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Tuesday
Mar122019

Animal Allies: Healing and Empowering Children

One of the most powerful storytelling experiences with kids, now on Tikkun magazine online.

 

 ECOLOGICAL CIVILIZATION 

 

Animal Allies: Healing and Empowering Children

BRENDA PETERSON 

“My imaginary  friend  really  lived. . . once,” the Latina teenage girl began, head bent, her fingers twisting her long, black hair.

She stood in the circle of other adolescents gathered in my Seattle Arts and Lectures storytelling class.

Here were kids from all over the city—every color and class, all strangers one to another. Over the next two weeks we would become a fierce tribe, telling our own and our tribe’s story. Our first assignment was to introduce our imaginary friends from childhood. This shy fourteen-year- old girl, Sarah, had struck me on the first day because she always sat next to me, as if under my wing, and though her freckles and stylish clothes suggested she was a popular girl, her demeanor showed the detachment of someone deeply preoccupied. She never met my eye, nor did she join in the first few days of storytelling when the ten boys and four girls were regaling one another with favorite superheroes.

 So far, their story lines portrayed the earth as an environmental wasteland, a ruined shell hardly shelter to anything animal or human. After three days of stories set on an earth besieged by climate change, environmental evacuees, and barren of nature, I made a rule: No more characters or animals could die this first week. I asked if someone might imagine a living world, one that survives even our species. It was on this third day of group storytelling that Sarah jumped into the circle and told her story: “

“My imaginary friend is called Angel now because she’s in heaven, but her real name was Katie,” Sarah began. “She was my best friend from fourth to tenth grade. She had freckles like me and brown hair and more boyfriends—sometimes five at a time—because Katie said, ‘I like to be confused!’ She was a real sister too and we used to say we’d be friends for life. .. .”

Sarah stopped, gave me a furtive glance and then gulped in a great breath of air like someone drowning, about to go down. Her eyes fixed inward, her voice dropped to a monotone.

“Then one day last year in L.A, Katie and I were walking home from school and a red sports car came up behind us. Someone yelled,‘Hey, Katie!’ She turned . . . and he blew her head off. A bullet grazed my skull, too, and I blacked out. When I woke up, Katie was gone, dead forever.” Sarah stopped, stared down at her feet and murmured in that same terrible monotone, “Cops never found her murderer, case is closed.”

The kids shifted and took a deep breath, although Sarah herself was barely breathing at all. I did not know what to do with her story; she had offered it to a group of kids she had known but three days. It explained her self-imposed exile during lunch hours and while waiting for the bus.

All I knew was that she’d brought this most important story of her life into the circle of storytellers and it could not be ignored as if she were a case to be closed. This story lived in her, would define and shape her young life. Because she had given it to us, we needed to witness and receive—and perhaps tell it back to her in the ancient tradition of tribal call and response.

“Listen,” I told the group,“We’re going to talk story the way they used to long ago when people sat around at night in circles just like this one. That was a time when we still listened to animals and trees and didn’t think ourselves so alone in this world. Now we’re going to carry out jungle justice and find Katie’s killer. We’ll call him to stand trial before our tribe. All right? Who wants to begin the story?”

All the superheroes joined this quest. Nero the White Wolf asked to be a scout. Unicorn, with her truth-saying horn, was declared judge. Another character joined the hunt: Fish, whose translucent belly was a shining “soul mirror” that could reveal one’s true nature.

A fierce commander of this hunt was Rat, whose army of computerized comrades could read brain waves and call down lightning lasers as weapons. Rat began the questioning and performed the early detective work. We determined that the murderer was a man named Carlos, a drug lord who used local gangs to deal cocaine. At a party Carlos had misinterpreted Katie’s videotaping her friends dancing as witnessing a big drug deal. For that, Rat said, “This dude decides Katie’s to go down. So yo, man, he offs her without a second thought.”

Bad dude, indeed, this Carlos. And who was going to play Carlos now that all the tribe knew his crime? I took on the role. As I told my story, I felt my face hardening into a contempt that carried me far away from these young pursuers, deep into the Amazon jungle where Rat and his computer armies couldn’t follow, where all their space-age equipment had to be shed until there was only hand-to-hand simple fate.

In the Amazon, the kids changed without effort, in an easy shape-shifting to their animal selves. Suddenly there were no more superheroes with intergalactic weapons— there was instead Jaguar and Snake, Fish, and Pink Dolphin. We were now a tribe of animals, pawing, running, invisible in our jungle, eyes shining and seeing in the night. Carlos canoed the mighty river, laughing, because he did not know he had animals tracking him.

All through the story, I’d kept my eye on Sarah. The flat affect and detachment I’d first seen in her was the deadness Sarah carried, the violence that had hollowed out her inside, the friend who haunted her imagination. But now her face was alive, responding to each animal’s report of tracking Carlos. She hung on the words, looking suddenly very young, like a small girl eagerly awaiting her turn to enter the circling jump rope.

“Hey, I’m getting away from you!” I said, snarling as I imagined Carlos would. I paddled my canoe and gave a harsh laugh, “I’ll escape, easy!”

“No!” Sarah shouted. “Let me tell it!”

“Tell it!” her tribe shouted.

“Well, Carlos only thinks he’s escaping,” Sarah smiled, waving her hands. “He’s escaped from so many he’s harmed before. But I call out ‘FISH!’ And Fish comes. He swims alongside the canoe and grows bigger, bigger until at last, Carlos turns and sees this HUGE river monster swimming right alongside him. That mean man is afraid because suddenly Fish turns his belly up to Carlos’s face. Fish forces him to look into the soul mirror. Carlos sees everyone he’s ever killed and all the people who loved them and got left behind.

“Carlos sees Katie and me and what he’s done to us. He sees everything and he knows his soul is black. And he really doesn’t want to die now because he knows then he’ll stare into his soul mirror forever. But Fish makes him keep looking until Carlos starts screaming he’s sorry, he’s so sorry. Then…” Sarah shouted, “Fish eats him!”

 The animals roared and cawed and congratulated Sarah for calling Fish to mirror a murderer’s soul before taking jungle justice.

Class had ended, but no one wanted to leave. We wanted to stay in our jungle, stay within our animals—and so we did. I asked the kids to close their eyes and call their animals to accompany them home. I told them that some South American tribes believe that when you are born, an animal is born with you. This animal protects and lives alongside you even if it’s far away in an Amazon jungle—it came into the world at the same time you did. And your animal dies with you to guide you back into the spirit world.

The kids decided to go home and make animal masks, returning the next day wearing the faces of their chosen animal. When they came into class the next day it was as if we never left the Amazon. Someone dimmed the lights. There were drawings everywhere of jaguars and chimps and snakes. Elaborate animal masks had replaced the super heroes who began this tribal journey. We sat behind our masks in a circle with the lights low and there was an acute, alert energy running between us, as eyes met behind animal faces.

I realized that I, who grew up in the forest wild, who first memorized the earth with my hands, have every reason to feel this familiar animal resonance. But many of these teenagers, especially minorities, have barely been in the woods; in fact, many inner city kids are afraid of nature. They would not willingly sign up for an Outward Bound program or backpacking trek; they don’t think about recycling in a world they believe already ruined and in their imaginations abandoned for intergalactic, nomad futures.

These kids are not environmentalists who worry about saving nature. And yet, when imagin- ing an Amazon forest too thick for weapons to penetrate, too primitive for their superhero battles, they return instinctively to their animal selves. These are animals they have only seen in zoos or on television. Yet there is a profound identification, an ease of inhabiting another species that portends great hope for our own species survival. Not because nature is “out there” to be saved or sanctioned, but because nature is in them. The ancient, green world has never left us though we have long ago left the forest.

As we told our Amazon stories over the next week, the rainforest thrived in that sterile classroom. Lights low, surrounded by serpents, the jaguar clan, the elephants, I’d as often hear growls, hisses, and howls as words.

They may be young, but kids’ memories and alliances with the animals are very old. By telling their own animal stories they are practicing ecology at its most profound and healing level. Story as ecology—it’s so simple, something we’ve forgotten. In our environmental wars the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them. It is our own spiritual relationship to animals that must evolve. Any change begins with imagining ourselves in a new way.

But children, like some adults, know that the real world stretches farther than what we can see. That’s why they shift easily between visions of our tribal past and our future worlds. The limits of the adult world are there for these teenagers, but they still have a foot in the vast inner magic of childhood. It is this magical connection I called upon when I asked the kids on the last day of our class to perform the Dance of the Animals.

Slowly, in rhythm to the deep, bell-like beat of my Northwest Native drum, each animal entered the circle and soon the dance sounded like this: Boom, step, twirl, and slither and stalk and snarl and chirp and caw, caw. Glide, glow, growl, and whistle and howl and shriek and trill and hiss, hiss. We danced as the humid, lush jungle filled the room.

 In that story stretching between us and the Amazon, we connected with those animals and their spirits. In return, we were complete— with animals as soul mirrors. We remembered who we were, by allowing the animals inside us to survive.

Children’s imagination is a primal force, just as strong as lobbying efforts and boycotts and endangered species acts. When children claim another species as not only their imaginary friends, but also as the animal within them— an ally—doesn’t that change the outer world?

The dance is not over as long as we have our animal partners. When the kids left our last class, they still fiercely wore their masks. I was told that even on the bus they stayed deep in their animal character. I like to imagine those strong, young animals out there now in this wider jungle. I believe that Rat will survive the inner-city gangs; that Chimp will find his characteristic comedy even as his parents deal with divorce; I hope that Unicorn will always remember her mystical truth-telling horn.

And as for Sarah, she joined the Jaguar clan, elected as the first girl-leader over much boy- growling. As Sarah left our jungle, she reminded me, “Like jaguar . . . . I can still see in the dark.”

 

BRENDA PETERSON’S over 20 books include Duck and Cover, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, selected as a “Top Ten Best Non- Fiction Book” by Christian Science Monitor and “Great Read/Indie Next” by independent booksellers. “Animal Allies” originally appeared in Peterson’s essay collection, Nature and Other Mothers. Her new books just out for kids are WILD ORCA and LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns Home, which has just been long-listed for the Green Earth Book Award for children’s literature. BrendaPetersonBooks.com

 

V O L . 3 4 , N O . 1 © 2 0 1 9 T I K K U N M A G A Z I N E 121

 

Wednesday
Feb202019

LOBOS kid's book long-listed for Green Earth Book Award and New Books

Delighted to share the good news that our kid's book, LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild, has just been long-listed for the spring, 2019 GREEN EARTH BOOK AWARD! This is the first time this award has been given to children's books. To celebrate, here are a few of my favorite spreads with Annie Marie Musselman's wonderful illustrations from the new book. I currently have four new kid's books in production, including a new Middle Grade novel that I just finished!

Read my Selected Writings page for more on those new books. And for the full story of El Lobo, please read an excerpt from WOLF NATION, "El Lobo Returns Home," reprinted in The Morning News. To listen to an in-depth interview on national NPR see my Feb. 12th blog on "Mrs. Green's World." Another national NPR interview about my wolf work will air Feb. 25th on Saving the West podcasts. Stay tuned!

 One of the little Lobos pups trustingly  rests his paw in the vet's hand. 

 

Tuesday
Feb122019

My new national radio interview on Wolves is now live!

Dear Readers,

My new national NPR interview on my wolf books is now live at Mrs. Green's World. It is in-depth storytelling I hope you'll enjoy and share widely!


Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves

Brenda Peterson

Lonnie seeks the high ground at Wolf Haven International

Photo by Annie Marie Musselman – https://www.anniemusselman.com

Brenda PetersonFrom childhood stories like Peter and the Wolf, to groundbreaking documentaries like Jamie and Jim Dutcher’s Living with Wolves, to the powerful book Wolf Nation by acclaimed author Brenda Peterson, the plight of wolves and people’s mission to eliminate them defies description.  Wolves have long been a central part of the American image. They exert their strongest hold on our imagination, kindling fear, fascination and love. For the past twenty years, Brenda Peterson has been a strong voice in the fight to restore this keystone species and thus the landscape and ecology of the North American continent. But why do people fear wolves? Why are some obsessed with bringing about their extinction? Wolves have been trapped, tortured, poisoned and almost hunted to extinction more than once. But wolves also have champions, advocates, and heroes.  Brenda Peterson is all of those. She will inform, provoke and delight. Promise.

SUPPORT THE CREATION OF PODCASTS LIKE THIS ONE: BECOME A MEMBER TODAY!  

INSIGHTS

  • Why has the relationship with our wolves been framed around terror? This dynamic conversation with Brenda will spotlight the prejudice from which we have moved toward our wolves. Get engaged with us on this podcast.
  • Who is killing a wolf a day? It is the same organization spending one billion dollars of taxpayer money (in 2014) killing wild animals. Shocked? Listen to learn more.
  • Ranchers and hunters see predators very differently – join us to explore these perspectives.
  • How was Brenda chosen to speak for the wolves? Her personal journey of discovery may inspire and empower you to find your way to speak for those things that you love.
  • Wolves limit their population – the only breeding pair is the alpha.
  • Every wolf has a distinct howl – what if we started hearing the wolf howl as singing? Helene Grimaud, Founder of the Wolf Conservation Center, is at the heart of the song.
  • Learn about the importance of a man named Aldo Leopold on this podcast – and read his Thinking Like a Mountain 
  • How are family packs destabilized by using methods like lethal management? Brenda’s insights are enlightening.
  • How can we find common ground and build activism from there? We are the future and we can succeed. Brenda builds her book, Wolf Nation, from the truth to the hope. Grab a copy, join this podcast and join the journey today.
  • Love is stronger than fear. Our relationship with the wolves is about love – we protect what we love. 

GET INFORMED!

 GET ACTIVE!

Saturday
Feb092019

Giving Up on Greatness new essay in New York Spirit magazine

Dear Readers,

Here is my new essay just published in New York Spirit online magazine to inspire and instruct those of you who pursue any passion—even though plagued by perfectionism. Enjoy! And please share.

 

 

  Giving Up on Greatness

Brenda Peterson January 29, 2019

Ambition—and its accompanying critic—perfectionism, begins early. In high school I had three passions: gymnastics, the clarinet, and writing. I also had a bold plan—Iʼd support my play on the uneven bars and at the typewriter with a career as a first-chair concert clarinetist. A family member was the first to point out to me, “Thatʼs like supporting your starving, by starving.” Added to this strong disapproval was my unfortunate, though dazzling, leap into space during a Virginia gymnastic tournament, which ended my solo flights on the uneven bars.

Perhaps it was the fall from gymnastics that stunned me into my first artistic epiphany, but I prefer to think it was music itself. During our symphonyʼs performance of a Mozart clarinet concerto, I was playing my third part with the happy abandon that always made my music teacher grimace slightly, her way of reminding me that excitement is not technique.

As Charles Donovan, our revered first-chair clarinetist, moved eloquently into his solo, something strange happened to me: suddenly his music was moving through my body as if I, too, were no more than Charlesʼs instrument. Charlesʼs breath filled my lungs, his beautiful hands trembling against my own resting fingers. Utterly at this boyʼs command, I fell into a reverie akin to first love. But then I saw that he, too, was rapt, his body bowed beneath the authority of music in him.

I knew at that moment that hearing music is not the same as simply listening. There was a difference between playing Mozart and letting Mozart play through me. I clearly saw that Charlesʼs part was to reverberate with the perfect pitch of a tuning fork, a slim and human reed. It was this last understanding that for me stopped the musicʼs flow. I realized: Charles Donovan was a genius, while I sat unworthily three rows away. I was only first chair, third clarinet—as far from the source of the sun as an undiscovered planet.

My chest caved in and I hunched over, clarinet in lap. I could not pick up my part. No matter. The others trooped along without me. For the next month after that performance, I canceled my clarinet lessons and played hooky from my seventh-period symphony. I betrayed music as I felt it had betrayed me—by not tuning in. Not to my sisters and brother on their French horn, oboe, and flute; not from my familyʼs singing or my symphony mates involved in their earnest challenges climbing chair-to-chair. I even gave up writing my weekly mimeographed soap opera of the symphony, distributed like Russian samizdat among my friends. What was the point of all this artistic struggle if one wasnʼt as gifted as Charles?

 At last I even gave up on going to hear my high school symphony perform. How could I sit in an audience and not take my third chair? How listen and not hear my own clarinet part soaring distinct from the whole, from my hands? How could I remain still when my feet tapped out every rest and my fingers played or frayed the program, rolling it into a tiny paper clarinet?

Then there were the faces of my friends in the symphony, familiar and yet transformed as the music pulsed through their bodies. There was not only the ecstasy of Charles Donovan but also my challenge partner, her eyes scanning the notes as if she followed them midflight; there was the first flautist with her silver woodwind trembling at her mouth with her most delicate kisses. There were one hundred upturned faces wide open and vulnerable as newborns, awaiting the conductorʼs baton to begin each movement, each breath. Then the music transfixed every player. They were private, yet as one in prayer and tribal worship.

The audience leaned toward the stage like plants toward light, mirroring

back the meditation—all except me. I was out of sync, in shadow, separate, as ashamed and self-conscious as in that first Fall from grace. Somehow, Iʼd lost myself—not in the music but in that narrow and never-ending labyrinth of my own criticism. After all, we were only a high school symphony; surely in New York or Boston or Salzburg, Mozart was played perfectly. And in that stratosphere, there was even someone more sublime than Charles. I clearly saw: we were young, we were country; we were just people, imperfectly pitched.

I was miserable in my mutiny. But I was also dimly aware that this retreat from music might be important, much the way Iʼd read about those yogis and priests leaving the world to better see and surrender to it. Was the act of abandoning something one loved a spiritual sacrifice, or was it the voice of the inner critic who whispered, “Why love so inadequately? Better to practice silence and self-restraint.” Sadly, I catechized myself, most mystics never come back from their vows of silence, their sacred, aloof hermitage.

And thatʼs how they save the world, if not themselves.

 At the end of that school term, I resolved to sell my clarinet. A symphony friend was only too happy to buy it. I gave her the gleaming case, passing my beloved wooden Buffet to her as I might offer the main course to someone who still had an appetite. Expertly, she fit its lithe black lengths together. As she appreciatively held it up, I was struck by its familiar scent. It smelled like me—my hands, my own skin. This was startling, discovering my own essence in something I believed dead and beyond moving me.

“Please . . .” I begged my friend, “donʼttake it away from me.” Then I burst into tears.

She was a second clarinetist, and kind. Without a word she put my clarinet back into its case and set it on my lap. I held it there for a long time without understanding anything. All I knew at that moment, was that I had to play whatever instrument was mine, body and soul. I had to play, because music was a way I would take in and give back to the world—it was the same as breathing.

 I must have intuited then what I know now: it is the love of this world, moving through however simple or small a gift, that makes us human, that makes us stay. For there is no leaving what we love.

Since that term when I abandoned my instrument, Iʼve often reckoned with the fact that it may well be my fate in my art to be only first chair, third clarinet; that whatever passion I choose may not choose me. But if itʼs a choice between returning to the greater symphony or being forever lonely for a part of myself cast off, simply because mine is not a great gift, then let me keep my little chair, three sections down from the Charles Donovans.

And there let me always hear the holy music; let me play my imperfect part.

 Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” Duck and Cover, and the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year,” by the Christian Science Monitor. Her new kidʼs books are WILD ORCA: The Oldest, Wisest Whale in the World and LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild are just out in time for the holidays. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Dec262018

Writing Panel with Nancy Pearl and Your Life is a Book author Brenda Peterson

 

 

Our fascinating writing panel, moderatede by uber-librarian Nancy Pearl at Seattle's Rainier Club. Topics:

Writing tips from Your Life is a Book

How to deal with social media

Choosing a scene that explains your whole life

Stay tuned in early January for video clips on writing from Brenda's 30 years of teaching.