Table of Contents
After performing in Monterey I had the chance once again to give
a weekend workshop at Donald Mathews' Creative Edge. Donald explores
all of life; painting, photography, psychology, the sciences, and
he has made his house a creative sandbox. In that lovely space I
gave a workshop where participants told very moving stories.
On Sunday morning, Amy told a story about her son's suffering with schizophrenia. Amy's story was told with beauty and passion, and for the first time in my life I had an understanding of that illness, and a renewed awareness of how important it is to tell stories. All of us in the workshop were welcomed into a world of pain, struggle and heroism.
I left Monterey deeply moved and thinking of my own son as I flew to Seattle to meet my wife Linda at the airport. Linda had rented a car and we drove to Bellingham, Washington, where our son Ted was completing his creative writing Masters thesis.
Ted was finishing work on a dramatic multi-media presentation of his and other artists' images. He'd spent months raising money, pulling the event together, finding other artists and polishing his poetry. The most affordable space he could find was a large multi-roomed store in a shopping mall. Linda and I spent the week printing words of Ted's poetry onto cloth. We labored an entire afternoon setting up black curtains behind a picture window. Against the black curtain hung an umbrella with a bicycle wheel as the top. Ted's poem "The Umbrella" was projected onto the sheet.
As you entered the store, far ahead was this strange hanging umbrella. As you walked towards it, you would see three projectors showing films; one, a film of Ted's eye, the second of his mouth, and the third of his eye opening and closing as he talked. There were four television sets, each showing a different pair of hands; there were slides projected on the wall, and sculptures of two green men and a pink woman. On the floor were yards of cloth with the words of Ted's poems. It was startling, surprising, fascinating. A wonderfully odd way to bring balance to a mall!
Ted's grand opening was to be at 7:00 on Thursday night, but wewould need to be finished by 4 o'clock so we could hear a fellow student read his short stories. Just as we were about to leave, the films, slide shows and lights went dead. There was an overload and it seemed to me that there was no way to fix it. An electrician from the mall said the only way to handle it would be to plug some of the electronics into the opposite wall, which meant getting long extension cords and running them in the ceiling above. Ted is a cool customer. He got a ladder, pushed up one of the ceiling panels, climbed up, and like a mountain goat in the dark, began to leap from pipe to pipe with the extension cord. If he slipped, he'd come through the ceiling. It took an hour, but he did it. Ted's mountain climbing had come in handy.
At 7:00, a big crowd of students and faculty filled the place. Standing room only. After Ted was introduced in glowing terms by his professor, he began to read his poems. He had to stop at the beginning because he was so moved. He said, "I hadn't expected this to be so emotional."
Our daughter Laura had come from Washington, D.C. We three sat in the front row, reveling in Ted's work. In between reading his poems, Ted talked about how each came to be. He said the mountains of Washington had become part of him and had inspired him. He explained that he was trying to explore the edge between meaning and non-meaning, which made me laugh because that seems a definition of ordinary life. Ted had told me a few months back that his work was a struggle because he's interested in integrating so many things. Poetry, mountain climbing, architecture,the environment, film and the modern novel. Ted said, "There is no name for what I want to do." There is a Peruvian saying about a pilgrimage, "There is no way, there is only the taking of the steps."
Sitting there listening to Ted, Linda, Laura and I were moved and felt an enormous sense of gratitude that we could be there to watch Ted shine. It was a high moment in life for me, certainly the highest moment of the year.
Ted's next step is to try to get a position in Seattle for a year so he can afford to go on studying and pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in order to teach and write.
An excerpt from Ted O'Callahan's
This is dangerous comedy in the opening
a creature, superstition says, sprung from the
coupling of a bike wheel and a kite. Explosive
papery rattling, a kite held by erratic
winds. Wind is disagreement-
hot and cold-tension
of surfaces pulling
and picking. Wind
is the third wheel on a
walk in the rain.
The weekly Writing Workshops I'm conducting fascinate me. The poems and essays that are written on the spot are often stunning. There are phrases, images, and sometimes complete stories that come in the short writing time. For many people, there's a mysterious power about writing on the spot, then hearing each other's writing. People often don't see the beauty of their work until they read it aloud and hear appreciations. I'm indebted to Pat Schneider's writing workshops. Pat's book, The Writer as an Artist, is a gem. You can order it from Pat at 413-253-3307.
I find myself at a mysterious crossroads in my artistic life. In the last ten years I've created and performed several long dramatic stories, written children's books and given workshops. Now I'm not sure what path to take. I will begin the millennium writing Pill Hill stories from January to April. Other things that call are: living in a place of wild beauty for a year, (which would satisfy a desire for a bit of "hiddenness"), learning to draw and paint, giving more workshops, getting involved in social justice activities, and performing in dramatic settings.
On May 26th I arrived at the New England Aquarium at 4:00 to prepare
to tell "The Spirit of the Great Auk" at 7:00. The performance was
to be in a large tent on a terrace in Boston Harbor. On seeing the
size of the tent and hearing the surrounding noise I thought, "This
is one time storytelling just won't work." I warmed up my voice
and heard my words bouncing off the tent walls. There was the whirring
of a giant exhaust system, the groan of ferries docking, the roar
of planes taking off from Logan Airport. I would appear that evening
with Dick Wheeler and Dr. Sylvia Earle, both of whom have been declared
"Heroes of the Planet" by Time Magazine. But the evening wasn't
going to work.
The sound man was helpful, and my wife Linda, encouraging. At 7:00, Jerry Schubel, Director of the New England Aquarium, began the evening. Sylvia Earle and Dick Wheeler both spoke beautifully. People could hear! At 8:00 I took the stage. As I told the story, the sun set, and the tent was filled with orange red light and the smell of the ocean. The planes and ferries became part of the story. Towards the end, as the harbor became dark, I had the feeling that wind, sea, and the earth itself had been listening to the journey of the Great Auk. It was one of the most moving times I've had performing. It reminded me that I'm drawn to dramatic events. Carn-egie Hall would be nice.
When Linda and I left the Aquarium that night, Boston sparkled like a magical city. It had the mystery and charm of Shakespeare's fairy kingdoms. Once again I learned that when something looks all wrong, if you hang in there, it can turn out just right.
Elise Turner is one of the people who have made a great difference
in my life. Elise writes as she lives; she sews things together;
people, ideas, books, possibilities. Years ago, Elise's daughter
Lauren heard my stories on NPR's Spider's Web and told the family
about them. Young Aaron Turner sent me drawings he'd made of characters
in my stories. A few years later Fred, Elise and Aaron drove from
Santa Fe to Denver to attend a two hour workshop I was giving. Fred
Turner, one of America's best writers, is also gracious and elegant.
Aaron, about 12, was clearly a young artist. High delight!
Later, Elise invited Doug Lipman, Christine Shumock and me to do a weekend workshop in Santa Fe. Driving to the airport in the early morning after the workshop, Elise started telling me a story. This was a great step. Elise, community organizer, activist, gatherer, mother, intellectual, had stepped over the line and was creating a story. She's just kept creating but now it's essays and poems exploring the story of life.
Elise grew up in Chattanooga,Tennessee and was kind enough to organize several days of performing for me there. What a time! We stayed at Elise's parents' spacious home. The theater performance turned out to be a great community gathering. That's because Elise was behind it. If Elise stood alone in the Sahara, in an hour's time she'd have a community of hundreds singing, dancing and making sand castles.
Before flying out of Chattanooga, Elise took me to a lovely park. Standing there surrounded by works of art, we laughed about the week, and talked of families and hopes and struggles. It was one of those moments that stays vivid. We are given gifts in life, they are all grace. Elise is one of the high gifts of my life.
We've had a chair out on our walk with a sign saying, "Use the other door." We haven't used our front door in weeks, because while we were in Seattle a robin made a nest in the lilac bush that overhangs the front door. I waited a few weeks and peeked into the nest and there were no eggs. The robin was gone so I assumed it had left and I took the nest down. A few days later there was a new nest there and the robin was back. This time the robin had two babies. She fed them and they are gone now, so if you visit you can use the front door.
In June, I went on an eight day silent retreat at Campion Hall in
Weston, Massachusetts. I was exhausted and slept a good deal and
read Flannery O'Connor. Her letters are a tonic and her stories
are like a strong wind that shakes you until you feel your very
The retreat was filled with long walks, prayer, and a brief daily session with a spiritual director who would suggest a passage from the Bible to concentrate on. I've mulled a great deal on two images of horses in the last two years; a dray and a roan. The dray, a workhorse, feels life is to be plodded through. The roan, slender, and full of life, feels life is to be delighted in. The roan gallops with the ease of the wind. At Connie Regan-Blake's suggestion, I'm imagining the two horses at ease with each other.
Images are gifts. It's sad that we live in a culture often unaware of the beauty and power of images; unless they are advertising images. I'll let you know how the roan and the dray make out.
Next June, Doug Lipman and I, with our Creativity Group, will head for a week-long stay in Provence, France. We will write and create stories and hopefully sketch and paint and wander in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh. This is our boldest adventure!
The modern storyteller is like a parachutist floating down into
a community, where he or she spends a day, a week, or sometimes
a month. For instance, in March I was invited to perform at the
Sioux City Art Center, surely one of the most beautiful art centers
in the country. Paris would be honored to have the center. The inspiration
for the Art Center and the guiding force behind it is Margaret Ann
Everest. Her husband Hubert, who had been part of the worldwide
construction business, was invaluable in seeing the long project
through. Getting to know Margaret and Hubert through the years has
been a joy.
Performing the Pill Hill stories in such a beautiful space was special, but giving a workshop there was even better. I got a chance to meet people, including storytellers and artists from the area, and watch their creativity shine. When the workshop finished, I had a tour of the center and was moved to see the work of high school artists properly framed and on display in one of the rooms. It's so important to encourage creativity and honor the talents of the young.
I toured spaces where people from the community sculpt, paint and draw. This meant a great deal because when I had time I would wander the streets of Sioux City well aware that most of the people with money have left the city. I went to church on Sunday morning, and at the kiss of peace turned and shook hands with a Vietnamese family and a Cambodian family. The large old cathedral, which had almost been torn down, is filled with the songs and the prayers of people who have come to this country to make a new life. The Art Center and the cathedral are two sparks that may light the fire under a blazing new Sioux City, Iowa.
How nice to parachute into an American city where you sense a renaissance is happening.
Bill Starkey and his wife Co Carew visited us from Montana. Both are school counselors, teachers, story lovers and story tellers. Bill ran the Boston Marathon with a computer chip in his shoe which allowed the students back home to follow his progress. After running up the mountains in Montana, Bill found Boston's famous Heartbreak Hill just a bump in the road.
On my way to Belding, Michigan I read of the shootings at Columbine
High School. The story filled me with enormous sadness and horror.
I arrived in Belding with the impression that the whole country
was focused on the two boys who did the killings. The next morning,
on my way to tell stories at an elementary school, I wondered if
I'd be stopped at the entrance while my backpack was searched. Instead,
there was a large sign welcoming me.
I was in Belding because Toni Jagger, Director of the library, had heard me tell "The Herring Shed" at the National Storytelling Festival. Toni is a dynamo. I stayed at the beautiful home of Tom and Barb Fagerlin on the edge of a lake. I've slept at the Ritz; the Fagerlins is better. Four lovely days; they were even kind enough to make vegetarian meals. Amazing grace.
My adult evening performance was at the Belding High School auditorium. There I was, after the Columbine High School shootings, at a high school in the middle of America telling "The Herring Shed," a story about Maggie Thomas, a 14 year old Nova Scotian, and "Politics," about the friendship of two high school freshmen. The lighting and sound for my performance were run by Matt Black, a Belding High sophomore. He was totally professional and a first class listener. Afterward, Matt and I had a chance to talk. He is open to life; to its drama, its hardness, its possibilities. He was terrific. Performing that night in Belding was a healing time for me. Thank you Toni, Tom, Barb and Matt.
I've decided to take January through April to do nothing but write Pill Hill stories. I've long felt that if I write these stories I can touch the character of the boy in a way that I can't telling stories. It's clear to me all solo artists need a great patron so that every 7 years they can take a year off to explore another part of life. Patrons welcome!
Send me yours!
It came with a bang
And turned into so much
Horses, stars and you.
The haystack sits there
Like a man smoking his pipe
Sweetening the air.
Our wild flowers are few
Bits of red, pink and yellow
Like sparks in the grass.
You stagger old bee
In the heart of the sunflower
Are you lost in love?