Friday, March 20, 2015


It never fails to amaze me how one can feel like a period of time has at once been long, AND gone by in the blink of an eye, and so it is for my time in China. I can barely believe that tomorrow, I will begin the journey back to the States - how could three weeks go by so very quickly, and, at the same time, feel like I have been away from my "regular life" for so long. I always say when I come home from any trip that it's good to go and good to come, and I am so fortunate to have a life that I want to go back , AND, equally lucky that trips like these are part of my life. I think that any travel is good for a person, the opportunity to go outside ones norm can only lead to growth, and awareness, so that sometimes the distance most traveled is the trip one makes looking inward, rather than any geographical distance. On the trip, I will quite simply say, that I fell in love with storytelling all over again. To spend this much time telling, talking about stories, watching the effects on both students and teachers, has made me even more committed to this art. In my "normal life" storytelling has to share the stage with my clowning, and my yoga teaching, both of which I LOVE, and both of which I feel only add to my work (if not also make my life a little nutty schedule wise sometimes), but here, it's all about the telling. And when one turns a microscope on something in this way, one sees more deeply. I was able to see how "letting go" of a story - and by that I mean, leaving room for the audience to supply some of the details, to guess at outcome, to figure out the riddles - really has the powerful effect of making storytelling what it is meant to be - a communal experience. I love the definition that a monk friend of mine gave of a community as opposed to a crowd - "A crowd is just a group of people. A community is a group of people working together at something greater than themselves." And in storytelling, what the community is serving is the tale. My friend, Sonia, who has brought me here to China has been reading a book by a scientist who says that though human beings have evolved in many ways, we have never gotten rid of stories - they are too much of who we are. Sometimes I read folktales, and I understand what the symbols mean, and I remember reading what Joseph Campbell and other scholars would say about things, but sometimes I just revel in the mystery in them, in the wonder of a landscape where princes can be trapped inside of a serpent skin, and a grandmother spider can bring the world light and heat. I like the idea that I am serving this mystery in this communal act that is storytelling. In a world where we are so very, very literal, and think we can invent all the answers, it's really great, I think to feel a bit at sea, to feel small, and that we don't know, to feel, to quote, for the billioneth time, my favorite author, Anne LaMott - WOW!!!! So, I a going home tomorrow, more in love with the WOW of stories, the inexplicable nature of some of these tales. And, I want to tell them not so I can figure them out, but that I can look at them the way I look at fireworks in the sky, and say "OOH! AAH!!! WOW!!!"

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Whenever I have been lucky enough to do these storytelling tours in other countries (I am in China at this writing), I always leave room for questions at the end of a performance. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE hearing what kids have to say to me, after I have talked at them for an hour or so. I feel strongly that storytelling is a two way street, and that I am in it alone, that my performance is completely interconnected with those I am performing for, and that, we are partners in this crime of storytelling. And so, this hearing from the kids is an aspect I feel is really worth the time. I usually explain, that I will (and do) answer anything - as long as it's appropriate (I have learned to say that, after a few "close calls" in that regard). And, I usually good on myself to make the point, saying, " You can ask me about my water bottle, why my hair is so short, why I always wear black pants" Anything!" And they do!! Of course, some of your more standard questions appear: how old are you (teachers are aghast that I answer with a smile - even my sister when I was at her school didn't like that one - mainly because she is 10 years old than me, and her kids did the math!!), what's your favorite color or favorite food, are you married, do you have pets, where do you get your stories, how did you get started telling stories, do you write books???? And each trip there is a question or two that really makes me think. These last few weeks in China have provided quite a few of these queries. Here's a list of my favorites, so far: 1) If an animal could talk, which one would you like to speak to? I said shark, because they scare me, and I really want to know if there is a kinder, gentler side to them I don't know about. 2) Why is your skin so dry? LOL! Turns out what he meant is why are my arms so veiny!! And they are - I don't know why, I have skinny arms, and one time a hospitalized child complimented me on that fact by saying, "Boy, they'd never have a hard time putting an IV in you!" Aww, we all have our own talents!! 3) What is your REAL job? All the staff laughed when I replied, "You sound like my mother!!" Which isn't totally true, after many years my Mom has come to accept that her 6th child dances to a VERY different drummer - but for many years she was totally, and understandably perplexed by my career choices! The look on the kids face when I said this was my job was priceless!!! 4) What is your greatest struggle? This was from a young lady who had seen me perform, and then proved to be a wonderful performer herself in a drama workshop I led. As I always try to answer as truthfully as possible, I admitted, that my "struggles" weren't REAL struggles - not in a world where mothers can't get their kids clean drinking water, and people die of malnutrition in countries where leftovers are chucked into the garbage with abandon. And, I tried to express how lucky, blessed, and grateful I am that my life has been as smooth as an iced over lake in winter. But, to "keep it real", I spoke briefly of being a VERY young performer whose parents had been so angry at me for not going to college that it left a rift between my family and myself for more years than it really should have - and that, I am now grownup enough to say, was my fault! But, I also spoke of how those years, and those hard times when I was finding my way in the world, really helped shape me as a person - for the better, I feel. And how, now I can look back and see all the lessons, I would have missed, had I not gone through what I did. 5) And finally, this question today, asked by a second grader, who's English was a struggle (there's that word again!) - but who knew what he wanted to ask, and was not too shy to ask it "Do you like Julie?" Hmmmmmm.....good questions, right? I wish I had more time to answer eloquently, but I think that, even if I did, the words might have been prettier, but the content the same. "Sometimes, " I said. "And sometimes I REALLY don't!" If I could have, I would have said, I like who I am when I living up to the ideas that make me love Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, and my husband - who is THE BEST person I know. I like myself when I take myself out of the center, and realize that the only reason to do anything is to serve others. But too often I'm not that person, and that's when I want to shake my finger at myself and say, "REALLY?? Julie, really?? You know better!" But, the good thing about my job - which is VERY real - is that it puts me in contact with children, and kids tend to bring out the best in most of us, doesn't it?? They remind us to be loving, and kind, they remind us to laugh, and be silly, they remind us to be honest, and to ask questions, and to give hugs and high fives, and to show enthusiasm, and LOVE. So, probably, if I had had the time to think on it, I would have said, "I like myself right now at this moment, and if I can remember to be like this all the time, I would like myself more!" People are always saying, "Kids say the darnest things!" And they do, so I am learning that as much as my job is to talk to children, where the magic really happens, is when I listen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


I always seem to be talking about my love/hate relationship with the news. It is a struggle for me, because, while I like, and feel it is responsible to be informed, I sometimes hate the way knowing all that information makes me feel!! On the CNN morning show I watch several mornings a week, they always end with "the good stuff", some little piece about someone somewhere doing performing some act of kindness or compassion. This piece is usually the shortest of the show, and comes after two hours or wars, shootings, and/or natural disasters. "Why," I always wail. "Is it at the end, and why so little of this good stuff???" And so I found myself horrified when I did the actually the same thing with my last blog post, the first of my posts from China, where I am on a storytelling tour. After a week of performances, workshops, and experiences, I chose to report on the ONE dark cloud, in what has been, a sky full of blue!!! And so, while I won't deny what I was feeling and processing during my last post, I am going to spend more time reporting on "the good stuff" - which has been so plentiful and abundant, that today, on a day off, as I was strolling through a temple of 10,000 Buddhas (and they meant it, there were Buddhas everywhere) I nearly cried in gratitude. Here are just a few things that have been truly amazing about this trip so far… One of the many wonderful things about this tour is that I am getting to teach workshops – both for students and for teachers, and so far, those have given me some of my fondest moments here in China. At one “Storytelling 101” workshop for a group of 10th graders, I gave the assignment that each group of about 5-6 students should look at a picture I had given them, decide what the story was in that picture, and then one of the members of the group would “tell” what they had come up with. Now, let’s remember I am in China, where the students can be brilliant, multi-lingual, but also EXTREMEMLY shy. While performing here, it is totally not uncommon to see kids hold their hands in front of their mouths, so as not to be seen laughing. So, with that – while I knew they had enjoyed the process up until that point, I did not expect much more than one student explaining, head down, mumbling, and with as little energy as they could possibly muster, what the group imagined. WAS I WRONG!! While I was happy to see how everyone in the group was collaborating during the creation of the story, and seemed to be sharing opinions equally, I was not at all prepared for the way the “spokesperson” for the first group got up, and not only “reported” what the group had created – but gave a full on performance of a story – with voices, physical gestures, and a bit of improvisation audience participation!! It was MASTERFUL, and it set the tone for the other groups to follow ( I found out later, he is the student council president – so the Story Gods led me to pick a guy who is used to taking the lead!!), who each came up with tales that were creative, and utterly their own. One girl, after her group had gone, said she had another idea, and told that tale by herself, while the last group of extremely shy girls, presented theirs as a movement piece, with one narrator, and all the others in the group acting out the various characters. I kept asking if any of them had ever told a story before, and each time the answer was no. “You should.” I said. And, I hope they will, it was a wonderful moment for me, and for their teachers, who later expressed how surprised they were at the level or participation and engagement. At another workshop with drama students who had seen me perform, I observed one shy young lady working up her courage before stepping into the center of the circle and moonwalking – yes, 1980s Michael Jackson moonwalking, when I had given the task of her embodying a dancer. BEAUTIFUL! In that same workshop, a gorgeous young girl, strutted across the room as movie star, and then immediately covered her mouth to hide a smile that clearly was saying “ I can’t believe I just did that!!!” At the end of the workshop she grabbed me, and pulled me in for a hug. It was in that same workshop that a student who had been VERY attentive and creative asked me, “What has been my greatest struggle.” It’s interesting to answer questions like these – one wants to be profound, truthful, and ultimately, I think, REAL. And so, with just a moment of a pause, where I gave thanks to the Universe, once again, that the “struggles” I have had in this life are as small as a drop of water in a vast ocean, and that luck and good fortune has followed me all the days of my life, I told them of how my parents had absolutely not understood why I wanted a career as a performer. I tried, and I pray that I was successful to convey the fact that that “struggle” led only to growth, character, and lessons that could not possibly have been learned any other way, and that I am thankful for every bit of the journey that has led me to where I am today. I tried to speak as I wish someone had spoken to me when I was 17 years old, and about to buck my parent’s wishes, because something in my gut told me that even though it made no earthly sense AT ALL, I knew what my path was, and that I had to take it. It filled my heart to watch their faces watch me with so much attention I almost had to look away, because I could see they were absorbing my intention. But, of course, my favorite workshops so far have been the ones I have done for the hardest working people in the world, the heroes of our planet – TEACHERS!!! Teachers EVERYWHERE work harder than they can ever be compensated for, and they all do it not for the money, but for their commitment to give, to ensure that the future of this world – our children, have the tools they need to start their journey into life. Teachers floor me time and time again with their commitment and their passion, and I am humbled to be asked to present anything in front of them. I mean, I barely finished those 12 years of schooling that was my formal education, how dare I deem to teach them anything??? So, I offer, I offer what I do know – folktales – those mystical nuggets of knowledge, wisdom, and entertainment, and the ways I have found to share them with the world. To see teachers come in on a Saturday – yes, a Saturday, and be willing to moo like a cow, walk like a king, and listen to tales appropriate for four year olds, is thrilling to me. And I cannot express how gratifying it is to have a teacher tell me “You have made me look at things a different way.” Or even better “I can really use what we did today in my work!!” YAY!!!!!!!! At this teacher’s workshop, one of these amazing heroes told me of how she was tutoring a young boy who had seen one of my storytelling shows the day before. She said he came in sullen, and wanting to play outside after a long day of school, and not do more studying (I hear you, kid!!) She asked him if he had heard a story that day. “Yes, “ he said, not looking at her. “Tell me about it.” And so, this teacher told me later, he did. At first with head down, and voice low, but then with actions, movements, and mimicking the phrase I use over and over again in the story. By the end, the teacher had written down the story for him so he could share it with his parents. DOUBLE YAY – storytelling had helped both teacher and student!!! And I say storytelling, and not me, because I am clear on the fact that I – as cheesy as this sounds – am the funnel – those stories, someone else created, imagined, gave birth to – I’m just the carrier. And on this tour I am being inspired to carry my precious cargo with even more love and care than I have already been doing. And one more good thing – and this is a summary, folks, because there is so much more that I can, and will write – the warmness of the kids and staff, the marvelous opportunity to go deep with stories that I am telling over and over again. The laughter, hugs, smiles of kids that live half the world away from me, but are as close as a heartbeat, because we share this gift of the human experience. But the good thing I want to close with is my friend, and employer here, Sonia, and her company Pana Wakke. She chose me to be the first storyteller she booked, when she started this enterprise a year and a half ago, and every day treats me with more respect than I will ever feel worthy of. She is an educator to the core, and as such she is one of those heroes that I wrote of earlier. Her passion is like a fireworks display that streaks gorgeously across he sky, and leaves all in it’s wake going “OOOH! AHHHH!” The good news is that she has given me this opportunity to see the land of China in this exciting way, and the really good news is that I am inspired to give – to give to her, the kids, the teachers, the world my very best. And giving is what it’s about, so that I am motivated to do so is the very best news there could be!!

Monday, March 9, 2015


In the great Indian epic, the Bhagavad Gita, one of my favorite lines is” You have a right to perform your duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits our your actions.” In other words, you cannot, as much as you would want to, control how things are going to turn out – the gift you slaved over making/buying may or may not be loved, or the gesture you found so moving, may go unnoticed or unappreciated. The philosophies of the East pull no punches when they say that to be attached to the results of our actions bring only suffering, because sooner or later things are not going to come out the way you so hoped, wished, and day dreamed about. DARN IT!!!!!! Why can’t things turn out the way I see them in my head??!! It is a lesson that I keep finding myself learning, and each time I’m still a little shocked that the Universe does not seem to want to cower to my will! When I was dancing full time, I finally realized, after about the zillionth audition, that all I could do was come in and dance as well as I could – there was no way of knowing whether I was the right size or shape for what was needed, or if the choreographer already had three girls like me that they wanted to use. To last as a chorus girl, one had to become very good at “letting go” fairly quickly, and as I would go to audition after audition with my sisterhood of fellow “gypsies” I developed the back of a duck – the “water” of rejection rolled off me, without me taking it even a tiny bit personally. So one would think, with so many “thanks, but no thanks” under my belt, the lesson of being too attached to the outcome of something would have been permanently burned into my brain – but, NO, apparently I am a slower learner in this regard, as was made evident in my response to one of my days here in China on my storytelling tour. Having the opportunity to tell stories in English to children in international schools overseas, is something that I have been EXTRAORDINARILY blessed to have roll into my life the last few years. It has been enormously gratifying, challenging, and inspiring to share my love of stories with children of all ages in my native tongue of English – a CRAZY language with made up rules – to, hopefully, expand their knowledge of stories and the English language itself. Anyone who has read my blogs when I was in Argentina, and then in Thailand will see that, for the most part, there wasn’t much of a challenge language wise – the students proficiency in English almost surpassed my own! Stories I would tell to a five year old in the states, I could tell to a five year old in any of those countries – and as to the teenagers, well – one of my favorite storytelling adventures EVER, was when after performing for a group of 17 year olds, we had an entire discussion about the American political situation in PREFECT ENGLISH – not only could these kids speak the language, they knew the culture, I thought of them recently when Jon Stewart announced he was leaving his show, because these kids shared my love of him!!!! But, every once in a while on these tours, where often I perform four or five shows a day, they’ll be a group where the language level is not as strong – AND MAY I SAY RIGHTFULLY SO, BECAUSE AS I SAID EARLIER ENGLISH IS CRAZY!!!! But on those occasions, storytelling becomes a bit of a struggle. And so it was this week, with one school I visited. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach the night before this session for a few reasons – 1) the group was large – about 200 kids 2)they were young – five years old 3)I had been told their English “wasn’t strong” 4) I was to see them two times in a row – in other words one 40 minute session, a short break, and then another 40 minute session 5) They had a theme of “courage” – not that I’m against themes, but it sort of ties my hands, because I can only stick to the prescribed stories. As the kids arrived it became clear that what I had feared very may well come to light – instead of speaking English to the children as most of the teachers do in these schools, the teachers were speaking Chinese, and they didn’t seem to understand very much English themselves, the GORGEOUS space I was in was cavernous – my one body on the stage was swallowed up by the enormity of the surroundings – but I as I began, I told myself to rely on the two things that helped me through so very much – my physicality, and my energy. I lept, I made funny faces, I chanted, I went into the audience, I spoke slowly, I paused, I used props, in other words, I pulled out every trick in my playbook – but it was clear that I was failing – the kids had no idea what was going on, and neither did the teachers, and for 40 minutes I sweated more – not from heat but from anxiety – than I do doing my Jillian Michael’s boot camp videos I’ve been doing as my warm up here. As they left, I almost huddled in a corner, and searched for my phone, wanting to call my husband, or maybe book a flight home. BUT – and this is why I’m writing this - as I fingered the Gita between sessions – looking for some inspiration to try again, my eyes fell upon that passage “you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions” – EVER. I had tried my best, my intentions were good, my preparation solid, and I had never for a second given up trying to make that performance a good one for the children and for my friend Sonia, who I am working for here – the rest I CAN NEVER CONTROL. And, as I sat with that, I won’t say the sting of my “failure” during that performance completely slid off my remembered duck’s back, but it gave me enough internal strength to go at it again. The theme was gone, we changed the seating arrangement, I used less language, more of my clown and physical comedy, and more props, and everyone left smiling – BUT, I don’t want the success of the second show be my lesson – what I tried to hold on to, and why I’m writing this as my entry, instead of all the other WONDERFUL responses and performances this week – is the fact that, like the Gita says, I can’t predict or own the outcome of anything ever, all I can do is offer what I have – the Gita calls it “a duty” – not to back down, give up, because one time didn’t go well, to prepare, to try, to go with good intentions, and then, to quote someone most of my audiences in the States know well, Elsa from the movie “Frozen” – LET IT GO!!!!!