Archive for the ‘storytelling’ Category

Our mail gets delivered mid-morning, brought in and sorted at noon. Bills to the computer room, junk mail to the garbage and personal correspondence to the kitchen table where it waits, unopened, until after work. When I can relax and enjoy it like the special treat it is.  

I email and text, like everyone else. And I handwrite letters. Because cursive is a beautiful way to say what you want to say.

Whether it’s telling a secret…

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sharing big news…

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or just saying “You should be here!”

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The time we take to smooth down the paper, get the right pen, choose our words and physically form them on the page adds weight to our message and a personal touch to its delivery. In an age when a thought can be typed, sent, read and deleted in seconds, handwriting gives us the gift of a conversation that can be relived over and over again.

January 23, 2016 is National Handwriting Day.

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My gun-toting granny who was also a nurse, a fieldhand, a church organist and a cancer patient.

My grandma flushed out a thief who was hiding under her house, loaded him into her car, and drove him at gunpoint into town to the sheriff.

My dad, who was there, told me the story. Had I gotten it directly from my grandma before she died, I’d have asked, “Were you scared? How did you know he was under there? Would you have shot him?”

Family and friends are the people we think we know better than anybody else. But do we really? Maybe we would if we just took the time to ask.

For the past 12 years, StoryCorps has given ordinary people the chance to find out extraordinary things about the people they know by simply asking questions.

Through the program, people record interviews with someone who’s made an impact on their life, knowingly or unknowingly, relative, friend or acquaintance. The interviewer picks the questions and hopes the interviewee answers them. And most of the time, they do. The interviews (65,000 of them already) are stored at the Library of Congress and some of them air on National Public Radio.

Our lives are a series of great stories. Happy, sad, scary, exciting, funny, unusual. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are packed with the edited versions of the best (or worst) stories people want to tell about themselves. What about the incredible stories we can tell about others?

In my reporter days, it took tape recorders and reel to reels and notebooks to get the story; today, all you need is a smartphone and an app. StoryCorps has one. It lets you record your own StoryCorps-style interview and upload it to be preserved by the Library of Congress. It even invites you to take a selfie with the person you interviewed.

So, is your grandma tougher than my grandma? We’ll never know unless you ask.

Mark Twain wrote “Tom Sawyer” more than 80 years before actors Jodie Foster and Johnny Whitaker were born. But when I picture Becky Thatcher and Tom Sawyer, I’m seeing kid versions of Jodie Foster and Johnny Whitaker. That’s thanks to a 1973 musical version of the novel which, while not the best adaptation of Twain’s work, is unfortunately the one that sticks in my head.

Any time you lift words from the page and set them in motion there’s the risk your interpretation will be met with “I don’t get it” or worse, “That sucked”. But if the alternative is that nobody will ever hear those words if you don’t do it, it’s a risk worth taking.

The founders of the poetry film collaboration project Motionpoems were worried that great poems were going unread because people just weren’t reading poetry. So maybe they’d be more interested in WATCHING it.

Motionpoems pairs contemporary poets with filmmakers to create short film adaptations of poems. Some are animated, others live action, some dark, some funny, some so far removed from what a reader might get out of just reading the poem that you might watch it twice because it’s so interesting.

See for yourself. In the waning hours of National Poetry Month and as spring is FINALLY coming to my corner of the Midwest, here’s the Motionpoem “Ecclesiastes 11:1” by Richard Wilbur, film adaptation by Faith Eskola for your viewing enjoyment.

If you find a Motionpoem that speaks to you, feel free to share it in a comment!

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

He’s a World War II veteran, in his 70’s,
and like many of that era, unfailingly polite.
“Please” for more ice chips,
“Thank you” for the bedpan,
“My apologies” for hitting the call button by mistake.
The lone occupant of a room with two beds,
he takes the one by the window
so he can watch the traffic.
He barely dents the mattress, is thin but not bony,
skin wrinkled but not pale and delicate.
He’s golden brown, a boy of many summers,
the same shade as my grandfather who’s a farmer
and I wonder if this man’s the same.
His hair, what’s left of it, is coarse and white
and his blue eyes are pale yet alert.
But it’s his arms that I study as I check his water pitcher.
They rest atop the sterile white coverlet like
fading portraits on a clean canvas.
Forearms covered in pictures, tattoos whose clear outlines
are muddied, the colors bled from age and the elements.
There are dates and a woman’s name,
a pin-up girl like the nose art of a bomber,
a dragon’s head that now spews a dim spark of its former flame.
While the old man sleeps, I try to picture him
as a strong young man whose eyes are clear,
whose heart pumps steadily, whose bare arms are unadorned.
Yet to travel to those places and see those things
that prompt him to wear his history forever on his skin.

 

A snowy world, at peace

The author is Mark Helprin. The book is “In Sunlight and in Shadow.” And given the devastation caused by this past weekend’s blizzard, the passage below is an appropriate description of the bleak battle we wage with Old Man Winter.

“They had practically nothing but snow – the feel of it, the silence it imposed with an almost beneath-the-threshold-of-sound hissing as it fell, the way it lit the darkness even as it smothered sight. Snow was God’s scolding of the world for war. It suppressed and conquered legions and nations. It quieted continents, forced branches to bow in submission, and broke those that would not. It made a mockery of military power and pride in numbers, throwing into the world inexhaustibly its own soldiers, tiny crystals each with an inimitable identity, each fragile, temporary, frozen, resigned, but in such endless profusion that they could slaughter entire armies in absolute silence and bury them until spring. Snow muffled the sounds of soldiers who fought across it or waited in it; it sent them messages in its glistening whirlwinds; and like a wrestler who need not expend energy or breath, it effortlessly pinned them to earth.”

Thoughts are with you weary warriors still struggling in the white.

Cottonwood Jail

The whole of Cottonwood (they number 12) are watching as I turn off the highway onto the gravel. Along the dusty path, buildings are scarce: a handful of houses, empty school, vacant grain elevator. A church slumps at the edge of town, peeled and pained by the prairie winds. Crows and turkey buzzards perch on its pinnacle, the steeple aslant.

I turn at Main Street and though it would be quicker to cut the corner and cross the barren lots, respect keeps me on the abandoned road, strewn with tumbleweeds and washouts. My four-wheel-drive skirts the ruts and comes to rest at the Cottonwood Jail.

The barbed wire fence holds me at bay but I walk the ditch as close as I can get, skirting the boundaries of trespass. The sun blazes overhead, puff clouds dotting the blue straight up for miles. The wind ruffles the yellow prairie grass and raises a howl from the darkened shack. The spectre of a former occupant, the last unfortunate led from his cell, across the dust to the square, up the steps, over the boards, under the dangling rope? Retribution awaits, its shadow hovering over the pine planks.

My camera quick draws from wrist strap to hand and I shoot into the sun, striking shadows with floating faces. I shiver in the heat, and retreat to my car, glancing both ways across the wide open field, feeling the weight of the watching. I make for the highway without looking back.

On the steps of the church, in the shade of the steeple, a pair of wizened cowboys watch me depart. Spitting the last of his chew into the dirt, the younger says to the other, “Puttin’ the jail sign on that old chicken coop was the best idea you ever had.”

“Ayuh,” says the elder, squinting across the prairie beneath the shade of his gnarled hand. “Those tourists eat that shit up.”