wise man. "I hear you can make potions to make someone love you again. Please, please, make such a potion for me." The wise man said he would, but to do this, he would need the woman to bring him three whiskers from a tiger. The woman left, puzzled about how she could possibly get the whiskers, and not be mauled to death. And then she came up with a plan. She went to the lair of a tiger, and placed a bowl of the richest cream some distance from the mouth of the cave, and then hid herself in the woods. When the tiger came out, it sniffed the air, but did not see her, and ate the cream. For one full week, she did this same thing. The next week, she moved the bowl of cream closer to the mouth of the tiger's lair, and when it came out, she still stood a good distance away, but she let the tiger see her. Another week passed, and she moved the bowl closer to the mouth of the tiger's cave, and she herself crept closer. Nearer and nearer both she and the cream got, as first weeks, then months passed, finally she was standing besides the tiger when it drank the cream. It gently went to the woman, and let her stroke it's great head, and as she did, she pulled three whiskers from it's face. Going back to the wise man, she proudly said, "Here are the whiskers you wanted. Now, make the potion that will make my husband love me once more." The wise man smiled, and replied, "First - tell me how you got these whiskers." And so she did, relaying in detail how she had patiently worked every day to gain the tiger's trust. And when she was done, the wise man smiled at her, and said, "And it is the same thing with your husband - you MUST have patience." Life is full of challenges, and many of them cannot be fixed in a day, a week, sometimes not even for years - but it's in those times, instead of tearing our hair out, maybe we can begin to practice patience. If it's something we want badly enough, like the woman in the story yearning for the love of her husband, than it is surely worth the wait!
Saturday, September 29, 2012
There is an Aesop's fable that goes like this: a grasshopper and ant are best friends since birth. They walk together, talk together, eat and dance together. One fall day, the ant stops their fun games, and begins to gather harvest to put away for the cold winter ahead. The grasshopper does not, "There is plenty of time to do that,"he says. "Come friend, and dance with me!" But the ant warns that though it seems like winter is a long way off, it will be there before they know it, and if they don't act now, put aside food now, when the winter comes they will starve. But, even as the ant works, and warns her friend, the grasshopper ignores her, and continues to dance. Time passes, and by and by it is winter,and one day the grasshopper realizes that there are no crops to eat, and he has not put aside a single morsel, and is doomed to starve. The only thing he can think to do is go to his dear friend, the ant, and hope she will share... In the last month, I have had the opportunity to tell that story to several groups of pre-schooler and their teachers, care givers, and families. At this point in the story, I always stop, and poll the group. "Who thinks the ant will share her food?" I ask. And, almost every time, a sea of little hands shoot up in the air. "She'll share! Julie, she should share with her friends!" they tell me as if it is the one and only answer. Seeing their willingness to give always encourages me, and makes me smile. But one day, when I asked the adults in the room whether the ant would share or not, I was greeted with rolled eyes, and grunts of disgust. "No!" they said, practically jeering at the poor grasshopper their imaginations had conjured up. "Serves him right for not listening!" The harshness in their voices made me want to ask the question to the next group I performed in front of - and when I did, the results were exactly the same. While the children were forgiving, the adults thought the grasshopper got exactly what he deserved. As I thought of this informal poll, a question formed in my mind - when exactly, do we begin to hold a grudge? When do we go from seeing everyone as someone worthy of a second chance, of forgiveness, to seeing others as so separate from ourselves, that even though they were life long friends, we would slam the door in their faces just because, "we told them so?" I laugh sometimes when people say that children don't live in the "real world", when to me, it seems that it is adults that don't live in the real world. Children live only in the NOW, the present, the only time that is really "real", because the past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet - that is why they are so willing to forgive. We see how they may look at us like we are satan when we take away a toy, but are begging for a hug five minutes later, because the moment of anger is gone - it is a new moment, and in that moment the anger is a thing of the past. It's we adults that can't let go of the past, that hold a grudge, that need so desperately to be RIGHT! Living in moments that are gone, is not living in reality - because unless there's an app on that new i-phone that I don't know about, the past is not REAL. And more than that, when exactly do we learn - because I believe it is learned behavior - to turn our backs on our fellow living beings? When do we change from being compassionate and giving like a child, to being hard, and afraid to share, because we fear there won't be anything for us? When do we forget that we are all in this world, this life, together? Having spent A LOT of time with kids all my life,I'd say the shift begins at age 12 or so, when being like "everyone else" becomes more important than anything in the world. That is the age of cliques and "mean girls", and jocks versus geeks. It is the time of separation from the parental unit - which we need to do - but also the separation, it seems to me, to our fellow living beings. Of course, as a friend who was a nun, and is now a teacher pointed out to me, people do need to learn accountability, and that actions have consequences, so that they won't repeat their mistakes, and that they will learn valuable life lessons. I mean, no, the grasshopper shouldn't live his life mooching off the poor little ant. But, the lessons can come with kindness, the lesson can come while a hand is being extended to help out. Because how the story ends is that the ant does in fact share, BUT, she tells the grasshopper, "Next year, you must promise that you will work just as hard as I do!" And the grasshopper does. He learns the lesson that was compassionately taught by the ant that never forgot that even thought the grasshopper made a mistake, he was always someone worth helping, simply because he was another living being.