Ways to organize a storytelling salon at home

One of my “…just do it” goals for this New Year is to enjoy friends more often through casual storytelling and conversation. That goal began brainstorms for a storytelling salon event series at my home. The first storytelling salon for the year happens (gulp!) tomorrow. Adrenaline accelerates with every minute over here with last minute planning!

What the heck is a storytelling salon?

It is a personal, subjective experience to define for sure. But I work with this approach: each story salon occurs on the weekend at my home/apartment building, and includes hospitality for the first hour; then oral storytelling of archived stories that I’ve wanted to share with community for many moons; and casual theme-based group discussion afterward. The overarching interest is good ole community with friends in the context of storytelling and learning each other’s life experience more.

Three thoughts surface now as final details resolve before the big day tomorrow:

1. Deciding the core focus has been useful i.e. to cultivate an intimate story experience & environs for sharing personal perspective.

Once this focus for the salon crystalized more, other party-related or social options faded to irrelevance. The intent is creating a type of ambience where friends would ideally feel comfortable spending time (and opening up more too to the story-sharing aspect). Physical space – how it can affect the flow and disposition of people – has been an interesting consideration. The party room on the third floor of my home’s condo building turned out to be a better space conducive to intimacy (vs our specific home unit). There’s a slightly higher ceiling that some say can cause people to associate ideas more freely (…getting a kick out of that tidbit). Restrooms and a roof deck are feet away when folks need alone time.

The main element with this salon idea is to create an agile, non-demanding dynamic for friends that sometimes complex hospitality environs can distract from. A non-existent white glove treatment is the point. Think lots of cushy sofas and puffy-fluffy chairs organized in circle-seating; soft natural window light; a few candles; low overhead lighting; and the U2 playlist playing at a lower hum.

2. Choosing a potluck-brunch approach to hospitality has helped achieve simplicity and pre-salon collaboration. 

At first when planning loosely began last December, I leaned toward a full menu to provide buddies. But then I frankly felt the stressful stomach knots form. So a friend suggested a potluck option which has been fun and a creative collaboration for the group.

When sending the save-the-date notice out a while ago, I tossed out a link to potential brunch food ideas (cinnamon rolls or bagels or french toast for starters or other options). The group approach has helped keep the planning spirit light, and attention more on the storytelling piece.

3. Setting a story theme and an unconditional tenor toward participation has added needed, unobtrusive structure. 

The story theme is:  Home – running away and reunions.

In the spirit of facilitating greater focus and ease for guests — I suggested a theme for them to (casually) reflect upon before salon day.

The theme’s purpose is to provide perimeters regarding topic. Often in a public dynamic like this, a non-topic driven gathering can overwhelm concentration or prevent precise memory recall from kicking in.

In hopes of generating more ease and willing participation, the salon will start with a story from me about home in Oklahoma growing up…roughly a 7 minute story. Then afterward, I’ll welcome other people’s perception of their home experience with an opening question.

Guests can share their reflections as they’re open to it. If everyone is shy and isn’t down for sharing, no sweat! We’ll simply continue to snarf down cinnamon rolls and kibitz.

It continues to be a blast to plan and anticipate.

Looking forward to learning about friends more tomorrow, their stories from home, and tons of photos to relive the joy.

Photo attribution “Storytelling” by Renu Parkhi licensed under Creative Commons

Storytelling, and three basics of this critically generous craft

Storytelling, especially short-form storytelling, remains ever on the mind these days. I’m getting excited about preparations for a new community-wide open mic night starting in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood this spring (more to follow as logistics solidify).
In the interim, these preparatory efforts cause reflection for how storytelling often takes such a hold on people’s attention and emotional terrain.
There are so many horizons of answers and resources to that question depending on the types of listeners a storyteller wants to engage. But what stands out to me about telling stories (and listening to them too) is how inherently generous the experience can be.
Storytelling at its most fundamental root is an unconditional act of hospitality; and there are three structural pieces to story creation that really flesh this premise out.
Whether you plan to tell a story in an in-person dynamic, or via audio or video, this crafting approach can really strengthen the vitality, and inclusive, giving nature, of what you create for (and with) your audience.
Step 1:
Creating story context, and unconditional comfort at the start
Perceive the beginning few seconds of your story as a gift of invitation to your audience; this gift will come packaged in the form of basic context for your story. A simple yet distinct few sentences constructs a mental starting point for your listeners.
This starting point, consciously or not, orients the brains of your listeners to the mental journal that you will take them on. This orientation is structurally comforting (again this usually transpires on an unconscious level of experience for your listeners). But this structural comfort is very much an act of welcome to the audience. It makes the listening brain more willing to be vulnerable, and to travel the unknown territory of your story.
This step forms a relatable foundation from which to launch your journey of meaning (and overall sense of progression) as storyteller.
Without this initial structural decision, audience attention can easily get disoriented (and not stay in tune with your unfolding progression).
Samples of context:
A — You could assert an emotion or mention an action or location that is apart of the specific scene that you want to ultimately share – sample:
“I love playing piano at choir practice….”
B — Or you could start with asserting a mindset or personal value – sample as:
“It means everything to feel accepted and to be myself in the community…”
C — Another option is to express a simple curiosity on your mind that leads-up to your particular, meaningful scene – sample as:
“I was leery to admit I was headed to the protest march, but decided to share with my friend on the bus just to see what would happen.…”
Setting this context can involve just a few sentences.
A tip for this initial step:
Consider how you would start sharing a story with a friend at a coffee shop…. conversational, intentional, with a desire to simply take your friend mentally along with you on a storytelling journey.
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Step 2:
Taking your audience to a specific scene of action
Perceive this next component of your story as a chance to shape for your listeners a new but relevant environment.
Your mindset in crafting this next piece is still one based in unconditional sense of welcome.  As in, your listeners can bring any and all unique skills of imagining detail and interpretation — even with not having lived through your personal experience (and your personal visions of it). Do not fret about imparting every single visual element about this scene to your audience. This scene simply needs get them to the next level of action which your brief context opened the door to.
In this structural organizing of your story — take your audience mentally to a particular arena where you can both evolve visual placement for them, but also evolve meaning too. They don’t need to receive and consider every single detail that you have the ability to offer them. The goal with this scene is to directly make the story relatable and useful in your journey of perspective that you’re taking folks on.
You are placing your audience — together with your unique perspective — in a well-articulated scene (but one that’s not suffocated with excessive trivia). Begin to get clear to yourself as storyteller why this scene has unique meaning for you.
A sample scene:
Remember your starting point of context that you are building from:
“I love playing piano at choir practice” — per the above first-step sample.
Then progress to your core action i.e. your specific scenic moment:
“One night we began to rehearse a hymn about healing. I remember when we finished singing, a lady new to choir asked for prayers to shrink her just-diagnosed brain tumor. The choir was caught a little off guard; but we then prayed together with as much love as we could muster, and sang in hopes the tumor would be less threatening. Weeks later, she reported that the tumor shrank!”
Step 3:
Progressing your audience to an arrival point of meaning
Perceive this concluding step as the chance to create new perspective for the audience; this is the chance for you to thread your entire storytelling journey together by making clear what your previous scenic moment or moments mean to you.
Consider this ending structural piece like it was an Easter morning sunrise just for your audience: your story’s fresh arrival point to a new and generous truth, meaning, or insight.
Reflect on what potentially affected you or surprised you or what you were grateful for or relieved by from the scene you just walked your listening guests through.
A sample arrival point of meaning:
Let us continue with the sample story-building exercise from the previous steps.
First, your context i.e. remember your starting point:
“I love playing piano at our choir practice.”
Then progress to the next step of citing core action i.e. your specific scenic moment:
“One night we began to rehearse a hymn about healing. I remember when we finished singing, a lady new to choir asked for prayers to shrink her just-diagnosed brain tumor. The choir was caught a little off guard; but we prayed together with as much love as we could muster, and sang in hopes the tumor would be less threatening. Weeks later, she reported that the tumor shrank!”
Then make your unique perspective known — your ‘why’ of this storytelling journey – and progress to your third, final step. Reveal as storyteller your slice of meaning, your teachable insight:
“When I learned the tumor was smaller, the academic side of me was doubtful that our prayers were completely responsible. But then I realized that knowing that ‘for certain’ was not the main point for me from this whole experience. It was really how this community came together through an intimate and pretty vulnerable connection for a new friend. It was how we all bonded to a very healing, unexpected invitation to relate to God and extend authentic care.”
Photo, top, “Sunrise-Easter 2006” by Matt and Polly Freer licensed under Creative Commons.
Photo, right-middle, Easter Morning Fog by Jason Mrachina licensed under Creative Commons.

Courage, self-control, and the most demanding hospitality experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything

The Code of the Samurai aka the Bushido Code keeps running through my mind as an ancient-gone-modern reference guide for delivering (consistently) awesome hospitality.

A thrilling experience comes to the forefront that puts this into better focus. A few years ago my church (Foundry UMC) was gearing up to celebrate its Bicentennial anniversary. It was exhilarating. Many folks from the local Dupont Circle community in DC; national Methodist connection; past pastors of the church; and city and even national leaders planned to attend this gigantic celebration.

I was on church staff at the time, organizing hospitality and related support. There were many times when our hospitality standards would enter conversation and team training. Our suite of hospitality mantras became: “Everyone is welcome; everyone joining us that day is apart of this historical day and our special guest; each person who walks in these church doors is to receive a radically clear welcome just for them…”

Our mindset was to be all the more radically sincere, consistent, agile, and fully filled with welcoming attention. Foundry’s Pastor Ginger often inspired the church members, legions of volunteers, and staff with reminders that we were deepening and enriching the church’s very own standard of ‘radical hospitality.’ The passionate, well-rounded dedication (and tactical support) to achieve this level of hospitality was a dream come true. I was proud to work with this congregation in this moment.

Then it all got really, really real.

After over a year of planning – the sun finally rose on the big day and nudged all preparation into high-octane immediacy.

Beloved neighbors, friends, & family lined up long before our church doors opened hoping to get a good seat; DC mayor’s office called every few minutes with her advance team’s revised arrival time; Secretary Clinton, President Clinton, and daughter Chelsea would arrive once their secret service team finished their rounds. An alternate community like no other was taking shape to celebrate our first 200 years in Christian faith.

Volunteers attended their stations — in the balcony; in multiple aisles in the sanctuary; greeters in front hospitality; welcoming, directional folks near the restrooms; the fellowship hall; on the outdoor grounds; the Green Room. It was an awesome, in-sync, and bubbly solar system of hospitality teams. The awareness was at a fever-pitch to acknowledge guests, guide traffic, convey resourcefulness, and love-thy-neighborness at every turn.

Then as I was almost in adrenaline, star-struck overload, echos of Pastor Ginger’s wise coaching ricocheted in all corners of my head space:

“…Every person, every child, every elderly soul, every guest, every familiar face or stranger…all are welcome. Welcome personally everyone as much as you can, as sincerely open as you can, and as often as you can.” 

It became clear in that moment to me that Pastor Ginger’s words outlined hospitality as an extension of hospitality justice — a beckoning to everyone no matter their reality in modern society. We were a historical congregation honoring our 200th year of devotion to loving God and neighbor, and all the vulnerable rigor living in community can require.

That’s when an unexpected reservoir of courage and self-control surfaced. These specific code of the samurai virtues immediately became relevant and necessary. Because this was a chance for us to reflect God’s emancipating love in our little corner of the world. Holy. Wow.

Courage and self-control to inform the secret service agent that my time was not 100% dedicated to him – and to refer him to another hospitality resource (…a little nerve-racking as he was equipped with a vivid fire arm). Courage and self-control to not let getting star struck distract focus from the sweet elderly woman having trouble with her shawl. The Bushido Code states: “Courage is worthy of being counted among virtues only if it’s exercised in the cause of Righteousness…”

Every impromptu question created an arena for the liberating, loving, fret-defying love of God to lead, like: “So the coat racks are full…now what?” to a choir member gasping in angst: “Who has a cough drop?!”

Radical hospitality meant our team stepping into a radical availability to not just welcome but to engage countless levels of collaborative readiness.

As in, it is not enough to simply recognize that ‘all guests whether they are state leaders or not deserve splendid attention and resourcefulness.’ It takes conscious assertion of courage in the present time (which I find can be challenging or even intimidating…per secret service scenario!). This whole hospitality experience and the environment Foundry UMC created that day provided unparalleled education. The event offered irreplaceable forums to better control adrenaline and anxiety, and to direct both as courageously as possible to delivering hospitality with equity to every soul in the place.

Photo attribution “Take Courage” by kipadella licensed under Creative Commons

Justice, and how the code of the samurai makes an epic code for hospitality

There’s nothing like a saga about a samurai’s honor to get the mental juices reflecting on (unexpectedly to me!) hospitality.
After watching The Last Samurai again, and becoming utterly more enthralled by it, I hungered to learn the ethos of the samurai warrior (also know as The Bushido Code). 
The full code is comprised of eight virtues, creating an integrity-rich and spiritual combination of disciplines to abide by: rectitude; courage; mercy; politeness; sincerity; honor; loyalty; and self-control.
Many virtues from the Bushido Code strike a cord, and compel strong principles for delivering hospitality. I look forward to exploring these in the coming days.
Rectitude or Justice:

According to the Samurai’s spiritual path and code of conduct, deciding the moral course and not wavering from that course is vital. It is this undeterred commitment to honest, moral reasoning that gives stature to the samurai’s day to day life.

Such an unwavering commitment makes this virtue a great ethos for delivering front of house hospitality, especially when it comes to in-person guests. So many details compete for attention when running a hospitality-based organization. In the administrative intensity, attention to the in-person guest can often get marginalized or become chronically distracted. What’s key is for the front of hospitality team to — unilaterally and reliably — prioritize the in-person guest over all other commitments or interruptions. It is the only way visiting guests will begin to trust the resourcefulness and sincerity of welcome in an organization.

Story of caution about this virtue and an organization’s culture:

A while ago, I was engaging an in-person guest at front hospitality for a large urban church. While attempting to be a resource to this visiting person, a colleague interrupted our discussion twice. The interruptions were vivid and distracting enough that the guest criticized my colleague (to me) once my colleague had departed. The guest felt undermined and not taken seriously. The next part of our exchange involved my apologies, and attempts to rebuild the guest’s interest in church programs.

It is critical that an organization’s entire culture is committed to all guests receiving prioritized, undivided attention. Otherwise delivering hospitality to visitors becomes at the very least, an exercise in depleting good will to guests.

 

In the coming days, I look forward to comparing more of the Bushido Code to other aspects of delivering hospitality, including courage and self-control.

Photo “Samurai John” by Jerome Olivier licensed under Creative Commons

 

What a lost kitten taught about reunions and risk

imageIt was a quiet early fall night in DC.

The outdoors were starting to turn toward cooler breezy temps. Husband Sean and I were relaxing together in full-on chill time reading and nuzzling with Squinky-Susan (sister kitty) and also Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons (littler bro kitty).

Our lights-out time arrived; Sean had opened a window by a few inches to let cooling breezes swirl inside. Off to bed we went, in our 550 square foot home that sat four stories up from a busy neighborhood street.

The next conscious cue came from morning light that touched our eyelids awake. Sean got up first to enjoy some early a.m. silence.

After a while he nudged me to full-alert.

“Um Walter is gone,” he said. “I don’t understand….it’s a small apartment.”

I the momma scurry to the living room. No Walter.

…scurry to all the secret under-sofa-and-chair crevices. No Walter-kitten…..just his sister Squinky looking strangely calm.

…what about the old-timey pedestal bathtub. There’s a ton of secret hiding spots for kittens!

But no fuzzy Walter Wilbur-Force appeared.

I look at Sean with my eyes rounding through the tear drops.

He says again in a listless monotone: “But it’s such a small apartment…where could he have gone? It’s so small.”

His fixation on the size of the apartment made my heart ache more. He is such a fantastically logical person; his logic powerhouse of a brain was desperately equating smallness of our home to the impossibility that his cherished soulmate of a (always indoor) kitten could ever get lost, let alone disappear.

His eyes then wander over to the cracked window left open from last night: “OMG HE RAN AWAY FROM FOUR STORIES UP.”

What a heart sinker.

Walter’s escape out the teeny tiny window space was the only logical conclusion.

We ran downstairs; scoured alleyways; searched around big dumpster areas, calling calling calling Walter’s name.

No fuzzy gray paws or purrring was to be found.

Sean left for work lugging a gallon of gonna-keep-my-chin-up sadness with one last absent remark from his logical brain still trying to reconcile his disbelief: “….but our apartment is so small.”

More emotional context:  This occurred a few days after Prince died. So the climate of separation anxiety was already heavy!

Then after posting one more color poster outside of “Help us find our precious Walter Kitten Face!!!” I glanced back randomly toward the front glass door into the four story walk up (we lived on the fourth floor with a few other neighbors residing on the other levels).

There adhered to the glass was a crooked yellow sticky note!

My heart and brain leapt instantly over the 5 meters to the door to read that sticky:

“Are you missing a cat?! Please call this number.”

Wheeeeee!

Within seconds after calling, Walter Wilbur-Force The Kitten was back home to momma’s caress (and to his papa’s infinite joy).

The mystery in Walter’s disappearance revealed in purrrfect clarity thanks to two mindful and very tender-hearted neighbors that lived in a building adjacent us. It’s an awesome urban cat-n-mouse story minus the mouse. It’s a wonderful (and one of my favorite) family tales.

The whole experience refreshed perception about reunions and risk on a few levels:

  • What an unforeseen loss of love teaches:Losing unexpected access to the one you love feels like a bucket of pine needles assaulting every avenue of your heart. I revered two things a whole lot more when reuniting with Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons:  simple presence of your loved one is the height of abundance; and returning from the hugely vulnerable world unscathed (as Walter did) is ar blessing and rarity.
  • Thoughts about risk and gambling with a stranger:What had happened — Our little precious fuzz-bucket kitten had in Olympic feline fashion self-collapsed his adult frame and slid out into the world (via that four inch window opening…naive move on our end to underestimate the indoor critter). Once out on the window ledge of our building, Walter walked on the ledge; got confused; then couldn’t walk backwards to our specific window. So he walked on the rain gutter to the attached/adjacent building and sat in front of a window.
    • Late, late at night he stared inside this well-lit home through that home’s window and meowed his face off. He sat. He stayed sitting. He myeowed.
    • The couple living in that home noticed him but were wisely  leery of his nature! Was this a stray cat? Where did it come from? Isn’t this technically creepy?!
    • It would’ve been in the realm of reasonable decisions for them to have ignored Walter. The couple though pondered; revisited their first impressions; pondered some more.

They began to re-perceive this stranger chanting myeows outside their window. They started to view Walter as less of a threat, and more of a misplaced stranger in a vulnerable way. Sean and I are grateful for their courage.

  • Closing thought on alleviating potential tensions in risky decisions:Upon letting Walter enter their window, the couple started to think short-term and long-term. If Walter’s family was discovered in the next day, hooray! But if  a reunion did not take place, they were making a hospitality list for their new tenant i.e. litter box, food, and 600 little jingly toys. Their agility is a model for hospitality and for helping the stranger. They went from a risky initial decision all the way to sharing space with a stranger to planning for the stranger’s well-being. My goodness how I love this story and them.

Photo:  Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons when a baby, pictured with his Dad.

How emotional intelligence shaped three hospitality moments, and Happy New Year!

Engaging front-of-house hospitality for community fascinates me. Hospitality is an unparalleled opportunity where customer service, sense of welcome, unconditional attention, and even spiritual uplift can all be experienced by a guest.

How can guests perceive resourcefulness?

perceive responsiveness? or perceive acts of (intended) good will?

Guests from different hospitality scenarios in my professional life have taught vibrant lessons toward these questions. And often recognizing the merit of emotional intelligence proved a key part of learnings.

Emotional intelligence (EI) affects delivery of hospitality in countless ways. It’s potent and often beautiful how keen emotional discernment can encourage (or if a lack thereof – can repel) any particular community or guest. I should swallow a dose of humility now too because at least for me, emotionally intelligent actions can be easy to overlook or harder at times to appreciate.

A friend Sarah shared last week some hospitality moments from her workplace. We then more consciously chewed on what she realized about delivering hospitality in-the-moment from those exchanges (and what stood out from an emotional intelligence perspective).

It was an engrossing conversation where (3) hospitality insights jumped out:

1.  Cultivating emotional validation 

My friend works in a community center and engages a wide range of the public with varied ages, races, and economic realities.

  • The scene — A young mom arrived and shared concerns her pre-teen child was starting to smoke cigarettes. The parent began to stutter pretty heavily, and avoided eye contact with my friend Sarah (who recognized signs of the parent’s discomfort in admitting the whole scenario).
  • EI moment — The goal for my friend became to remove any potential barriers to trust that the mom’s discomfort could possibly develop. So she (the friend) said to the parent she was so grateful she arrived at the community center, and had shared her personal concern for her child. My buddy in that instance affirmed the woman’s presence; the concern for her child’s health; and that the mother’s emotional courage was evident and admirable. The young mom ended up staying for 25 more minutes to discuss potential next steps and resources.
  • Word of caution — Sincere affirmation was the ultimate goal for this dynamic. Validating the mother’s caring nature and her action as a family leader were paramount. Conscious conversational space was made to include and legitimize her discomfort. As the community center’s representative, it would have been negligent let alone failed hospitality for my friend to have responded with an emotionally flippant or indifferent reply like “well that’s just sad to hear…”

2.  Creating an uninterrupted listening environment (if indeed time permits!)

  • The scene — Going deeper into the above exchange, my friend Sarah at the community center also asked the visiting mom questions on a few different levels: permission for time and permission to further inquire about her concerns.
  • EI moment — She (my buddy) used authentic lines of questioning to further demonstrate respect for the nervous, worried parent. First Sarah asked the mother overtly if she had “20 or 25 minutes” to further discuss her child’s smoking habit and the center’s resources to help. Next, Sarah inwardly committed to establishing a listening environment for this guest: to fully listen to the mother’s responses without interruption (as much as possible in light of potential time constraints). These intentional decisions helped to relax the dynamic; the mother started stuttering less and opening up about ways the center could be of benefit.
  • Word of caution — Checking in with this guest on whether or not she had more time to discuss matters goes beyond basic politeness in its value. It is a core hospitality-delivery tool. If the guest did not have further time to invest in that moment, then that would have cued my friend to request permission to email her further information and questions. Therefore, no matter how the mom responds to the question of time – her schedule is honored, and the dynamic to effectively provide resourceful-rich hospitality is still forged.

3. Utilizing self-restraint 

  • The scene — My friend remembered that toward the end of their discussion, the parent asked a question about potential treatment. Sarah felt some compulsion to respond immediately in that moment. But she refrained. Why? Because she also saw sensitive options (that could help the mother’s child) that would do well with written, deeper context.
  • EI moment — So to ensure benefits and risks would be expressed more clearly, and do the mother’s concerns better justice, Sarah underscored the value of the parent’s question and offered to reply more thoroughly over email. She also invited the mother to set future appointments anytime for more personalized conversation.
  • Word of caution — Delaying a reply in this way is not intended as procrastination, or as a means to avoid sensitive, difficult discussions. The core intent was to acknowledge that a compulsive albeit reasonably informative reply was likely going to come across as scattered. Sarah’s emotional discernment was to avoid that potential guest perception. So she instead, mindfully affirmed the mother’s question and assured an emailed clarification would be forthcoming.

Photo attribution  Peace on Earth, good will towards men by Amy V. Miller licensed under Creative Commons