Last summer, my husband Phil and I had the pleasure of experiencing an extraordinary journey in Peru. It was my first time in South America, and now I have visited and told stories on six continents! The whole experience was a feast for the eyes, the senses and the heart – the vibrant colors, the ancient stone structures, brilliantly designed terraces, the tastes and sounds of an old, new world and people so connected to their homeland.
A few months before we left, I was contacted by an engaging young poet from the Peruvian Ministry of Education. His name is Carlos Estela, and on my first morning in Lima, Peru, he came to interview me along with a videographer, Daniel Ochoa. Carlos works as part of the initiative, “Historias Q Cuentan,” which roughly translates to “Stories that Count.” We spent a delightful hour and I thoroughly enjoyed his thoughtful questions and comments as I shared my story journey. I was so thrilled to connect with him and the community of local storytellers he features through his work.
After the interview, Phil and I had 10 days to explore the wonders of Peru. We started out in Lima, marveling at the intricate architecture of the Adobe Pyramid, Huaca Huallamarca and the exquisite art work of the Lima Cathedral . Then we headed to Cusco, and were soon awed by its Incan Golden Temple and the cobblestone roads so narrow that it seemed our van would scrape its sides as we barreled along them.
Then, on we went to the Sacred Valley where we visited an animal sanctuary with amazing wildlife including bears and pumas. One of the most memorable creatures we encountered there was a rehabilitated condor bird that had a 10-foot wingspan! We were told that soon it would be released again into the wild.
We ventured on to Machu Picchu, braving what seemed like a million stair-climb to the top! Let me tell you, I was grateful for the seven years I have spent doing my modified CrossFit exercise regimen! The view from the top was magnificent with lush, craggy mountain peaks rising above a land of architectural wonder. Wild llamas kept the grass neat and trimmed around the ancient buildings at the top. I marveled at the intricate stonework used by the builders – so sophisticated in a time before the wheel was known to them and when construction relied on a different kind of ingenuity and labor instead of machines.
Our next destination was along the shore of Lake Titicaca. During the day, we took a boat made of reeds that grow in the lake to visit the man-made ‘islands’ at the center. At 12,500’ Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable body of water. There are 85 small floating islands on the lake. Each is handmade out of the local totora reeds. Depending on weather and other factors, the islands must be rebuilt every 4-5 years.
On one such island, we visited with the five Uros families who live there, learning about their lives, tasting some of their food, and hearing stories about their art and their heritage. Later, the children arrived home from school and what a welcome we received! They were as thrilled to see us as we were to see them! And they insisted on dressing us in their traditional clothes. We all got a good laugh!
Then I asked our guide, Omar, if he would interpret so I could tell the children a short story. (See video below) He jumped right in. As we shared the story together, with gestures and sounds, ooohs & ahhhs, along with laughter and hugs; the barrier of spoken language seemed to melt away.
As the trip came to a close, I found it hard to leave this beautiful land and all of the people who I encountered there, those who touched my life and continue shaping my journey. At the heart of each place we visited, I was struck with awe at how connected the people are to their land, their lineage, and their history. Even when we were hearing about what had happened to their ancestors 500 or 2,000 years ago it felt real and present. It was and is still their story – they are living it now.
This week, I am heading down the familiar road across the mountain from Asheville to Jonesborough, TN, for a week as the Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Center. I will be performing each day from August 15th to August 19th at 2pm in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall.
I am so thrilled to return to Jonesborough, a place that holds so many dear memories for me of the storytelling community through the years ever since the first National Storytelling Festival in 1973! And to be a part of the ‘Storytelling Live!’ event – 26 weeks of storytelling every spring, summer and fall with a different storyteller featured each week.
Another reason that I’m particularly excited about these performances is that they allow me to share stories of a non-profit organization that is near to my heart, Bead for Life. I first became aware of Bead for Life when a dear friend and one of the founders, Torkin Wakefield, told me about her experiences in Uganda. While I was initially very interested in learning more, I could not know then the lasting and powerful effect that working with Bead for Life would have on my own path and worldview.
Bead for Life is an organization dedicated to teaching Ugandan women business and entrepreneurial skills. By crafting and selling jewelry, these women lift themselves out of extreme poverty. The women roll small strips of paper into beautiful, colorful beads which are in turn strung into bracelets, necklaces and earrings. This paper bead jewelry is distributed and sold all around the world. All of the proceeds from the jewelry sales directly benefit the women who create them.
In 2007, I traveled to Uganda at the invitation of Bead for Life to the city of Kampala to listen to the stories of the Ugandan women who were making the jewelry. The very first day, on my way to meet the women beaders of the Acholi tribe, I walked along a dirt road with Bead for Life staff. Lining the path, whole families—from children to elders—picked up rocks and pounded them with hammers, breaking the rocks into gravel. Ping ping ping. Each person hammering the rocks against the palm of their hand. Ping ping ping. And no shelter from the hot sun. The lived reality of their daily work and extreme poverty was earth-shaking to me. My heart ached for these people along the road.
In dramatic contrast, at the top of the hill we were met by the women beaders with drums and instruments in hand. The women began singing and dancing in welcome—it was an exhilarating greeting!
I wrote in my journal, “[There is] this incomparable joy from the beaders, faces beaming with hope for the future and contentedness with the present. I have a lot to learn from them. I am weeping and dancing with all the images and experiences. Uganda has stolen my heart, broken it open, and given me new life.” This new life followed me when I returned to the U.S. My previous understanding of the words “poverty” and “wealth” were shattered and I had a whole new way of looking at the world. Even though it has been almost a decade since my trip to Uganda, the women and their stories are with me and continue to have a powerful impact on my daily life. When I pick up a piece of Bead for Life jewelry, I know that it carries the stories of the women whose hands and hearts created it.
On Friday, August 19th, Bead for Life jewelry will be available for purchase from 10am until 2pm in the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. This is a great opportunity for anyone who is in the area to see these pieces firsthand and learn more about the story of Bead for Life. If you are searching for the perfect gift for someone or even yourself, then Bead for Life jewelry is the way for that shopping to have a big positive impact on the world.
This week will mark my 12th annual offering of the Summer Storytelling Retreat & Adventure here in Asheville, NC. In this weeklong workshop, those drawn to stories are invited to ‘dip their toes’ into storytelling and experienced tellers are called to re-emerge themselves in storytelling to uncover new ways to tell old stories.
One of my favorite traditions in the earlier years of the Summer Storytelling Retreat & Adventure was the trip out to the Hicks’ Homeplace up on Beech Mountain, NC. We would all hop in a van and take the mountain roads up to hear Rosa, and her sons, Ted and Lenard sing ballads and tell stories from their front porch, introducing the workshop participants to the mischievous mountain legends of ‘Jack’.
In the past several years, I have still headed up the mountain just shortly after the retreat ends (instead of during the scheduled agenda). And workshop participants are also invited to join in for this outing. At the homeplace, we help to commemorate and celebrate the lives and legacies of Ray, Rosa and Ted. It is always striking for new visitors how this trip to Beech Mountain acts almost like a leap back in time because the house is still preserved very much as it was when Ray and Rosa lived there – although with the addition of some basic modern ‘conveniences’ like electricity and indoor plumbing which were added in 2003.
I hope you enjoy these photos of my Summer Storytelling Retreat & Adventure in its early years. I am amazed at how my life has been touched by so many of these participants over the years as our paths intertwine and cross in unexpected and exciting ways. Take a close look and you might even find some familiar faces!
Welcome to my brand new blog!
I must say, I feel reluctant excitement about this component of my newly redesigned website. This practice of regular, informal writing is new to me. I am much more drawn to using my voice — and the blank white page can seem daunting. (As a matter of fact, you will likely see some video and audio blog-posts… with lots of photos too!) But I do love the idea of connecting with you on a variety of subjects and am always curious to explore ways of spreading the word about storytelling.
Here are a few of the topics that I anticipate shining a light on with this blog:
- Hints on how to learn a story
- Techniques for engaging and connecting with each listener in the audience
- My volunteer work with the non-profit, Bead for Life
- Remembrances of Ray and Rosa Hicks as well as their impact on the storytelling community
- Anecdotes about the wildlife around my home from bears to bobcats (I once headed a particularly curious bear out of my dining room!)
- Storytelling tips for business professionals
- Finally, I hope to welcome stories and articles from guest contributors – friends, artists, scholars, and storytellers!
I invite your own ideas, questions, suggestions and feedback as well.
So check back here in the weeks and months to come for the latest blog entry. And please share with others who you think might enjoy it. I hope our paths will cross again soon!
All the best,