Category Archives: Blogging about Life

GOOD USE OF EXISTING MATERIAL

In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this is simplified MacGyvering, done on the fly, like substituting a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew.

MacGyver was a television series about an undercover government agent who preferred to fight crime with ingenious feats of engineering rather than lethal force.

Pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve reborn as a winter hat, certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use: all qualify for GUOEM points.

This post itself should earn me some points. It’s a topic I first explored ten years ago on the now-defunct blog of the Vermont College Children’s Writing MFA program faculty. So meta.

My beloved Aunt Norma belongs in the Good Use of Existing Material Hall of Fame. She was a recycler before recycling was a thing; a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise to hold chicken breasts which she defrosted on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more milk cartons.

Even her Fourth of July party featured old milk cartons. It included a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.

In my experience, Good Use of Existing Material applies to making picture books, too. The six Zelda and Ivy books are rooted in my childhood as the middle child of five – sibling rivalry is my God-given existing material. More recently, Ocean Lullaby grew from a beach singalong with a grandson on my lap, when I looked out and wondered how the sea-animal families settle down at night. Even on vacation, existing material is waiting to be shaped into stories.

Your own particular existing material is your take on it all – what grabs your attention, what makes you laugh and shiver and cry. The task is to identify the materials we have to work with – including the metaphors, the details and even the individual words – and then to use them ingeniously, with the snick of a key in the lock, to create the story.

Kinda like Macgyver.

– LMK

The Teacher Appears When the Student is Ready

I expect Marie Kondo would not approve, but on a high shelf in my studio I am saving an old booklet: Poems for a Favorite Friend. It’s a collection of pieces that I wrote during my eighth-grade year and then presented as a gift to my beloved seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Woodford.

Mrs. Woodford saved my gift for forty years. It was returned to me after her death. It touches my heart that she kept it so long, but maybe I am making too much of it. This was in the pre-Kondo era and teachers are known to be notorious packrats. Plus, on close inspection, it seems the construction paper cover was never creased open as one might do to read the contents.

But in any case, the collection offers a look into my early writing self. Like my poem SNOWFLAKES, which includes these haunting lines:

             People murdering, kids a’flirtering

           And snowflakes still fall.

Were I Mrs. Woodford, I would have laughed out loud. Such heavy subject matter for a kid — plus she was death on what she called “desperation rhyme,” a term she may have coined with me in mind. But what I knew from her was nothing but respect.

Which I could have returned unreservedly except for her habit of tucking her Kleenex into her bra.

Mrs. Woodford created that necessary safety zone where writing – no matter how ridiculous – flourished. But she didn’t stop there. She loved to travel and her enthusiasm spilled over as we studied ancient civilizations. We chalked huge murals of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We memorized short pieces of poetry, which we recited together after the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song every morning.

We learned poems by heart that have nourished me ever since. To this day I cannot walk into the woods without intoning: This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks bearded with moss and in garments green stand like druids of eld, (from Longfellow’s Evangeline); or, in times of indecision, I find myself whispering these words from Hamlet: This above all to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

I was sitting in Mrs. Woodford’s class, watching the even loops of her handwriting slant their way across the blackboard, when we found out President Kennedy had been shot. The news came over the loudspeaker from the principal’s office. We looked to Mrs. Woodford for how to respond, how to make sense of this event. I remember that tears filled her eyes (which would undoubtedly lead her to reach into her bra for a Kleenex). She asked us to observe a minute of silence in face of this enormous tragedy. Then we sang God Bless America. The comfort of the right music at the right time. She taught us that, too.

I suppose it should be noted that Mrs. Woodford was not perfect. She overlooked it when John Klaverweiden sprayed air freshener to disperse the cooties every time Susan Edwards walked past his desk. She shamed Eddie Filiberti into crying in front of the class when she felt he was too braggy about a good grade.

But maybe that’s partly why I remember her with affection. She was a living, breathing, fallible human being, and for some reason, I knew she was on my side. She believed in me in a way that helped me believe in myself and, as it turned out, most importantly, my writing.

Research suggests that it only takes one encouraging teacher to make a writer. So I am wondering: what writing teacher made a difference for you?

This is the Way the World Should Work

We’re back in the grey tunnel of winter here in Seattle, a tunnel made even darker by the gloom of 20 months of Life Under Covid. When it all gets too heavy, I turn to the GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS file I keep on my phone: a list that proves sometimes the world works the way it should. Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals who make a difference. Might lift your spirits, too.

Witnessed firsthand:

The dad and his son in early Spring ushering a mother duck and her eight ducklings across several city blocks — stopping traffic as needed — to get them all safely to Green Lake.

The grandpa and grandson walking to school one Fall day, holding hands plus each one with a grandpa-sized glove on their outside hand – so all four hands were warm.

The woman dropping off a bag of beautiful handknit hats at the local fabric store that was putting together donations for people without houses.

The grey-haired lady at the post office mailing 185 postcards to Georgia voters before the November 2019 election.

From a pre-Covid school visit: A little girl bent over in a wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. As she rolled along with a line of kids, she was the one to say to me. “I hope you have a nice day at our school.”

From a visit to Emerald City Smoothie with my triplet grandnephews: When it was our turn at the register, we were slow getting our order organized. Instead of getting annoyed, the guy behind us reached forward with his credit card and treated us.

And kudos to these kind people I read about:

 The chain of 900 drive-thru customers at the Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota, last winter who each purchased the meal for the car behind them. The chain went on over two and a half days, finally ending when one customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his, at a point that the restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.

The family that created a stick library for dogs. Every neighborhood should have one.

The Southwest Airlines gate steward who returned a Buzz Lightyear doll to a young passenger, after photographing the doll’s adventures in the airport.

The Facebook group in Washington state that helps people get vaccine appointments. The group’s founders say the real magic is in the 75 trained volunteers who speak more than 15 languages and provide one-on-one help. https://crosscut.com/equity/2021/04/facebook-group-wa-wants-help-you-get-vaccine-appointment.

“The Don Quixote of Brooklyn” who tilts at plastic bags. This former middle school teacher, now traveling poet, created the Snatcherlator, a 20’ extendable pole that aids his efforts. His quest? To remove garbage from the branches of trees throughout the city.

And the Canadian vet who came to the rescue of an Army wife who was driving her two kids and two dogs and a cat 4,000 miles from Georgia to Alaska to reunite with her husband when she was met with whiteout conditions in British Columbia with 1,000 miles still to go. Kudos to the bigger group of vets in Alaska who paid for his ticket back home, as well.

Not to mention MacKenzie Scott’s $6 billion in gifts. Gotta respect someone who takes the old adage to heart: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I welcome more items to my GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS list. Please add your stories in the comments.

I think the Dalai lama should have the last word:

THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:

I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.

I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?

“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”

She glances my way.

“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.

That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.

“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.

“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”

Now the boys behind us are listening, too.

“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.

But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.

“And then I woke up,” I say.

“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.

“Yes.”

She doesn’t play with me at recess.

I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)

To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.

Telling the Story of the “Germ Season”

We’re into the tenth month of stay-at-home recommendations. The only regular interactions we have are with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. We always meet outside, always wearing masks. We miss the Fridays we used to care for the little boys before they headed back to socially-distanced school. Oh, how I wish to pull them onto my lap and share a book. Our custom now is to sit opposite from each other when we read. They miss our old coziness, too. The younger one, who is 3 1/2, solemnly told me, “When germ season is over, we can go into your house again, Nana.” The older one, 5 1/2, is planning a two-night sleepover when the situation changes.

Meanwhile, I wonder how this exceptional year will impact the rest of their lives. They’ve come to accept maskwearing as easily as they might a warm coat. But the constant precautions they hear pervade how they understand the world. For instance, they have been reading Greek myths with their mom and were talking about the god Pan.

“Pan is naughty,” said my daughter.

“Yes,” the littlest agreed. “He doesn’t wash his hands.”

We are writers, the keepers of the stories. How will we tell the stories of this world-wide pandemic?

Recently I read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts another world-wide horror: World War II. He tells the story of Winston Churchill and the UK, focusing on the 12-month period when Hitler waged a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons, 30,000 of them Londoners. It is a spellbinding account – woven of stories big and small – of how Churchill held the country together and persuaded FDR to join the fight.

Among Larson’s resources are diaries collected as part of the Mass Observation project, founded by an anthropologist, a filmmaker and a poet at the University of Sussex. They felt newspapers were not accurately conveying public opinion around King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication of the throne to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. They recruited almost 500 volunteers to systematically document feelings about this historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews in diaries.

When history took the dark turn to WWII, these diarists continued to keep day-to-day accounts of their lives, sometimes reflecting a wider perspective on history than news reports. No special instructions were given to the diarists so their writings vary greatly in their style, content and length. The project continued to the mid-sixties, then was revived in 1981. Archives are held at the University of Sussex.

What resources will future historians consult to understand the effects of our current pandemic?

They will be inundated by accounts on both social media and traditional news sources. I think the challenge will be wading through the ocean of source material.

They might start with the Sunday New York Times in late May. Did you see it? The front section was dedicated to the first 100,000 people who died. Under the headline “An Incalculable Loss,” they listed the names, dates, locations and a single sentence for each person, gathered from nearly 300 news sources. Stuff like: Great grandmother with an easy laugh. Could recite Tennyson from memory. Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Quiet hero. Man, could she cook. Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Each sentence evokes a lifetime. The interactive version is here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html You have to scroll and scroll and scroll to get from the beginning to the end. It’s heartbreaking.

These past weeks I have been working on our 2021 McGee family calendar. I am the middle of five sibs and our family numbers almost 70 now. Our mom started the calendar tradition in the 80’s and we five have kept it up, taking turns to gather the previous year’s photos that tell the story of our children and grandchildren growing up. All together, the calendars make a family archive: vacations, weddings, deaths and births. (We are hoping the first fourth-generation baby, a great-great niece whose due date is Dec. 11, will be born before we have to go to press.)

This year I used my grandsons’ vivid art for backgrounds, as well as my niece Anna’s beautiful batiks and some backgrounds from my books. I grouped COVID-19 photos on the back: family members playing board games, setting up socially-distanced outdoor meeting spaces, wearing masks – even a photo of a masked grandniece and her date posing for their traditional picture before leaving for the prom.

My sister Susan’s deck awaits her Tuesday night Bible and prayer meeting, Sacramento, CA.

There’s a photo of our immediate family there on the back of the calendar, too. We’re playing Sleeping Queens at the patio table, masked and bundled against COVID and the cold. We are part of the story.

Purchase in haste, repent at leisure. Shopping during quarantine

So, I bought a few things during the quarantine this spring. Items that seemed to make great sense at the time, but now, I’m not so sure…

Several were grounded in good intentions:

I know! I’ll make agua fresca like they do in Mexico! You see the jugs and jars and pitchers of water and sugar mixed with fruits, flowers or seeds everywhere. Such a good idea. So much better than the sodas we drink in the U.S.

I’ll drink more water and, somehow vaguely in my mind, was a picture of how pleasant it would be at get-togethers in my home to use this handsome water dispenser. Never mind that nobody was getting together for anything anymore.

I was pretty good for about three weeks trying to find just the right blend of lemon or lime or cucumber for my water. Doesn’t this look refreshing?

Disclaimer: item never looked like this in my home.

Here is my actual dispenser, looking as it has looked for about three months now.

My daughter kindly tries not to smirk when she sees it still here on my counter. I haven’t given up, it will rise again!

Then there was the idea to do intermittent fasting to lose weight. My regimen called for no food for 16 hours (which will kick your body into fat-burning ketosis) then an 8 hour window for all the eating you can cram in. It’s simple: stop food at 8 in the evening and then nothing but water or black coffee until noon the next day.

But I really like to start my day with a latte. But its cream and sugar will kick me out of ketosis. But I can’t start my day without something. What to do?

Butter coffee! A blend of coffee, grass-fed butter—a lot of people use ghee—and coconut oil which “produces a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top” that doesn’t involve the type of carbs that stop ketosis.

Is it truly a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top?  I have no idea. As you can see from this unopened jar of ghee, I haven’t managed either the intermittent fasting or the butter coffee. It turns out it’s fairly complicated to fix butter coffee. It’s been easier to just stay fat.

See this unopened box?

It’s an altar. A meditation altar. Someday, any day now, it will be adorned with things that represent the four elements and a fifth component: spirit.

Incense or feathers or a photo of clouds for air. Some pretty rocks and minerals for earth. Candles for fire. A chalice or maybe a tiny little fountain to represent water. For spirit: a picture of a loved one or a spiritual master or a copy of an inspiring quote or a Hubble deep field image.

The possibilities for imagination, beauty and inspiration are endless. Any day now I will have an altar perfectly set up to gather dust just as this box has for the last three months.

Several of my quarantine purchases were more sensible, supporting vital research for my mystery novel in progress.

For example, this lock picking kit.

Yes, it’s surprising easy to pick locks—at least in principle. It takes only a few simple tools and techniques, but, of course, in practice it’s quite hard as you have to develop just the right feel for it. I have managed to get the padlock open several times, but that’s the only lock I’ve had success with. I messed around with various locks around my house for awhile until it dawned on me that maybe all my scraping and poking wasn’t doing my locks any good.

I watched numerous videos by lock picking masters. Then I watched one by the supposed masters of breaking in and mostly they didn’t bother with picking a lock  at all, it was usually easier to simply remove the door.

Here’s my most expensive purchase of the quarantine. Creepy, right?

It’s a fake baby bump. One of the characters in my novel is pregnant but it’s been 30 years since I was pregnant and I’ve forgotten a lot of the little details of hauling what amounts to at least a 20 pound backpack in front of you.

But before I got around to putting it on for research, I had a brilliant idea for a gag. A small family get-together was in the works (yes, all Covid precautions in place). We hadn’t seen each other in person for nearly four months. My plan was to put on my “bump,” walk into the gathering without saying a word, and then casually mention that I’d put on a bit of weight during the lock-down.

It was mostly aimed at seeing how my brother would react. I mean, here I was looking fat as hell and I sure was past baby carrying age. How many people have fake baby bumps lying around. At the least, it would flummox said brother for one delicious minute, wouldn’t it? Heh, heh. But, sadly, on the day of the party, it suddenly felt too mean. I renounced my prank. Sigh.

So the first time I’ve actually worn my baby bump was a day ago when I put it on for this photo. Is it uncomfortable, hot, heavy, bulky, clumsy? Yes. Being pregnant did indeed come rushing back.

Now I come to my pièce de résistance. My  most unlikely-to-be used purchase of the season. One gloomy day in April, maybe six weeks, into quarantine. This suddenly seemed like a great idea:

What is it? It’s a puzzle isn’t it? But, of course, it’s an acupressure mat and neck pillow set.  Yes, it’s bristling with “acupressure points,” otherwise known as a bed of nails. (Life time guarantee! And lightweight design makes it convenient for travel!)

Does it provide back and neck pain relief, headache and stress relief? Does it relax your body and mind? Does it improve circulation?

I couldn’t say for sure. I tried it for the first and only time this morning. But it’s actually not that uncomfortable. I haven’t progressed to the stage where I lie on it on a hardwood floor, yet. But I can nap on it as I consider all the good intentions I’ve purchased and failed to accomplish during quarantine.

 

P.S. anyone looking for a very slightly used baby bump?

 

 

 

 

 

Pet Love

Last month I posted my video read-along of Where Lily Isn’t, in which I suggested viewers could send pictures of their own beloved pets.

My friend and fellow author/illustrator Wendy Wahman sent me a drawing of her poodle LaRoo, also known as Nanny Paws, who inspired a book by that name.

Wendy was the only one who sent me any pictures. Ah well.

I was hoping to get more responses so I could share them with you in this post. Instead, I am posting my own.

Where Lily Isn’t is dedicated to: Stanley, Boo, Stinker, Freya, Bluey, Ajax, and Lily. Those are the names of pets that Julie and I have loved, and lost (mine are in boldface).

Stanley was an English bulldog my family got when I was six. I wanted to name him Trixie, but my brother thought Stanley, after comedian Stanley Myron Handelman, was more appropriate. I guess my parents agreed. He was a loving, slobbery, snaggle-toothed goof who terrified my friends when they came over and he charged at them to say hello. Cartoons like Spike gave bulldogs a bad name. I’ve never met an English bulldog that didn’t want to just snuffle you up and down and drool all over you. He was my constant playmate until I hit puberty, when there was a bit of a Puff-The-Magic-Dragon situation. I still feel guilty about that. Stanley died when I was about fourteen.

This is me with Stinker, my Half Moon Conure. I bought him from a bird farm with $30 my grandfather sent me for my birthday when I was a tween. I was not his first human. He already knew how to croak “don’t bite!” (maybe that and his given name should have clued me in on why he was so affordable for a parrot) and I taught him to squawk “hello.” He also picked up yelling my name from hearing my mother. I loved him dearly. He died when I was in high school.

Bluey was a blue parakeet I got in Kyoto when I was living there with my parents when I was nine. I was lonely without other English-speaking kids my age to play with, so my parents took me to a pet shop on the top of a department store that had parakeet chicks for sale. He became so tame he would nap on my chest. I brought him back to California in a mouse cage in my carry-on bag (maybe smuggled is a better word). He inspired my dad to build an aviary and we raised parakeets for many years. Bluey flew out of my hands when I was carrying him back inside from a visit to the other birds in the aviary. Stanley had jumped up to see what I was carrying and it startled both me and Bluey. I never saw Bluey again. I cried for weeks.

And Ajax. Ajax was the Best Cat Ever. He showed up as a kitten when we were working on remodeling our first house in Seattle. We had been thinking of adopting a cat, and my friend Gabrielle who we’d hired to help us (and who is an expert on cats IMHO) said “this is the cat you want.” We figured out that he lived a couple of houses down from us, so I gathered him up, along with my courage, and went to ask if we could adopt him. I knocked on the door. When they answered I asked, “is this your cat?” and the guy said “yeah, you want him?” Ajax was the kind of cat who loved people, would come when you called him, and liked to sleep as close to your face as he could get. He lived a good long life. We said goodbye when he was nineteen.

Which brings me to Nik. Nik is our current animal companion. He is a Rat Terrier. We’ve had him since 2013. We are his third family. He is coming up on sixteen. He is deaf now, and going blind, but he still loves his walks, his meals, and his naps. He has many quirks, and that is what we love about him.

Like many terriers, he likes to burrow, and while our youngest daughter was still home, he would sleep under the blankets by her feet every night. I am preparing myself for when he’s gone, but who knows? Terriers are tough. I hope he makes it with us at least until the COVID-19 era is over so Clare can see him again.

The importance of animal companions during these days of home confinement can’t be underestimated. Nik gets us out of the house on a regular basis. Petting him helps me feel less anxious. He is a good listener, even though he’s deaf. Pets have no clue what’s going on in the world, thank goodness.

Here is a little drawing I did of Nik. I think it highlights his best features.

If anyone wants to send me pictures of their pets, they are still welcome to! You can send them to: margaret@chodos-irvine.com, and I will post them below.

Update: Here are a few loves from friends!

Laura Kvasnosky’s dear Izzi
Julie Paschkis’s dear Freya.

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

Reading the Times

WE’RE SITTING TIGHT here in Seattle, at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, while news of Boeing’s 737 Max crisis, the Democratic primaries, and the stock market’s volubility swirl around us.

How to stay calm in these stressful times? Curl up with a good book.

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From its first sentences, a good book opens a door into the story and you are welcomed in. Everything in the ‘real’ world – from big concerns, like global warming and homelessness, to the quotidian, like the dog’s teeth that need brushing, and piles of laundry, and unpulled weeds – everything fades away. You may find yourself with that other Laura, settling down to sleep in the loft of a Little House in the Big Woods, or howling with a wolf pup on a faraway mountainside, or summoning an owl messenger to Hogwarts with a certain boy wizard.

Stories give us a chance to live forward and backward in time; to inhabit other places, be they real or imagined. We can put on the skin of a dragon or a fox or another person. In stories, we can experience things that are way too scary or infuriating or heartbreaking to experience in real life. If, subsequently, our own lives serve up fear, or anger or heartbreak, sometimes it is a story that helps us through, offering information and comfort.

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The wonderful irony is that while a story can offer refuge from the ‘real’ world, it also has the amazing power to connect. We humans are story people. I wrote about the chemical reason for this in my last post.

When we share our stories – in both reading and writing – that connection leads naturally to empathy, an empathy that sends us back to the ‘real’ world refreshed for the challenges ahead. I like how Barrack Obama put it: “The thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories.” I hope other politicians know about this.

WE MADE A RUN to Costco Sunday and I can assure you that should we be quarantined because of the coronavirus, we have sufficient maple syrup, guacamole and toilet paper for the duration. More importantly, should the weight of the current news cycle become too heavy, the Seattle Public Library offers an escape to ebooks and audiobooks, all easily downloaded from the comfort of our isolation.

We’re up to the challenge, here, holding down the northwest corner of the map. But a little bibliotherapy may be necessary.

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The characters from Little Wolf’s First Howling, as featured in the Mazza calendar last year. Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the lovely colors.

 

 

 

 

Story Chemistry

“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”     – Gabrielle Roth

I think she’s got it right – better mental health through dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, and comforted by silence. To which I would add two more questions: When did you stop gardening? and When did you stop hanging out with your dog?

But that story thing. That’s what’s on the plate here today. Stories. From daily incidents – what elementary school writers call “small moments” – packed with meaning and humor and pathos, to the big arcs of a lifetime that spool out of the ephemera of past generations. Through stories, we connect. It is one of my favorite things about being human.

Turns out there is a chemical reason why we find stories so satisfying, according to neuro-economist Paul Zak. Zak measured his subjects’ brains’ oxytocin before and after watching character-driven videos. The oxytocin levels took a definite jump.

His verdict: human beings are “wired for story.”

You know that pleasurable feeling you get from a good story? That’s oxytocin synthesizing in your brain. In further studies, Zak found that the more oxytocin a person released, the more likely a person would be willing to help others, for example, by donating money to charities associated with the video’s narrative. This mechanism will play out repeatedly Sunday in Superbowl commercials whose stories will tug your heartstrings and then your wallet, all in 30 seconds flat.

Zak wrote, “Many of us know from Joseph Campbell’s work that enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity; my work shows that the brain is highly attracted to this story style.”

Zak noted people respond most strongly to narratives with beginnings, middles and ends that used dramatic tension to sustain attention. That’s the basic structure of many Superbowl commercials – but also of typical picture books. Here are some examples from our BATT  group:

Margaret and Julie P’s recent Where Lily Isn’t, the tender story of a little girl struggling with the death of her dog.Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.31.38 PM

Bonny’s The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, where a small boy finds a surprising way to deal with a scary bus driver.

LWCover

My sister Kate’s and my Little Wolf’s First Howling about a wolf pup finding his voice.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.32.16 PMThe same story structure is also found in a spare form in this poem from Julie L.’s Imaginary Menagerie, illustrated by Julie P.:

Firebird

Who will bring me golden apples?

Calls the firebird

From her silver tree.

Who will sing me a golden song?

All day she waits

In the tsar’s garden.

Who will set me free? Who?

If given a feather

Bright as heaven,

Would you?

I still wonder why stories have this oxytocin-releasing affect on our brains. Perhaps over the eons, as humans evolved, stories were necessary to survival. I like that hypothesis. Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy the pleasure of good stories, as they spark our ability to connect, to empathize and to make meaning.