Storytelling in Stone

People are constantly concerning themselves with what they do:  have I achieved enough, written the greatest screenplay, formed the most powerful company?  But the world will not be saved by another great novel, great movie, or a great business venture.  It will only be saved by the appearance of great people.”  Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

For a good part of the last 20 years, I’ve worked with Dave Baum to help people and organizations tell stories.  They hire us for programs called communications skills, presentation skills or doing-business-with-the-media skills, but what we really teach is the power to connect with people through stories.  I can hear Dave’s gravely voice telling people we’re a nation that has forgotten how to tell stories.  Instead, we fall back on bullet points, silly things like paradigms and word-heavy PowerPoint presentations at the expense of being great communicators.

To hear a great story is a rare and good thing.  To hear a great story about a great person is even rarer and even better.

Crazy Horse Monument

Crazy Horse Monument

Traveling through South Dakota’s Badlands last week, there were any number of good stories and great sights.  But none touched me as much as the Crazy Horse memorial, which blends a great story about two great people.  Crazy Horse was the legendary Sioux chief who defended his people and their way of life.  While at Fort Robinson, Nebraska under a flag of truce, he was stabbed in he back by an American soldier and died in 1877. When the white man asked him derisively, “Where are your lands now?”, he replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

Some years later, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, inviting him to the Black Hills to carve Crazy Horse,  “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes also.”

When he arrived in the Black Hills in 1947 to begin carving, Korczak was almost 40 and had only $174 left to his name.  Born in Boston and of Polish descent, the sculptor was orphaned at age one and grew up in foster homes.  He was completely self-taught and neer took a formal lesson in art, sculpture, architecture or engineering.  He worked on the sculpture until his death in 1982, leaving detailed plans to be used with his scale models so that the project could be completed.  Since his death, his wife Ruth with seven of their children, continue to direct the work, which is estimated to take another 50 years to complete.  When finished, it will be the world’s largest mountain carving.  The four heads of Mount Rushmore, for example, could easily fit on the side of Crazy Horse’s head.

Mostly, I have thought of stories in terms of written words.  Now, I looked out to see stone tell a remarkable story — not only of a great Indian chief but of a great white man who dedicated his life for a worthy cause.  If you go to Crazy Horse, you’ll see too that there is more than just the mountain sculpture.  Korczak’s family maintains a private non-profit foundation at the site, housing educational and cultural programming, providing a place for American Indians to create and sell arts and crafts, operating the Indian University of North America and the Indian Museum of North America.  A medical training center for American Indians is in the works.

When the course of history has been told

Let these truths here carved be known

Conscience dictates civilizations live

And duty ours to place before the world

A chronicle which will long endure

For like all things under us and beyond

Inevitably we must pass into oblivion.

Korcak Ziolowski, From a Poem to be Inscribed on the Crazy Horse Memorial

For a small donation, granite rocks from the Crazy Horse Memorial were available for the taking.

For a small donation, granite rocks from the Crazy Horse Memorial were available for the taking.

A Native American dancer at Crazy Horse tells a story through the Crow Hope dance

A Native American dancer at Crazy Horse tells a story through the Crow Hope dance

Close Up view of the Crazy Horse monument
Close Up view of the Crazy Horse monument

 

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Dinner with Richard Dreyfuss

Dinner with Dreyfuss

“Hello,” she said to me in a thick foreign accent, when I turned around to take a peek at the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who was sitting at the table next to me.  I heard her “hello” but turned quickly back to my table companions, thinking she couldn’t possibly be talking to me.

I was out with clients in La Jolla, California following a presentation skills training session I conducted.  Our group was a mix — some in-house marketing people, me and the company’s outside agency.  They were shooting a commercial the next day so anticipation rode high among our rag-tag group of creatives, out to dinner at a restaurant on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Marine Restaurant in La Jolla, CA

Marine Restaurant in La Jolla, CA

Our table faced the ocean, waves crashing against the window before the tide receded.  “Richard Dreyfuss is at the table behind us,” my friend Anita announced quietly to our table.  I saw her told her phone low to her lap so she could take a picture of him.

“Hello,” she said to me again when I turned my neck and took another look at the table behind me.  She was blond and exotic looking, wearing a tight, sleeveless, sequined white and black dress.  I didn’t know why she was talking to me; I thought it was a mistake.  I turned back to my table companions.  By now, we had all pulled out our phones to google Richard Dreyfuss.  From the accounts we read, it appeared that his third wife was a Russian woman named Svetlana.  Was this Svetlana?

The sun began to set with its warm orange glow as we talked about our work and our connections.  Maria, the producer, lived just blocks away from me in Chicago.  Jaime, the agency head, and I realized we had met and worked together more than a decade ago and had a variety of both personal and professional friends.

And there she was again.  She was saying ‘hello’ to me.  This third time I turned to her and said, “Hello, are you talking to me?”

“Yes, I have been trying to get your attention,” she said with a heavy accent.  At first I thought she was Polish.

“Well, hello then, ” I chirped back.

“Tell me about your table,” she asked, raising an eyebrow in an intriguing way.  “I’ve been interested in your table tonight.”

“Well, we are a bunch of people from Chicago.  That’s about it,” I reported.

“Are you Republicans?” she asked.

“Well, I can’t speak for everyone but I know we all have an independent streak, which is not quite Libertarian but very individual,” I hedged, wondering why she would ask such a question

Without having to wonder, she offered, “Well, my husband Richard Dreyfuss does not like conservatives,” nodding to the white-haired man across the table from her, and confirming what we already knew.  Yes, this was Svetlana, the third wife.  “Let me introduce you to my friend,” she said, gesturing to the man sitting next to her.  “He is a doctor.”  The man nodded.  “A doctor of our muscles,” she said.

“Oh, he is a physical therapist?” I asked.

“Yes, that is exactly what he is,”  she said.

Our earnest conversation continued, and my seat-mate Bill joined in as we asked questions and got to know Svetlana.  “You ask me so many questions.  You need to know I could kill you in five ways and you would never know it,” she hissed, intimating that the heel of her Chanel shoes might indeed be one of these secret weapons.

“Did we do something to make you angry,” I asked?

“No, not yet.  You must know that I am Russian and have learned very much before coming to America.”

Just then, I felt someone move close to me.  It was Richard Dreyfuss, pausing as he walked past and whispering in my ear, “What do you think of my wife,” he asked.  “She is an interesting woman to be sure.  How long have you been married?”

“Ten thousand years,” he said.  Svetlana heard this and reiterated.  “Yes, ten thousand years.  Is there any question?”

We talked a little more and then Svetlana moved on to the bar, joined by all our table companions except Bill.  Richard was now sitting all alone.  “Bill, let’ move to his table,” and in an instant we were sitting across from him at his table.

The three of us talked.  We talked about life, about Richard’s career and about things.  Richard talked about the moment he knew his life was changing.  His star was ascending and he was performing in a Shakespearean production.  “I knew that if I continued, there would be no turning back.  That my life would no longer be my own.  That I would become a celebrity and everything would change,” he said.

“I did it anyway and the rest is history.  But when all is said and done, I’m just a person.  A person having a conversation with you, which is nice because I can’t have conversations with people at will, so this is very nice,” he said. Indeed it was nice.  I thought of his work —   American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The list went on.  This was a unique moment.

Sun setting over the Pacific; view from the Marine Restaurant

Sun setting over the Pacific; view from our table.

Eventually a woman came to the table to let Richard know they were ready to leave when he was.  Taking the cue, he thanked us and excused himself, collecting his wife at the bar and leaving the restaurant.  We were the only patrons left and we called cars to take us back to our hotel in downtown San Diego.

Later I surfed the web, learning that Dreyfuss had been a cocaine addict in the 70s, among other many other colorful life facts.  And then there was this tidbit:

“Dreyfuss attributes much of his ability to end drug addiction to a life-altering vision experienced in hospital after a bad car crash. Under the influence of drugs while driving, Dreyfuss knew the crash was his fault. Though he was the only one injured, in his recovery state he was moved by the image of a beautiful little girl in a white dress. The girl served to remind him of the kind of innocent life he could have destroyed, and it compelled him to save his own life, he says, by confronting his drug demons.”

If only we had more time, I would have asked him about this too.  Was it a brush with the divine, a figment of his imagination or a sign that came just when he needed it?  And why did he heed it?  What made it so powerful that it made him change?   (Read Sarah Hinze’s account of this incident here.) But, for now I was satisfied — we had a moment, a very nice moment.

I thought about his comments, when he knew his life was changing, when he knew he could never go back, when he knew he would be a celebrity.  And how he brought us to his table, to talk, to discuss, to have that moment.

If we think about it, we all have moments when we know our lives are poised to change, when we can no longer go back.  These are the fires of our lives — whether it’s an actual incident like burning on a stove or a shift in our minds.  Sometimes things change forever and we don’t know it at the time.  But Richard Dreyfuss did, he saw his life moving from the precipice of rank-and-file actor to celebrity, and knew nothing would be the same again.  Imagine that moment.   Would we all take the risk ahead of us when we are fully aware of the moment?

Book Review — Maps, Frogs, Artists: What’s Right for You?

As a new feature on Anne on Fire, I am now reviewing books from Hay House authors.  www.hayhouse.com   I was not financially compensated for this post. I received the book from Hay House for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.

The Map: Finding the Magic and Meaning in the Story of our Life
Colette Baron-Reid

 The Map: Finding the Magic and Meaning in the Story of Your Life

“We change the world from the inside out, and that’s why I’ve written this book,” explains Colette Baron-Reid in the introduction to her book, The Map:  Finding the Magic and Meaning in the Story of Your Life.  It’s a theme that has resonated with me since the early 1980s when my sister Susie gave me a copy of Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming by Richard Bandler (Paperback – June 1979).  The theme reappeared in the 1990s when I began reading Sonia Choquette’s (www.soniachoquette.com) work about spirit and the way we can consciously raise our vibrations. The theme returned to my desk again a couple of years ago when I finally read and followed the daily writing instructions in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (www.theartistsway.com). 

That the confluence of all the thoughts and theories from these other books flowed forward while reading The Map made it a truly integrated and enjoyable experience, even if I doubt I’ll follow the exercises to the letter of the law like I did with The Artist’s Way.  The beauty of books like Baron-Reid’s for me is partly in gaining a peek inside someone else’s creativity and ways of coping.

In The Map, Baron-Reid suggests we become our own oracles and traverse through a metaphorical map of life’s archetypical characters and situations to find personal peace and meaning.  Her magic lands, wands and companions remind me that there is no one best way to do anything; but that finding a talisman that works to put life in context at the different points of our lives is something valuable.  

Neuro-linguistic programming co-founders, Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder, believed that NLP would be useful in “finding ways to help people have better, fuller and richer lives.  They advocated the potential for self-determination through overcoming learned limitations and emphasized well-being and healthy functioning. Artist’s Way author Julia Camera challenged the label of being a called creativity expert, explaining, “My books are not creative theory,” she explains. “They spring straight out of my own creative practice. In a sense, I am the floor sample of my own tool kit. When we are unblocked we can have remarkable and diverse adventures.”

In the same way, Baron-Reid is her own magic wand, sharing how the techniques in the book brought together the threads of her own story and gave them meaning.  An addict, the daughter of a closet Holocaust survivor, a bulimic and an intuitive, she says she sought out her own way to heal her life.  Her hybrid approach to doing so is The Map and by her own words, it was a process that transformed her.

Both Cameron and Baron-Reid are alcoholics and I was struck by how they both have created worlds of somewhat strict context for themselves and for the price of the books, for others.  Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has sold more than 2 million copies so certainly her disciplined approach to bringing out the artist within can work.  While I agree that creating a framework is useful, I personally like to hop between approaches and try out any number of them, not getting too fixed on any one for too long.  I prefer being more of a self-awareness dabbler and that is why I liked Baron-Reid’s book.  It seemed that she too has dabbled and in The Map, brings together her favored outcomes to guide her life.

For any student of self-awareness, that is the challenge:  How to find the kernels of both structure and meaning so that you feel good in your own skin and confident on your journey.  To my way of thinking, it doesn’t matter whether you follow a map or NLP or an artist’s way – and they may actually be the same things just packaged in different ways.  What matters is the self-awareness and for that, The Map may just be your key.

The Map is available for purchase on the Hay House website http://www.hayhouse.com/details.php?id=5286 as well as at www.amazon.com  and www.barnesandnoble.com.

Sister Mary Pastry and the Virgin Mary’s Appearance

French Fruit Tarte

As regular visitors to Chesterton, Indiana‘s European Market (www.chestertonseuropeanmarket.com) on Saturday’s, we’ve seen the pastry stand for years, nestled among the fruit and vegetable stands and directly across from the cheese stand.  It’s a curiosity in the heat of summer, staffed by a nun in full black habit and displaying an array of delicious French pastries, brioche, croissants, fruit tarts and the like.   When we passed by the stand and my kids asked, “Who is that nun?” I said the first thing that came to mind, “Oh, why that’s Sister Mary Pastry,” and immediately felt the heavy burden of Catholic guilt for making fun of a nun in full habit.  The name stuck.

When we visited the market last, I brought Mack my older son who usually prefers to sleep in on Saturday mornings.  As we passed the pastry stand, he paused to inspect the goodies and that’s when we realized that Sister Mary Pastry was French but spoke English well.  Excited, Mack turned to me and said, “Mom, speak to her in French.”  I hesitated, not wanting to pull out my limited French from study abroad in Paris and Aix-en-Provence from years ago.

“Oh, you speak French?” Sister smiled and we began a conversation in mixed French and English.  “How did you come to sell pastries at the market?” I asked.  Sister’s story unfolded.  Fraternite Notre Dame (www.fraternitenortredame.org), a French-based order with a mission of serving the poor, has its mother house in Chicago’s underserved Austin neighborhood.  As a way to raise funds for the order, the nuns began baking pastries to sell in the Chicagoland area.  The proceeds support their soup kitchen and other ministries for the poor. 

Jean Marie, the order’s bishop, is a mystic with internal stigmata.  Sister told me that in 1977, the Virgin Mary appeared to Jean Marie with spiritual messages to pass along to the faithful.  Now, on the 14th of every month, the Bishop celebrates the Mass of the Apparition at 5 a.m. at their Chicago church, 502 N. Central Avenue.  During the mass, Virgin Mary appears to the Bishop, delivering messages, graces and often miraculous healings.

“Would you like to come to our mass?” Sister asked me.  “Please come.  You would like it.”

The next mass is July 14th.  I plan to attend.

Silly Good Writing

St. Joseph Academy Green bay WI picture

When I think of writing, stories always filled my pen. 

By 5th grade, my teacher Mrs. Brunmeier told me my stories were too avant garde for class distribution.  In 8th grade, I wrote the definitive, imaginative story of our class in a final report format.  In high school, I became the editor of the paper and won a first-place award in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s contest for writing, an expose of the National Honor Society.  And the list goes on.

But the stories I remember best were the ones I wrote with my friend Donna. 

As high school students at all-girls St. Joseph’s Academy (now Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, www.notredameacademy.com), we yearned for life experiences yet to come.  We dreamed of prom dates and life successes far into the future. We wondered about the diminishing quantity of nuns who taught us and what would happen to their order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, as more lay teachers entered the fray.  We imagined life in big cities and created imaginary all-knowing and all-powerful alter-egos while suffering through the realities of study hall.

For all those things that didn’t yet exist, we’d pen hand-written stories instead of dissecting frogs in biology class to make these lofty dreams come true.  Of course, we’d write each other as main characters and every wish, however small, would come true.  Oh, there would be conflict but ultimately we’d emerge the victors. 

 When Donna had a crush on J, I created a lengthy narrative for her full-bodied hair flowing in the wind, her wily charms on fire, and her witticisms dazzling a high school party crowd.  J could only hope but to fall prey to her charms.  Twenty pages later, Donna would have her man. 

A week later she’d hold the pen, my success held in limbo by her imagination.  Would I crush an opponent or merely lob an ace every serve in a tennis game?  It mattered not.  We would persevere and win.  We’d howl in delight, knowing we’d always be the heroines of our own stories.

Donna moved to New York.  I moved to Chicago.  When I’d least expect it, a hand-written note would appear in my mail, continuing my high school story line.  No explanation needed.  It spurred me to continue her tale, jetting her from country to country, adventure to adventure. 

When I found an old letter buried in a tangle of papers the other day, I quickly picked up my pen ready to resume the quest.  Donna died of colon cancer several years back.   Silly good writing had put her in a multi-million dollar home, lavished her with furs and jewels, and made her insanely happy.  She would have been pleased.

Making Sense of Stories

Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why ...

Image via Wikipedia

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou. http://www.mayaangelou.com 

If you’ve ever read any of Maya Angelou’s books, you gain an incredible perspective into the courage of telling a life story.  “A bird doesn’t tell a story because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song,” she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her autobiographical series.  Her books captivate with their beautiful prose and at the same time made me squirm with the honesty in which she recounts her life, particularly her days as a prostitute.  I’ve heard her speak live and it’s amazing — she brings her books to life with her spoken voice.

I thought of her courage this week as I heard two burn stories.  My friend Renee’s aunt, on an oxygen machine, lit a cigarette and suffered second degree burns over her face.  Within days, I heard the story of a teenager from the kid’s school, who bent over a stove and her scarf caught fire torching her chest and neck.  Both are in the hospital.

It’s hard not to think of their searing pain.  It’s harder not to think about how they and their families handle both the emotions and the re-telling of the stories.  I know from my own experiences that until I can put the emotional framework in place, I can’t tell a story.  It always takes time for the “shock factor” to process and events to become clear before a story unfolds.  I wonder if it was the same for Maya Angelou — that the time that passed before she told her stories gave her the perspective to truly see the context of the events.

Maybe this is just the way we tell stories.  Even this week we saw a glimpse of it with the Osama bin Laden storyline.  Quickly we learn the news – bin Laden is dead.  Then, the next day we receive a new update, a revision as the true facts become clearer – yes dead, but he had no human shield as previously reported.  Then, each of the next days of the week, we find out a little bit more – he has been hiding in plain sight, there are the makings of another terror plot, this time using the US rail road system.

Life comes at us in pieces and parcels.  It’s our job to make sense of it all.  It’s a big job.  Story telling might just bring it all together.