"Become aware what is in you. Announce it, pronounce it, produce it and give birth to it." - Meister Eckhart

03 August 2018

Your Soul is Calling: Are You Listening?

Yesterday, a friend told me that she enjoyed my social media posts mostly because they were simply about "being" rather than "doing". It's true in as much as I don't feel I've "done" very much over the past year. Most of my time has been spent "being" -- sitting and watching the birds and squirrels on the front lawn in the mornings, listening to the wind in the trees, going for walks, reading, writing, and enjoying an occasional conversation with a friend. Most of the time I spend alone enjoying my own company.

Just over a year ago, I returned to Canada after living for 30 years in Scotland. My decision to leave my storytelling work and friends in Scotland behind was not particularly rational. "Why?" I asked myself, "should I leave? Everything I could ever want is here." But for months, that "inner voice" would not remain silent, piping up that it was time to leave. So I gave away most of material possessions, gave up my accommodation, my work, and said goodbye. Everything I now owned was on my back and in a small suitcase. (I'd also shipped on some boxes of books I just couldn't give up.)

I had a lot of "doing" plans for when I arrived but almost soon as I landed it seemed the Universe/the Divine/God had other ideas. An unexpected dental emergency led to several weeks of root canal treatment, which led to a major loss of energy followed by the return of depression, which sapped me of my "doing" energy. I fell exhausted into "being".

Looking back, I now recognise that much of what I was feeling was the consequence of grief at the loss of my "home" in Scotland, the loss of friends and colleagues, of familiar places and memories. Now here I was in somewhat unfamiliar surroundings without the sort of support I had previously enjoyed. I was living in a small room at my brother's who himself was in the shadow of grief at the unexpected death of his beloved wife. In addition to these losses, I was still dealing with the death of my mother several years earlier, the more recent untimely deaths of several close friends, and the sudden end of a significant relationship in my life.

In Canada, no one really knew my old story of thirty years in Scotland and while creating a new story can be exciting, I realised that grieving the end of a significant chapter in your life is necessary before you can write the next. Grief stops you in your tracks. It forces you to slow down and take stock. So, I gave up my plans and succumbed to it. Looking back, I'm grateful I was forced to do so.

"Doing nothing" for a year began a transition. It's hard to explain but by not trying to accomplish anything, by being still and quiet, a space began to open up, a space where I could more clearly hear my soul's voice.

I began journaling again, recording that voice, my thoughts and feelings. I started paying more attention to "signs" or "messages". A chance glance at a newspaper in a café, for example, led to me calling a First Nations school that shared my interest in Waldorf/Steiner education which led to my storytelling for the children there and then to meeting with one of its teachers who was interested in learning more about oral storytelling.

By chance, I discovered a local storytelling circle which meets once a month in a synagogue. I attended and met a woman who invited me to join a local storytelling guild to which I now belong and with whom I perform occasionally. That led to joining the Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada and to their recent national conference, which again led me to First Nations elders and other storytellers. One of those storytellers was a woman from Montreal who inspired me with her stories of how she started a theatre group more than thirty years ago without knowing anything about how to go about it. She was a living example of the power of saying "Yes" and following your intuition, your heart, your passion or whatever you want to call it. So, the following day, at the organisation's AGM, a call went out for a new Board member. I looked around the auditorium at the more than a hundred people sitting there. No volunteers. Again the call went out. Nothing. On the third call, I could clearly hear that voice within me. Say "Yes", say "Yes". I raised my hand and was duly elected. I've never been a Board member and had no idea what I was getting into, but my soul had spoken.

A chance invitation to check out a new play--with truth and illusion as its theme--made such an impact on me that I did something a shy person like me never does -- I followed my soul's direction to reach out to the play's director and ask her if she'd help me with the writing of a memoir that I'd longed for years to create yet had always put off to do other things. She said, "Yes!"

And last week, that same friend to whom I referred to at the beginning, introduced me to "someone you have to meet" via email. She had no idea what would come of the introduction but felt she had to make it. That "someone" managed a project for an agency that supports isolated seniors in the city. Being a senior and having experienced a sense of isolation and loneliness myself, I felt my soul urging me to follow through on this "hunch". A week later I was pitching an idea for a storytelling project to her team. I didn't plan it -- it came straight from the heart. And they accepted it with enthusiasm.

I know for certain that none of these things would have happened had I not spent a year just "being" rather than "doing". I didn't set out to "be" or "do nothing". I was forced to. Of course, there are ramifications for "doing nothing" -- loss of income, loss of home, loss of work, loss of the support of old friends and colleagues, loss of the familiar. But I am grateful to a brother who's own grief opened up a place for me within his home, and to my other brothers and sister whom I'm having a chance to get to know again after so long.

From the soul's place, I have begun to write a new story which I will integrate with the old. My new story will include new acquaintances, some of whom will, I hope, become good friends and wells of nourishment and intimacy. One day my story will include a place--a physical place--I can call home where I can rest and to which I can invite family and friends old and new. But in the meantime, my soul has created a place for me to rest and "be". My soul has called me to a place I can call "home".

Where is the place you can just "be"? What is your soul calling you to? Please leave your comments in the space below.

31 July 2018

Two unique storytelling funding opportunities

Here's an interesting funding opportunity for students in the Earth and space sciences.

NASA (National Aeronautical Space Administration) is offering funding for undergraduate and graduate students to create and submit visual stories for presentation on its Hyperwall.

You must be a legal U.S. resident and enrolled in either a 2 or 4-year undergraduate or graduate institution in the United States.

For full application details, requirements and criteria, go to https://education.agu.org/grants/data-visualization-storytelling-competition/award-information/.

The second opportunity is being offered by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ). They are inviting applications from those with a strong background in data journalism who have a nose for and ability to tell a good story. They will be expected to promote data-driven reporting techniques in Central and Eastern Europe and will be assigned for one-year with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Unit. If successful, you will be based in either Sarajevo or another suitable centre.

For full details on how to apply, criteria and other details go to
https://www.icfj.org/icfj-knight-fellow-data-journalism-centraleastern-europe where you can also apply.

21 June 2018

My 10 favourite FREE photo download sites

Do you often wish you had a great photo to illustrate a particular idea, theme, or story your writing about? Wouldn't some professional-looking photos spruce up your website? But you don't have the cash to hire a photographer?

And you wouldn't lift photos straight out of Google, would you? Confused about copyright?

Well, you don't have to worry anymore. You can have access to beautiful photos with a click of a button . . . and it's all for free.

Here are 10 of my favourite free photo download sites. All photos are free although you can show your appreciation by donating to the contributor in some cases.

1. Pixabay www.pixabay.com This one is a favourite of mine and I visit it frequently. Put in your search term and voilà -- up come a number of photos to fit your criteria. If at first you don't succeed, try another related search term.

2. Pexels  www.pexels.com   Similar to Pixabay. Includes free stock photos, profiles of their contributing photographers and even an opportunity for you to reciprocate if you choose by uploading your own photos.

3. Unsplash  www.unsplash.com   Another free stock photo site with good quality photos. New photos are added daily.

4. Freeimages  https://www.freeimages.com/   The title of this site says it all -- free images for personal or commercial use. Claims to have more than 300,000 images in its vaults.

5. Gratisography  https://gratisography.com/   This site claims to be "the world's quirkiest collection of free high-resolution pictures." If you can't find it anywhere else, you might find what you're looking for here.

6. Canva  https://www.canva.com/photos/free/   Canva has been a useful time-saver when it comes to putting together flyers, social media adverts, and other forms of advertising. It also offers free stock photos. It's relatively easy to use and you can even upload your own photos for use in your own creations.

7. StockSnap  https://stocksnap.io/   I haven't used this one yet, but it looks similar to the above. Lots of free stock photos free from copyright restrictions. New photos are added weekly.

8. PicJumbo  https://picjumbo.com/   Similar to above -- offers free stock photos for personal and business use. Also has a "premium" option which I imagine gives you access to even more beautiful photos.

9. Death to Stock  https://deathtothestockphoto.com/   With a name like "Death to Stock" how could you resist. While not claiming to have as many photos as other sites, Death to Stock prides itself on offering photos that are a little more unusual yet human. I'll let you explore and decide for yourself.

10.  Flickr  https://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/  You may know Flickr as a useful storage site for your photos (if you didn't know that, you should). However, many of the contributors on Flickr offer their photos on a Creative Commons licence which enables you to use them free, albeit with a nod (i.e. a credit) to the photographer.


A new addition: Pikwizard  https://pikwizard.com  Pikwizard.com and its sister site designwizard.com offer an alternative to Canva users. Here you download from a generous range of free stock photos and create your own designs for a website, business card, e-book and more. The company's HQ is based in Cork, Ireland so may appeal to our UK and European readers.

As with any site, you should be warned that it's easy to get lost looking at reams of photos. Best to know what you want and go looking for it. Pretty well all the sites offer search facilities. This is by no means an exhaustive list. A Google search for free photos will throw up many, many more sites to explore. These ten are ones I've used at one time or another, some more than others. There's more than enough here to keep you busy and supply the perfect photo for your needs.

As with all these sites, it's worth reading over their license agreements to ensure that you are downloading and using copyright-free material.

Have fun.

19 March 2018

Vast online resource for Irish folklore, customs, and superstitions

A new online resource is now available that anyone interested in Irish folklore, customs, and superstitions will be eager to peruse. It can be found at https://www.duchas.ie/en/tpc/cbes.

The National (Irish) Folklore Collection has digitized more than 100,000 pages of material known as the Schools' Collection, collected by more than 100,000 children between the years of 1937 and 1939. Children were tasked with finding the oldest person in their communities to discover the "darkest, oddest and weirdest traditional beliefs, secrets and customs". There are stories and recollections here covering every conceivable belief from fairies and leprechauns to witches and banshees and more. There are more than 3000 entries referring to butter and churns, more than 12,000 on folk medicine, and references to such individuals as the Hag of Beara, Fionn MacCumhaill, Brigid, and Myles the Slasher.

Searching the archive is helped by the division of the material into topics or categories such as "activities", "agents", "events", "genre", and "objects" among others. Look up "shoes", for example, and you'll find more than a 1000 results. Each entry consists of a digitized copy of the original handwritten account as well as the author, his or her age, and their home county.

The Schools' Collection is an ongoing project with a team of volunteers continuing to scan and digitize more than 700,000 pages of material.

In reporting on this treasure trove, the Irish Times suggests that on this St Patrick's Day, instead of waving a shamrock or downing a pint of Guinness or two, why not "consider delving into this vast online knowledge bank of national consciousness from a time when ambiguity still played a key role in life and when the unbroken connection back to Pagan times was still strong and clear." I couldn't agree more. In fact, I may do both.

Happy St Patrick's Day!

Discover the Schools' Collection of Irish folklore, customs, and superstitions at https://www.duchas.ie/en/tpc/cbes

23 February 2018

Thought for the Week

"We begin in infancy by establishing correspondence of
eyes with eyes." Robert Frost
I've been reading the poet Mary Oliver recently. In her book Winter Hours (1999), she reminds me of the importance of eye to eye connection, quoting a line from another poet, Robert Frost: "We begin in infancy by establishing correspondence of eyes with eyes." I think back to each of the births of my three sons and recall how, as each was handed to me in those precious moments after emerging from the womb, I gazed into their eyes. And how they looked at me. Even now, decades later, I can still see their dark eyes and feel our first connection, a meeting of souls.

Oliver goes on to write, "It is deeply true. It is where the confidence comes from; the child whose gaze is met learns that the world is real, and desirable -- that the child himself is real, and cherished" (Winter Hours, p. 41).

Some years ago, I was invited into a school to coach a primary teacher in the art of oral storytelling. She was nervous. She was much more comfortable, she explained, leading her class of 7 and 8 year olds in the "literacy hour" during which she set a picture book on a wooden stand and read the story to the children, turning the pages while directing their gaze to the pictures in the book.

Oral storytelling, of course, is different. It's not about reading but rather about telling to and connecting with the audience; or, as the Traveller proverb goes, telling stories "eye to eye, mind to mind, and heart to heart." I spent the morning coaching the teacher and after lunch, she gathered her children on the rug in front of her. The morning's picture book was still on the stand beside her. I moved it off to the side and invited her to tell the story she had prepared.

Still nervous, she began. She had chosen a traditional fairy tale. It had a castle, a prince and princess and a dragon and as she entered into the imaginative world of the story, her voice strengthened. I watched her lean forward, her voice casting the story's spell over the children, her hands and facial gestures weaving the tale together. The children's eyes were focused on their teacher. They were entranced, their imaginations engaged.

Telling stories to children
The story was a success. The children wanted another. "But wouldn't you rather me read another story from the book?" she asked, still a little overwhelmed by the experience. "NO!!" the children shouted with one voice. "Why?" she asked. A little girl raised her hand and said, "Because I liked it when you looked right at me at the part when the princess met the dragon. You made me feel like I was there." Several other children made similar comments. "You looked at me," they said.

In our discussion afterwards, the teacher had learned that when reading the book, she was directing the children's gaze away from her and toward the pictures and printed words on the stand. But in telling them a story, she looked directly at them, connecting with them, affirming them, building their confidence and self-esteem, nourishing them with an engaging story. And in return, the children gave her their undivided attention. They opened their hearts and imaginations.

Now, I'm not against reading books to children. In fact, I think it's an important part of a child's upbringing to instil a love of books and reading. But not at the expense of telling stories. That "eye to eye" contact is essential to connecting with the hearts and minds of children and reassuring them that they are real and cherished.

So to any teachers (and parents) out there who might be reading this, if you haven't tried telling stories to children, give it a go. And if you have time, I'd love to read about your experiences in the "Comments" section below.

Thank you!


"We have received only very positive reports of your workshop, and must thank you for being so flexible and responsive both before and in the course of implementing the workshop. It has been lovely to work with you. . . . We are hopeful this project will give rise to future storytelling endeavours, and would be very happy to work with you again if the opportunity arises!" Muireann Crowley, At Home in Scotland, University of Edinburgh, May 2014 ("Storytelling, Research and Public Engagement" workshop)

Michael Williams is a a storyteller of compelling skill. He is also a fine human being who engages in all situations and draws people into the warmth of communication and shared experience." Donald Smith, Director, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh Scotland

"Michael's understanding of storytelling within a leadership and business context has helped us provide a great service in helping leaders determine their personal and organisational destiny and legacy. Working with Michael is inspiring and fun; and pulls you to be fully engaged from start to finish." Norton Bertram-Smith, Managing Director and Leadership Consultant for On Purpose.

Kamink: the little boy who grew into a giant of a man

Blues and Roots Radio

Blues and Roots Radio
Check out my weekly storytelling radio show, The Teller and the Tale on bluesandrootsradio.com.

Creative Scotland

Creative Scotland
I'm grateful to Creative Scotland for its support.