Saturday, December 28, 2013

Notes From the Field: No-Imaginationitis

In the world of clown, literal thinking is funny. You tell a clown to duck, and they start quacking, you say, “Split!”, and they try to do one; and we all know what happens when the words “walk this way” are used. Comedy like that plays on the fact that there are subtleties, that there can be more than just one meaning to a word or an expression, and that sometimes a phrase can have a connotation that seemingly has no relationship to the actual words used. How many of us have actually been in a ship, much less with someone else, and yet say, “I’m in the same boat.” The words and phrases are a stand in for something else, symbols that our minds de-code and then understand. Sounds complex - this “decoding”, doesn’t it? So how do those of us who don’t work in the military cipher division figure this stuff out? The imagination. That lovely little (or hopefully, not so little)e part of our mind that sees between the lines, interprets that there’s more than black and white, and creates what is not literally there. We all have them, but just like some of us have not been acquainted with our psoas muscle in a while (it’s the BIG muscle that wraps around from your lower back, into your groin, and connects the top of you to the bottom half of you, and is used in every step you take), they are woefully under used. And like a muscle which is not worked out, the imagination can wither. I wish I could say that I see this withering only in adults, but sadly, what moves me to write about this now is that I have seen it at younger and younger ages. Just today, I saw a child of seven or so not able to pretend to be ANYTHING they wanted. More, and more, I see a sort of deadness of the imagination, that makes me want to jump inside their brains and paint messy, out of the line pictures, OR dress up like a loin and ROAR!!!! What frightens me is not that, “Gee, this kid is never going to be able to imagine enough to be in their school play, or write a short story for a homework assignment.” It’s that without the ability to see more than what is evident and literal; these kids grow up missing so much of life. To quote the Little Prince “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.” To not be able to take the folktales that the ancients have blessed us with, and think just because they may not be “true”, makes them less real is a – and I know I’m using a heavy word for this, but I feel it – TRAGEDY! In our work at the Morristown Juvenile Detention Center and Shelter, we four storytellers, see it over and over again. We watch these young people listen to our tales, with more attention that I get any place else I perform – and that is no lie – but they are unable to understand that while there may not be a real mystical tree, or demon with ten heads, or a place where people’s wishes come true, it doesn’t mean that these stories have nothing to do with their lives. Time and time again, we are astonished that these bright young people, seem unable to make the leap that the dark woods may not be an actual forest, but perhaps represents a place inside oneself that is somber, cold, and sad, or that the old woman at the side of the road offering wisdom might be the voice you hear inside of yourself, called your intuition. Just last month, in THE MOST uncomfortable storytelling sessions I have ever had (and may it always stay the MOST uncomfortable), a young man – bright and articulate, could not see the metaphors and symbolism in the stories to such a degree, he was angry at us for wasting his time, and, I felt he was saying, lying to him. My fellow storyteller (Paula Davidoff), and I tried – she a lot more clearly than I - I have to say, to get him to understand the meanings and connections that could be found in the stories he had RAPTLY listened to, but the more we talked, the more he pushed back. For him there was no “grey” – all black and white. That conversation did two things to me – it saddened me, and then, in the same way I have always responded since I was a teen, and was told to do something I didn’t want to do – it made me more determined! It made me see, even more, the value of storytelling and folktales, and it reinforced in me a sense of purpose. I’m not a shrink, a social worker, a classroom teacher, or a guidance counselor, but I am an AVID user of my imagination, and I intend to use that skill to reach who I can, whenever I can. It may not always work, we tellers may not always break through, but as I watch this epidemic of “no-imaginationitis”, I know I have to do something, and luckily for me I have the ammunition of the fabulous folktales from a multitude of lands to use. And I know that out there, there are storytellers, librarians, teachers, moms, dads, aunties, and grandparents that take up this cause. So, here are my closing words to those of you who see the spread of “No-imaginationitis” in our fine land. Take the kids you can and reach in and draw them out – dance, paint, read, dress up, EXPRESS!! Imagination is not a skill that should go the way of the dinosaurs. Let’s help kids evolve into human beings with rich, colorful imaginative inner lives, that will lead them to deep, meaningful outer lives. (Got a little preachy there at the end, I know, but I believe it all. Thanks for reading!!!)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


When I told my friend Peety I was going to Thailand, he looked at me, and said with an intense earnestness, “Stay as long as you can!!” While I had been excited to go before, I became intrigued as to what would make him, a man who has travelled A LOT, make such a statement, but now, as I write this, soaring in the air away from the “Land of Smiles”, I can truly say that I get it. How do I sum up my two and half weeks in this place of tuk-tuks (little motorized rickshaw-like taxis), wats (temples), night markets, and long boats? Do I tell of the humility and devotion that permeate this land that is so largely Buddhist, that every home, business, even taxi stand has a shrine, and where the sight of orange clad monks is as commonplace as the sight of people with their hands in a position of prayer. Every hello – sawadee – is said with palms touching in front of the heart, and with a bowed head, almost always with that sweet, sweet smile, that the Thai people are so well known for; instantly putting one physically in the beautiful position of being not above anyone, but of saying, “I wish you well, I wish you happiness, how can I help you??” Do I try to describe the serenity in each and every wat, which (along with 7-11s and, funnily enough donut shops in Bangkok) are EVERYWHERE! Glittering with gold, mosaics, and statues of the Buddha, Garuda - the king of the birds, and the elephant head god Ganesh pulling one’s mind towards the great stories behind these devotional works of art, and lifting ones heart to something greater than oneself? And then there are the children I performed for!!! In schools that have the buzz of learning emanating so powerfully from them that I felt inspired from the second I walked on the grounds. Children who are so kind, and, well “good” –and I don’t mean their behavior – which was VERY good – but I mean a deep kindness and sweetness, that all kids have, but sometimes gets lost at about age 10 or so. These students, from the two year olds I sang and was silly for, to the teenagers I worked with on their school play – were so willing to embrace what this lady with the short hair, and the fast talk from the USA had to offer. They let me into their world – and, heck, disrupt their world, as I asked them to get loud in their vocal and bodily responses (not something commonly done in the East, I quickly learned). Being someone who spends 90% of her time with kids, I am ALWAYS awed by the lessons they teach me – and once again, this group of young people taught me about humanity – that we are all more alike than different – the stories that hit home in NYC, hit home in Thailand, in Argentina, and in India – what makes us laugh is the same in Haiti, as it is in China. If only we could all remember that little fun fact. And, because this was “work” (and how freakin’ lucky am I that this is my job!!!) there was that lovely, intense what I call “cheese cake” feeling – when you are deeply immersed, and things are full and rich like even a small bite of cheese cake – for I was asked to perform my stories, multiple times a day to groups as young as three years old, and as old as eighteen year olds, give workshops in storytelling, creating character and setting, and in one instance giving an impromptu yoga class to a group of 11 year olds!! And as a bonus to this storytelling tour – I also got to do my other job – I got to clown without language (my favorite way to clown!!) for hospitalized children, adults, and for a group of preschoolers – some of which come from VERY impoverish communities. Oh the joy of doing a show with the beautiful imaginary of the language of folktales, and then switching to the chaotic playfulness of physical comedy – but the basis of these two art forms I love is the same – human contact and presence in the moment. Only with those two skills can I connect with an audience with words, or without. But, if I had to choose just one thing to say about my time in Thailand, it would be the people that I met along the way. There was Ellie and Dick – a couple from Kanas City, who, after spending three weeks doing work with an elephant conservation group north of Bangkok, were now taking some time to sight see. Then there is Edward, a clown from Liverpool, who has found a passion helping refugee children in Thailand by bringing them supplies regularly, and, making them laugh with his shows. (check out his foundation – – you will be moved). There was Hal and Sue, who my husband and I met while at the Bangkok Doll Museum searching for my “gift doll” for my mom (can’t come back into the country without adding to her collection!), Hal, a long time doctor for the CDC, retired, but now back at work helping fight dengue fever, and Sue, a long time nurse. Angela, a full time volunteer for a group called icare Thailand ( – who set up my clowning visits to pediatric and cancer hospitals, and then flew off to help flood victims. Grant, a young man from Australia, who, with his wife – who’s name I am ashamed I can’t remember, has worked for aids organizations throughout his college years. Joe, the manager of the hotel restaurant where we stayed a few nights – who just about cried when talking about his deep love for his country. Eric and Kevin, a deaf couple, who every single year make the time to travel for a month or more, finding ways to afford to feed their wanderlust, and use technology to help them communicate with a largely hearing world – and who this year, were happily celebrating their recent marriage, after being together for years!! And, then there’s the people of the Mercy Center ( – an organization that has projects helping everyone from AIDS/HIV patients, to homeless kids, to the elderly, to giving scholarships to promising university students (one now works for them, and was my guide to their FABULOUS pre-school program!) I have been so inspired by the goodness, and commitment that I have seen in the people that I have met here, that I just want to run and give of myself as much as I possibly can! The two most special people that I encountered on this voyage were people who I already knew – one is my life partner, my best friend, my support system, my husband – who braved the heat and humidity he DETESTS, to join me from day one on this tour. He did my laundry, organized our sightseeing, strived to make sure I ate something other than my protein bars at meals, told me time and time again, “You’ll be great!” when I was nervous about any of the performances or workshops. I am always a little too proud of my independence, and on this tour, I was, once again, reminded I live my life with A LOT of help from the man, who for some odd reason, not only puts up with me, but loves me. I have saved my last comments for the woman who made all this possible – Sonia Zivkovic, who chose me to be the very first storyteller of her brand new company Pana Wakke (it means brother-sister). To create a company at all is a daunting task, much less one that deals with different countries, languages, schools, charities, and those weird beings called storytellers, and so what she has pulled off in a mere matter of months, is truly astonishing. The fact that she also wanted to include, not just performances for pay, but charity shows (the ones I did in the hospitals and the pre-school) speaks to who she is as a human being – she wishes to leave a positive impact everywhere she goes. She was constantly asking me if I was happy, and what she could do for me and my husband – when I am the one who should have been saying that to her! In asking me to be the first, in what I hope will be many artists to bring their tales to Asia, I was honored that she was entrusting her “baby” to me, and so I tried with all my might to give the best that I had to offer – they all truly deserve that, and much more. I will see my friend, Peety in a few days, and I will tell him he was very, very right, and to all of you reading this, if you ever go to Thailand, take it from Peety and me – STAY AS LONG AS YOU CAN!!!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Notes from the field: Opening the Imagination in Thailand

I have just come from a day where I fed, petted, rode, and was hugged by an elephant, and literally lay down with a tiger - if that sounds crazy to you - think about my brain right now! I have clearly, always had an active imagination - sometimes I wish I could be less interested in my inner world, and more enchanted by the outer realms - especially when it comes to cleaning and balancing checkbooks - but "seeing" things like talking animals, fairies, castles that float in the air, have, frankly, never been a problem for me. To be able to see what is not necessarily tangible is easier to me than to comprehend things like why people are so awfully mean to each other, or why drivers think honking their horns REALLY is helpful to anyone. So, it is coming as a surprise to me just how much Thailand is stretching out a muscle I thought was already well used. The colors here - vibrant and bold, give my brain something to chew on for the next time I tell a story of a market place or bazaar. The graceful sway of the elephant as they walk, will forever inform the way these pachyderms will live in my body. And tigers - never again will they be portrayed as evil beasts who just want to sneak up on and devour other creatures. No, now I will give them - even if in the story they are going to ear everyone in sight - the dignity, and respect, these kingly beasts truly deserve. And the temples - I have always loved places of worship, no matter what the faith. It seems that man is able to do his best work, when he is remembering that there is a higher power than himself - no matter what he may call it. The many Buddhist shrines and temples are a feast of color, and light, and serenity, that I not only need, but can infuse into many a tale. With all this at their fingertips, it is interesting that one of the things I have been asked to do at the schools where I am telling stories is to "open their imaginations". To help the children be able to conjure up magical lands and beings for their writings. I REALLY don't want to join the "modern technology is destroying our brains" band wagon - but in this instance - it's pretty true. The fact that the children here are so sucked into their devices that they miss what I, in only a week have seen, speaks volumes. Yes, of course, computer sciences are key in this day and age, and goodness knows that I hope these kids take to math better than I did - but not at the expense of the worlds that are to be found in their imaginations! But, of course, children don't need much help digging into those places where fantasy live, they just need a little prompt, and that has been my job. And, it is one I have been relishing!!! My time here has been filled with stories I haven't told much, but have been falling in love with, the story of three magical wishes - where the magic comes from fairies, but also from the love between a couple. The mystical happenings of objects that three brothers find, and how they can save the life of a princess they all love, but ultimately, only one can marry - with the backdrop of Thailand as my guide, I have found deep inspiration in my work. It has been a joy to watch kids laugh at, and be engaged by these tales, and it was AMAZING to see students and staff embrace Halloween - a holiday, because of the costumes, candy, and color orange I ADORE!! But, even more than the tellings, have been the workshops with the children, in which they visualized magical forests, and, after describing them to their groups, created them with their bodies. There were rocks made out of diamonds, cakes containing monsters, animal-eating grasses. Teachers were fairies, narrators, and loving guides in these fun filled, boisterous romps into the inner rooms of the mind. And speaking of these teachers, and their wonderful administrators - they get it- I mean they get that it's not just the traditional "in the box" schooling that children need. I have fallen in love with these teachers here, largely ex-pats, who see education as their calling, and see that teaching to a child in a holistic way is the road to a truly well educated student. I was thrilled to here them talk about Robert Coles, who said the thing I MOST agree with about education "Parents need to ask not is my child smart, but HOW is my child smart!" "Soft" subjects like the arts, give kids a chance to be intelligent, feeling, creative in ways that other subjects do not. Imagination and self expression are tools that everyone needs, and for this generation, who may grow up with the world a mouse click away, but never actually speak to a real in person "friend" - they are skills that need to be developed. One of the students asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I LOVED that question, because it meant to me that I didn't look like I was "working", that I was just at play - and I was! I try to be grateful for the gifts of imagination and creativity, and on this trip to Thailand, as I bow my head before all those altars, I have been offering up my most favorite prayer (as inspired by the writer Anne La Mott) "please don't let me be a jerk!" but also "thank you, Universe for the gift of IMAGINATION!!"

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


You know, sometimes I have to pinch myself! I have just finished a day in a school where I did two performances, two workshops, and watched a rehearsal by a group of students in THAILAND!!! Yes, Thailand - land of elephants, Pad Thai, and from what I have experienced today - wonderful students, teachers, and schools. I am here on a two and a half week tour with the company Panna Wakke to tell stories in English to students here who are studying English, and in the case of two of today's groups - theatre. What a JOY to walk into the St. Andrew's school here in Bangkok, and see an administrative office, where you have to take off your shoes to come in! How amazing it is that this school so clearly prizes the arts there is a professional like "black box" theatre, and an equally astonishing dance studio, as well as an art room full of light, inspiration quotes, and the creative outpouring of students. But, as we all well know, pretty rooms, and the latest in technology do not an educated child make! Great learning can certainly be helped by many, many things - and in this age of technological advances, it would be foolish not to strive to give students the best possible supplies that can be provided. BUT still, and always, what makes the learning real, meaningful, and lasting, are the one thing, that no computer can ever replace - TEACHERS! The staff that I met at today's school were clearly dedicated - no one had been there less than 6 years, and every teacher was deeply and fully ENGAGED! Every moment they were present to look after their charges, try to help make things as best as they can, an actively listened and watched my performances and workshops. It was such a pleasure for me, to see their faces int the crowd - alert to put out any "forest fires" that might arise, but relaxed as they enjoyed the show. They treated me with such respect and friendliness that I truly felt like I was, as they say, and "honored guest". Anybody that know me, knows what I think of teachers - that they are a rare and special breed of people, who do the MOST IMPORTANT job there is - and what a delight for me to see these superheros for our children, our future, doing this tremendous job oh so well in this magical place called Thailand. More to come on this journey, I am sure

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


It is a question that I have now come to expect. It is usually accompanied by the most adorable looks, as people search, oh, so politely for a way to tell me I'm insane. I can just picture the images that are in their head. Of me, standing in front of a group of teenagers who are rolling their eyes, and laughing at me - not in a "she's so funny" way, but a "she is SOOOOO lame!!" way. And the more I try to assure them I'm okay, they only seem to get more worried about me! It's very sweet - and I get where they are coming from - teenagers can be, well, let's just say it - MEAN! The whole mean girl thing is not an urban legend - in those years when hormones are running wild, and being seen in the right clothes with the right people, doing the right things is the ONLY thing that matters - there can be some pretty nasty behavior - just ask my mother! But, despite that, and, in some ways because of it, I can ask the query posed to me with so much worry - YES, I do tell to teenagers - and, this may be a shocker - REALLY like it!!!! And here is one reason why: The past two school terms I have one of a team of storytellers who have gone twice a month to a Youth Detention Center - that's right, not just teenagers - incarcerated teenagers. But, before you too, either give me the "you're crazy" look, let me tell you that it has given me some of the most profound experiences I have ever had as a storyteller, and just recently, I saw that, not only did the stories make an impact when these young people were in jail, it meant something to them after they got out. I have written before about the intense attention, and amazing listening that I, and the other three storytellers have received during our visits to the Detention Center - how we are all able to tell long, complex stories, that have depth and meaning, and are ripe for discussion. And discuss we do, with these young people who are no different from any other teenager -they, like all of us are flawed - both kind and unkind, wise and foolish, human beings who are perfectly imperfect. It is just that their mistakes were larger than most. But, as attentive as these young men and women were when they were "inside" - I had no way of knowing if ms y stories, or those of the other tellers had any lasting effect. But, two weekends ago, as I was strolling through a country fair with my husband, a young man stood BEAMING before me - his baseball hat was pushed back on his head, and his eyes locked onto my face. "It is you!" he exclaimed. "I can't believe it!" As I smiled, he titled his head, "You don't remember me - do you?" I will admit, it took me a moment to place the face - he looked much younger out of his Detention Center jumpsuit, and with an open boyish grin, but I DID remember him, how could I not, he had been in the Center longer than most, and he had always been so responsive, respectful, and friendly. Jack, our lone male storyteller, called him the kid he first connected with. Instinctively, I did what I had always wanted to do with many of them - I reached up and gave him a hug. His smile grew, as he told me had a job, but was looking for another, how he was working on his GED - so he could be a high school graduate. He pointed out his mother who was close by, and gave my husband a hardy hand shake when I introduced them. When I said we were off for the summer, but headed back in the fall, he nodded his approval, and then with one last hug, we parted. My husband looked back, and saw him explaining to his mother just who the heck I was, but I couldn't look back, because I had tears in my eyes. I will NEVER forget the look on his face when he saw me - the brightness of his eyes, the hopefulness in his voice when he asked if I remembered him. The way he clearly wanted me to approve of what he was doing with his life now. I knew in that moment that I, and the other tellers, had made a difference in that young man's life. That, with the tool of folktales, we had been able to make a human connection in a place not exactly built on such things. I will always love the giggle of a six year old, or the way a pre-schooler, after hearing some stories will come up, and wrap their arms around my legs. But the hug I received that day, that was a treasure like in the stories I tell. One that was hidden, maybe even thought lost, but, ultimately, after some hard work, a little faith, and an open heart, was found.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Notes from the field: A Shout Out to Two Schools Who ARE DOING IT RIGHT!!!

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

Notes from the Field - A Very Wanted Child

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.