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VAN GOGH'S GREEN FIRE

 

Linda and I spent a week in Paris in June. You have to appreciate a people who love good bread. And coffee. And cheese. And wine. And dessert. I had the best jelly donut of my life in Paris. It was as big as a child's catcher's mitt, the dough still warm, the sugar crystals like little diamonds and the strawberry jelly beyond the beyond. We took boat rides on the Seine, mastered the metro, walked narrow streets, went to concerts, strolled Luxembourg Gardens and dined so late with poet Carol Burnes, the waiters were yawning when we left.

One morning, Linda and I took the train, north of Paris, to Auvers where Van Gogh spent the last ten weeks of his life. Arriving before nine in the morning we asked a brasserie (cafe restaurant) proprietor if we could have breakfast. "Oui!" he said brightly. So I said, "Je voudrais une omelette." "Non!" he said pointing to his watch. An omelette at nine in the morning. So early! Absurd. So we enjoyed a baguette with cafe au lait, after which we walked up a curving road in search of Van Gogh's grave. We passed the old stone church he painted so magnificently. Upwards we walked, noticing there was no sidewalk. Ah ha! They had not prettied it up for tourists. The town graveyard at the top of the hill is still surrounded by the green wheat fields Van Gogh loved and painted. It took a bit of searching, but we found two ivy covered graves against a tall brick wall. The marking on the grave stones was simple: ICI REPOSE VINCENT VAN GOGH 1853-1890. ICI REPOSE THEODORUS VAN GOGH 1857-1891. Theodorus,Van Gogh's younger brother, was Vincent's closest friend and supporter.

Jay in a wheat field Auvers, France, near Van Gogh's grave
Jay in a wheat field Auvers, France, near Van Gogh's grave. Photo by Linda O'Callahan

Standing under a threatening gray sky, I said a prayer of thanksgiving for the beauty Vincent and Theo brought into the world.

Later we went into the inn where Van Gogh had stayed those last weeks of his life. A young woman guide led us into the small attic room where Van Gogh slept and where he lay dying after he'd shot himself on 26 July 1890. The room was about eight by eight, the plaster walls cracked. The only light came from a small skylight. The guide swept her hand out saying, "His bed was here. A chair and table there." The room is bare. Only imagination furnishes it now.

We returned to Paris and went to the Van Gogh room at D'Orsay Museum. On one wall hangs a painting Van Gogh did of his bedroom in 1888, two years before coming to Auvers. It's a warm, restful bedroom with a red blanket on a neatly made bed. There are two simple sturdy looking chairs, yellow pillows and paintings on the wall. The bedroom floor boards are brown with a bit of green. All is calm in the painting except for the window frame which is a compelling dark green. I have a sense that Van Gogh felt he had to choose between sitting in the restful bedroom or looking out the green framed window. He chose the green frame and looked into the green fire of life. Van Gogh saw into the dancing nature of things; cypress trees,
sunflowers, olive trees, thatched roofs, wheat fields, and people. He saw everything charged, in motion, vibrant.

A Van Gogh self portrait hangs on the wall across from the painting of his bedroom. In the self portrait, Van Gogh wears a green blue jacket that looks as alive as a churning sea. Curved greens lines emanate like fire from the figure. Van Gogh is no longer looking at the green fire; he is in it.

In one of Van Gogh's last letters to his brother, Theo, he wrote of painting three more canvases, "They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness." That loneliness became too great a burden.

Van Gogh was a man who explored the depths of life. His letters, which I read in college, inspired me to take the storyteller's path.

 

 

MAGIC TENT PEGS

 

The day before the Illinois Storytelling Festival, a ball field surrounded by neatly cut grass sat empty on a morning in July. The sun was out and a few birds were flying about, but otherwise it was deserted. A truck arrived and soon spikes were driven into the sandy earth to hold huge tents; yellow and white and blue and white. Friday night we tellers told for the volunteers and each other and that caused trouble for me. I woke in the middle of the night angry and upset I hadn't told a new story I'd been working hard on. I lay awake for a long time berating myself for not taking a risk and suddenly thought: That's small potatoes. What's important is I'm here and I'll be telling shortly with my daughter Laura at my side. A gift! This work, these people. It's all a gift.

Saturday morning, people arrived in a steady stream. Jim May, artistic director, a man with a genius for creating community, introduced the first teller and all was transformed.

Laura and Jay O' Callahan performing "The Spirit of the Great Auk" at the Illinois Storytelling Festival.
Laura and Jay O' Callahan performing "The Spirit of the Great Auk" at the Illinois Storytelling Festival.
Photo by Linda O'Callahan

For me, the Illinois Storytelling Festival, in Spring Grove, was one of the joyful events in my life. Beth Horner introduced me with dash and flourish. Ah, the beauty and delight of a good emcee.


I took the stage to tell "The Spirit of the Great Auk" with my daughter, Laura, who was interpreting the story for the Deaf, beside me. It was my children who "listened me into being a storyteller" and now Laura and I were telling "Auk" together. Two months ago Laura had received her master's degree from Gallaudet University. Laura went on to Chicago to intern with the amazing Donna Reiter Brandwein, co-founder of Sign on Stage. Laura lived with "Auk" for months just as I had and that day, under the tent, I could feel Laura's grace expanding the story.

"Auk" is a modern odyssey, a story of Dick Wheeler's 1500 mile kayak journey in which he discovered how unbalanced humans' relationship with nature is. It is also a story of how humans can begin to listen to the natural world. When Laura and I finished the story, the audience stood and applauded. A stirring moment for us both.

Dick Wheeler and Laura and Jay O' Callahan at Illinois Storytelling Festival.
Dick Wheeler and Laura and Jay O' Callahan at Illinois Storytelling Festival.
Photo: Linda O'Callahan
When the audience quieted I welcomed Dick Wheeler to the stage. Standing on stage with Dick and Laura, and my wife Linda in the front row, I was awed by the mystery of life and its gifts. Laura and Linda are sheer gifts and so is Dick. They have come into my life and made it vastly richer. The weekend was filled with stories told by superb storytellers; it was also full of singing, talking, laughter, tears. . .wonder.

Monday morning, after the festival, business manager, marvelous Karen Wollscheid, poured sand into the holes where the tent pegs had been. When the last hole was filled, all trace of the festival was gone. It looked as if it hadn't happened. But it had. And it was magic.

Laura O'Callahan receiving her Masters degree at Gallaudet University.
Laura O'Callahan receiving her Masters degree at Gallaudet University.

 

A WILD PARADE

 

One of the high moments at the National Storytelling Conference in July was the glorious, wild parade of storytellers down Main Street in Jonesborough, Tennessee. We were headed around the corner to the tent where awards would be presented.

Storytellers on parade with Glen Morrow drumming in center.
Storytellers on parade with Glen Morrow drumming in center. Photo: Jay O'Callahan

People were dressed in sheets, interesting rags and had balloons for hats. We all danced down the street, and no sooner got into the tent, then the dancing began again; in the tent, on the sidewalk, on the grass. I danced with Lorna Stengel who dances like Isadora Duncan. The hills watched and began to bounce.

The most moving moment of awards night was Max Reinhart's eloquent speech accepting his late wife's, J.J. Reneaux, Storytelling Excellence Award. After Max, their son, Jack, spoke. Jack was fighting off tears when Max simply put his arms around him, giving Jack the courage to go on. And finally, their daughter, Tess, spoke of her mother and Tess told us that she hoped to be a storyteller like her Mom.

Mike Myers, who is famed for his generosity, was the first to submit J.J.'s name for the Excellence Award.

When Glenn Morrow accepted his New England Regional Leadership award, he spoke of storytellers as fireflies. There is mystery and beauty in the whole community of storytellers, and in a five day conference, there were hundreds of firefly moments. Syd Lieberman accepting his Circle of Excellence Award, looking like a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The glow on Bonnie Greenberg's face as she told me of an emerging story. The circle Bill Grimmette, and the National Association of Black Storytellers, formed Saturday morning of three hundred storytellers holding hands. The presence of Brother Blue and Ruth Hill. A laughing walk on the golf course with Pam McGrath, co-counseling with Marni Gillard and Connie Dodge.

Late Saturday night, after the awards ceremony, Donald and Merle Davis came back into the hotel, and the graciousness they brought to the whole event swirled around them.

Just watching the parade of all of those storytellers made me realize what an extraordinary community it is.

 

 

WARNING: THE CURRENT IS STRONG IN BANFF

 

Driving with Peter Poole and Nan Hughes is an exciting experience. Peter is Director of Arctos and Bird, a newly formed company dedicated to bringing past and present together in Banff, Canada. Peter will be laughing about the ups and downs of getting a PhD at MIT, or telling a story about an environmental battle he's in, and suddenly his eyes will be alive and he'll say, "Look! A red tailed hawk!" In the back seat, Nan Hughes will be making up a lovely song for their daughter, Irene.

I was in Banff to tell "The Spirit of the Great Auk" at the Banff Arts Center. Standing in the center of Banff you are surrounded by the Rockies. Their energy is so powerful, I could feel an electric current running through me.

Peter told me that in late July the Tiger Salamanders must cross the Trans-Canadian highway on their annual trek. That's a long journey for a tiny salamander. A friend of Peter's organized a group to slow the traffic down so the salamanders could make it. Hats off to them!

Why has no one written a symphony to the Tiger Salamander? Or to the glorious cod! It's odd no one has written a symphony for the cod.

Peter and Nan are spirited people, who gather folks to work together with the earth. If you go to Banff, I hope you get to meet Peter who glows with the current of the Rockies, and Nan who sings with the orchestras of the world.

 

 

What We Can Do To Help Mother Earth

 

Jim Decker of the Double Deckers, marvelous storytellers in Illinois, suggested:

  1. Recycle
  2. Plan your shopping so that you drive downtown only once.
  3. Walk instead of drive. Even if you walk only once or twice a week instead of drive, that would be helpful.
  4. Buy locally.
  5. Garden organically.
  6. Eat what's in season.
  7. Vote. Particularly vote for local candidates who will help the environment..
  8. And I would add, Spend some time looking at a rock or a leaf.

OVER DEVELOPMENT

 

We live on a quiet, curvy road called Old Mount Skirgo. The fourteen houses are all on the right hand side of the street because the left hand side is town owned land, part of the aquifer. The land behind us is one of the last large areas of wild space in Marshfield. In the hundred acres, there are deer, red foxes, wild turkeys, coyotes, owls and other birds. Three years ago, a developer wanted to build a huge road off of Old Mount Skirgo leading into an eight house development. We realized that eventually our street would become a shortcut to the highway and as many as two hundred cars a day would use our street. The neighborhood would be ruined, unsafe, noisy, and its beauty lost to the town. We fought and temporarily won. Now the developer is back, wanting to build as many as a hundred houses.

The development raises huge questions, not just for our street or town, but for this country. How do we preserve wild space? What's important in life? How do we fight back against people or corporations who have a great deal of money and power? When I'm telling "The Spirit of the Great Auk," I'm thinking of these questions. So I guess it's good to be facing them in my own back yard. We're meeting at our house with neighbors and mapping strategy. Wish us luck.

 

 

KISS THE JOY AS IT FLIES - BLAKE

 

Doug Lipman and I spent a week in Provence, France leading a creativity workshop with people who have become dear friends. We sketched, painted, and created stories. We struggled with the creative process and grew closer. We also ate gloriously,and took long walks and bike rides past poppy fields and laden cherry trees. There were two wondrous moments that week. One, a picnic just outside Maison de Sante de Saint-Remy, the asylum, where Van Gogh spent a year of his life. There was a peacefulness about that picnic which was as perfect as a child's smile. The second was standing in a circle under a starry sky singing and talking of the week we'd had. A picnic, a circle. In those moments we touched eternity.

The perfect picnic.
The perfect picnic. Photo: Jay O'Callahan



IN BRIEF

 

* Michael Parent has completed recording, "Chantons, Let's Sing in French and English," a collection of traditional French songs that he and Greg Boardman, ace fiddler, have put together. The songs are alternately sung in French and English, good for singing along and learning some French.

* Diane Rooks, of St. Augustine, Florida, is doing hospice work. She's written a book, Spinning Gold Out of Straw, showing how she and others use stories in the healing process.

* Judith Black gave a smash keynote at the National Interpreters Conference and is now training National Park Interpreters in the U.S. and Canada. Judith is also working on a story about death, (a comedy, of course,) and may be the announcer for the football games at Marblehead High School, in Massachusetts this year. Judith's son, Solomon, is co-captain. See you at the game.

* Bert MacCarry has finished, A Storyteller's Guide To Ireland,a book she's spent years writing. It's about the ancient myths of Ireland and describes the geographic locations of the myths.

* One of the high delights of storytelling in Sioux City, Iowa, is finishing a performance and having an elegant supper at the home of Margaret Ann and Hubert Everest. Worthy of Paris.

* Jo Radner is interested in creating true stories of life in Maine and also in forming a network of of Maine storytellers. You can reach Jo at.207-925-6244 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

* Susan O'Halloran, Antonio Sacre and La'Ron Williams', video "Tribes & Bridges," is available at: www.racebridges.net, or (847) 869-4081. It is a story theater presentation exploring race relations and diversity.

* My son Ted has just finished leading a month long expedition in the Alaskan wilderness and is beginning a PhD program at the University of Denver.

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