The Bogey-Man and the Hyena, overcoming our fears

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow. – Mary Anne Radmacher

Over the holidays, I had the chance to spend some time with one of my younger grandsons. The first night, when he was ready for bed, he asked me to read him a story. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to tell him one instead, and he happily agreed. The tale I chose was a favourite of one of his older cousins, it’s called, The Hyena and the Seven Little Kids (Best Loved Tales for Africa).
As I told him the story I noticed how straight he was sitting up in bed, and how wide his eyes got. When I was finished he told me it was “a scary story”. Not wanting to leave him feeling uneasy, I offered to tell him another, and chose something lighter, funnier and with cute animal noises. As soon as it was over, he fell asleep.

What better place to practice being brave, than in the world of the imagination?

He fell asleep but apparently was so affected by the story that he told his dad (my son-in-law) about it the next day. After hearing that, I was concerned that maybe it was too much for him, and I planned not to tell it to him again, at least not until he was older. So at nap time, when he asked me to tell him a story, I said, “You want the one about the monkeys right?”

He surprised me with an adamant, “No.”

“Are you sure? I thought the other story was too scary for you?”

“No” he insisted.

And so I began again, embellishing it, painting word-pictures for him, but always keeping a close eye on his reactions to be sure he was okay.

When I say “scary” let me explain. It’s not the kind of story teenagers tell around camp-fires to terrify one another, where blood is mysteriously dripping from the ceiling or ax-murdering ghosts haunt the woods behind the cabin. No, it’s a version of a Grimm’s fairytale titled, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats. It is typically Grimm in its lack of sugar coating and yes goats or “kids” are eaten by the villainous hyena. Thankfully the villain is overcome in the end, with the help of the youngest child, and his Grandma Go Go. Grandma knows just where the beast siestas and how best to make life difficult for him.

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed. – G.K. Chesterton

This isn’t about how or even when to tell that type of story but rather to show the value of allowing children (and adults) to use a story as a vehicle for overcoming thier own fears.

So often in European fairy tales, the youngest child is the wisest and the victor. In many Anansi stories from West Africa, Anansi the spider (one of the smallest creatures) uses his wits to overcome his most ferocious adversaries, like Snake and Tiger. In North America folktales, Brer Rabbit has that honour. Somewhere inside these stories lives the theme of the small, the weak or the disadvantaged overcoming great odds, with clear thinking, kindness, courage or all three. Who better to teach a child that courage does not require large stature or physical power to manifest? What better place to practice being brave, than in the world of the imagination? As my grandson contentedly drifted off into sleep, I imagined him dreaming himself a hero.

Thinking about it later, I remember Celia Lottridge, a very well respected storyteller in Toronto telling me of her experience telling a story with a bogey-man type character at an elementary school. When the teacher questioned whether this was too hard for the children to listen to, Celia asked the students to tell her more about the “bogey-man”. One of the students raised his hand, then gestured, creating a space about an inch high between his thumb and his index finger and said, “The bogey-man is this big”.

It’s my belief that good stories, told with integrity, have the possibility of making our fears small enough to manage.

“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” – Leslie Marmon Silko

The Strawberry Queen and the City Pig

Sometimes the stories you tell are the stories you need to hear the most.

In these days of mass media, constant distraction and decreasing attention spans, oral storytelling is more important than ever. In the hands of the experienced teller it can adapt itself to the immediate needs of the audience. But no matter the scenario, or teller, stories carry power.

One year I went to an adult costume party at Halloween. I was invited last minute, so had to be creative when it came to my outfit. Not wanting to buy anything new I searched my closet, threw on my burgundy dancing skirt, a nice top, big earrings and a shawl. Voilà!

“What are you going as Mom?” came the question.

“A travelling storyteller,” I answered.

“That’s what you always wear when you go out,” was the reply.

Sigh. Slightly deflated but undeterred, I went out. And when someone at the party asked me what I was dressed as, I told them. Of course the next request was for a story. Not knowing them at all, having no idea what kind of story they would like or appreciate, I took a chance, stepped out on a limb and asked them to give me a topic.


What popped into my head wasn’t a fable or a fairy tale, it was a personal story. It was my first time telling that story to anyone outside our family, and it touched me so deeply I still struggle to tell it without tears welling up. I call it the Strawberry Queen

One year, while in grade 1, my youngest daughter went on a school trip to Patterson Berry farm. Instead of sending the students home with strawberries, the teachers sent them home with strawberry plants. At the time we lived in a townhouse and I had dug up a few square feet of grass and planted flowers just under our kitchen window. So we planted the strawberry there, among the flowers. I had no idea how to care for it, and no expectations.

The whole family was excited when the first bud appeared. The first bud, followed by the first flower. The first flower, followed by the first green berry. Then the green morphed into red. There it was, the first ripe berry, red and shiny like a tiny precious jewel. Did I mention, tiny? Smaller than a small marble, and not as plump. I told my daughter that it looked like it was ready to pick and explained to her how to do it without damaging the plant (this much I knew).

And here is the part that pulls at my heart strings. When my six-year-old had picked the strawberry, and we’d washed it, I thought she would immediately gobble it up. Instead, she cut it in four equal pieces, four pieces! One for herself, and a piece for each member of the family. Generosity. Sometimes the stories you tell are the stories you need to hear the most.

Kind hearts are the garden…kind deeds are the fruit – excerpt from a 19th century rhyme

You don’t have to be an experienced teller to make an impact. I often take one of my grandsons to a child-friendly story circle. I’ve been taking him since he was about four. He was always encouraged to tell stories, and when he started, he was brave enough to tell them as long as I assured him I would help out if he got stuck. Once, I left for a few minutes, and when I came back, he was telling a tale with the help of the group facilitator. I was very impressed. Progress. Not too long after that he volunteered to tell a story by himself. Intrigued, I waited to hear what he had picked. And I was shocked that I had never heard it before.


In a nutshell, it was a yarn about a pig who had noisy neighbours and hated her job. She went on a vacation, discovered kindred spirits, threw off the physical trappings of her work (in this case, her clothes) and she was free! After a great deal of head scratching, Internet research and by enlisting the help of two school librarians, I finally discovered the book was called, City Pig, by Karen Wallace. What was even more intriguing was that my grandson had added things that weren’t in the story, elements that spoke directly to me.

It was the right story, at the right time. The right story, from a novice story teller, with a deep intuition for what needed to be shared. Not surprisingly, he happens to be the son of my youngest daughter, the Strawberry Queen.

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.  – Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel

A special thank you to my daughter and grandson for permission to share their stories.

Single strawberry on strawberry plant.


The Storytellers’ Toolkit Part 2, Accountability, continued

… we have all been programmed to respond to the human difference between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. – Audre Lorde

We (whether we care to admit it or not) are all products of our environment, upbringing, family, peers, education, and the biases, opinions, literature and mediums of our times.

We, dear storyteller, have decisions to make, many, many decisions. We, dear storyteller have ourselves as well as an audience/listener/observer/village to which we are accountable the moment we share a story.

When writing, telling, showing or performing a story try asking yourself:

1) Who is this story for? Who will I be telling it to? If you don’t know, then write/tell/show yourself first (it might remain as a journal entry, or even a confession).

2) Who’s story is it? Is it mine to tell? (this may require research, or even written or verbal permission).

3) Where did this story come from? Do your research. Is the story published? Is it a folktale, myth or religious tale? Are there different versions? How do they differ? Are these differences significant? From whose perspective will you choose to tell it? What did you consider when making these choices?

4) Why am I choosing to share it?

5) Why is this story important? In other words, why is it “urgent” – this is a direct reference to d’bi young anitafrika’s sorplusi method).

6) Why am I telling it now?

7) HOW will I tell it? Am I plagiarizing any part of it? In what ways will I give, or not give attribution?

8) Who am I accountable to when sharing this story? In what ways am I willing or unwilling to be accountable for the ways in which I tell it? Why or why not?

And finally, the one that people with unexamined biases often miss:

9) Am I harming anyone with the telling of this story? Does this story denigrate, ridicule or disrespect any person or group? In what ways am I willing to be accountable for this harm, intentional or otherwise?

Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for. – Alice Walker

This post was inspired by the recent debates in the media regarding appropriation.  For some very fulfilling mind-food regarding appropriation, I give the floor to two writers I carry a deep respect for, please read more below.

From Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

And Whitney French

Dictionary spines


How the rare purple squirrel was saved from extinction

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. – Pablo Picasso

Father’s Day came, and Father’s Day went this year, and I was thinking a lot about my dad. It is a really hard day for me, some years more than others. I’m sure it’s a really hard day for a lot of people, given death, separation, family dynamics and abuse. But just like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, it’s very “in your face” in a public way, advertised for weeks with events and sales created around it and so much commercial hype that it’s not easily ignored. So every year since my father’s death I get through it, somehow.

A month or two ago, I passed a record store that had second-hand vinyl on sale, marked down to 50 cents. And there he was, a beardless, baby-faced, Gordon Lightfoot, staring at me. And there they were, in all caps, in a school-bus-yellow oval on the front cover, the words If You Could Read My Mind. Hundreds of other people had passed the store that day without knowing (or needing to know) that it was my father’s favourite song. But I knew. And so I picked up the album and took it to the cash, where I had a very lovely conversation with the cashier, who could relate when I told him the story (of course I told him the story, I am a storyteller). He was missing his father too, and I promised him a poem I wrote, a poem about my father that I didn’t start writing until 19 years after my father’s death. A poem about grief, loss, rage, reconciliation, acceptance and release. On Sundays/I plant flowers for you/folding tucking prayers into the earth/on Sundays. Then I went home, put the album on the turntable, dropped the needle in the groove, and cried (like I’m crying now incidentally). Fortunately the tears helped release some of the grief. And finally on the Saturday before Father’s Day, I put an end to my procrastination and dropped off a hand written copy of the poem at the store.

… a man chained by grief and desire in equal measure.

The story doesn’t end there though. The first time I heard the song after so many years the poetry of Lightfoot’s lyrics spoke to me across time and circumstance, it was as if my father was saying the words to me directly. I don’t know how old I was (probably in elementary school) when my dad told me that If You Could Read My Mind was his favourite song but even at that age, I knew it was important. As the child of divorced parents, I didn’t have the opportunity to spend as much time with my dad as other children might have with theirs. And so I held onto his revelation even more tightly, comforted by the thought that my father had shared something of his inner life with me that he may not have shared with anyone else. The imagery of the song is powerful, a ghost, a wishing well, a dark castle, a man chained by grief and desire in equal measure. “When you reach the part where the heartache comes/The hero would be me/But heroes often fail”.

We all have sad stories, and many of us have stories of abuse and trauma that we walk with on a daily basis. For me the key to healing is to become the hero of your story (I am using hero as a gender-neutral noun here). Examining your past and becoming a hero is not always an easy process, and it doesn’t come all at once, but it’s a worthwhile journey to embark on.

I stood confidently in the invisible cloak of the artistic visionary, purple-crayon-sabre at my side.

This year on Father’s Day I was too ill to buy flowers and plant them, which is what I had planned, and what I had done on the first Father’s Day after my dad’s death. I’m not going to pretend it was an easy day this year, it wasn’t, and I moped and dragged myself through it. But this week, on the mend, I was asking myself what where the most important lessons my dad taught me. As a visual artist he was always excited to share his knowledge with me. I distinctly remember him showing me how to create a colour wheel and introducing me to primary and secondary colours. It still feels like “every day magic” to me, taking two colours and making another. It’s almost like watching a new species appear before your eyes (okay, so I exaggerate, another storyteller’s prerogative) but it is actually amazing. I remember learning how to sharpen a pencil with an X-acto knife (way before my mother thought it was appropriate) and actually being good at it. I remember how accomplished I felt in art class when I was the only one who knew how to do it before the teacher taught us. But most of all I remember the purple squirrel. And it was only this week that I really understood why.

Great art picks up where nature ends. – Marc Chagall

When I was growing up, colouring books were banned in our household. Not out of any puritanical need to stifle creativity, rather the opposite, because my dad thought lines on a page were too confining for an artist, and not good for my inner muse. My mother agreed and I always had access to lots of paper, but there weren’t any colouring books around. And so one day, when my dad brought me to visit his sister’s children, I had the rare opportunity to colour in one. The cousin closest in age to me (a few months older) took one look at my masterpiece and instead of admiring my work, went full throttle into ridicule mode.

“Squirrels aren’t purple!” she announced with astonishment, “Squirrels are brown!” And the rest of my older cousins joined her, laughing. Keep in mind, I was a very sensitive only-child, used to the praise and attention of mostly kinder adults, so when my dad asked me how the visit was, I told him the story. Until this week I thought his response was helpful because it confirmed my inborn artistic perspective and talents, because he affirmed me as a fellow artist and defended me as a proud father. But now I understand there is another piece that makes this such a powerful story for me. It’s because my father turned me into the hero of the story – rather than leaving me in the role of victim (that I was certainly relating to at the time). With only a few words and a lot of heart-felt emotion, he told me that I could use any colour I wanted, because I was an artist. What I heard was that while everyone else (being my cousins, who he was clearly mad at) thought that squirrels could only be brown, black or grey I (wonderful daughter, hero of the tale) knew in my brave, bold, creative, artistic heart that squirrels could be any colour, even purple. I could feel his admiration for me and my perspective shifted immediately. With the sting of ridicule erased, I stood confidently in the invisible cloak of the artistic visionary, purple-crayon-sabre at my side. A few well timed words and a new way of looking at the situation had transformed me, not for a moment, not for a day but actually for a lifetime.

Art is not a thing, it is a way.  – Elbert Hubbard

Becoming the hero of your own story is not for the fainthearted. It is an ongoing and often challenging process. There is no one way to get there but with time, attention, counselling, and support you too can become the hero of even your most painful stories. And that is one of the many reasons it’s crucial for you to tell your own stories.

The hero would be me – Gordon Lightfoot

crayon box
Child’s crayon box. “But most of all, I remember the purple squirrel”

From Esu Crossing the Middle Passage to the Jungle Book, storytelling, integrity and watering

IMG_20160419_144343“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
Philip Pullman

I’ve been almost too busy to blog, which is a lovely feeling. Busy hearing stories, busy listening, busy absorbing, busy eating stories, busy being watered by them.

Being watered by stories speaks to me on a very deep level.  I volunteered for the Toronto storytelling festival this year (2016) and was fortunate to be able to participate in part of the 3 day storyteller’s camp (for adults).  In between picking up the lunch order, helping to find a power cord and answering questions, I was just like any other lucky camper. Bob Barton asked me to decide if I was a circle or a square, a waterfall or fireworks, a kite string or a clothes line. Nicole Fougere had me expressing myself with movement. There were times when I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and “That’s a good thing” (I can’t help hearing Martha Stewart’s voice when I write that) because stretching increases your reach.

When Chirine El Ansary led her workshop she spoke to us about her challenge with adopting the word “storyteller” in English (she is trilingual, and also speaks French and Arabic). The struggle was about the word’s limitations. I can’t quite remember all the categories she mentioned but she told us that in Arabic there are 5 words for oral storyteller, based on the type of story the teller tells. For example, there are historical tellers, and poets (sh’er) but the one I aspire to be (and sometimes am) translates to “waterer” the one who gives the listeners the stories they need to hear. What a beautiful image. Especially at this time of year when the top soil is no longer frozen, the crocuses have bloomed, lawns are getting greener and migrant birds are returning. To water. I see a gentle stream trickling toward a tender plant, or a fine trail escaping from a watering can, and I can hear the plant’s gracious sigh. To water. There is a beauty in the imagery for me because it implies growth. No plant can grow without water, especially seedlings, which are extra sensitive to its lack.

This brings me to Esu Crossing the Middle Passage which I saw on Sunday. Written and performed by d’bi young anitafrika with music and vocals by tuku and Amina Alfred. d’bi is a storyteller who waters, in every sense of the word. She can make you laugh, cry, hold your breath and want to start a revolution all at the same time. For her, stories matter, and “the village” (a.k.a. the audience) matters deeply. Fed, raised and watered by many creative and dedicated people (including her mother poet/storyteller Anita Stewart)  d’bi teaches and tells with 8 core  principles known as the SORPLUSI methodology. (Check the links below for more info.) One of these principles is “urgency” which is demonstrated in part by the very real and  horrifying connections she draws between the bondage experienced by millions of Africans during slavery and the overt-criminilization and incarceration of black bodies on this continent today. She considers her shows to be collaborations, not only with the performers, musicians, choreographers and technicians that contribute to the production but with the village/audience itself.  There is no “fourth wall”. Esu Crossing started in the lobby of the Storefront Theatre, and from that moment I was part of it. Live storytelling has a unique way of feeding the senses, one that 3-D animation and D-boxing can’t replicate. Because of the show’s thoughtful curation, using minimal props, there was a moment when I smelled that earthy, goaty smell of the grease on the mask, and a cowrie shell brushed against my skin. Those sensations, coupled with d’bi’s 360 degree embodiment of the character, took me somewhere, in a hurry. Suddenly I was no longer an observer, instead I was on a boat, seasick and beaten, homesick and disoriented, enraged, determined, hopeful and terrified all at once.

Is it fair to compare a children’s movie made by Disney studios to that very visceral experience?  Probably not, but I’m going to do it anyway. Last Friday I saw The Jungle Book. I’m glad I saw it, the visuals were stunning, 3-D is always fun (I didn’t know what a D-box was until later) but it was so frustrating because I couldn’t find the story anywhere. And finally I remembered that’s why I never really connected with the book. When I was explaining this to someone later they said, “But it’s for children”. Which to me is like saying, “They are just seedlings, so they don’t need as much care,” when in fact the opposite is true. It’s even more important that children are fed and watered with stories that have integrity, stories with meaning, stories that can grow inside them and help them grow. And any child who has been fed on that kind of story will spot the difference, immediately. There is a very well know teller in Toronto, Dan Yashinsky, who titled a book he wrote, Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, for that very reason.  His son had been raised on stories with substance and then one night (as Dan tells it) he was tired and trying to get his son to go to sleep, and was making up a random story to get the job done. His son picked up on this change and (to help his dad along) piped in with, “Suddenly they heard footsteps…”  If I remember correctly, his son was only 3-years-old at the time. Children know, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know. So it’s even more important that we choose the stories we expose ourselves and the children in our lives to with integrity. Life is short. Why spend it thirsty?

Notes and links:

I will be posting more about my experience at the Toronto Storytelling Festival soon

Today’s word: curate – I know it in relation to curating a visual arts exhibit or even a social media page (thanks Kim Katrin Milan). When I looked it up at Merriam Webster on-line it says it’s from Middle English, “to cure the soul” via Medieval Latin and the Latin “to care” so in the above use, I think it’s very appropriate to think of it as “to care for the soul”

d’bi young anitafrika on the SORPLUSI methodology:

What is D-boxing?

What is the fourth wall?  I really like this post:




Cultivating Silence – The Storytellers’ Toolkit, Part 1

Still waters run deep – proverb

As a teller of stories, as a creator of stories, silence is one of your most valuable tools. Without silence there is no place for the stories to land or to expand. Whether you are making space for understanding a story that you are learning, or maintaining the openness required to imagine something new, silence is your ally. Sitting in stillness or meditating is one of the ways you can cultivate silence but it’s not the only way. Anything that involves repetition or rhythm can have the same effect. Walking, swimming, jogging, knitting, cutting vegetables, dancing, drumming are all great places to start. And yes, dancing and drumming are not exactly silent activities, but if you stick to listening to or playing music without vocals those activities can create a type of inner stillness, energetically very similar to silence, where your mind is free from chatter, a place where you can just be.

The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear – Rumi

Why are you afraid of silence? This is an interesting question for a storyteller to ask her or himself. There are many kinds of silence but in this case I am referring to the golden kind, the silence that feels like a cool rain on sun-baked skin, or fresh water on a parched tongue. The silence that feels like sunshine after a long, gloomy winter, like light dancing on water when the clouds part. Refreshing, inviting, satiating. Why are you afraid of silence? A question I have been asking myself a lot lately, as I watch myself do anything and everything to avoid it, to avoid myself. I don’t have an answer yet but now, having drunk from it recently (at least from the shallows, if not the depths) I am less afraid.

Be the blank page, be the expectant surface.

Silence, the golden kind, is a very important part of the storyteller’s toolkit. Without short silences or pauses your stories can feel rushed, cluttered, like too many words on a page with no white space in between, overwhelming. With practice, silence can be used to create tension and expectation in your listeners, or to allow for a moment for you or them to refocus. Maintaining focus while listening takes a lot of effort, sometimes your audience won’t notice when their attention has strayed, pauses give them a chance to reconnect or to catch up.

Why are you so afraid of silence, silence is the root of everything, if you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear. – Rumi

In this day and age, our connection to and dependence on technology can be one of our biggest challenges when cultivating silence. We wake up to the incessant beeping of our electronic devices, turn on the radio while we are getting ready for our day or driving to work. Interact through social media or play games on our phones while riding the bus or even when walking down the street. When we finally turn off our devices and take our earphones out, the beeping of bank machines and cash registers, refrigerator doors, coffee machines, and a cacophony of traffic and construction call us out of our reverie. At home and on the street, noise pollution can be an issue, it can raises stress levels, affect hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, concentration and sleep. So you can see why cultivating silence is an essential tool for self-care as well as an important instrument in your storyteller’s toolkit.

The inspiration you seek is already within you, be silent and listen. –Rumi

There is an image that is often referred to when describing writer’s block, and that is the image of the blank page. It is supposed to invoke the fear of having nothing in your creative tank. Is a cluttered page any more inspiring? I think not. When your creativity is overflowing, what you long for is space. Space to move and to dance, space to sing and be heard, a place to jot down notes, a surface to slather with colour, a page to fill. And the page (the audience, the drum, the song, the story) is waiting for you. Be the blank page, be the expectant surface. Take some time to cultivate silence, you may discover it is one of your most powerful create tools.

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. – Kahlil Gibran