078: Read Me a Story: Recreating the Magic for Adults

First, they read Seuss from a chair.
Then, they read in the open air,
‘Til fans came from everywhere —
Eager to hear their favorite book,
Eager to watch them try to cook
Eggs and ham with a greenish look.
The crowds lined up in single file,
Listened, ate and stood a while,
And warmly shared a common smile.

    There’s so much to do in Interfaith Heroes Month!
    Our last story was about a month-long exhibition, “Reflections of the Spirit,” showcasing artists who explore subtle spiritual themes in their work. It’s believed to be a first-ever attempt to explore these themes from this broad a range of religious backgrounds.

    TODAY, we’re reporting on another pilot program you may want to check out this month, if you’re in Michigan — or that you’ll want to watch unfold over the coming year, even if you live in another part of the world.
    The idea is really cool!
    It’s called, “Read Me a Story: Recreating the Magic for Adults.” And, to understand the concept, we need to explain the background of this innovative idea.

    The idea evolved from one of the colorfully decorated villages within the Burning Man festival in the desert of northern Nevada in late August and early September. (Burning Man is an annual Utopian experiment in the Black Rock Desert that welcomes more than 50,000 people who build an arts encampment on the salt flats and live there for one week. Then, they burn down the encampment’s central shrines in a huge ceremony that unfolds over two nights. Finally, they completely remove every trace of the huge encampment as they leave the desert.)
    ReadTheSpirit covered the festival for an upcoming book project and
we discovered Whoville, one particular arts village nestled within a branch of the gigantic Burning Man
encampment that was devoted to various spiritual themes.
    It was called Whoville, because this village was devoted to Dr. Seuss’ themes. The village was constructed by dozens of college students who converged at the Burning Man festival with a nearly complete set of Seuss books, lumber, chicken wire and big bolts of red and white cloth. After setting up a tall circular enclosure built of wood and chicken wire, the students stretched their bolts of cloth around the structure in bands of red, then white, then red — and so on — until this tall circular structure began to look like an enormous top hat from Seuss’ famous tale, “The Cat in the Hat.”
    They filled the floorspace inside the hat with old easy chairs, bean bags and other soft furniture and they announced through the official Burning Man schedule booklet that, each evening at dusk, they would read aloud from the works of Dr. Seuss.
    That night, several readers took turns settling themselves in the biggest overstuffed chair in the room, where they pulled out copies of the picture books from a little bookshelf near the chair — and read aloud to the crowd.
    At first, this crowd was comprised of dozens of young people who filled the floor of the hat. Soon, scores more packed into every available empty space. Eventually, it was impossible to even squeeze inside the hat.
    What was most remarkable about this gathering? These weren’t cynical college kids gathering to sneer at Seuss. This crowd was reverently reliving beloved tales of the past — sitting quietly, except when the readers motioned to them to join in some of Seuss’ most popular rhymed refrains.

    Word spread quickly through Burning Man that this encampment of young people planned to serve Green Eggs and Ham — actual greenish scrambled eggs and greenish ham chunks — the following morning with more readings from Seuss’ works. And, long before the eggs were ready the next morning, the line stretched down the dusty dirt road outside Whoville.
    Readers had to stand on a bright green stool to be seen by everybody eagerly waiting in line.
    This was, indeed, a moment of sacred memory.
    Was it fun? Sure! Colorful? Absolutely! Lots of laughter? Well, of course! But, once again, there was a reverence for these shared memories of childhood stories.

    And that got us thinking …

    Back in Michigan, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm ran across Christine Gloss at a program at the University of Michigan Residential College in Ann Arbor. As they began talking, it was as if Christine had been waiting for such an idea to surface — because in 1995 she had established a consulting company to work with businesses, schools, nonprofits and community groups called “On Beyond Zebra!”
    Yes, that’s actually the name of her Michigan-based consulting firm: “On Beyond Zebra!”
    (For non-Seuss fans, that’s a particularly fanciful Seuss book about a little boy who imagines all sorts of creative new letters for an alphabet that extends far beyond “Z-is-for-Zebra.”)

    “When I first read ‘On Beyond Zebra!’ by Dr. Seuss as an adult, I fell in love with the story,” said Christine. “‘On Beyond Zebra!’ is the perfect metaphor for the creative process. Ideally, creativity is a willingness to go beyond what’s concrete and all spelled out for you already. Instead, you’re saying that there can be something else beyond what we have in front of us right now. And, if there’s something beyond this point where we’re sitting right now — then, let’s imagine what this next thing could be. That kind of imagination is the start of the creative process.”
    Christine had been talking about this On-Beyond-Zebra concept with clients for years — successfully using it as a way to explain the creative need to find fresh ideas in her consulting projects.

    Then, this autumn, as she heard David talking about Burning Man and the experience of Whoville — and the hundreds of adults who flocked to these readings in the desert — Christine began to develop what’s now called Read Me a Story: Recreating the Magic for Adults.
    Christine already had experience developing programs one step beyond the ordinary. She’s also the creator of Crosswords by Christine, a trademarked series of crossword puzzles she has designed for partially disabled elderly men and women who enjoy solving crosswords with their children and grandchildren.
    “Clues and answers are crafted to appeal to people with decades of experience,” Christine said. “They might refer to radio programs of the ’30s, music of the ’40s or national events from several decades — all things within the rich memories of today’s seniors.”
    One of ReadTheSpirit’s founding principles involves rethinking the spirituality of the aging process, so this was another natural connection with Christine’s work.

    Then, Christine set to work on creating this new kind of storybook experience for adults — a chance, for an evening, to step back into the realm of beloved children’s literature from years ago.
    Here’s what Christine is telling people in promotional material for the first-ever “Read Me a Story” program, which will be held at 7 p.m. Friday January 25 in the big hall at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. (Click Here to jump to our Heroes page — and consult our full calendar for additional details.)
    “Remember that special feeling you had as a child when someone read you a story?” she asks in her brochure for the program. “You felt cared for, nurtured, and drawn into the wondrous world of the illustrations and the words. Perhaps those experiences put you in touch with your own creative spirit and so linked you to the Creator. Perhaps they taught you how to receive love and how to pass it on to others.
     “No doubt about it, being read to as a child has a profound and lasting effect on us all. And let’s not forget that most of those stories were just plain fun!”

    For the pilot program on January 25, Christine has scheduled a series of readers who will bring their favorite childhood stories to share. Between stories, she’ll ask the crowd if they’d like to share any memories of similar stories.
    Within this whole experience, Christine said this week, “you’ll find spirituality with a small ‘s’ — a chance to get in touch with the nurturing and the love that was sent our way as children and that, in turn, taught us how to love other people.
    “I would call this kind of experience part of a wonderful ribbon of grace that can flow to us, through us — and on to other people who we meet.”

    To that idea, we say: Bravo!

    If you live in Michigan, the program is free and open to the public.
    If you’d like to attend, email Christine Gloss at [email protected] — so she can estimate the size of the crowd and can plan to have a big enough seating area and enough refreshments ready at the seminary that evening.
    Even if you don’t plan to attend, email her if you’re interested in finding out more about the future of this Read Me a Story program.
    Or, email her to find out about her crossword puzzles for seniors.

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