Thursday, August 23, 2012

Giving back with stories

How often do you give back to your community or to an organization?  I am not talking about giving money, popping a check in the mail; I am talking about giving your time and energy to something you care about, or have strong feelings about.

Every summer for something like seven or eight years I have been going to a single week long camp held in Fairlee, Vermont. It is run by volunteers mostly and is only available to under-served kids from Vermont.   It is called CAMP! (if you were to say it out loud – or want to Google it, it would be Camp Exclamation Point).  The Aloha Foundation give them space to hold the camp at the last week of summer, when most other camps are over and done with.  The children have plenty of challenges in their lives, but CAMP! gives them a week to get away from it all and share, play, create, explore and have fun in a healthy and safe environment.  The camp is like most any other camp, but these kids are not as well off as most camp kids.  CAMP! serves those who have limited opportunities for such an experience because of a lack of financial resources, rural isolation, and disruption of life and education. Yet these kids are just like other camp kids – they are kids!

There is a sense of love for the children at CAMP! which goes beyond the ‘call of duty’.  CAMP! is a vocation, a passion; the councilors have a desire that these kids get some amazing experiences that they would never normally be able to have. Let me stress that, never normally be able to have.  Most of us have the opportunity to send our kids to a camp of some sort – be it a day camp for a few days or a week camp, fortnight or summer camp.  We have that choice.  But this camp is set up for those who do not have that choice, but CAMP! make it possible.  They get funds so even the most economically challenged family can send their children to paint, write, read, sing, act, sculpt, experience archery, learn to swim, do woodwork, learn about plants and nature, make new friends, know that they are not the only ones who have such difficulties, and of course make their own tie-dye tee shirts!

Each year I go to CAMP! to tell stories and volunteer my services. It is not much, I feel, but it is what I can do and this is how I give back to my community: when I go to CAMP!. For one afternoon, or evening, I perform there and spend extra time with the kids when I am able – and I try to make it so I am able.  Last night with a voice almost gone after a busy summer, I, along with colleague and friend Angela Klingler told stories to the entire camp before the kids were spilt into groups for individual camp fire stories based on age.  It is always fun to work with Angela as she is the consummate professional and has this magic about her when she tells the deep stories, which she did for the entire camp.  I have also worked with Angela around Halloween and know she knows some great campfire stories for all ages.  This is the second time she has volunteered to make the 2 /2 hour drive to CAMP! to tell tales.

I got to walk the hill with the eldest of the CAMP! kids and their councilors to a favourite quiet spot in the woods to tell tales and got to bring out some really fun and creepy tales for the ‘tweens and teens.  There is something about the darkness and the flames that can make a not-so-scary story seem quite spectacularly creepy.
This was in 2008, but feels like a few months ago!

These kids are great.  They are so appreciative of everyone.  I only appear for one day in one week in the year, but the kids remember me.  There are some kids who jump up and run over to give me a hug, there are those who jump out of seats to high-five me, and there are even more who simply grin at me or shout a loud ‘hi Simon storyteller guy’ when I arrive knowing that Wednesday night is story night.  And those hugs, high-fives shouts and smiles, and the stories I have to share are all I need.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Diving into Stories

For me, storytelling is sometimes like diving!

With the Olympics on, I was reminded of what it feels like standing on the high boards about to jump or dive. There is this fear, this sort of trepidation that goes along with a buzz, excitement and a knot in your stomach.  At least that is how it is for me.  I first want to put it out there that I am NOT a high diver, although I can dive.  And I am not talking about scuba here, I am talking about jumping off a bouncy fiberglass board, or a rock solid piece of a high concrete slab.  I am self taught and have never had a lesson.  I am a point and shoot diver and for me it was all trial and error.  Quite a fair bit of error too!

Stick Person
At first I jumped.  Nothing can go wrong, it is a straight, feet-first fall into the pool; you just need to remember to have your lungs full of air before you hit the water and your toes are pointing down.  If you flat foot it, it hurts - a lot.  If you don’t have enough breath, it seems like you might just gulp in a litre or three of water before hitting the surface once you are under the water.  You know you can do it, but standing on the edge looking 30 feet down into the water - well it is a long drop.  I have to admit there were a couple of times I walked back down the steps before I plucked up the courage to jump off that top board at my local pool as a kid.  A friend of mine, however, just went up there the first time, walked to the end and jumped.  At that point of leaving the concrete platform he could not swim. When he got to the side after coming up to the surface, he could!  That was how he taught himself to swim.

So I jumped a lot to get used to the height.  Figuring out breathing patterns is pretty important too.  I knew the time it would take to fall from the board to the point where I hit water after jumping a few times and getting the breathing wrong. It was quite a drop so I had filled my lungs the first couple of times way too soon and had to breathe out before hitting the water.  Not good!  But eventually I figured it out. For me, it was basically a little longer than a full lungful of drawn-in breath - I had to breathe out first, before that long slow pull of air in as I dived down.

Next, I plucked up the courage to sit on the end of the concrete board, feet dangling down, hands up in the air at a point, leaning back a bit, then rolling forward and dropping towards the water. I had of course done this a lot on the second board when I started diving, which was about 15 feet from the water and springy so I had an idea of the force of roll needed to not flip over and land on my back. The first few times the back of my legs got smacked by the water as I had not quite judged it right and spent a few moments waiting with smarting legs before trying it again.  But I tried over and over again until I got good at it.  Then I stood and dived, and although I had only one dive technique (jump, bend and go straight down), I got pretty good at it.  I got to the point where there was only a little splash.  And I can dive from rocks too, but only after watching others so I know there are no hidden rocks below a strange surface!  And I love to do it!  There is something about that moment when you leave the safety of the board and you are flying through the air, hoping that the angle is right and you’re not going to go over too far, or not enough and land on your back, or front.  I have done that and it hurts. A lot!

As I was thinking about this, it occurred that for me, it is very much like learning a new story. Or even storytelling!  You start with the smaller stories, or easieror sillier tales (the first board about a couple of feet or so off the water), until you can wind back the wheel so the board is at it’s springiest.  You can run the board, bounce really high, fold up in half and come gracefully down into the water.

Then you try the longer tales (the second board) until it feels as good as the first board.

And after that there are the deeper, meaningful tales.  Tales that you don’t just love, but stories you connect with on a deep level; stories that you find resonating within you like a tuning fork, a story that demands to be told – whether it is a personal tale or a folk tale. A story you put your whole being into.  You’re on the top board looking over the edge.  You might walk back down the steps, but you might just jump.  After all, when you bounce on the second board, you go almost as high (so it feels) as the top board.  So you take the story you have learned and you have it in your hands and you do that first jump.  Then you try the roll dive and then you stand and dive.  Will I make it to the water?  Will I fly through the air gracefully, or will I go over too much, or not enough?  Will it hurt when I hit the water? Will someone clap or appreciate what I just did?

Tonight I told a tale for the second time in public.  It was like walking up those steps, getting closer and closer to the ceiling, and the butterflies setting in.  But I had made the decision to tell it.  I made it my first tale so I could not back out and walk down the steps to the second board and choose another story.

The story is one I heard 4 years ago and love.  I have not heard it since, but it has been rattling about in my mind, demanding to be told.  So I learned it.  Then I got in touch with the storyteller I heard tell the story, Bob Pegg, and asked if he was okay with me telling it and if I had it right.  He told me "almost" and fixed my errors.  I have to tell a tale correctly or I would not be honouring it, or respecting its tradition. So I re-learned it. And checked again with materials Bob had generously provided.

When I told the story tonight it was a little like synchronized diving.  Bob was next to me on the board as I jumped, and his words were coming out, but as I got closer to the water, to the end of the story, I knew I was diving on my own.  And I know the more I tell the story it will become more of my own telling and less and less of Bobs.  They will be my words and phrases, my life experiences I bring to the story, my ‘spin’ if you like, but it will be true to the original, as true as it can be.  And then when I tell it, I know I will be alone on the board and the flight to the water will be filled with joy.  The name of the story?  Margaret of the Three Gifts, from way up in Scotland.