Defined by Relationship

I became a mom on March 26th of this year, and it was honestly the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. For years lots of people had been telling me that it would be; but to be honest, I wasn’t sure how I would take to the whole motherhood thing. When I first found out I was pregnant, I had mixed emotions. I was excited, but my excitement was clouded by fear and doubt.


What if I didn’t like being a mom? What if being “mom” meant that I had to “lose” myself or give up the things that I felt defined me? I saw myself as an independent person – an entrepreneur, actress, storyteller, writer and world-traveler. Over the past few years, I’ve been able to drop everything and head to such exciting places as Ghana and Guatemala for two to four weeks at a time. How would I do that while having a baby? I was focused on all that I would have to give up to become a mom, and I was worried, thinking, “If I don’t like being a mom, there will be nothing I can do about it. There will be no turning back.


However, as soon as I met my son, all of those fears disappeared. I’ll never forget one day just after bringing him home from the hospital how I sat there staring at him, tears in my eyes, thinking, “What if I’d never had you?” That was quickly followed by the thought, “If for the rest of my life I’m just known as your mom, I’m okay with that.”


I had done a complete 180. All of a sudden I didn’t care if all of my other titles and accolades were stripped away. I was fine being defined solely by relationship. And it occurred to me that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to define ourselves by our careers, our accomplishments and our prestigious titles. But ultimately, these will leave us empty. Why? Because we were made for relationship. The Bible makes that very clear.


Who am I? How do I define myself? The primary relationship that should define me (and all of us!) is that I am a child of God. When all else fails, this is always true. After that, I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. And these titles are more important to me (or should be!) than those of storyteller, actress, and writer – even though these mean a great deal to me.


When I die, it would be nice to hear people say, “She was a great storyteller.” But I’d rather have them say, “She was a great friend who would drop whatever she was doing to be with me when I needed her,” or “She was a wonderful sister who was patient and listened to me and helped guide me in the right direction.”


In some parts of Africa, after a woman has her first child she is no longer called by her name but becomes “Mama (Name of child).” That would make me Mama Rafael. I’m not completely sure about the origins or significance of this tradition, but it seems to be a tradition that puts a high emphasis on relationship.


To some it might sound as though the woman is losing herself. (After all, she’s losing her name and taking on that of her child!) Perhaps I would have thought that same thing months ago. But now I understand that I’m not losing anything, certainly not myself. Instead, I’ve opened up a whole new part of myself that I didn’t know existed. I’ve also come to understand the centrality of relationships in my life and how these are what I want to define me and what I want to make my priority. I have also come to understand that I will do my best work and be my best self when I do everything with the goal of building relationships — whether that’s between myself and my friends, family and acquaintances or between myself and my audiences and readers.


(This post first appeared on the blog Christian Children’s Authors.)

Mourning with Compassion: On the Passing of Robin Williams

This week the world lost a brilliant storyteller and creative talent with the passing of Robin Williams. His tragic death as well as so many other horrible things happening in the news as of late has left me convinced that the world is in dire need of more compassion. All too often we are quick to point fingers and heap guilt upon people instead of coming alongside them.


Compassion means “to suffer with.” To act with compassion means stepping down from our soapbox and coming away from our aerial view which sees quick and easy solutions for the problems of others. It means putting our boots on the ground and going into the trenches with others – even when their struggles don’t make sense to us. It means giving up our well-intentioned plans to “fix” the other person and recognizing that even if we could, quite likely it’s not our job or place to do so. At times, it means standing shoulder to shoulder with someone whose choices we question and whose decisions in our way of thinking seem hair-brained at best and outright stupid at worst. It does not mean being in agreement with those decisions; but it does mean refusing to fall into the trap of denying them our love when they don’t behave in a manner that we consider acceptable or rational.


Compassion is not easy. Compassion requires huge amounts of humility. Amounts that, if we’re honest, most of us, myself included, don’t have. Compassion is not for wimps. It often requires us to disregard the status quo, to relinquish our people-pleasing ways, and thus, to walk a lonely road. Quite likely it will mean hearing thousands of times, “Why would you waste your time with him/her? Why don’t you give up? You’re never going to get anywhere with them;” and staying the course, even when a large part of you believes those words to be true. While compassion may have hopes for a future outcome, it is not undertaken for or guided solely by the desire to achieve this outcome. If it were, it could be easily manipulated. True compassion casts out all possibility of manipulation.


I want to be a person of compassion; but what does this look like in my daily life? What does this look like in my professional life? As a storyteller, how do I lead with compassion and invite others into lives of deeper compassion as well? Is it through the stories I choose to tell? My style of telling? The places I tell? The environment that I create while telling? The way I treat audience members outside of the telling experience? Or is it some of all of the above? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d like to spend the rest of my days figuring it out.


Imagine a world where the compassion I’ve described above happened all of the time – where we were each recipients of and givers of compassion in every possible situation. Imagine a world where there was less finger-pointing, less criticism, less nit-picking, less shaming, less talking and more humility, more love, more understanding, more listening, more bearing with one another’s burdens. Imagine that world and then stop saying that it’s not possible and do something to bring it into existence.

Book Review of “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human”

Recently while walking through my local library I came across the book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. As a storyteller, I couldn’t pass it up! It turned out to be a thoroughly engaging read, outlining many of the ways that story works to mold and shape us as individuals and societies.

Here are a few of the interesting lessons I took from the book (some new to me and some familiar but given a deeper understanding):

  • For children, story is psychologically compulsory.

  • When children engage in pretend play, it goes beyond mere make-believe. It has a biological function, helping them to rehearse for adult life and develop their social and emotional intelligence. “Play is the work of children.”

  • Adults do not leave the world of “pretend play.” Instead, we find it in novels, films, dreams and fantasies.

    • Fiction serves as a sort of “virtual reality technology” that simulates human problems. As Janet Burroway puts it, “Literature gives us feelings for which we don’t have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve.” In other words, it allows us to “try on” or “try out” a lot of feelings and experiences that might be too risky or too unsavory for us to practice in “real life.”

  • Most people believe that they know how to separate fact from fiction, but research shows otherwise.

    • In lab settings it has been shown that people can be misled to believe outlandish things (such as that brushing your teeth is bad for you or that you can “catch” madness by visiting an insane asylum) based on fictional narratives.

  • Fiction has probably taught us more about the world than anything else

    • Consider what you know about a topic such as police investigative work. Where does your knowledge come from? Most likely from TV shows like CSI or NCIS. Our knowledge of many other topics can be similarly linked to fictional accounts.
  • People’s deepest moral beliefs and values are modified by the fiction they consume.

    • A scientific study by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock showed that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. We tend to read non-fiction critically and skeptically; whereas when absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard and are less able to detect inaccuracies. Gottschall points out that “people can be made to think differently about sex, race, class, gender, violence, ethics and just about anything else based on a single short story or television episode.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of interesting insights and studies that Gottschall lays out in his book. And while I’m not in agreement with all of his conclusions, I definitely agree with him about the centrality of stories to the human experience and the fact that they will never disappear (although they may take on new forms!)

This book also confirmed the importance of my work as a storyteller and how great my responsibility is to my audiences. If fiction has such a profound impact on people’s minds and beliefs than I need to take the utmost care when selecting stories for telling. I need to realize that people’s thoughts and opinions are being shaped (almost unconsciously) by the stories I tell. Thus, while storytelling is fun, playful and imaginative, it is also serious business and I must treat it with the utmost respect.

Man: The Storytelling Animal

Man – let me offer you a definition – is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker buoys and trail signs of stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right. Even in his last moments, it’s said, in the split second of a fatal fall – or when he’s about to drown – he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.  

– Graham Swift, Waterland

I came across this quote in the book, “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human” by Jonathan Gottschall, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it. I’ll share more about that book in my next post. But for the meantime, I love the way this quote captures the essence of what it means to be human — and so much of that has to do with telling stories. We seek meaning and make meaning in our lives by means of stories. We tell them, invent them, cling to them.

I heard the wonderful Ohio-based storyteller, Lyn Ford, share an African folktale at a conference a few years ago. The story contained the refrain, “Our lives are our stories.” That story, and particularly those words, have always stuck with me. When we share our lives with others, we are sharing our stories. When we share our stories, we are sharing our lives.

Send “Books and Smiles” to Children in Haiti

In all of my years of traveling to many different countries, one of the things that has most amazed me is how much we take for granted our access to books. I would venture to say that there are probably very few children in this country who don’t own (or have the opportunity to own) at least one book. In fact, there are many literacy groups and initiatives in the US focused on providing books to children who might not have access to them. Some of these groups even provide board books to moms-to-be so that they can begin reading to their child as soon as they are born! Furthermore, we are blessed with a wonderful system of libraries that puts thousands of books at our disposal.

In many other parts of the world, this is not the case. A book is a rare and priceless treasure. Something that children dream about owning the way children here often dream of owning the next big gaming system on the market. Having visited libraries in other parts of the world, I can also say that the selection of books is often much more limited than what is available to children (and adults!) in the United States.

That’s why when I saw this post on Tara Lazar’s writing blog about Books and Smiles for Haiti, I thought it was a great cause! The folks at Books and Smiles for Haiti are currently in the process of collecting board books, picture books, beginning readers, and information books with pictures of animals, science, space, and more. Their goal is to have a large collection of books by the end of the school year so that they can be crated and transported to Haiti.

If you would like to participate in their efforts, you can email author Chieu Urban at for the mailing address. You can also join the Facebook group page for updates.  Anyone can donate books, but if you are an author and you pledge to make a donation AND leave a comment on Tara’s blog post by the end of March, she is offering a free picture book critique! So take advantage of that opportunity while you still can!

Having visited Haiti a few years ago, I think that the name Books and Smiles for Haiti is a very apt one as I can just imagine the smiles that these books are sure to bring to the faces of the children there. I just mailed my books this week, and I hope you’ll join me in bringing books and smiles to the beautiful children of Haiti who are sure to treasure them.