Finance of America is excited to launch our new series: ‘Inspiring Life of the Month.’ We’ll profile one inspiring person within our community each month and explore their life, career, and their unique perspective on retirement. We are honored to launch this series with the story of FAR customer, Ruth Stotter.
Wonder. Tragedy. Comedy. Drama. These are all components of Ruth Stotter’s daily life. No, she’s not a reality TV star. She’s a professional folklorist and storyteller.
As the first subject of our Inspiring Life of the Month, Ruth is an easy person to feel inspired by.
She has accomplished an enormous amount throughout her prolific and fascinating career. For the last 30 years, she has been a self-employed teacher who has taught and performed storytelling at universities and workshops worldwide. She’s authored seven books on subjects ranging from public speaking to plant lore to the history of string figures (a visual accessory and tool used for telling stories).
She’s written and produced two plays. She holds four degrees (two of which came from UC Berkeley and Stanford University). She has received the prestigious Fulbright scholarship for her storytelling work at Mahasarakham University in Thailand. And in 2011, she was honored with the Lifetime Oracle Achievement Award for Storytelling from the National Storytelling Association—one of the highest honors her profession can receive.
The list could go on. Needless to say, she’s really good at her job. But for what Ruth has given to the academic study and practice of storytelling, she has received equal amounts back. As she simply states, “Storytelling has enhanced my life.” It has allowed her to travel the world, deeply study other cultures, and connect with people in ways that most professions wouldn’t have. “I’m very grateful that my path has taken me where it has taken me,” she says.
You would think after all of her success, she would be ready to retire. But at 84, Ruth isn’t anywhere near finished. She has two more years on her Fulbright Grant. She fully intends to use it to continue her international workshops that teach participants how to use storytelling to affect positive change and build communities across the globe.
A Fate Foretold
Before becoming a world-trotting academic, Ruth’s future career in storytelling was hinted at throughout her childhood—something that only upon reflection, appears to be guided by the threads of fate. The first telltale sign came when Ruth was only four years old.
As legend has it, after returning from a fishing trip, Ruth’s next-door neighbor Mr. Metcalf showed her the fish he caught. Ruth responded by informing him that she had also gone fishing and had caught not one, but two fish on one line. When he inquired how Ruth had done this, she informed him that she “pulled in the string and there was one fish with another one hanging onto its tail.” Of course, this was the creative fabrication of a four-year-old who had not gone fishing at all. But Mr. Metcalf responded by prophetically stating, “This kid is going to be a storyteller.” Ruth was an overly imaginative four-year-old, which turned out to be a necessary trait for her future profession.
Storytelling was a theme that would continue to crop up as Ruth grew older. When she was 8-years-old, Ruth was kicked out of summer camp for telling scary stories to her fellow campers. Her stories were so frightening that the children were too afraid to go to the bathroom at night and wet their beds. So, they sent her home.
The next summer camp Ruth attended, her mother wrote a note in advance about her previous experience. When Ruth arrived, the camp director pulled her aside and asked her if she would be willing to tell stories at the campfires—she wholeheartedly agreed. It was Ruth’s first official storytelling gig. During nap time, Ruth would perform new story ideas for the director in her office. The director helped her refine the stories and her performances.
From an early age, Ruth was a natural. She would later make it official by earning an M.A. in Folklore/Storytelling from Sonoma State, where she would also teach her first class on the subject. But it wasn’t until 1980 when Ruth received her first grant from the Alaska Arts Council that she felt comfortable calling herself a storyteller. It’s a title that, as Ruth puts it, “had to be bestowed.” She explains, “For some labels to be authentic, they need to come from the community.”
The Power of Storytelling
Ruth’s day job as a storyteller is an ancient tradition that stretches back thousands of years. The first recorded stories were cave paintings. But without a doubt, oral storytelling stretches further back to a time before humans knew how to mix pigments.
Ancient cultures such as the Greeks and Etruscans had famous storytellers who would perform oral tales for audiences—just like Ruth does today. One of the most well known is the Greek writer Homer who is credited for works such as “The Iliad”. It’s most likely that Homer performed his stories for a live audience and only later were later written down as an act of preservation.
As a professional, Ruth studies and performs stories from many different cultures. Storytelling, on a cultural level, is a way of archiving traditions from one generation to another. It’s a way of remembering. A way of honoring. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a way of learning. Stories can shift perspectives, open our minds to new ideas, and bring people together.
For Ruth, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to teach empathy and compassion to the listener. One type of story that she performs is called an “Old Folk Tale.” In it, a culture disregards and casts out their elders only to realize afterward that their wisdom is needed to solve a problem. It’s timely wisdom indeed. As Ruth notes, “I’ve heard people say, ‘The pandemic is only affecting older people, who cares.’ Well, these stories address how important it is.”
Storytelling also has an incredible capacity to heal. Ruth explains, “It has the power to transform and it can be used for healing. Just like laughter is good medicine, story-ing is good medicine. It helps you see yourself from a distance, to separate from yourself, and see what you’re going through.”
In many ways, the power of a story lies in the hand of the teller and their willingness to wield their words for a specific purpose—something that both Homer and Ruth know. Through her work, Ruth has seen firsthand how stories can influence people in positive ways, and she has dedicated her life to spreading the power of storytelling to every corner of the globe. In the last two years, she has taught storytelling workshops in both Thailand and India. “I have a missionary zeal to open people’s minds and hearts to the power of what a story can do,” Ruth explains. “How it (storytelling) can influence you and affect you and change your attitudes and ideas. Stories are very powerful.”
A New Gig
Before the pandemic, Ruth had several international workshops planned. But, like many people, Ruth’s work has been put on pause during lockdown. She wasn’t out of work for long, however, because several weeks into quarantine, she picked up a surprising new gig. A neighbor, who was familiar with Ruth’s work, approached her about performing stories for the neighborhood children who had just begun homeschooling and needed a little extra fun and stimulation. Ruth happily agreed.
Since then, Ruth has been performing stories to local children of all ages and backgrounds every Wednesday evening on the porch of her Bay Area home.
The oral performance of stories is an ancient medium—and not one that we often encounter in modern life. So, naturally, in the beginning, some of the children weren’t too sure about her performances. “I remember one little boy looked at me with great suspicion, wondering what I was going to do. And because I have white hair, maybe he thought I was a witch.” But as the sessions continued, he began to trust Ruth more and enjoy the stories. “Now, he’s leaning forward, and his eyes are large. There’s a little sparkle in there, and you can see in their eyes that they’re following along.”
She uses voices and masks, and other fun accessories to enhance the telling of the story. Ruth notes that drawing from her extensive mask collection for her performances isn’t just to improve the story but also to help create an educational and positive association with masks for the children. “One of the things I do whenever I start my storytelling sessions is I show the children a mask from another culture. So they have a positive idea about masks. They’re not just something you wear in a quarantine,” she explains.
The stories she chooses to perform for the children don’t have obvious moral lessons that you would expect from children’s stories—like good vs. evil. She doesn’t like telling those kinds of stories because she wants the children to think for themselves. “Storytelling isn’t a lecture, it’s interactive,” she explains, “I’m trying to perform stories that help them to think out of the box. Help them realize that things change and that they’re responsible for their attitude and the way they go through life.”
One story she performs is called “The Elephant Child“, which originates from Just So Stories by Kipling. It’s a Burmese tale about a king who needs a white elephant (a symbol of power and prosperity in many Asian countries). It’s a story that addresses themes of friendship and betrayal. When choosing stories to perform for the children, Ruth picks ones with messages of, “be kind, be compassionate.” And ones that encourage kids to “Take a risk and go out into the world.” These tales aim to empower children to be brave, empathetic, and community-minded, which is at the core of Ruth’s beliefs about her work.
Ruth’s performances have provided much-needed entertainment for both parents and kids and have created a venue for the community to connect during the lockdown. “When they come to the stories, they’ll bring banana bread or cookies. It’s made it a mini-community. It’s wonderful to have a neighborhood community where you know the people, trust the people, and can borrow sugar if need be. And this has helped to accomplish that.” She continues, “I like that the kids call me Ruth. If they see me on the street they say, ‘Hi, Ruth, are you going for a walk?’ It makes my heart sing to be in their life and to have them in my life.”
Stories Our Homes Tell
Ruth and her husband have lived in their Bay Area home for 50 years now, and it’s safe to say that it serves as more than just her stage for performing stories to the children. It is a vessel for stories about their life, travels, and work.
Ruth believes our homes tell stories that are wholly unique to the people who live within them. Because Ruth is a world-traveling folklorist, her house is full of trinkets, cards, boxes, and other curiosities that she finds interesting. Due to the pandemic, Ruth and her husband have temporarily halted travel and have been spending a lot more time in their home than usual. She jokingly shares that she is “happy that we have two floors.” But she adds, “It gives us pleasure to be home and remember our trips and adventures, and things that happened to us and the people we met.”
The Stotter’s decision to get a reverse mortgage was one that they were very thoughtful about making. “Well, I’m a worrier, that’s in my DNA. But I’m also an optimist, so that balances it out.
I was worried that our house would be taken from us— you hear all these stories about how you lose your house when you die. But you have to do the research, trust your own intelligence, and who you’re talking to and working with.”
Ruth explains that maintaining their lifestyle and leaving an inheritance to her children was important when making this decision. “I wanted to leave something for our three children. When we got the figures, there was no question that we would be able to leave a nice inheritance to each of our children. And we wouldn’t have to worry about anything and could continue to live the kind of life we’ve always lived.”
Ruth’s tip for anyone considering a reverse is, “Use it wisely.” Like any investment strategy, Ruth explains, “it’s possible that you could screw it up. But why would you do that?” She says, “It’s like you could put all your stocks into one company and invest everything in it, but if it goes down, then who do you blame? That was not a good way to invest. So it’s the same thing. I think with a reverse mortgage, it’s how you use it.” Like the stories that Ruth shares with the children, there’s a thread of ownership to her investment advice.
After speaking with Ruth, it’s easy to see why she’s had so much success as a storyteller. You don’t simply feel inspired, but you leave the conversation feeling energized. She has a way of weaving animated details and insightful moments into her own story that leaves you feel like you have just traveled to her home in northern California and had tea with her on the porch.
You can buy and read Ruth’s books here.