Tuesday, September 28, 2010

By the River: Women’s Voices in Jewish Stories

CD Review

Cindy Rivka Marshall, Storyteller

Music provided by Susan Robbins

Recommended for ages 10 through adult. $15.00 for first CD, $10.00 for additional CDs. To order, go to www.cindymarshall.com; for MP-3 digital download, go to http://cdbaby.com/cd/crmarshall2

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

Cindy Marshall’s telling style is clean, eloquent, and intimate. Susan Robbins’ lovely music played on frame drum, accordion, hammered dulcimer, and several other instruments, seasons the stories perfectly. Like salt used sparingly, the music enhances the stories without overwhelming them. As I listened to Marshall and Robbins weave tales and music together, I felt as though I were privy to a special concert that had been created just for me.

On this CD, using the tradition of midrash Marshall shares stories that honor the wisdom of women. Prominently featured is Serah bat Asher, mentioned only twice in the Torah; once leaving Canaan to go to Egypt with Joseph, and again 200 years later in the census of Israelites living in the desert. Considered a female counterpart of Elijah, the hero in hundreds of Jewish tales, Serah bat Asher urges Miriam, in the story The Voice in Her Heart, to sing her visions of new birth to her parents. They listen, and Moses is born.

Serah bat Asher appears again in The River, a story of a mother and a daughter, and the lessons they learn. Serah bat Asher appears at the river and counsels them to have faith: every year as they tell the story of leaving Egypt, they are transported from slavery to freedom.

The Magic Pomegranate Seed is the story of a desperate but wise young mother who steals a loaf of bread to feed her hungry children. When caught and sentenced to death, she quickly and cleverly devises a plan to save herself.

In The Jewel, young Freyda learns, along with a rich landowner, what true treasure is. Onions features yet another treasure, more valuable than diamonds to some. Unfortunately, an over-abundance of anything causes its value to plummet, as the brothers of Gittel, the story’s young heroine, soon discover. The song and lyrics Marshall created for this story yield quite a catchy tune. I could not help but sing along.

My favorite story on this CD is A Garment for the Moon, in which a seamstress, asked by the sun to make clothing for the shivering moon, convinces others of her trade to help her fulfill this request. A search ensues for a fabric that can grow to fit any size, for, as we all know, the moon’s size changes throughout each month. The source of this newly discovered fabric sheds light that is unexpected but delightful.

How lovely it is to listen to stories that honor the wisdom of all women, not just older women! Marshall makes us realize that wisdom comes in all shapes and sizes, just like the moon’s new garment.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Storytelling in the Christian Community

By Linda Goodman,CLS,United Methodist Church, Petersburg,Virginia District

(c)2002 Linda Goodman

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the Lake. Large crowds gathered around him, so he got into a boat and sat down, while the people stood on the shore. The Jesus used stories to teach them many things.” Holy Bible, New Century Version, Matthew 13: 1-3

Since the beginning of Christianity, Christians have used stories to teach. Christ himself set the example is this regard. When asked by his disciples why he used stories to teach people, Christ answered that stories were vehicles that could reach those who “see, but don’t really see” and those who “hear but down really hear” (Matthew 13:10-13). Stories make plain what esoteric sermons choose to cloud with mystery. Even those who are uninitiated usually get the point.

When I began my training to become a Certified Lay Speaker in the United Methodist Church, I was required to prepare a five-minute sermon to present to the class. Rather than deliver a traditional sermon, I chose to share a personal story about an evangelistic effort I had been a part of that, while intended to bring comfort to its recipients, actually caused pain to those it sought to aid. I learned a great deal from that mistake, and I believed that my audience could learn from it as well.

The class instructor and the class at large supported my approach. I began delivering story sermons whenever I was asked to speak at a church To my delight, I found that congregants who hear stories are eager to hear more.

For ten years now, I have taught a course on Storytelling in the Ministry for the Lay Speaking School at the Virginia United Methodist Assembly Center in Blackstone, Virginia. The course fills quickly and usually has a waiting list. People are hungry for stories that help them make sense out of God’s purpose for their lives.

The class that I teach is divided into three parts. The first part covers stories taken directly from the Bible: David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, The Temptation of Christ, and many others. I encourage students to look at the stories from different angles, and the results are delightful. Some tell the stories from the viewpoints of non-traditional narrators (for example: a member of the ninety-nine sheep, disgruntled because the shepherd has left them to search for one sheep who was foolish enough to get lost). Some choose to reset a story in modern times. Others tell the stories as they are presented in the Bible, with all the drama, action, suspense, and sincerity that entails.

The second part of the class covers traditional stories that illustrate Christian Principles. The story of the Three Little Pigs, for example, teaches the same lesson as Christ’s parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand: only a firm foundation can withstand assault, whether it be from nature or a predator. In a similar vein, The Three Apprentices, by the Brothers Grimm, teaches that it never pays to make a deal with the devil, no matter how harmless it seems at the time.

The third, and by far the most popular, part of the class covers personal stories. The power of personal stories is undeniable. Why is the personal or family tale so special? The reasons are many and varied.

First, they are entertaining. Who has not been to a family gathering without coming away with a treasure trove of family stories to be passed along from generation to generation? When my family gets together, storytelling is the main event. We laugh, we cry, we try to outdo one another in bringing forth obscure memories. Through these stories, I have come to feel that I know intimately relatives that I have never even met.

Second, they are remarkable teaching tools. Many times I have sat through sermons that stressed the importance of forgiveness. As I listened, I could not help but think to myself that some things are unforgivable. That changed on March of 2002 when I heard Master Storyteller Ray Buckley share the story of his journey to forgive the man who caused the death of his wife and only child. Buckley, a Native American and devout Christian, was visited by his father after the tragedy. His father told him to write the name of the man on a peace of paper and then draw a line through the name and write the date in red when he had forgiven the man. Understandably skeptical of his father’s advice, Buckley followed the man’s trial. After the man’s conviction, Buckley visited the man’s family and formed a relationship with the man’s son. Through this relationship, Buckley gained the strength to visit the man in prison. Forgiveness, Buckley learned, is not only possible, but necessary. I continue get chills up and down my spine when I recall Buckley’s tender account, at the story’s end, of drawing a line through the man’s name and writing the date in red. If he could forgive the unforgivable, perhaps I can do that, too. That is what his story taught me.

Third, they nurture community. I have personally seen communities brought together by the compassion evoked by stories told about a person or place. In one instance, the community created by these stories saved a teacher’s job. In another, a community gathered its resources together to give a fatherless family a Christmas it would never forget.

Fourth, they can be instruments of healing. When my mother died suddenly, my grief was compounded by the fact that I had never had the chance apologize for an argument that I had with her the night she passed away. A Christian grief therapist suggested that I use storytelling to help me heal. I took her advice and wrote The Radio, a Christmas story that illustrated my mother’s self-sacrificing and unconditional love for me. That did not help much (I never doubted my mother’s love). Then I wrote The Bobby Pins, a story about a birthday present that I had given my mother, the first birthday present she had ever received in her entire life. That story was exactly what I needed: it made me realize that my mother knew that I loved her. Our argument was just one moment in our relationship. It did not define what we felt for one another. I realized that God had sent me this powerful memory to help me heal.

Fifth, family and personal stories inspire the listener to become a storyteller as well. Who has not listened to a personal tale being shared without being reminded of a similar event in his own life? When you share a story of your Christian walk with others, they will be inspired to share their own stories. The message will reach an audience far greater than the one you see.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for teaching the Christian principles by which we try, not always successfully, to live. Christ set the standard that all Christians strive to achieve. Christ was a storyteller. People are hungry for stories. As a storyteller, I seek to satisfy this hunger. As a Christian, I seek to share what I have learned from life through stories that touch the hearts of the Christians and non-Christians alike.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cry of the Mountain

A documentary play about mountaintop removal in Appalachia

Conceived and performed by Adelind Horan

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

The first thing I noticed about Adelind Horan when she stepped on stage at the Hamner Theater in Afton, Virginia was her delicate beauty. She is tall and slender with a thick mane of mahogany curls cascading down her back. She seems fragile, apprehensive.

Do not let this first impression fool you, however. This young woman BRINGS IT!! She is a powerhouse of energy, depth, and talent. The minute she becomes Judy Bonds, the first person in her thirteen character play, she owns the stage. Indeed, she so convincingly portrays the nine men and 4 women in her one-woman show that if I had closed my eyes, I would not have realized that one person was playing all these roles. Even visually she is convincing, using different body language, gestures, facial expressions, mannerisms, and voice patterns for each character.

Horan conceived and wrote this show for her senior acting project at Hampshire College. She thought, “If I’m going to spend a year on this, I would like to make it something meaningful.” With that in mind, she began interviewing people and creating verbatim monologues. Not wanting to represent just one side of the issue, she interviewed coal company executives, as well as coal miners and others directly affected by mountaintop removal. The result is a well-rounded piece that does not demonize or insult either side.

Some characters included are:

Lexington Coal Company CEO Dan Geiger, who aptly points out that, while folks malign coal mining, they don’t want to give up their air conditioning or the other creature comforts that coal helps to provide.

Stephanie Pistello, the National Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices in Washington, DC, who explains the “road to nowhere.” Companies who remove mountaintops, it seems, can avoid reclaiming the land if they build a road where the mountaintop once was, even if no road is needed.

Ed Wiley, a former coal miner who worked at coal sludge dams, never realizing that he and his co-workers were indirectly “killing kids” at nearby Marsh Fork Elementary School. When his ten year old granddaughter alerts him to this in a heartbreaking exchange, he gets involved in a big way.

According to the EPA, “Mountaintop removal…. is a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. It can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.” Mountaintop removal, which has doubled in the past eight years, has destroyed over 1,200 miles of streams and more than 450 Appalachian mountains.

Horan’s show is beautifully enhanced by the Appalachian tunes played expertly on the banjo by Max Werham, whose music blends so well with the stories being told that it is easy to forget that he is there. He becomes part of the ebb and flow that make this show so seamless.

After each show, producer and activist Ray Nedzel joins Horan and Werham to answer questions and give advice to the audience on how they can get involved. Clearly, the shows lights a fire in the audience. At the performance I attended almost every audience member stayed for the talk-back, most wanting to know what they could do to make a difference.

I have witnessed my own relatives and friends collapse in tears at the sight of a landscape they no longer recognize. When I visit my native Wise County, Virginia, much of the beauty that I remember is gone. This is indeed a serious environmental problem that plays heavily on the emotions of native Appalachians. My main concern is what the future holds for Appalachians in either case. If we cannot stop mountaintop removal, Appalachians will continue to suffer from the ill effects of this shameful practice. If we do stop the coal companies from destroying mountains, hundreds of jobs will be lost and families will suffer. We cannot just protest mountaintop removal, walk away, and feel good about ourselves. If we do, we will bear the responsibility of the carnage that will be left in our wake. That carnage will be measured in human lives.