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Va Pensiero!

 

For several years we've had ceilidhes at our house, small gatherings where people tell stories, sings songs, play the fiddle or just listen. We had a ceilidhe in August to celebrate my birthday. At the end we all sang "Va pensiero," a chorus from Verdi's Nabucco. Anne Wallace Elvins and Peter Elvins, both opera singers, were generous enough to come and lead us.

The chorus, "Va pensiero," is about the Jews' longing for liberation from Babylonian captivity. It is about yearning for freedom. Verdi's chorus helped to unify Italy, to make Italy a nation.

I dream of hundreds of groups all around the world singing "Va pensiero" at the same time. I dream of the chorus sung in Northern Ireland by Catholics and Protestants, of Serbians and Bosnians singing it together, of Arabs and Israelis.

"Va pensiero" unites; we are all on a journey together.

 

 

On The Road With Dick and Jay

 

Dick Wheeler, the hero of my true story, The Spirit of the Great Auk, is profiled in TIME magazine of September 28,1998. Dick and I often work together and it's a joy. I perform the story and Dick gives a slide presentation and workshop-lecture. He also makes the "Nova" film of his trip available. Dick is incredibly knowledgeable about the sea and its plight.

 

 

Courtesy

 

Ah, the beauty of courtesy. On a rainy day in Gray, Maine, I went into a hardware store in search of kindling. Our week of summer vacation was cold and it had rained for days. The man at the counter, a fortyish, dark-haired man with intelligent black eyes, listened in an easy welcoming way. He didn't have any kindling left but asked another customer where I might find some. Nothing could be simpler but I left delighted because the hardware man had given me the gift of attention.

Last fall I was meeting Laura Simms in New York City. I called her from Penn Station and Laura said, "Take the subway and I'll meet you. If you have problems ask; New Yorkers are nice." I went down into the subway and couldn't figure out which of the tunnels to take. Hundreds of people were hurrying by me quick as a gritty wind. I waited a while and picked out a man who looked as if he'd help. "Excuse me," I said, "Could you tell me which train to take uptown?" He stopped. A man in his 60's, a round scholarly face. "Hmm," he said, carefully considering several signs. "Ahh ," he brightened. "Yes. I know." Then he gave me exact directions. Suddenly New York was my neighborhood.

When I was in college I wanted to be an artist and I thought artists were, of necessity, curt and rude. Wrong. An artist can be generous and open hearted. An artist is he or she who creates. There are so many ways to create. One can be an artist directing traffic, teaching a class, performing an operation, coaching a football team, painting a canvas, making a poem or a meal or a quilt or a song. Or one can be an artist just being. In fact, just being is the most demanding art. Michael Parent, friend and storyteller, lives like a flame; he burns each moment. So does my wife, Linda.

Courtesy is the art of giving full attention to another being.

 

 

Images

 

Images have power. For a long time I saw life as dray horse, a work horse with its head down. Life was just a long chore. Then a new image appeared, the image of a roan horse chewing grass on a green field. The roan horse is magical, perfectly at ease in the moment.

Years ago when I left being Dean of the Wyndham School, my wife Linda and I found work at a YWCA, a converted barn on a salt water marsh. We lived a tidal life for seven years. We had very little money but we didn't need much. Our children, like all children, had the roan horse within and they drew stories, characters and rhythms from me. Now they're grown and I'm discovering the roan horse within myself. The image is very powerful for me; it not only cheers but gives me a different way to look at life.

I've known for a long time that when I'm creating a story, an image in the story leads me where I need to go. Now I want to be more conscious of images in daily life. Images are like whispers; we hear them only if we pay attention.

 

 

Family Stories

 

My wife, Linda, loves to hang the laundry out. She can be seen hanging the laundry on bright winter days, on breezy fall days and hot summer days. The laundry is always dancing in the back yard. There is something welcoming and elemental about laundry hanging on the line. It's like cooking over a fire or bathing in a river. Linda is director of the YWCA in Marshfield; she's a leader in the community. She also works in the Artana office and runs the house but no matter how busy she is she finds time to hang the laundry out. All those blouses, towels and dungarees flap like merry flags through every season.

My daughter Laura is now in graduate school at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., getting a Masters in Interpreting. I think Laura got interested in interpreting through storytelling. We used to go to lots of storytelling concerts when the children were small. Laura, fluent in American Sign Language, is eager to read, study and immerse herself in the culture of the Deaf.

My son, Ted, is getting a Masters in Creative Writing at Western Washington University and leading NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) expeditions in the summertime. A poet mountain climber.

 

 

Jackie Torrence

 

I wish Jackie a quick recovery. At this writing Jackie is in the hospital in North Carolina. Jackie is one of the great storytellers in the world. Years ago, Ann Hayden, a Marshfield friend and librarian told me of a conference where Jackie was performing. At a restaurant, a group of men overheard Ann talking about storytelling and the men began to laugh. "Storytelling!" they said derisively. Jackie Torrance stood up and went to the men's table saying, "I'm going to tell you a story." The men knew this lady was not to be trifled with and they listened. When Jackie finished they were open mouthed, chastened and converted.

The first time I saw Jackie was at the Storytelling Conference at Washington College in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I went into the main room and there was Jackie sitting on a couch surrounded by people listening to her; when Jackie talks she tells stories. Jackie has such power, she creates a domain. She can be telling to two people or five thousand, its all the same; some mysterious force comes from Jackie, opens its invisible arms and draws you in. And once drawn in you don't leave. Jackie's timing is perfection, her sense of humor is so sharp it even makes Jackie laugh, her stories move you like an inner earthquake.

Some years ago, Jackie was flying from Seattle to New York City to perform with me that night at Lincoln Center. She was in the airport, at the gate, when they cancelled the plane. Jackie sat at the airport with no way to get to New York on time. She struck up a conversation with a man and told him of her plight. The man was enthralled by Jackie and said he'd fly her. He did. She told. She was great.

Thank you Jackie for being the great wonder that you are. Get better soon, a whole world needs to hear your stories.

 

 

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The Prophetic Imagination

 

I keep coming back to Walter Brueggemann's book, The Prophetic Imagination, in which Brueggemann says, "We have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary." He goes on to say, "We have no arenas in which serious hopefulness can be brought to articulation."

I like to think of storytellers as prophets of hope but am aware nothing infuriates a narrow critic like suggesting there is hope. One Boston critic metaphorically jumped up and down with rage at a story of mine that suggested hope. I see that critic as a priest of the status quo.

We are caught in a culture of consumerism. It seems to me we have not acknowledged our plight. One of the jobs of an artist is to criticize the dominant consciousness and offer an alternative. Brueggemann says that grief and amazement are ways to break through hopelessness, to break through a culture that says, "Nothing can be done. This is the way it is."

I often see the hopelessness in school children. Through the second or third grade there is usually freedom, creativity and playfulness in the classroom. After that that spirit can be leeched out of children and they begin to think they are in school not to learn and be creative but to be on a production ladder. Then a hopelessness sets in. My daughter Laura got all A's in school but deeply resented the philosophy that children are products.

For the most part we deny our hopelessness. For indeed it is scary to hope. Hope challenges sleepfulness. Hope awakes us to the fact that things can be totally different. We can create. We can be allies for one another and allies with the earth itself. We can find ways to be allies with the oppressed in our cities and neighborhoods. We can play and sing and grieve and be amazed. We can look at our history honestly and honor those Native Americans who lived on this land long before we came.

Hope Magazine, of Brooklin, Maine, is writing about people and events that challenge the status quo and awaken awe and a sense of possibility. Call them at 800-273-7447.

 

 

Summer Ritual

 

Every summer day at 6 pm, Linda and I go to Humarock Beach where our friends, Joe and Deena Beals, greet us. The beach may be crowded with scores of people but usually there is no one in the water because it's freezing. Joe and I leap in and float about telling stories, then come out so cold we have supper with our winter coats on. It's a wonderful ritual.

 

 

Tom Weakley

 

As I write this I look foward to seeing Tom Weakley at the National Storytelling Fesitval. He is superb. A craftsman, an artist, a man of humor and all lit with compassion.

 

 

Storytelling Quilt

 

Margaret Holtschlag, a fourth grade teacher in Michigan plays the cassette of Raspberries to her students each year and has them make drawings of the story on paper squares. She then sews the squares into a quilt which after many years has grown very large. Rassssbeeeriesssssssssss! Thanks, Margaret.