Saturday, March 30, 2013

Home for Easter

Finally, after 2 days in my car traveling 1000 miles, drinking too much coffee and popping far too many M & M’s in my mouth, I have arrived home to spend Easter with my parents and siblings. I arrived home in time to sit down at the table for dinner; four hours later we are now just getting up to clear the dishes because we are Johnson's, and that's what we do. The food was gone hours ago but the conversations and laughter linger. It is obvious I come from a family of storytellers. My friends would be shocked to hear that I am a quiet listener at the table of my family.  As I sit around the table listening to the stories of those I love two things are clear: I will never run out of material. And to be a storyteller, you first have to be a story listener.

So my friends, this weekend I will listen to the stories that surround me. They are the voices, the sounds of laughter and tears that I have been blessed with my whole life. I will soak it all in and perhaps those voices will bubble up in future stories.

But for today I will offer up a picture and ”six word story” in honor of Easter:

"Please Mom! Not the matching dresses!"

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Story Scraps from a Red Headed Stepchild

“It’s now officially Sunday. Every Sunday for the past thirty three weeks I have posted a new story on my website. Admittedly some are better than others, but the stories have always been written, edited and re-written BEFORE Sunday. Alas, this is not the case today. I have no earthly idea what to write. The story looming large in my brain is not one I can post. I think I’ll need divine intervention to dislodge that story from my brain and make room for something else. I’ve got mere hours to make my deadline! Oh me oh my I can’t let this day go by . . .”
And that was my 12:33 am Facebook post as I sat staring off into space from the comfort of my couch with cup of tea in hand. Sleep was evasive after far too much coffee earlier in the day. My brains were scrambled, as is often the case with me.
Suggestions for writers block began to pour in: My sister, of course, suggested I write about her but you can listen to her story, “Blonde, Beautiful and Bubbly” on my CD. Fellow tellers suggested bourbon and coke or chocolate or laughter.  One friend suggested I write the story lodged in my head; however, some stories cannot be rushed or posted on the web. Finally, one wise woman advised: “Take immediate and effective action”.  And so I began.
I sat snuggled on my sofa listening to the rain pounding on my roof and offered up a prayer for inspiration. As I looked up my eyes landed on the portrait of my grandmother hanging above the fireplace mantel. Some prayers are answered quickly. Thinking of the scenes from the movie “Mulan” where they go to the ancestors seeking guidance, I marveled at God’s sense of humor.  Chuckling to myself, I could almost see my grandmother winking at me.
Twenty years ago I recorded my father interviewing my grandmother with my two year old son’s playschool recorder. Immediately I got up from the couch and walked into my bedroom and pulled out the old tape recorder and cassette tape. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I fell asleep listening to those voices. My grandmother has been gone for twenty years and my father’s voice has been stolen by Parkinson’s disease. I miss those voices.
I wish I could tell you that my grandmother was a great storyteller, but she wasn’t. She was a woman of few words, but those words always exuded power. I listened intently as my father worked to pull the story of the portrait out of her. Her initial response was, “you’ve heard that before.”  But I chimed in, “I haven’t heard the story Gramma and it’s such a beautiful painting.  You were gorgeous!” My grandmother snorted back, “oh no dear, I was just the red headed step child.”

Here's how her story unfolded:
My grandmother was born in 1905 after her mother, Geta, was quickly charmed by a man traveling through town. They wed and Dorothy Graves, my grandmother, was born nine months later. The man, held captive by alcoholism and gambling traveled right out of their lives before my grandmother turned a year old.  He died shortly after his departure. My grandmother ended up being raised by her grandparents and her Aunt Bertha.  Geta went to school to earn a teaching degree and ultimately took a teaching job far away.
When Dorothy was nine years old her mother married a man named Edgar Norton, who had paid his niece $10.00 to introduce him to her teacher. Edgar was a widower with three teenage children- Dolly, Holly and Harry. Once married, Geta stopped teaching to take care of Edgar and the four children. My grandmother was nine when she went to live with her mother and stepfather. She had not seen much of her mother in those previous nine years. When we asked Gramma how she felt about not having seen her mother for so long and then having to be uprooted to live with her new family she answered, “Aunt Bertha was my mother. . . What could I do? . . . I was shifted around. I was the red-headed step child.”
And that is how my grandmother spent her childhood, feeling less worthy than her step siblings and missing her Aunt Bertha. She never viewed herself as attractive or worthy until a famous painter spotted her.
This is how my grandmother described that day. “I was running to work. I was always running. Always late to work, you know. A big car pulled up to the curb and asked me if I would sit for a portrait with the painter Elizabeth Curtis. She paid me $2.00 an hour to sit. I sat for a couple of years.”
And that was all my grandmother had to say about that. But I wondered. Did that experience change her vision of herself? She was no longer the “red headed step child”. She was the beautiful red head in the Elizabeth Curtis painting.
As I listened to the voice of my grandmother and my father, I drifted off into a deep, sound sleep. My faith and my family have always grounded me. Upon waking I found my mind was quieter and this little “story scrap” of my grandmother was lodged in my head. It’s just the beginning of the story of her life that I will put together one little scrap at a time. Like Mushu and Mulan, I hope that I will bring honor to my ancestors.
Oh me oh my . . . don't let the voices of your ancestors go by . . . record them! They may speak back to you when you find yourself most in need of inspiration.  


Sunday, March 17, 2013


Barbara McBride Smith
Oh the places I’ve been this week . . . I traveled to South Africa and got caught in the midst of a knife fight, hung out with Sean Connery, strolled through time with Ricky Nelson, took a carriage ride in Charleston with the wackiest tour guide ever, sailed to castles beyond on a flying ship, learned how to never eat liver and onions, hung out with John Henry and his wife, and relaxed on the front porch with Ma Bell talking on the first phone with a banjo picking, harmonica playing trouble maker. What a week! All that right here South Carolina!  Stories can take you EVERYWHERE!!

My adventures began last Saturday at the inaugural “Charleston Tells!” festival with Barbara McBride Smith, Syd Lieberman, Ed Stivender, Sharon Cooper-Murray, Hawk Hurst, Donna Washington and Tim Lowry. Their stories entertained, transported and transformed me.

 Hawk Hurst told of his travels to South Africa where his quick thinking storytelling mind and musical talent saved his friend from a knife to the throat, and Donna Washington’s story of her father’s ability to use story, humor and a bit of acting to disarm the threats of racism during the 70’s left me thinking about the ways we teach tolerance and conflict resolution in our schools. Perhaps what we really need in schools in order to create a more peaceful world is simply a stronger emphasis on the arts and storytelling. Perhaps the arts should be the core of what we teach rather than the “extra-curricular” activities deemed less important and less funded than other subjects. Perhaps more money spent early on the arts would translate to less money later on defense, law enforcement and corrections. It’s a thought to ponder.
Tim Lowry
Tim Lowry’s story of the back yard zoo in Orangeburg stuck in my mind all week. The words of the zoo keeper haunt me, “Don’t wait 30 years to do what you love!”   Am I doing what I love? How can I do more of what I love and less of what I do simply to pay the bills? These are questions that probably plague many of us.
Thursday brought me to the Newberry Opera House sharing a stage with John Fowler, Ray Mendenhall and Millie Chaplin. Again, stories transported me and dissolved the stress of the daily details of life. Stories connect us to strangers and friends in our often disconnected world where a screen and a status update serve as a poor substitute for human connection.

John Thomas Fowler
So my thanks go out to the Charleston Public Library and the South Carolina Storytelling Network for bringing stories and transformation to my world this week.

Where to next? . . . Just over the border for the Storytelling Festival of Carolina in Laurinburg, NC. This week I’ll merge my two worlds, school counselor by day and storyteller by night, when I bring forty of my middle school students to their first storytelling festival. I wonder what stories will stick in their minds and what questions they will ponder.  I’ll be hoping they catch the story fever.

Stories are meant to be told and heard. Find a storytelling festival near you . . . and I hope to see you there!!

Find out where some of my favorite tellers will be:
Barbara McBride Smith:
Syd Lieberman:
Ed Stivender:
John Fowler:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Surviving My Scattered Mind

I’m a right brained, ADD person in a left brain world, and thus my life offers me plenty of stories to tell. There are times when I can’t seem to hold a thought in my head and my brain feels like scrambled eggs. Lists, post it notes, calendar alarms, ADD coaching and my focused left brained friends keep me in line most days.
Many days I wonder if I’ll ever be able to focus on one thing. And then suddenly a story starts bubbling in my head and wham – I’m thinking about one thing with crystal clarity. Not too long ago I was working on a story for a humorous speech contest. The problem was that in the 24 hours leading up to the contest there was absolutely nothing else in my head.
Thoughts of “Skinny dipping, Cops and Clergy” raced through my mind as I drove to work. I did not realize that I was simultaneously racing down the road, until the blue lights flashed in my rear view mirror and the shrieking siren broke through my singular focus. Sixty miles per hour in a thirty-five mile hour zone could have easily earned me the “super speeder” designation; however, the trooper took pity on my scattered mind and only designated me an average speeder. For the first time in my life I was pleased to be average.
Eighteen hours after my speeding ticket I was packing to travel to Charleston for the contest.  Once again thoughts of skinny dipping and seaweed filled my mind as I packed. I arrived at the hotel to discover that I had left essential clothes behind. Somehow I figured out how to squeeze a quick run to the local Walmart into my frenzied schedule.
On an average day, Walmart makes me lose my mind and I avoid it at all costs! But on this particular day desperation dictated that I overcome my aversion to shopping in the mega-supercenter.  I managed to lose my mind before even leaving the parking lot. With less than 30 minutes to spare in the schedule and story thoughts crowding my mind, I darted inside only to discover that in this particular store the essentials I needed were spread out from corner to corner. As quickly as possible, I ran through the store grabbing what I needed and raced to the checkout area. Of course, there were only three open registers available of the twenty in the store. I got into the shortest line, which ironically ended up being the longest wait.
Forty minutes later I began digging through my purse for my keys as I walked out of the store. Then I searched my pockets: no keys!  Running back to the check out area to look for my keys I began to get the sinking feeling that I had locked my keys in the car (this happens to me on a somewhat regular basis).  As I feared, no keys were at the checkout area.
As I approached my car I pulled out my phone to call roadside assistance.  For good reason, after sons, sister and parents, roadside assistance is number six on my speed dial. Reaching my car I realized that I had not only left my keys in the car but I had left my lights on as well. I thought to myself, “Martha, you have got to get a grip on your brain!”  But as I looked more closely I realized that I had not just left my keys in the car and lights on, I had actually left the car running as well! It wasn’t locked. My car had been running in the Walmart parking lot in North Charleston for approximately 45 minutes, and it was still right where I left it! Wow! I’m not sure if that is a testament to the honest people of North Charleston or to the less than average condition of my car, but regardless, I was thankful to still have my ride back to the contest.

Skinny dipping, Cops and Clergy” won first prize and only cost me an eighty-five dollar speeding ticket, a mind numbing trip into Walmart and a humbling recognition of my scattered brain. But on the plus side, I did get another story to tell.

Stories are everywhere . . .

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"To the Trees!"

“To the trees! To the Trees!”  That line, from the movie Robin Hood, is my call to sanity. In the movie, Robin Hood and his men head to the trees to save themselves from the Sheriff of Nottingham and his hired soldiers. In my life, the internal call to the trees is my reminder that life has gotten too hectic, too stressful and it’s time to slow down and sooth my soul.

For as long as I can remember time in the woods has been essential to my being. Raised by parents who had us out in the wilderness for much of our childhood, I find it only natural to find my grounding outside the confines of the walls in life.

I have always felt most connected to the universe in the woods. It is the place where my soul sings and my worries rest. In the woods I am whole. I am strong. I am the trees of the forest, firmly rooted in the earth, blowing in the breeze. I am solidly alone, and yet connected by my roots to all that surrounds me. I reach for the stars, survive the storms and provide shelter to the smaller and weaker around me. I am strong. I am twisted and smooth, tall and wide, a force to be reckoned with. I am one among many. I am peace, strength, tranquility.

In the fall of 1972, I was eight years old and had just moved away from my best friend. I’d started attending a new school and had not yet found my place in my new world. Early on a Saturday morning I decided I was going to run away, back to my old life.

As I marched across the back yard with determination in my eyes, heading for the state forest beyond the grass, my father spotted me. He was mowing the lawn and stopped. He called out to me, “Marty! Where are you going?” I hollered back, “I’m running away!” He looked at me and the forest ahead of me, and called back, “Can I come?”  I quickly answered, “Sure.”

He took me back in the house. We packed Fluffernutter sandwiches and headed back out across the yard and into the woods beyond. We spent all day walking in the woods exploring creeks, looking under rocks for bugs, checking out scat and sitting on logs staring up at the canopy of trees. We didn’t talk much; we just soaked in the healing balm of the woods. As the sun began to set we headed back, out of the woods, across the yard and into the warmth of home.

As I laid in my bed that night I remember thinking that I had messed up. I was smart enough to know you’re not supposed to take your dad with you when you run away. But as I look back on that experience now, I know my dad taught me an important life changing lesson that day: whatever ails me, a walk in the woods will ease the pain. It is a lesson that has stuck with me.

The damp smell of the woods is perfume to my senses and calming to my brain. It is what I long for. The slow steady pace of a walk in the woods heals all that ails me. My worries melt away. Clarity, peace, strength and tranquility replace the stress and mental confusion of life.

Spring is coming. It is time again to dig out the camping equipment; the woods are calling me. Life is piling up and more than a simple walk is needed. The peace and contentment of staring at a campfire after a day’s hike soothes my soul. Tilting my head back away from the flames and looking up beyond the canopy of trees to the stars beyond takes my mind right back to the lesson learned long ago with my dad: time in the woods soothes my soul. 

To the trees I go!