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A Secret of Life

 

One Friday night I sat with workshop participants at "Alice's House," a retreat house on the Atlantic. I wanted us to be open to the mystery of being together. I made a commitment to be open to that mystery myself.

I read aloud some of Lao tzu's Tao Te Ching, or Book of The Way, which talks of being open to the flow of life. That night, one of the participants told of sitting on a second floor porch one evening when she was a little girl. Her parents ran a general store that was the front of her house. Her brother was naughty and had been sent inside where he was making a game of lighting matches and candles. When he was called back out to the porch he felt guilty and put the candles in the closet. It wasn't long before a terrific fire started. The corridors were filled with fire. She remembered running down the fiery stairs with her brother.

We decided to act the scene out. Some participants were fishing rods and clothing in the general store, talking about customers they'd seen in the day. Others were the smoke and fire. Two others were the girl and her brother. The scene came so alive that we could hear and feel the flames. The room was transformed.

Creating A Scene
Creating A Scene: Carol Kerman, Polly Nordahl, Kathleen, Lomatoski and Wesley MacMillan in a creativity workshop
Acting the scene out was alive. We paid attention to the flow. We jumped into the mystery of the present, of trying something unexpected. We all took a risk. The weekend was full of such moments.

Life is condensed in a weekend workshop. Trust blossoms. Creativity bubbles if we're open to the mystery.

It's harder to find mystery in daily life. Last June I arrived home after two months of performing and workshops and remembered we had to go to a neighborhood block party that afternoon. My first reaction was a desire for quiet and rest. Then I remembered committing myself to mystery in the workshops. Why not try that daily? Off Linda and I went to the block party.

It was a beautiful afternoon on curvy Old Mount Skirgo Road. Pot luck salads and desserts sat on tables on the Trouts' lawn. Paul Kaufman grilled hot dogs and hamburgs. The kids biked down the street which was blocked off by an ingenious neighbor.

Carolyn Norris, who grew up with my children, told me a story about herself. Carolyn had a week of vacation coming up and decided to spend it with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds houses for the poor. She scanned the web, found out Habitat for Humanity was building a house in Atlanta just that week so she got a hammer and flew on down. There's being open to the mystery!

A neighborhood picnic on Old Mt. Skirgo Road.
We Had Reason To Celebrate: A neighborhood picnic on Old Mt. Skirgo Road. Photo by Shirley Trout.
As neighbors gathered under the blue sky I reflected that we had reason to celebrate. We've fought for four years to prevent a developer from ruining our neighborhood. Shirley Trout who battled cancer and now, in her seventies, has opened a yarn shop in Duxbury. Ben Norris, who's just graduated from Virginia Military Institute was telling us of parachuting. All these neighbors open to the mystery.

I still wake up grouchy but now I know one of the secrets of life. Be open to the mystery.

Whether the work is completely successful, or whether you get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese sword men who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel.

-Flannery O'Connor

 

 

 

"Don't Do It Jay, They Have Metal Teeth"

 

I asked a number of lawyers for advice before giving workshops to Cook County Public Defenders in Chicago. Several said don't do it. Why? Because, they said, lawyers are too logical, too hard boiled, too cynical. I had an image of going down a dark tunnel into a room filled with people with metal teeth. They were going to tear me apart.

I was invited by Jack Carey, a visionary lawyer, a public defender in Cook County. Jack goes to the National Storytelling Festival every year and felt that public defenders could serve their clients better if they could tell their clients' stories in such a way that the jurors could "get inside their minds." Jack wanted the lawyers to feel free to use the space, to go right up to the jury and tell them the story. He wanted them to take the stage.

The night before the workshop, the lawyers came to the American Theater Company in Chicago to watch a performance of "Pouring the Sun." They were an attentive audience but they kept their laugher to themselves. So I couldn't tell if it worked. I didn't sleep well. I kept thinking of different approaches and different ideas. The next morning I set out for a walk on Michigan Boulevard wishing I were doing the workshop with a friend. Downtown Chicago cheered me. Huge concrete flower boxes adorned the sidewalks.

The workshop was held at the Cook County administrative office, just opposite a giant Picasso sculpture. It made me laugh. I began the workshop talking about how playful Picasso's steel sculpture was. That's its beauty and its daring. "You know the law," I said. "You know the facts of your cases. I'm here to help you give the facts an understandable shape."

These lawyers are defending clients accused of murder, drug dealing, robbery . . . very serious work. The paradox is that creativity is serious but playful. It requires openness. The lawyers were up to it. They were willing to play with detail, imagery, voice, movement and shaping a clear story.

It was very moving to hear why they had become public defenders. One woman said, "I help people society feels are under serving . . . I give hope." Another said, "It's the one place you can question the police." Another said, "I have a realistic view of life, but I feel I'm defending the Constitution." And finally a woman named Brady said, "I like to fight for people who have everything stacked against them." I was proud to work with these people and proud to give the powerless some chance against the state.

After two days my work was done. I felt changed. I think we all did. They did beautiful work. I was so elated and exhausted I got on the wrong train. I want to thank Jack Carey and Les Lehr for all they did.


Himalayan Journal

 

My son, Ted, and my daughter, Laura, spent five weeks climbing the Himalayas. Here are some excerpts from Laura's journal.

April 5th 6:10 P.M.
Wow, this was a huge day. It was hard. We got up at 4:30, out at 6:30 and walked up for 8 1/2 hours. We started in trees, rocks, ice and then we're up high in the snow for most of the day. We went 5,000 feet up, over two passes. We were in the clouds, amazing. Climatizing means being out of breath all the time. My pack weighs 60 pounds, but it felt like 100. We went up and up and up, extremely steep slopes forever. Lots of inner strength used today, because every piece of me hurts. We got to camp at 4:30 and made dinner, set up house, and now we're inside the tents. Up at 15,000 feet on the pass, it was cold and windy and no visibility. I didn't know if I'd make it. But I did. We all made it. This was an incredibly hard day, but I'm excited. We're in the Himalayas.

April 6th, afternoon.
Zonked. Everybody's doing okay. Headaches, mucousy, achy and tired. Every day I wonder if I'll be strong enough to do the day. Today makes me feel like no. Ted is great and encouraging.

April 7th 5:58 P.M.
This morning was cold and snowy. Up at 5:30 out at 7:30. Lots of up and down, and a huge, long down. My legs were trembling and my feet hurt from all the downs. 8 hour day. I'm done at about 6, 6 1/2, so the last hour or two is always hard. Lots of pep talks to myself. One of the porters picked up Ted's pack and couldn't believe it. About 80 pounds. Not his heaviest, but heavy for here. I think Ted may become a legend. Most trekkers carry nothing, have three meals a day cooked for them, tents set up, a dining tent with tables, an outhouse. We're seen as very odd to be doing what we're doing. Good to be odd.

Everything hurts. We saw a few avalanches on our right side.

Laura and Ted at 20,000 feet.
Laura and Ted at 20,000 feet.


April 9th 5:06 P.M.
It's snowing, pretty and quite different from the clear, sunny morning. Every muscle is sore. I coughed most of the night last night. We're high up already and the air is thin and dry. We're sitting in cold, windy snow. Ted is endlessly patient. A good teacher. We're doing well. I'm learning a lot. I'm excited to be here. Wish I was stronger. But it seems I always do.

April 11th 3:53 P.M.
I love my sleeping bag.

Today at 12:30 we headed up. We got to snow pretty fast, and up on ice. Beautiful staircases of lacy ice, up that and over one crevasse. Then straight up snow steps to a vast ocean of bright, white snow. We're at 17,800 feet now. Walking means going slow. Sap speed I call it, slow as humanly possible. Breathing is shallow and difficult. At times gulping for air, which causes slight panic and more gulping.

We're at high camp 19,000 feet, in a sheltered rock. It's luxury to be on rock, but I'm freezing. We're melting snow for water in the morning. Dinner was lasagna. Before that, today, I've eaten 2 pop tarts, a candy bar and some Tang. Last night was the first time I was warm.

April 15th 4:48 P.M.
This morning I had the most scary experience of my entire life. We camped in a big valley and this morning I went to gather water at about 6:15. I had to break the ice and my hands were cold but the water was clear. A large helicopter had been flying around the area and Marakeep for about 20 minutes. Suddenly, as I'm kneeling at the stream, about 75 yards from the three tents and 8 other people, I hear and feel a helicopter begin to land near me. I turned and the sun is in my eyes so I can't see, but I know it's landing. I can't believe this is happening to me. I stand, I scream and run. I'm sure they don't see me and are going to land on me. As I move, the helicopter follows, now just 10 feet up and huge enough to carry many people. I'm screaming and running and still can't believe this is happening. It feels like I'm running for my life. Finally they're so close I can see the pilot, who tells me to duck down. I do, still screaming and terrified and freezing now with the wind and my icy hands. I look at the 3 men in the helicopter as they motion to me to go into the helicopter. I scream "No, what do you want?" I can hear nothing since the chopper is so loud. They won't leave so I go up to the chopper but not inside. One man shows me a Sherpa name and screams he's from search and rescue. I shake my head no and ask if I should go ask our Sherpa, but I don't think he heard me and I don't know if he spoke English. I said "no" again and they motioned me down and finally left. All I could do is cry and scream, I was so terrified. By now my hands were shaking fiercely both from fear and extreme cold. Ted came over and put my hands under his armpits and crouched with me while I screamed and cried. Ted was shaken. We got back to camp. I just curled up in the snow, crying, and made my way to the kitchen and sat just crying and staring Ted hugged me lots and I drank hot water. All through the day I was on edge though, on the verge of tears.

April 16th 5:34 P.M.
Today was gorgeous. I think I've never been this cold for this long.

It's funny what we consider fun. Wearing a heavy backpack, being constantly cold, struggling with a little stove that just won't work, eating dried foods and being cold, cold, cold. Strange, but I keep doing it so I must like it.

Note from Laura: We did about 120 miles, and we attempted three peaks and a pass. We got up to a little over 20,000 feet three times. Everybody was safe.

 

 

Kevin O'Marah

 

Kevin O'MarahPart of the terrible mystery of life is loss. Two years ago, my brother-in-law, Kevin O'Marah, died suddenly. I wish you had known him. Kevin was brilliant, dramatic, charismatic and full of fun. Other than the Mrs. Lawrence of my stories, he had the most interesting voice I've ever heard.

Kevin told me once that he always finished strong. He graduated Cum Laude from Harvard, and then went to Harvard Architectural school. Kevin wasn't going to go to the graduation, but found out that he had finished first in his class and was being given a special award, so he went. His architectural business flourished and so did his family. My sister Sheila and Kevin raised three extraordinary children. They, along with Sheila, are carrying on with imagination, courage and good humor, in the extraordinary tradition of Kevin O'Marah.

 

 

In Brief

ray hicks
Ray Hicks

 

* Ray Hicks, who was honored as a national treasure by the Smithsonian Institution, has advanced cancer. When Robert McNeil did his PBS program on the English language, he included Ray Hicks. Ray and Rose have made their living off the land. Ray is very sick and needs help. If you want to help, donations can go to: Ray and Rose Hicks Fund, International Storytelling Center, Attn: Abbey Miller, 116 West Main Street, Jonesborough, TN 37659.

* Fran Yardley's CD and cassette, Beyond My Father's Shadow is the work of a fine artist. E-mail: parkyard-fran@ northnet. orgkn

* Bravo Theo Page, artist, who left her paints and told a story about Rhode Island at the National Storytelling Conference in Providence, Rhode Island.

* One of the delights of my storyteller year was to perform and give a mini-workshop in Dean Maguire's Education for Hope at Holy Cross College. Dean Maguire is one of the finest teachers I've known.

Patricia Davidson
Patricia Davidson
* Patricia Davidson, Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Service Support Services at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is an extraordinary teacher, administrator, leader. My wife and I attended her retirement party and were moved by the extraordinary tributes. Pat is one of those leaders who gives confidence and courage to all who come in contact with her.

* Marni Gillard's Story Studio sponsors workshops. She's dreaming of housing the Story Studio in a beautiful building in downtown Schenectady. Marni, author, leader, storyteller, singer, is daring to dream. Maybe you can help with the dream. E-mail: Marnigil@ aol. com

* We Need Your E-mail. Please e-mail us your e-mail so we can let you know when exciting things come up! E-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

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