Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ask the storyteller: Seven things I learned from Brother Blue and Ruth (Thanksgiving edition)

Welcome back to Ask the Storyteller. Today we will wander into the personal and universal as we look at Tony T's question, What did you learn about telling a story and storytelling from Brother Blue and Ruth Hill? 

What a wonderful question, thank you Tony. I thought this was a good question to answer on Thanksgiving week. This is a more personal #askthestoryteller than usual, I promise I'll get back to more analytical stuff next week. Please post any questions in the comments below or email them to me here.

For those of you who don't know, Brother Blue was an amazing storyteller who influenced me and many others. He was instrumental in the launch of the modern storytelling movement. It was my honor to have him as a mentor and friend for almost 20 years; there are many for whom he was mentor and friend for longer. His wife Ruth Edmunds Hill was his rock, she enabled him to do what he did and so we have her to thank as well. She is amazing in her own right, a scholar and mentor to many. 

Brother Blue and Ruth ran a storytelling venue in Cambridge, MA for many years. When Blue died Kevin and I took it over for a time, then passed it onto a committee. It continues to this day and is a nurturing place for many storytellers. Brother Blue died in 2009. Ruth remains my friend.

So, what have I learned from Ruth and Blue? More than I can tell you. Here are the top seven things I have learned from them, things I hope will be useful to you. There are a lot of links in this post that I hope you'll explore. They are deeper explorations of many of the items on this list.
  1. Together we can change the world. Brother Blue always said that storytelling could save the world because how could you hurt someone else if you knew their story? Once we recognize that we all have basically the same concerns, the same hopes and fears, it becomes easier to embrace each other regardless of skin color, religion, age, economic status and so on. That's why it's important to me that I tell all kinds of stories whether personal or traditional or something else. Stories are bridges. Stories matter.
  2. It's okay to be a little crazy. Brother Blue was quite a figure. He wore blue clothing, bells and butterflies. He wasn't tightly bound to the earth. Some dismissed him because he seemed to be crazy, but he was an incredible artist, brilliant, compassionate and inspirational. I think at some point Blue decided that it would be easier for others to tell their stories if they thought he was already the most ridiculous thing in the room. It made it easier for others to risk if they knew he already had.
    When we let ourselves be a little crazy we might find art, friendship and love that we would have rejected had we been clinging too tightly to being sane.
    I've learned feeling awkward, embarrassed or silly isn't going to kill me and it might open the door to something amazing.
  3. Be kinder than necessary. Brother Blue always found something kind to say to everyone. Those who listened to him prospered under his kindness. Ruth is kind as well, in her quieter way but with no less meaning. I believe in kindness. No matter how bad your day, how rough your life, Blue would find a way to help you remember your basic goodness by being kind to you. I try to do that. We can all do it for each other. Kindness sometimes seems like a rare commodity, but we all are capable of being kind.
  4. Tell every time as if it's the most important performance of your life. Storytelling is always about more than just you. You never know who your story will move and why. So put your whole self into each telling, love the audience and the story. Brother Blue certainly did. You don't know who in your audience needed that story in that moment. Tell every single time as if it is the most important performance of your life. It might be the most important performance of someone else's.
  5. Don't go it alone. Brother Blue couldn't do what he did without Ruth's support. I couldn't do what I have done without the support of Brother Blue, Ruth, Kevin, my communities and family. The lonesome artist is a lie. Everyone needs support. So let's help each other. I run venues where new or experienced tellers can safely take risks. I coach people. I ask for help. You can too.
  6. Listening matters. I've written before about how important listening is in storytelling and in life. Brother Blue could listen the story out of a stone. His listening had an eloquence and interest that I've never seen anywhere else. Kevin came close. Doug Lipman does too. I try. When you hear a story, listen. When you are working on a piece, get someone to listen to you. 
  7. Be grateful. I am so grateful that I have had Brother Blue and Ruth in my life. I have been so very lucky. Blessed.
    Be grateful for the stories you hear. For those you tell. For the people you encounter. Each act of storytelling is a blessing. Brother Blue knew that. I do too. And so do you.
    We never know when something will end. We have so little control over the circumstances of our lives, only over what we do in response to them. Brother Blue grew up poor, went to war, to college, to the world. He changed so many people, influenced so many lives. He was grateful for the gifts he was given and shared them.
    All we can do is love one another. Be grateful and tell each other. Use our gifts in gratitude. And then begin another story. 
 Once upon a time ago, a nickel and a dime ago, there was a....

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer
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  1. Laura, your words hold a universal wisdom. They remind me we are all part of a greater community. Your words honor the ones who have gone before, honor the ones right here beside us right now, and honor the ones yet to come. Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving. PS OK with you to read part of this at Speak Up? Thanks.

  2. Thank you for this wisdom, Laura. I've met several remarkable women in my time--including Lenore Romney, Mitt's mom, when she was First Lady of Michigan in 1963, Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to serve in the US Congress, who was 90-something at the time (1972) but told me about crossing the country in a covered wagon during her childhood, and Hillary R. Clinton, when she was First Lady of Arkansas during the 1990s--and Ruth Hill belongs in that company.

    1. Absolutely. Ruth is an amazing woman. I focused more on Blue in this piece because I want to respect her privacy.

  3. Your reflections ground me in my own gratefulness to those who have paved the way for us to do what we do, as well as remind us why we do it. Many thanks Laura for capturing it so beautifully. Your writing is a gift to us all..

  4. Thank you so much for this Laura... so resonant with my several remarkable and unforgettable encounters with Blue and with Ruth. Blue was an encourager... it was astonshing to see him at a Festival from the beginning to the end, right up in the front row, just giving out energy, enthusiasm and confidence to teller after teller.


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