Life After The Slammer: A journey of inspiration, insight and oddity. 

 

For just over five years Geraldine was involved in bringing creativity, hope and inspiration into Maryland prisons and jails, first as a volunteer and then, for almost two and a half years as a chaplain at the Maryland Correctional Training Center – Maryland’s largest men’s prison.

Since then she has been catapulted into the world of professional storytelling and speaking, traveling throughout the US and as far away as New Zealand bringing programs that cause people to laugh and think. She has performed everywhere from people's living rooms to being a featured performer at the National Festival in Jonesborough, TN - the jewel in the crown of the storytelling world.

Join Geraldine as she writes about her life after hanging up her chaplain's hat and taking to the storytelling road.

Entries in Storytelling (19)

Wednesday
Sep142011

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Festival

Last Thursday, at midnight, I inadvertently found myself on a mist-covered, winding back-road in Ohio and felt I was in the prelude to one of the ghost stories I knew I’d be hearing at a concert the following night.

Near the end of a six and a half hour journey from my home in Frederick, Maryland to Chillicothe - home of the Southern Ohio Storytelling  Festival - I had somehow managed to leave the main highway and was approaching the city by a narrow country road.  By day this would have been the scenic route, but now, in the witching hour, it was covered by a thick layer of mist that reduced visibility dramatically and had me gripping the steering wheel, nose almost against the windscreen.

 I am a storyteller - stories are always floating through my mind - and driving on that country road I was reminded of another dark and misty night in 2007.

I had just conducted my first wedding, held in the evening at a vineyard in a remote part of the Maryland countryside, and on leaving I had accidentally turned the wrong way. 

Not knowing the area, I quickly became lost on back roads where visibility was less than a couple of yards. 

Suddenly an enormous truck appeared out of the gloom behind me and got so close it almost touched my bumper. 

The road curved frequently.  It was too narrow to pull over and there was nowhere to pull off.  I was going 25 miles an hour.  The truck increased its speed.  I got up to 40.  The truck was right there behind me.  I moved up to 55, still only able to see a short distance in front of me. 

I was hurtling around corners.

The truck went faster. 

My hands were in a death-grip on the wheel.  My prayer ability was reduced to a repeated:

“Jesus!  Help!”

I felt I was inside Stephen Speilberg’s first feature film, Duel, made in 1971, in which a demonic monster truck chases a car and seems determined to kill him.

My speed hit 70 miles an hour.  I was going too fast to turn into entrances and the narrow side roads were past before I could swerve into them.

I was terrified.

Finally I saw an extra-large forecourt and veered in almost crying with relief as that huge truck let out a billow of smoke and went hurtling past me into the mist-filled night.

Now, almost four years later, in the darkness of an Ohio night, I started to wonder where the truck had come from. 

At the time I had been in the first months of my job as chaplain in the largest men’s prison in Maryland.  I was in the Correctional Academy, training to be a correctional officer – a requirement for all staff who would have daily contact with inmates.

Earlier that night I had accidentally been locked in the pitch dark training annex of the prison, by myself, for what seemed like an eternity.

I didn’t think I was going to make it to the wedding. 

When I was released by someone coming to practice night shooting I was upset and discombobulated.

Then there was the truck.

There is a lot of spiritual darkness surrounding a prison.  Many of the men come with their share of demons. They meet the ones already embedded in the place.

My mind started to fantasize.

Was the speeding juggernaut a second warning of the day to keep away from the prison?

Was it a ghost truck?

Was it sent by hell to frighten me?

I was beginning to scare myself!

I don’t like ghost stories. I was only going to a concert filled with them the following night because friends would be telling including Kim Weitkamp - who has just brought out a beautifully designed spooky CD called “Head Bone Rattles.”  But driving in the mist on the outskirts of Chillicothe, minutes past midnight last Friday morning, in conditions that were bad, but far better than in my "Duel" encounter, I realized that I had just re-lived my own terror tale.

Shaking off the gloom and frissons of fear that were trying to snag me, I sang Jesus praise songs all the way to the hotel and thought about the delightful storytelling weekend ahead.

                                                                          *****

I will always have a soft spot for the Southern Ohio Storytelling Festival. 

I performed there last year – my first storytelling festival – and it was a joy to be back seeing friends such as Peggy Riggin, who keeps all the artists on track, Bill McKell the director of the festival and his wonderful mother, Mirielle McKell. 

This year I was going as a listener, staying with my friend Storyteller Suzi Whaples who was on the lineup of tellers, together with Andy Offutt Irwin, Adam Booth, Kim Weitkamp, Bill Mckell, Kevin Coleman and Elizabeth Ellis.

They were all spectacular.

I was particularly pleased that Elizabeth Ellis – doyenne of storytelling and a Circle of Excellence Award winner - was a featured teller.

I had never heard her tell in person.

I was entranced. 

She wove a few myths and many personal stories into a world of enchantment. 

She made me think, laugh and cry.

She was generous with her time and the knowledge she had gleaned over a thirty-year storytelling career and I was thrilled to be included in a small unscheduled group that gathered after lunch one day where Elizabeth poured out wisdom mingled with earthy wit - sheer delight!

Following in the footsteps of the Jonesborough Festival, Southern Ohio gives out entry tickets that are swatches of quilt fabric. 

After a full day of listening and laughing on Friday I carefully tucked mine into a zippered pocket in my purse.  To my bewilderment I couldn’t find it the next day. 

The vibrant paisley swatch was camouflaged.

It was the exact match for the lining of my bag!

I settled in for another day of brilliant telling, happy that I had received a tiny hexagonal sign that I am exactly where I am meant to be on my storytelling journey.

Even on the occasions where the road seems dark and misty, I am enjoying the ride!

Thank you Lord!

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Sep142011

Storytelling Converts

On a balmy late-summer evening, the first Saturday of September, I did a house concert with my friend, Speaker and Storyteller Bob Tryanski.

It was in his cousin’s house in Lincoln University, PA.

Besides being a gifted interior designer, Bob’s cousin, Patti Lyons, is the most in-demand Sarah Palin look alike in the nation, beloved by audiences of all political persuasions.

The evening was wonderful.

Nibbles, drinks and dinner were served inside the glorious house, then Bob and I told stories to an appreciative crowd on a covered deck. 

With the exception of a couple of aficionados, these people were storytelling virgins.

They were new to the genre and they loved it!

At the end of the performance one man came up to Bob and me with a look of surprise on his face.

“I almost didn’t come,” he said “I was sure it wasn’t going to be my kind of thing. But I really enjoyed it.  When the two of you told stories I got pictures in my mind. I was there right with you.  I could see it all.  Thank you.”

Yes!

Many wanted to know where they could hear more stories and storytellers.

Ah!  Be still my beating heart!

A crowd of storytelling converts!

Halleluiah!

 

Thursday
Sep012011

Discovering Ocracoke

This August, I went on vacation to Hatteras Island in North Carolina with my cousin and her family and friends - and that is when I discovered Ocracoke, the 9.6 square mile remote Outer Banks island that can only be reached by public ferry, private boat or plane.

Let me more specific.

I didn’t just discover the island.  I fell irrevocably in love with Ocracoke.

It happened quickly.  Our group took the ferry to the island to go to the beach.  Ocracoke is known for its beaches.  I opted out and browsed around a wonderful bookstore, Books to be Red, nosed around the outside of the Deepwater Theater that hosts storytelling and music shows – and then was delighted that the white, weathered, Methodist Church was open.  I went in and sat down.  

And that’s when it happened.

It seemed as though the present disappeared and I heard the ancient rhythms of Ocracoke.  It was as though the tourists, the bustle, the rented golf carts that whizzed up and down the main street of the village didn’t exist. 

I felt the island’s heartbeat.

Connected with its heartbeat.

I must have entered a time warp.  Before I knew it an hour and a half had gone and I came out of that church in a daze knowing something of great personal importance had happened.

Now I have to tell you that I come from island stock.  I was born in England but the majority of my ancestors come from Ireland – both are islands of course – if large ones.   But there is a line of my predecessors that come from the Isle of Man, a small wind-blown island between the north west coast of England and Ireland about three times the size of Ocracoke but nowadays, as a tax haven, infinitely more crowded.

It was as though the genes of my forebears were rising up and thanking me for taking them back to a relatively isolated island.

I knew I would be returning to Ocrocoke many times.

I visited the island three times that week.  In between trips I did research.  I already knew it was the home of Donald Davis, America’s foremost storyteller - a genuinely lovely man - who lives there with his absolutely wonderful wife, Merle.  But I found out that Ocracoke has a music and storytelling festival, a vibrant arts community, and a week-long Ocracoke arts and traditions school that is held every fall. 

I inhaled everything I could about the history of the island, the local dialect - which was so reminiscent of the accent in the West of England where I went to university – the food lore (figs are abundant on the island and there is a local plant that can be made into tea.)  I was transfixed by incredible stories of shipwrecks, bravery, pirates, storms, wild ponies and a selfless, loving, generous people who have survived against all odds perched on a magical island thrust out into the sea off the shores of North Carolina.

I left for home and planned my return.

The following week Hurricane Irene hit.

I sat glued to my computer reading weather websites, local blogs and watching webcams as Irene lashed the Island.  I prayed deeply and fervently for protection for all those who lived there and for their property.

I thank the Almighty that my newly discovered Shangri-La did not become Atlantis.

Ocracoke survived - as it had over the centuries. - this time with minimal damage and flooding.  (Although Highway 12 that goes from Ocracoke's free ferry across and off  Hatteras Island was severed in five places leaving Ocracoke even more isolated than usual, albeit - most probably - temporarily.)

                                    ………………………………………..                                 

When I think about my instant attachment to Ocacoke Island I am reminded of the book The Polar Express.

In that story, the first gift of Christmas was a bell from the harness of one of Santa’s reindeer.

Adults couldn’t hear it.

You could only hear it if you truly believed.

I feel as though I heard the bell ringing on Ocracoke. 

I felt the stories and the magic.

And I believe.

Thursday
Mar172011

The Teaching Artist Institute Seminar Begins!

Last year I wrote about my visit to a puppet maker’s house that appeared to have stepped right out of a fairy tale. 

Good things spring out of visits to once upon a time land. 

 While I was at Michael and Judith Cotter’s home (owners of Blue Sky Puppet Theater) I picked up a brochure for a course called The Teaching Artists Institute (TAI) administrated by Young Audences/Arts For Learning.  

I read that TAI is a professional arts-in-education program for teaching artists and classroom teachers.  Both learn what the other needs to flourish.  Their collaboration ends in a minimum four day residency for the artist in their teacher-partner’s classroom that would hopefully lead to many other similar residencies. 

It sounded good. 

The deadline was imminent. 

I applied on the last day and at the last hour and it has filled the first few months of 2011 with learning and delight!

At the beginning of January, twenty five amazingly talented artists from the fields of music, dance, art and theater (which includes poetry and storytelling) gathered in Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for a 3 day intensive seminar launching a six month course to learn how to present their craft in schools incorporating both academic standards and 21st Century Skills.  Partner-teachers joined on the third day

21st Century Skills intrigued me. 

Last November I saw the documentary Waiting For Superman. This film outlines the problems inherent in the American public school system resulting in a increasing inability to produce enough educated graduates that can adequately compete with their peers from other nations.

A considerable percentage of students from failing schools end up in prison with no qualifications.

This was real to me. 

Many of the men under my care while I was a Chaplain at the largest men’s prison in Maryland came from such schools.  One of the benefits of the prison system, in Maryland at least, was that it was compulsory for high-school dropouts under 25 to get their GED (or at least attend classes.)

21st Century Skills was developed as a response to the nation's educational crisis.

A group of top educators and business people joined forces to decide what skills young people needed to succeed in today’s world. 

They narrowed the selection down to creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and social and cross cultural savvy.

TAI leadership were delighted as they realized that many teaching artists were already naturally incorporating these concepts into their classes.

The seminar teaches participants to be aware of the standards and skills and shape the work they are already doing in a way will have the greatest impact in the classroom and in students’ lives.

One of the wonderful things about the course was that from the first hello there was a joyous sense of collaboration between the teachers of the course – all professional teaching artists – and the artists themselves.

Teaching sessions sizzled with creativity and rocked with laughter. 

Professional collaboration was entered into. 

Friendships forged.

On the third day the teacher-partners were introduced into the mix and another layer of mutually beneficial collaboration began.

The TAI course consists of the retreat followed by several Saturdays working on the new residency, including one day recently where we got to see segments of other people’s work.  The residencies themselves will happen in April and graduation will take place in June.

I will be going into the absolutely delightful Elizabeth Braden’s 8th grade language arts classroom at Southern Middle School in Severna Park, MD teaching students to tell folk tales and personal stories as well as how to listen to others and how to best connect with an audience.

Such fun!

I have learned so much through TAI!  Besides academic concepts I have discovered the joys of beat boxing, steel drumming, collaborative dance, vaudeville mime including juggling and plate spinning, play writing and deaf theater and I have been knit into a supportive network of teaching artists. 

Bliss!

There is hope for America’s school system.

It is called arts-integration.

It results in students imbibing urgently needed 21st Century skills almost by osmosis – and certainly with laughter.

Creativity is a powerful tool.

And that is no fairy tale!

 

 

 

 

 

Friday
Dec312010

Farewell 2010!

What an extraordinary storytelling year this has been!

(And yes I know I am repeating myself from my last post - but truth is worth saying twice!)

As I write this in the last few hours of 2010, I am amazed at how many doors have opened this year, how many new friends I have made and how many soul stirring as well as absolutely hilarious stories I have heard. 

But I have been lax of late. 

I haven’t mentioned two events that meant much to me and I don’t want the old year to die without shining a spotlight on them.

The first was participating in the Lower Brandywine Storytelling Festival at the Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware on November 5th and 6th and the second was winning an award for this blog!

The Lower Brandywine festival was an absolute delight filled with an abundance of the best storytellers in the nation, including Willy Caflin, Milbre Burch, Bill Harley, Andy Offutt Irwin, Bil Lepp, Kim Weitkamp, Ed Stivender, Doug Elliot and Slash Coleman.  It was an honor to participate, and great fun to attend with my cousin, Vivienne Jones.

The festival was held in the sanctuary and the grounds of one of the oldest churches in the nation (founded on October 15, 1720.)  A tent with clear sides had been erected at the edge of the ancient graveyard and at night the light shone out and could be seen for miles.  National Storyteller Bil Lepp described the scene superbly when he said that the tent looked like a giant snow globe waiting for the hand of God to shake it!

It was a memorable weekend filled with laughter and wonder!

Then just a few days ago I got a chance to relive the whole event. 

Michael Wright, the director of the festival, sent me a copy of a letter that he had written to Susan O’Connor at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee.  

He talks about his festival and then mentions me, saying:

“What a wonderful woman.  I could listen to her tell stories all day!  She is hysterically funny, engaging, and really bonds with those in the audience.”

To say I was a delighted was a complete understatement!  I was absolutely thrilled!

What a wonderful compliment! 

Be still my beating heart!

Shrink back my fast-growing head!

Thank you Michael!

 

Secondly, I received an award for this blog.  It is a Masters Award for Storytelling.  What an unexpected honor.

And I am in very august company!  Many fine storytellers and brilliant blogs were listed. 

Oh happy day!

 

Let me end 2010 with an extract from a poem that I love.  Called At The Gate Of The Year it was written by Marie Louise Haskins (1876-1957) and it was quoted by King George Vl in his Christmas broadcast at the beginning of the Second World War. 

It is both comforting and encouraging.

 

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

 

Happy New Year everyone!  May 2011 be a wonderful one, filled with love, grace, health, success and laughter!