Sunday, September 28, 2014

Notes from the Field - Back to School

I am being completely honest when I say that I have just two recurring nightmares. One is the “I can’t get there” dream, where I leave my apartment ready to go somewhere, but misadventure strikes again and again, and I just can’t get to where I’m going, in fact, I get further away, and later and later – and for someone who prides herself for being on time, that REALLY kills! The second one, comes every year – usually the first week of August or so, the first time my eyes spy a sign that says “BACK TO SCHOOL”. It does not matter where I am, or what I did during the day, or even if I have seen the scariest movie EVER (which for me, great big chicken that I am, would be one of the Scary Movie series, which are supposed to be funny)- that night my dreams will be of someone dragging me – kicking, screaming, and possibly biting – back into school. Did I mention I DID NOT like school as a kid??? Clearly, I LOVE learning, and I will read anything put in front of me, but school and me – well, let’s just say it’s the old square hole, round peg situation, I just didn’t fit. So I guess it’s a little karmic joke that I now spend soooo much time in schools as a storyteller, and this year, I am lucky enough to have three different “residencies” – which means I will be visiting the same classes several times a month all year long. My husband, the man who knows what I’m going to say before I say it, smiled on my first day of one of my residencies, and said, “Have a good first day of school, honey!” And I have to admit that, just like I worried about what I wore on my first day of high school – I fretted over my ensemble for Mr. Vargas’ class of 6th graders – I wanted to look “cool adult” – and not “who the heck is this lady who is not a teacher, but I have to listen to anyway, and boy does she look dorky!” I went over in my head, not just the stories I would tell, but the way I would introduce myself, and ask their names. More than just a one time show, this type of situation is about building a relationship with the kids and the teachers, one that will sustain my visits after the novelty of having a storyteller in the room performing for them has worn off. And, unlike when I was a student – I LOVE this type of continuity – I relish the challenge of coming up with new material – pretty quickly, that will enhance the classroom learning, rather than add one more thing onto the plate of those most unsung and over worked heroes – teachers!! I enjoy adapting other parts of my life – my clowning, yoga, volunteer work, and travels into things I can share with the kids. As more and more of these opportunities to be a “storyteller in residence” in school classrooms have presented themselves, I have begun to look at them as a way to reach back in time to my younger self. The kid who would stay up as long as she could on Sundays nights, even though sleep was yanking at my eyelids, because if I closed my eyes and slept, I knew the next thing that would come was Monday – and that meant school – a place where I felt suffocated and trapped. If there’s even one “mini me” in any of these classes, than maybe I can be of some assistance to them, and their teacher, and help make school a little less uncomfortable. Perhaps some of my stories and activities can open up the window in their mind, and let in some air and light, and get them to feel a little less heavy and fretful. Maybe. I hope so. Just the idea of trying to do that makes me want to go to bed on Sunday, so I can get up bright and early on Monday, tame my nightmares, and go back to school. I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


What's that old quote about God laughing when man makes plans?? Nothing is more true than the fact that though we want to plan our lives, our schedules, our interactions - we can't. We are human, which is an overall great thing to be, but none of the definitions of humanness includes the words, "BEING IN CHARGE OF EVERYTHING!!" And, it can be sooo frustrating when we begin to forget that plans go awry, that there are bumps in the road, and instead of being "master of our fate" we have to just let go, and take the ride. That's kind of what my July was. THE PLAN: Read, read, and read some more!! Since I was VERY light in storytelling this summer - in fact not one gig in July, I decided that I had no more excuses to not read more folktales, so that in the height of the school year when I am, thankfully VERY busy, racing around finding stories for my ongoing residencies in schools, I would read, and catalog tales that I might want to work on later (along with cleaning my apartment, blogging more frequently, and spending one whole day out at Governor's Island just sitting under a tree). Like a lot of stories - it all began so well -I was reading, notating (even scrubbed my bathroom tile, and had time to meet a friend for a cup of tea, and take another friend around the Botanical Gardens on a lovely Tuesday afternoon) feeling inspired, when my research took a different turn. For - not exactly out of the blue, but feeling very unexpected, my dad died. I worry about just how personal one is supposed to get on a "professional blog" - this is after all my website, but, in this section I have all along shared my thoughts and feelings, not just facts and "scholarly knowledge" (if I even have any) with any of you kind folks who read this, including the death of the man who was my second dad a while back, so I feel okay about this now. Long story short here, is that for well over a decade my father (whom we called Fido - that tells you something about his good humor!) has had one illness and hospitalization after another. When I got married 15 years ago, part of the timing was because we were afraid he was going to go then!!! I used to joke, after he would rally, and beat the odds again and again "I am the daughter of an immortal!!" thinking of all the Gods and Goddesses in the stories I tell. But, unfortunately, more like the Norse Gods who do die, than the Greek ones who don't, Fido at last drew in his last breath, with my mom by his side (and, yes, I know I am lucky to have had them both for so long, and that I still have her). My biggest fan in my family is my sister, Valerie, who is a first grade teacher, and every year I visit her class to tell stories. She likes my work so much, at the wedding shower for her (wonderful) new daughter in law, she asked me to tell an impromptu tale. So, when we were all at my dad's bed side, knowing the end was near, and planning for his service (is it me, or is that just one of the weirdest experiences - EVER!!) she turned to me and said, "Will you tell a story?" My first response to be honest, is a reflex - say YES - that's what we freelance people do, someone asks you for something "Can you tell a story about a giant big toe from Mars?" "YES!" (that's why you should have done your research so that you can find it quickly, and work on it). But then - I remembered where I was - in a hospice, watching my father slip more and more into "that great night" - and I wanted to say "NO!" Saying yes would mean, that for sure, the immortal would not rise, saying yes, would mean that I would have to stand up in front of people who had come to mourn him, and not to eat his BBQ chicken or spare ribs, saying yes would mean that I fully accepted that I was about to loss a parent. But, I knew that I would - my heart told me what my brain did not want to fathom, that the thing called death, had finally landed on our families doorstep. So, I said yes, and so the research had to begin. I didn't have a lot of time, and frankly, not that much mental clarity, so I did what I always do when I really need to think - I worked out HARD - and, as almost always, as my body was pumping, and the lovely sweat was flowing out of my pores, I knew what tale I would tell to honor my father Morris Owen "Fido" Pasqual Sr. Here it is: A man was granted the incredible gift of being able to see both heaven and hell. Wanting to see the bad first, he called on his spirit guide to show him Hell. To his surprise Hell was not the fire laden place he had imagined it to be - in fact it was beautiful. It was like a castle, filled with opulence. The people there were dressed in finery like he had never seen, and they sat before a table groaning under the weight of food that made his mouth water just at the sight of it. He was surprised again, when he looked at the faces of these residents of Hell - for, despite the wealth and the food that surrounded them, they were pale, and so thin, they looked like they were starving. The man soon saw why, as he gazed at the forks on the table - the arms of the forks were so long, that do what they might, the people could not get any of that food into their mouths - so they were tortured by being able to see the food, but not eat it. He then asked to be shown Heaven,and he was even more shocked to see that Heaven looked exactly like Hell - the beautiful clothes, and the same table of delicacies. But the people here were smiling, they looked radiant and well fed, and yet, they too had those extremely long forks. "How can it be," he said. "That you are all so happy?" One of the residents of Heaven smiled, picked up one of those long forks, raised it across the table to another person, and said, "Because in Heaven, we feed each other." There are many versions of this simple tale, that reminds us all that true happiness comes when we are in service to others. And, that, is the legacy of my father. Not just to my siblings, and their children, but to everyone he came across. So while my research of folktales got a little derailed this month, what I did get to delve into is far more important - love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness - and those are things I can use not just every time I show up to tell a story somewhere, but every time I interact with another human being. See you on the other side, Fido!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


I think I am like a lot of people, in that I feel like now - as opposed to December 31st is the end of the year. For people who deal with the school calendar, June is the time for summing up, reflecting, and looking both back at what was, and ahead to what may be - to wince a little at plans that went awry, and marvel at the grace of having things actually turn as you had envisioned - and sometimes even better! For me, this school year, was one where, though in theory, I was the visiting artist, was all about what I was taught, more than what I shared with the students. While I ALWAYS learn whenever, and wherever I tell stories, this school year was particularly ripe with lessons. And, I would like to thank the teachers, students, schools, and organizations that gave me such a capital education, and reinforced my love of the art of storytelling, and the fascinating world of folktales. My school year started off with my AMAZING trip to Thailand. Having the opportunity to, in one trip, visit classrooms of children who are fluent in SEVERAL languages, in schools that were akin to college campuses, and had theaters to rival those on Off Broadway, AND, go into the classrooms of preschoolers, that an inspiring organization called the Mercy Center runs for children from the slums - blew my mind. In both cases the teachers were completely invested in trying to enhance the education of their students. For one group, my mission was to help unlock the creativity that is in us all - I believe, especially kids, and help them learn to express themselves, and for the other, it was to bring a little joy and laughter - something that could be done without any language at all. That trip taught me, all over again, the power, and importance of imagination, playfulness, creativity, and compassion -all things that are good to be armed with, no matter what classroom you are walking into. Back here at home, I had the opportunity to have an ongoing relationship with three classrooms - one an English class for 8th graders, who, while not "special ed", were kids who were, as I thought of them "tender". Circumstances in their young lives making the road to adulthood a bit harsh. It was in this classroom that I met, what I can only describe as a wunder teacher - Brittany Spatz - a woman that, in our meeting told me, "I think it's more important that I help these kids feel good about themselves, and learn kindness - after that, I can use anything to teach them English" And, she did! Since Brittany is a lover of yoga, I got to combine two of my loves as I used tales of yoga poses, India, and yogic philosophy to introduce the kids to the physical practice of yoga asana, which we did in each and every session. Another group of students I saw regularly were doing something I find incredibly daunting -learning to speak this crazy language we call English, as a second language!! The teacher here, Virginia Rodriguez was nothing but heroic in her work in trying not only to teach the children English (which really, REALLY makes no sense!) she also had to try and bring them up to their grade level even in Spanish. Because of immigration and family obligations, some of these children had missed years of schooling. But like so many of the educators I am honored to work with, she - in her first year in this school, and her own child at home, gave more those kids a stable place for them to learn. Because of the level of English, I called upon my background in theatre and clown, and found ways of using language and narrative that were fun, and the stepping stones to storytelling. It was such a GREAT opportunity for me to, every visit, not think about what I wanted to do, but what they needed, and how I could possibly provide that. I often think that sometimes, with all my interests, I am too diversified - thinking, if I just stuck to one thing, I'd be better at it. But, this experience ESPECIALLY taught me that sometimes it's good idea to have many tricks in one's pocket!! And, the third was the classroom in a Youth Detention Center, where, almost unbelievably really, the administration has sought to fund, and keep storytellers coming as part of the in house schooling incarcerated young people. I have written about my experiences here, and I have learned lessons about judgement, tolerance, respect, and compassion, and even on days when things are "picture perfect" - and the storytelling isn't like out of those movies, where the "good doer" reaches the "hard on the outside, but ultimately soft and gooey on the inside" kid, I am more than glad I was there, if for no other reason than to be a witness to whatever they wish to share with me - their thoughts, ideas, even there boredom - part of storytelling is listening, and by that I mean the storyteller listening to the audience, and on some days they have taught me that's it is THE MOST important part. But, even more than the students this year, I learned from the trio of other storytellers who I, thankfully, get to partner with in this work. Paula Davidoff, Julie Della Torre, and Jack McKeon. All three FINE, FINE tellers AND teachers, who understand the importance of folktales and storytellers, and who's analysis of deep stories reaches those kids in ways that are surprising and wonderful. Most days I don't feel worthy to be part of this little band, but - selfishly, I might add, I try to "ride their wake", and having to stand besides them has made me go deeper into my own work. Sometimes, I just have to marvel at how lucky I am that I found storytelling, and that I have the opportunities to watch such skilled people work, read and hear deep tales of our ancestors, and watch the effect of the magic of stories on children of many different ages. Who needs the lottery when you get to do what I do for a living???

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I have to admit that even as a tween and teenager, I never got the allure of the type of boy I'll call "the pretty boy". You know the type - they are usually slight of build, but big of hair. Think Justin Beiber, before his spiral of lawlessness, or those guys from "One Direction" (although, if you put on their song "That's What Makes You Beautiful" I will dance EVERY TIME!) Even then I liked a guy who looked like a MAN as opposed to a BOY - not that any male at all was looking at me in those years!!! But, OMG - do the girls love them!!! In an English as a Second Language class I am telling stories in all this year, there is a classic "pretty boy" (from now on our refer to him as PT) - eyelashes that all the girls both want, and like to gaze at, a thick head of well cut hair, and a self confidence that makes the crowded halls of a middle school part like the Red Sea. And, of course there are the girls - lots of them - all wanting to sit by him, run their fingers through his hair, get him to brush their shoulder with his hand. In this particular class our PT had two girls vying for his affections - one a cheerleader - her long, long hair adorned with sparkly clips and bows. The other a scholar - in a class of students with limited English, it is she who knows enough English to help others, and tries hard to read a new language that mostly does not make any sense! For weeks I watched as our PT sat between both of the young ladies, gazing at the cheerleader, before asking the scholar for help with his school work. The girls seemed to hold each other no malice, and they laughed with each other at the adorable little things he did and said, but one day when I entered the classroom, I noticed something was VERY much different. It was almost like a boxing ring - in one corner it was the PT and the cheerleader, and, as far away as she could possibly get while staying int the classroom was the scholar - her arms crossed, eyes down, scowl on her normally sweet face. I would have had to be in a coma not to realize what has taken place since my last visit - the cheerleader had won. But what the cheerleader had taken in this little contest was not just the PT, it was the scholars self confidence as well. Where normally her hand would raise and wave to tell me she understood the story, or knew the answer, or would translate another students Spanish, so I could understand it, today she just almost laid there, present in body, but definitely not in spirit. My heart broke for her, and I wanted to yell,"Don't let this define you!! Do you know how many guys like that will come and go in your life?? Do you realize how amazing you are - having come to a new country, and having to learn a language from scratch??" But I couldn't, I could only hope that one day, she would see herself as I and her teacher saw her, and realize that the PT wasn't even worth her time. But then, a wonderful thing happen. My plan that day was to tell a "silent story", where I would mime a short story, and then have them tell me, in English if they could, what they thought the story was. The students did really well, clearly they were all able to visualize the tale, and most were able to , with help, tell me what is they imagined. The scholars take on the story was both imaginative and sweet - she not only captured the facts of the story, but the spirit and meaning behind it as well. I told them that I was going to take one of their versions of the silent story and enhance it a bit, and tell it to them the next time I came, AND I wanted them to vote who's story they liked the best. They wrote their choice on little pieces of paper, which I placed in a hat, and as I pulled scrap after scrap their was one name that showed up on all but two papers - the scholars!!! She smiled for the first time that day, as I announced her name, and I made her take a bow, as all the class - PT, and the cheerleader included chanted her name. Because of the snow, I have not been back yet, to enact the scholars story, but I look forward to it, and hope to give one of the best tellings of my life. Having me tell her story may not soothe the ache she feels when she looks across the classroom, and sees the PT and the cheerleader together, but maybe, just maybe, as she hears me speak her words, she'll be reminded of how much she has to offer, and what she is daily accomplishing in her new life, and that life is A LOT more than pretty boys!!!