Make Storytelling a Family Tradition

importance of family stories

image: CC by 2.0 echoroo

“Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides.” ~Rita Mae Brown

We began to tell stories not long after we humans gained the power of speech.   Stories gathered people together, giving them a way to remember their shared history, to transmit wisdom, to laugh and ponder, to awaken possibilities.

Stories were told over and over and listeners came to know them well. They participated through call-and-response, or by drumming, chanting, or swaying. The tale came alive.

We’re still a storytelling species. Look at the way children experience stories. They beg us to tell (or read) a particular story over and over, one that resonates inside where only stories can reach. Children incorporate stories into make-believe. Their favorite books may very well help to shape who they will become.

Particularly when they’re young, many children can’t help but get involved in the same ways their earliest ancestors once did. They instinctively call out a repeating phrase or yell a warning to a main character. They tap their knees in excitement, hum a tune, or otherwise accompany the story with movement. They feel the story. They become the story.

It’s important to read to our children regularly, but we can go beyond the printed page by making storytelling a family tradition. This has amazing benefits. In fact, it appears that children whose relatives share family anecdotes feel a stronger sense of belonging —- a quality researchers call  best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Children enjoy hearing true tales, especially about themselves.

~Tell them their birth or adoption story including the months of anticipation, reactions of family members, the weather that day.

~Tell them stories of their earliest years––the way he used to cry at the sight of dogs until he finally worked up the courage to pet one and fell in love with all things canine; the time she made friends with another three-year-old at the airport and the fathers got to talking only to discover they had grown up in the same town.

~Tell them stories about their relative’s younger days. It stretches their imaginations to hear about Aunt Essie’s girlhood on the farm, Great-grandpa’s bout with polio, their own father’s youthful antics..

~Talk about family members who have passed away, as far back as you can. Help children imagine these people clearly— talk about what they loved to do, their favorite foods, and acts that were courageous, foolhardy, eccentric, or otherwise out of the ordinary.

Children also enjoy tales made up on the spot.

~Tell an ongoing adventure that features heroic young people who live in a make-believe world, perhaps on a quest to reach a goal. Plot twists and new characters can stretch the tale into months of bedtime stories.

~Tell stories together. One person starts a story (perhaps by putting unlikely characters into an improbable situation), then passes it along to the next person who adds more to the story, and so on. This is great to do on a long drive or while stuck in a waiting room.

~Ask kids to tell you a story. Our children can start seeing what goes on around them as story material — bringing the long tradition of storytelling into the next generation.

Beyond the content of any story is the ritual itself––that of telling, listening and enjoying together. This is something no commercial product can duplicate.

Gathering together to tell our tales is a tradition nearly as old as clustering around a fire for warmth.  As Ursula K. LeGuin says, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

telling family stories, how to tell family stories,

image: CC by 2.0 Jerry Kirkhart

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Everyone Is A Poet

everyone is a poet

When people tell me their largest stories I am helpless as a page under pen.

A woman told me how, as a child of 11, she struck out when her grandparents were ignored rather than served at a restaurant in the deep South. Her anger was so heated that she used the restaurant’s complementary matches to start the place on fire.

It wasn’t entirely the content of the memory or the force in her voice. It was the way she strung words together; spare yet detailed. She talked about her grandmother’s arthritic hands picking up and putting down a salt shaker. She described her grandmother’s dark green dress and sensible heels, the patient smile she wore even though no one came to take their order. Before this raised-up-North granddaughter could utter a word of complaint she was shushed by her grandmother’s stern look. As her grandparents stood to go the girl ducked into the cloakroom and in seconds set to smoldering the hair oil soaked fedoras left there by white gentlemen. Of the fire she said little, except that the restaurant was forced to turn everyone away that day.

A teen described how, when he was a small child, his mother got so strung out that she’d leave him alone for days at a time.

He ended most sentences with “you hear me” and “wasn’t nothing” as he talked about licking his fingers before running them along the insides of drawers and cupboards to find crumbs. He said his mother got angry if she caught him sleeping curled next to the apartment door. She’d yell “I didn’t raise no dog.” When his story ended a refrain continued. He said “wasn’t nothing” four times, each repetition softer until his moving lips made no sound at all.

An elderly woman recounted the story of union busters coming by their cabin at supper time to beat up her father, who’d been organizing his fellow coal miners.

She didn’t recognize her own family any longer but vividly remembered this tale from her earliest years. Her words were impressions. I saw her mother standing fearfully at the door insisting her husband wasn’t home, children clustered behind her wide-mouthed with alarm. I envisioned this little girl with the presence of mind to hide her father’s dinner dishes. “Just laid em in the stove with a cloth over,” she said. When the men barged in they found only enough place settings for mother and children on the table. They left, never looking under the porch where her father hid. She had no other stories left to tell. This one was large enough for a lifetime.

Not only do I feel what they’re saying, I’m awestruck by how they say it.

When people talk about extremes they’ve experienced they speak as poets do. They rely on verbal shorthand made up of sensory description and metaphor. They drift from past to present, change viewpoints, dip into myth and scripture. Often they end abruptly, as if what they’re trying to say can’t truly be said. Their stories, powerful already, gain a sort of beauty that sends ordinary language aloft. It’s truth that trembles. To me, it’s poetry.

 

This essay first published in Poet’s Quarterly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Space for Stillness

 

Let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.–Rumi

Parents naturally recognize that a long bath settles a restless toddler, that snuggle time is a necessary oasis in a child’s day. We notice when children have solitary moments they tend to daydream, a natural form of meditation. We see even the most active kids settle into stillness, quietly swaying on a backyard swing or humming while looking out the window, entirely at peace until a new idea grabs them or (more frequently) someone interrupts them to do something.

Everyone needs time to simply “be.” In stillness we’re fully present all way to the the quiet center of our being. (The vital counterpoint to this, being energized to the center of ourselves, is the blissful state of flow.) Constant activity can easily crowd our awareness into a jumble of surface impressions. Even when we are mindful of the need to downshift, obligations and diversions intrude. Yet we know contemplation flourishes best in stillness.

For some of us, a specific place helps us to gather what is fragmented in ourselves. We might be drawn to sit on the porch step each evening and watch dusk turn to darkness, we may make a ritual of drinking tea in a certain comfortable chair each morning, we may notice that time alone in nature strengthens our spirits. Many children like making their own hidden realms under blankets, behind furniture, in an outdoor hideout, wherever they can listen to silence by choice. And many families incorporate daily rituals of prayer or meditation that, in addition to a spiritual purpose, also teach children to connect with an essential wisdom within.

That inner wisdom provides important information none of us should ignore. Often the information is coded into physical impressions or sensitivities. Children may have difficulty coping with overstimulation, they may object to certain foods, or they may refuse to play at a new friend’s house. These sensitivities or inclinations aren’t wrong. They are among the many indicators of a wordless knowing. In a world that unrelentingly pushes us to fit in by denying our feelings, a measure of stillness and acceptance at home leaves the child space to know him- or herself. By reacting mindfully we draw the child’s conscious awareness to these differences.

Many of us were taught as children to ignore our inner promptings. We may have felt instinctive revulsion when served particular foods, but were told we had to clean our plates. We may have known that we weren’t ready to practice math facts over and over, but found if we didn’t comply we’d be shamed by bad grades. We may have heard a small voice inside warning us to stay away from a particular person, but were told to do what grown-ups said.

Instead we want our children to recognize that they have an internal system of communication known as intuition. They can tune in to their own impressions, perhaps learning that they get grouchy when they are thirsty or feel a stomachache coming on when they aren’t being true to themselves. They can use these signs when making decisions. The child whose gut feelings are taken seriously will learn to respond to the form his intuition takes.

Paying attention to inner promptings can be crucial. As security expert Gavin de Becker explains in Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safethis is imperative for safety because intuition is a hardwired trait warning us of danger. If the child is aware of his inner warning system he will trust himself well enough to recognize the indicators that something is wrong. As de Becker says, this can save a child’s life.

Incorporating tranquil interludes into our daily lives is an important way to nurture a connection to inner wisdom. In good times as well as difficult times, that connection gives us a sense of self and the inner reserves found in stillness.

This post is an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

How Do You Introduce A Friend?

Years ago, a family new to our area came to an enrichment program my kids and I were attending. Someone said, “Oh you’ve got to meet Beth, she dragged roadkill to the back of her yard so her kids could observe the process of decomposition.”

I knew immediately that Beth and her kids were our kind of strange. Every member of her family is clever in charmingly different ways and they quickly became integral to our lives. I don’t need to introduce her with that roadkill story because I have so many other Beth stories by now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable with the usual what-this-person-does-for-a-living introduction. Your friend may be amazing at her job, but she’s more than that. I’d rather introduce people by what they mean to me.  “I’d like you to meet Margaret, who is truly the most unique person I know,” or “This is Leslie, who has helped me out of more more scrapes than you can imagine,” or “I’d like you to meet Mark, an amazingly open-hearted man who also tends to make scatological jokes.”

Or introduce them by something they do that brings them joy. “I’d like you to meet David, who is a reading buddy with kids in an inner city school,” or “This is Amy, who has challenged herself to write an acrostic poem every single day,” or “This is Cynthia, who has such attuned vision in nature that she can see what most people never notice.”

Or, as in the case of Beth, to introduce someone with a story.

I suspect most of us feel awkward in a group of strangers at a party, reception, or stalled elevator. Oftentimes a conversation starts more naturally by simply sharing an observation (“I hope elevator cables only snap in the movies,” might not be the right one. Which means I’d probably say it…)

Or asking a more essential question that might lead to real connection. Maybe, “What’s capturing your attention lately?” or “What do you like to do that you don’t have to do?” (Yeah, lame. I told you I’m awkward.)

And whatever we do, by really listening to the answers.

I ran across this wonderful poem by a fellow Ohioan, Susan Glassmeyer. She says it all, perfectly.

INTRODUCTIONS

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

Or
yesterday,
walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
rising
or sinking
at the end
of this
sentence.

— Susan Glassmeyer

Understanding Children Through Imitation

follow your child's example, what it feels like to be a child, child's experience,

Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children were asleep. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

How To Listen & How To Be Heard

what's real listening, are you listening, how to pay attention, being ignored,

Katerina Omelchuk “Beginning”

“Do you really want a dead cat on your desk?”

When a teacher took a parent’s phone call at the end of another busy school day, she was taken aback by the question. She couldn’t figure out why a first grader in her class came home telling his mother that their recently deceased family pet had to be on the teacher’s desk the next morning.

Then she realized what must have happened. At the beginning of each school day, children clustered around her desk in the few minutes available before the bell rang. They were all eager to talk.

“Fish sticks are yucky so I want to change my lunch ticket.”

“Want to see me do jumping jacks?”

“This picture of me and my bike is for you.”

“Here’s a note from my mom.”

Any of us would suffer from limited focus if we tried to listen to kids clamoring for attention while also monitoring a classroom. To compensate, this teacher tended to look only briefly at the child doing the talking. She often told them to put whatever they had to offer on her desk. Thinking back, she realized she never even heard the little boy say that that his cat had died. She just gave him an automatic response. “Put it on my desk.”

It doesn’t feel good to be disregarded. It shuts us down, diminishes our sense of worth, even leads to misunderstandings that can be epic in scale.

And you know when you aren’t being really heard.

It goes both ways. We may not be heard often or heard well. We also may not be very good listeners.

Like that teacher, we’re often wedged into circumstances that aren’t conducive to listening. The potential distractions are greater than ever. Ear buds in, smart phones on, screens blaring in all but a few restaurants and waiting rooms, we multitask our way to fractured attention. And limited listening. As a result we don’t hear, really hear. And we don’t feel heard.

We can consciously enhance listening skills. It’s about paying attention, tuning in to others, and limiting distractions. That helps us to hear and to be heard.

Psychiatrist Daniel N. Stern is an expert on attunement, particularly as it develops in infancy. And Dr. Stern’s research has led to this resounding conclusion. When a child or adult doesn’t give as well as receive sufficiently empathic responses they tend to resort to less healthy methods of filling their needs.

A woman who took one of my non-violence workshops turned in a paper containing an excerpt from the book Soul Work: A Field Guide for Spiritual Seekers, which explored Stern’s work. I take the liberty of including a passage here. Check yourself against Stern’s scale of attuned responses in your interactions with your partner, co-workers, children, extended family, and friends.

Scale of Attuned Responses

Beyond Unresponsive: The person you are talking with interrupts you in the middle of your sentence and shifts to a different topic.

Unresponsive: The person obviously isn’t listening, only waiting for you to stop talking. When you finish, the person shifts to an entirely different topic.

Indirectly Unresponsive: The other person says or implies, “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Self-Referential Free Association: The person says something like, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of the time when I…” or “Well you think you had it bad—listen to what happened to me,” and makes no other reference to anything you have said.

Free Association: The person responds to your statement by going off on a tangent and making only an indirect reference to what you said.

Impersonal/Nonnurturing: The person indicates she has heard you but offers no sympathetic or empathic response. Basically her stance is, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

Superficial: Although the person responds by saying, “Yeah I know what you mean,” she does not sound sincere or empathic.

Adequate: The person shows evidence that he heard what you said but does not show interest or follow up your statement by encouraging you to expand upon it.

Responsive: The person not only hears what you said but also inquires further so that you can elaborate. He asks questions that demonstrate interest.

Resonant: The person indicates that she emotionally resonates with what you have said by responding with statements that show she is trying to imagine what you are experiencing (e.g., “I can imagine that you feel terrible…”).

Really listening and really being heard. It spares us from more than a dead cat on the desk. It’s an eyes open, hearts open path to wholeness.

Half Life

We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream

barely touching the ground

our eyes half open
our heart half closed.

Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.

Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.

Until the fever breaks
and the heart can not abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.

Stephen Levine, from Breaking the Drought: Visions of Grace

 

how to listen, how to know if you are heard, attuning yourself to real responses, what it means to listen,

Alfons Anders “Begegnung”