Can You SHOW Us a Story?

DSC00978

The music from the choir of Ziburys Gymnasiam was a beautiful start to the APPLE summer session in Prienai, Lithuania. Not everything was being translated, so when the choir director asked us to join the singing in groups, I started singing a round even though it wasn’t a round and then I stared singing with the men.

My storytelling class that I had prepared for since February finally started. After a few modules, late in the afternoon, Adele asked the question, through the interpreter, “Can you show us a story?”

We had been talking about stories in general, then about true, personal stories. They were about to begin to write their own true, personal story.

I said, “Yes, I have an example of an amazing true, personal story on video.” It was Ophira Eisenberg’s The Accident from The Moth.

“No,” she said. “We want YOU to tell a story.” Several people in the class nodded in agreement.

I smiled. I had been talking about the power of stories, to entertain, educate, persuade and transform. I had been talking about how telling and listening to stories in person allows for a connection you can’t always get with reading or writing or from watching a video on You Tube. Even if it is an Ophira Eisenberg video.

I was smiling because it was funny that I hadn’t thought of this. I should have started the class about stories with a story. Sure, there had been shorter stories mixed in during the day and there were more of those to come, but there should be one really big, badass story to show, live and in person, just how a story can draw people in, fill the room with energy and leave a mark, a memory and maybe a change.

But, could I do it now, by request, without preparing forever like I usually do?

More or less.

I chose a story I had written and prepared a few years ago. Maybe I thought of this one first, because it is the one I had prepared for a Moth open mic in New York City, when Ophira Eisenberg was the host. But, my name didn’t get picked from the hat that night, so I only got to share my first sentence….

I was lying on a stretcher, with nurses and doctors all around me, when a priest handed me the phone and said, “It’s your Mom.”

Today, I told the whole story. Now the students know what they are going to do.  I’ll let you know how it goes…

I have the questions y’all asked the students to answer, if you have another one, leave it in the comments or just say “Hello!” They will read the posts and comments in the morning (which is your Wednesday night)!


A Lithuanian Story, All the Way From Texas – She Was the Brave One

Growing Up Austin - A Lithuanian Story All the Way From Texas(Welcome to a special series on GrowingUpAustin.com, A Lithuanian Story – All the Way From Texas. I am traveling to Lithuania this summer to teach storytelling at A.P.P.L.E., an education conference that I first taught at almost twenty years ago. The new conference is fully of mystery and adventure. The first conference gave me stories I have been telling ever since. So, I decided to write about the trips here. If you have just joined, here is a summary of the posts. I’ll return to writing about hiking, live music and art for Austin kids when I get back in July. Information is always available at AustinKidsHike.com (hiking), AustinKidsDance.com (live music) and AustinKidsDraw.com (art).)
Growing Up Austin - A Lithuanian Story - All the Way From Texas

When I started this series, Babs asked this question, “What was Lithuania like the first time?” I’m answering this in parts, today’s story is about how my idea of bravery completely changed.

At the beginning of my trip in 1995, I thought I was pretty brave for coming all the way to Lithuania without knowing what I was doing. Well, I mean, without knowing all the answers ahead of time or knowing what to expect. I took a leap of faith and it was going well so far, well, I mean, after I found the conference.

In bits and pieces, I learned more about the context of the conference. The mission of the conference was for US and Canadian teachers to share Western methods of education with Lithuanian teachers in an effort to promote Lithuania’s new democracy. That seemed like a lot. I wasn’t sure how that worked.

Lithuania had gained independence from the Soviet Union and communism just five years before. The new democracy was young and there were still big questions about how it would work and if it would work. Some American educators of Lithuanian descent, some of whom were born in Lithuania and had left after WWII, wanted to help their home country. Education is what they knew, so they started the APPLE conference.

There were a few themes of the conference. One was computers, since under communism, the schools didn’t have computers. Another was Special Education, because the communist system institutionalized the differently-abled, without teaching them life skills or potential work skills. Another was English, because Lithuanians spoke Lithuanian, an ancient language that was a derivative of sanscrit, which was very  cool, but not able to support business or cultural communication with other countries.

One of the American teachers told me about when she taught during the first year of the conference. The first year was done in secret, without permission from the government. Gaining independence from the Soviet Union wasn’t a ON/OFF switch that was triggered in a specific moment, it happened in steps and stages, with gaps and overlaps along the way. The American teachers didn’t want to wait until all the shifting people in power agreed or all the required forms were signed, so they started probably earlier than they should have, when communist security was still in place.

This American teacher had been born in Lithuania and had left with her family when she was a little girl. She was proud of her country and its promising independence. She had watched the 50 years of communism from afar, not able to help. Now was her time to do all she could, in any way she knew how.

It was the last night of the secret conference and the teachers were having a meal at a restaurant. All visitors were assigned government “guides” during their trip and these guides were watching them eat at the restaurant. At the end of the meal, this teacher stood up and started singing a Lithuanian folk song. The other teachers joined her. This was an act of protest that was outlawed by the communists. You could go to jail for something like this. You could not be heard from again for something like this.

The government guides were on alert. They were watching her, the one who was leading this singing. She knew she was at risk.

When the song was over, she said her goodbyes and got in the car of a friend. She hadn’t checked out of her hotel, but she knew she couldn’t go back there. Her friend drove her to the train station. She bought a ticket on the next train that was leaving the country. She got on the train and didn’t look back.

Was I brave to come to Lithuania? No, I was not brave. She was brave. To come a year too early instead of wait. To be defiant and break the law before the laws were changed. To love her country and act for her country before it was safe. She was the brave one.

Stay tuned for a story or two about this year’s trip, just one month away. Am I ready? No, most definitely not…


It Is Not Possible to Get More Lost, Part 1

Growing Up Austin - A Lithuanian Story All the Way From Texas(Welcome to a special series on GrowingUpAustin.com, A Lithuanian Story – All the Way From Texas. I am traveling to Lithuania this summer to teach storytelling at A.P.P.L.E., an education conference that I first taught at almost twenty years ago. The new conference is fully of mystery and adventure. The first conference gave me stories I have been telling ever since. So, I decided to write about the trips here. If you have just joined, here is a summary of the posts. I’ll return to writing about hiking, live music and art for Austin kids when I get back in July. Information is always available at AustinKidsHike.com (hiking), AustinKidsDance.com (live music) and AustinKidsDraw.com (art).)

The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy religious icon at St. Theresa’s Church protects the city of Vilnius.

It was my first trip to Lithuania, in 1995. I had been in the country for five minutes when I got lost in the country. I knew I was in the right country, but we were just meeting in Vilnus and I didn’t even know the city where I would be teaching. I also didn’t have any money. I would probably have to sleep on this airport bench tonight and maybe forever.

I backpacked Western Europe for five weeks first, then I arrived at the Berlin airport for my flight to Lithuania. My boarding pass said my gate number was 14 1/2.

This was before Harry Potter. But when I saw Harry Potter catch the train to Hogwarts for the first time, it felt oddly familiar.

I arrived between gates 14 and 15 early and there was no gate 14 1/2. A nearby gate agent said I just needed to believe, and walk on through the brick wall. Just kidding. She said to wait and it would appear, and it did.

A woman in an airline uniform pushed a lightweight podium on a dolly, she set it down between gates 14 and 15, then she put the dolly off to the side. She picked up a clipboard and a pen off the podium and she motioned for a few of us who looked like we were looking for a gate to come her way.

My flight from Berlin to Lithuania was on Air Lithuania, an airline I knew nothing about, run by a country I knew nothing about. Airlines were supposed to have lots of permanent gates and big airplanes and many huge mainframe computers to manage the operations of complex and modern aircraft. So, at least I wanted to know if the printout on her clipboard was from a computer printer instead of a typewriter or, even worse, a pen.

I couldn’t get a good look and I decided I didn’t want to know. I would get on the plane either way.

After the ten or fifteen of us were checked off on a list, the gate agent moved the podium to the side with the dolly. Then she lead us through a security door, down a set of stairs and onto the tarmac.

She lead us onto a bus and the bus took us a long way, past the big runways, to the very edge of the airport property. As we got off the bus, I saw an especially tiny plane.

The plane sat low to the ground, so when the door was opened at the tail of the plane, the top of the door reached the ground. There were steps on the inside of the door and we climbed inside. The gate agent followed us. She was also our flight attendant. Wait a second, is that guy that just put on the captain’s hat our bus driver? Uh, maybe not, but I think the flight attendant was our co-pilot, either that or there was no co-pilot.

Midway through the flight, I reflected on this part of my summer trip. I was grateful I had taken the time to travel before starting work after college. I was grateful I had found a job to extend my trip and to get to know one place more deeply.

With equal conviction, I also thought, GOD DAMN IT, WHY DO I DO THINGS LIKE THIS? I COULD BE ON A BEACH IN FRANCE, SOAKING IN THE SUNSHINE THEN HAVING A RELAXING DINNER IN THE HOSTEL COURTYARD WITH PIZZA AND A WHOLE BOTTLE OF WINE. WHY WOULD I VOLUNTARILY GO SOMEWHERE WHERE I KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!?!?!?!?!?!?

It was amazing how little I knew about what would come next. I only knew that someone from APPLE would meet me at the airport.

Ha, I thought, in that way that happens when you are a bit nervous already, what if they didn’t show up? Ha, ha, ha. That would be funny. Because I didn’t have any information at all about the conference with me. Just my contact’s number in the US, but she was already in Lithuania. I wasn’t a complete idiot. I had prepared lessons and I had mailed materials and professional clothes ahead of time, evidence that I had the Vilnius address at one point. I knew how to be prepared, but I just plain forgot to bring the address with me. Ha, that would be funny, if they didn’t show up. Well, there as no reason to worry about that, something that would never happen. Ha. Ha.

I would have been way more nervous if I knew at the time that I also didn’t have any money. I thought I had money, because I went to the money exchange place to get Lithuanian money, but they misheard me and they gave me Hungarian money. I had US money and a credit card, but at that time in Lithuania, no one took credit cards and there was only one bank in the country that could exchange money or do a cash advance on a credit card and this bank was not at the airport.

And whatever answer I came up with, I would have to communicate it in creative hand gestures, because I had been told that very few people in Lithuania spoke English. The conference used interpreters to translate between English and Lithuanian.

I sat down with my coffee in the cafe of the Vilnus airport. The man working the cash register let me have it for free, when he saw me realize that I had multiple forms of completely useless money. I started to think about what my next step would be, but I couldn’t think of even one possible thing…

(Stay tuned for the second half of this story coming soon…)