The Art of Storytelling

If you’re retelling a story from your past, not only should you be able to transport yourself back to the very place and time of the event, but the person you’re relaying the story to should feel as if they were there with you.  Even if it’s fictional, it must ring true to both you and your audience.  Let me give you an example.

I went hiking in Catoctin Mountain Park this past August.  I hadn’t been hiking there since the previous fall and was anxious about walking the paths I know.  This may sound silly, but I feel a real connection when I hike there, something that refreshes my psyche.  I left my house at approximately 7:45 am to insure I would have at least the beginning of my trek to myself (it’s a 45 minute drive and usually I’m the first on the trail).  True to history, I was the only person at the mouth of Hog Rock Nature Trail when I arrived at the parking area off Park Central Road.  My plan was to hike the trail to the vista and then continue on towards Cunningham Falls.

It was unseasonably cool that August morning so I grabbed my gray fleece vest from the backseat of the car.  I zipped it up and then opened the trunk to don my hiking boots and backpack.  I snuggled into my new gargoyle-colored boots, bounced my heels up and down a couple of times to admire how good they felt on my feet.  I juggled the backpack onto my shoulders and then picked up my hiking poles.  I know it’s a “girl thing”, but I couldn’t help thinking how fantastic it is that the shades of gray and purple in my boots, backpack, and poles were coordinated.  Slamming the trunk shut and locking the vehicle, I couldn’t help smiling as I moved onto the trail.

Not ten seconds into the walk and stopped dead in my tracks.  I gazed around at the mountain landscape, barely recognizing the trail I have walked many times over the past years.  Treepocolypse – the name given to the devastating ice storm we suffered early in the year – had ravaged many of the trees.  I felt a heavy weight on my heart as I looked left to right, breathing in the sadness of so much loss.  I walked on for a few minutes and stopped to assess what had happened over the past many months.  A good number of the trees had been cut into large logs which were heaped in small piles away from the trail.  Some logs had been used on the path to mark or ease the incline/decline.  However, it seemed that many more of the trees were frozen in time at the moment of the storm – countless numbers of them leaning, pulled up at their roots, wedged precariously against neighboring trees; many more laying flat against the mountain floor.  I sighed deeply.

As I walked on towards the vista I could hear rustling in the grass to my left.  I stopped.  A chipmunk scurried away.  Birds chirped from high in the trees, probably alerting those ahead that there was an intruder in their midst.  I looked up towards the treetops which were dark against the cloudy sky.  I could hear the birds but couldn’t see them.  None of them were flying.  Odd.  I continued on, paying close attention to the trail beneath my boots.  Spider webs clung tightly to clumps of leaves.  The first of yellow and green and brown leaves littered the trail.  No sounds but occasional rustling leaves and the birds.

I wandered off the trail about midway to the vista just to see a large rock formation colored with moss.  I snapped a picture with my phone.  I turned and took a few more shots of tree trunks held up precariously by other trees standing tall against the dead weight.

I reached the vista and stood there for five, maybe six minutes.  It was just cloudy enough that visibility was reduced to the point of not seeing much beyond a mile or so.  I looked down at the landscape directly below the vista and saw dozens of fallen trees littering the mountainside.  So much destruction!  Again, I sighed deeply but admitted that this is a natural thing for nature to make way for new growth.

I moved on past the vista along the trail towards the tiny sliver of a creek which runs down off the trail, the place where I’ve sat many times on the largest of the stones and contemplated nature while listening to the water trickle over the creek bed.  When I reached my destination, my mouth dropped as I stared at the mud and the little puddle of water no larger than a quarter.  What was going on up here in Catoctin?

I was glad I had the trail to myself.  I had a tarot reading in Gettysburg two weeks prior.  The reader said that I would experience something wonderful in a form of communication with nature if followed her instructions, and I knew that I would only do so if no one else was around.  I dropped my backpack and pulled out a packet of loose organic tobacco which she had told me to purchase if I could find it (which I did at a tobacco store near my house).  I gingerly opened the blue plastic envelope and scooped up a handful of the sweet smelling stuff.  Carefully, I sprinkled it in a large circle that spanned the width of the trail.  I replaced the packet and then knelt down within the circle, knees first, and then resting my palms on the mountain.  I closed my eyes and tried to become one with the natural forces surrounding me (this is what the reader had told me to do).  In less than a minute, I could feel the pull of something move from the ground and upward through my body.  I felt as if something inside of me was being pulled upward, gravity meaning nothing at this point to whatever was releasing itself through me, from me.

I jumped up, a little startled at the feeling that had consumed me.  But I was curious – was this all in my head, or did it really happen?  I assumed the same position as a minute ago, and again felt the same force making its way from the mountain through me and upward.  Craziness, I though.

I stood, and with my feet I swept the tobacco towards the edges of the path.  I considered what had just happened, wondering if it due to the lack of coffee (I never drink the stuff prior to a hike), or if something spiritual had happened.  Knowing I would never really know for sure, I trekked back to my car.  On my way, I took some of the more interesting stones from the path and tucked them into the pockets of my backpack.  Souvenirs of most curious hike.

Off in the distance I could hear a couple of motorcycles making their way down Park Central Road.  They drove along, and then I heard the engines idling.  They had stopped somewhere not far from where I was.  I got a chill, not from the air, but by recalling the “Dateline” episode where a serial killer was torturing and murdering hikers in the southeast.  You know, I’d never been concerned about hiking alone prior to viewing that episode.  However, I shrugged it off.  It’s either hike alone or not hike at all.  I choose the first option every time.

So that’s the end of the story.  Did it feel real to you?  Was I able to transport you to Catoctin, and were you on the hike with me?  How much of the story do you think was fact, and how much was fiction?

The Stories Manifesto

It hit me today while I was washing my hair that I am missing out on a tremendous volume of stories. When I called my mom yesterday, a Sunday afternoon routine to stay in touch, I could hear conversation and laughter in the background. Turns out that my sister, my brother-in-law, and my nephew and his girlfriend were spending time with my parents the Sunday after my dad’s birthday. While I felt a touch of sadness while I was on the phone that I wasn’t there to spend that time with them, it really didn’t bother me until today. Distance can be a real drag.

I realized quite some time ago that there would be many things that I would miss by moving almost 800 miles away from my family. I think it’s a factor of getting older that you want to squeeze as much as you can into what you perceive as the time that you have left. The weekly telephone touch-base with my mom and my sister are not doing it for me the way it used to. I’ve relied on Facebook to keep in touch with my nephews so that I can feel a connection, although distant, to what’s going on in their lives. But there is something major lacking. “Liking” a post is in no way as gratifying as a heartfelt hug and speaking words instead of typing them onto a screen. And when your sister and parents aren’t Facebook “friends” it feels like the connection distance is magnified.

It’s evident to me that I am missing way too many stories. I’m missing the stories of what my nephews are doing with their lives because Facebook can only convey so much. I’m missing hearing the old stories of my dad when he was growing up and the wild things he and his buddies used to do. I’m missing the stories of my mom’s childhood and the wonderful and odd things she and her sisters used to do when they were young. Sure, I’ve heard many of those stories in the past, but I think perspective changes as you get older. There might be a little things in the stories, little nuances, that are important – things I may have missed the first time I heard them.

I’m not there for other family events, so it’s rare that I get to see uncles, aunts cousins, etc. thank goodness I saw many of them in June for my mom’s birthday party. Prior to that it had been years. Again, I miss hearing the stories of what’s going on in their lives. Tidbits on Facebook are good, but the reality is that I’ve lost touch with what makes everyone tick.

Maybe it’s just that I miss being surrounded by family sometimes.

Facebook is great. The telephone is wonderful. But nothing can take the place of being there in person to look into the eyes of the people you love and admire.

This is the beginning of my manifesto on Stories.

Full Moon

I walk from the office upstairs down to check on Buddy (my dog).  The deck door is open to let the cool night air in.  As I cross from the hallway to the family room, I do a double take – the full moon is suspended high above the deck, a glowing ecru orb in the sky.  I stop, take a deep breath, and smile.  I love looking at the full moon!

Every night lately when the sky is clear, I find myself seeking out the moon to check what phase it’s in and how bright it is.  I mean, I’ve always looked out to see if the moonlight is shimmering on the little creek of water in my backyard or if the fireflies are competing with the flickering as the leaves on the trees dance in the moonlight.  Recently though, I feel compelled to check the sky before I slip under the covers for the night.  I’m finding some type of comfort in knowing that nature is so beautiful and that it’s right here, all around me.

And to make this post even a little more odd, a couple of weeks ago I went hiking in the Catoctins.  Remember treepocolypse earlier this year when the ice storm took down a lot of trees?  Well, the Catoctins were not spared.  I barely recognized the Hog Rock trail for all the trees toppled over and sawed to make a clear passage.  I actually felt sad as I looked around.  So much devastation!

Is it a “mom” thing that I feel this way – or it is an “age” thing?  Not sure, but either way, I love this connected feeling I’m having lately.

Thankful … Day 5

Well, I have to be thankful for a most magnificent moon again, big and orange as we headed downtown Westminster for Common Ground on the Town. Christopher James was playing at Johanssons, and I really like his playing, singing, and songwriting.

We were at Common Ground’s Roots Festival all day. The music was awesome, and it was really nice to get a few minutes of chat in with some of the people who were in the songwriting class I took a couple of weeks ago. I got to hear Josh Hisle and Dan Collins again (fantastic!). Hot Tuna was phenominal, as you can imagine. I’m thankful that the day was so spectacular. I feel connected to music and musicians in a whole new way.

Thankful … Day 4

I’m am thankful for the amazing full moon that seemed to appear in the sky suddenly as we turned down a parking aisle at the mall. It was big, and golden yellow, and simply gorgeous. It was enough to take my breath away, if only for a few minutes while I gazed at it before driving off towards home.

Thankful … Day 3

Wow, it’s a tough one to figure out tonight. Nothing stellar happened that snapped into that “something to be thankful for” category. So maybe I’m just thankful that nothing terrible happened to anyone I know, and that I was able to snag the only copy of “CSNY 1974” (the one with the bonus DVD and booklet) that FYE had in stock. Yeah, those are good things to be thankful for.

Thankful … Day 2

A nasty storm thundered through this afternoon. I received an email notification that UPS had delivered my box set CD and vinyl Ed Sheeran “X” which had been on backorder for more than a week. I am thankful that the items were not damaged by the rain or wind. Yes, the packaging was slightly wet, but the contents were dry. Thankfully.

Thankful … Day 1

Sometimes there are little things to be thankful for. The situation passes quickly, and so does the feeling of gratefulness. I figure if I jot them down it will help remind me that not everything in life should be stressful.

Day 1 – I’m thankful for the person who put his/her left turn signal on in advance of the turn lane. This gave me enough time to make my right turn into traffic, drop off my Comcast box in plenty of time to get home, pickup my dog, and make it to the vet with a few minutes to spare.

I’m also grateful for spending lunch with a coworker. We had a great conversation which left me feeling a little better about a situation at work.

And the sunset was pretty cool tonight.

In the Company of Songwriters

It’s funny how you can walk into something with certain expectations but walk away with something you didn’t bargain for – something much better.

I spent mornings last week attending a songwriting class from Common Ground on the Hill. Josh Hisle, an Iraq war veteran, led the sessions along with his friend Dan Collins – both accomplished songwriters with an apparent passion for sharing their skills (links to their sites are below). I signed up for the class thinking I would learn about crafting songs – structure, form, and how to connect to your audience. We didn’t really touch on how to actually write songs in the context of verse-chorus-bridge-hook-etc., but my takeaway was that songwriters write about things that speak to them. Those things could be war, family, memories, feelings, characters, or even chickens. The other takeaway was that it’s okay to be nervous when you perform in front of people and that nervousness will probably diminish as you perform more often.

It turned out that everyone was expected to participate, whether singing or speaking his or her song/poem. Since I haven’t written anything since high school (expect for that Martin Lifespan strings contest entry a couple of years ago), I had to dust off a couple of songs. Actually, I not only had to dust them off but also had to add to and update them. Which brings me to another interesting fact about the class – everyone provided the story behind how the song/poem came to be written. That was awesome, not something we usually get when listening to a song on the radio.

I explained that the first song I was going to share with the class was written in 1974. I had been telling the women where I worked a summer job that I wrote and performed a song for the high school talent show. One of the women told me to write her a love song. I told her to give me a line, and at that moment she looked down at her smock and said, “My uniform is dirty.” I said, “Great, that will be a line in the song.” I believe she thought I was nuts.

I wrote the song, although it was short and not structured well. I pulled this song out of my binder, added a bridge and some new words in the verses, and sang it the next day for the songwriters. After class, one of the girls came up to me and asked if I ever told the women I finished the song. I don’t recall if I did. So the girl said I should let her know. After a little Internet searching, I found that the woman passed away several years ago. So now I guess I’ll flex my songwriting skills and write a song about missing the opportunity to let the woman know (her name was Joann, by the way) that I finished her song.

The thing I enjoyed the most about the class was being around songwriters, listening to them as they told us about and sang their songs. I can understand why artists form communities. It’s a rewarding experience to be around someone who knows what you’re going through as you explore ways to express yourself through word and song.

Oh, and one more huge takeaway – I plan to do this again next summer but may take even more classes from Common Ground on the Hill.

Josh Hisle – http://joshhisle.wix.com/music#!

Dan Collins – http://www.reverbnation.com/dancollinsmusic

The Flower Child in Us All

Sunday.  Temperatures are warmer this weekend than they have been for quite a while.  The blast of snow from a week or so ago is becoming a memory as we can see green grass again.  It’s been jam-packed weekends spent at a few music stores and picking up something we haven’t before – a mineral lick and corn for the deer that sometimes visit us.  I’m picking up the guitar almost daily, especially now that I jacked my card up again with the purchase of a Martin DRS1 and an Epiphone Emperor Swingster in wine red (which sort of makes up for having to sell my previous Epiphone years ago).

Got my taxes done on Saturday, and as I’m leaving the accountant’s office, he made a statement, “You’re a flower child.”  It struck me as odd at first that he would make a connection like that, but then thinking of my age, I guess it was a semi-obvious observation.  He then mentioned something about the bell-bottoms I had worn the previous year which actually were just wide-leg slacks.  If he only knew about my Martin Hippie guitar, how I wear peace symbol earrings a lot, and that I used to end all of my letters (back in the day when we actually used to mail handwritten letters via the Post Office) with “Pax”.  Yeah, I’m a flower child I guess, although I wasn’t even a teenager when it all started back in the 60’s.

Sure, I used to draw everything that was late 60’s and early 70’s – paisley designs, bold black and white patterns, groovy chicks with groovy mini-skirts and white go-go boots and long, flowing hair.  I used to wear headbands in school and in the early days of working in an office.  It was the style, at least for us hip-chicks wannabes.  I loved wearing bell-bottoms (still would if I could find some) and ponchos.  I wanted to sing in coffee houses and write songs that would strike a deep emotion in people.  I wanted to write the Great American Novel and make some kind of impact in the world.

But priorities change as we mature and grow older.

Am I any different than anyone else?  No.  Everyone has dreams and aspirations.  There are not all the same, but no matter what they are we strive for them – until something changes in our lives or ourselves.

I think we all have a kind of flower child in us at some point in our lives.  Something that drives us to make a difference.  Something that makes us want to be artistic, soulful, political, outspoken, a leader … whatever it is you call your own.

I don’t usually like labels, but I’m cool with being known as a Flower Child.

Peace, baby!