Jay O'Callahan's Newsletter

Fall, 2002


Table of Contents



Norwegians In The Attic


I've been creating new stories about Pill Hill, the neighborhood I grew up in. There are four stories, The Pill Hill Quartet. They've been wild fun to create.


Illustration by Devera Ebrenberg
Illustration by Devera Ebrenberg

These new stories started two years ago when I was thinking about the time a vacuum cleaner salesman went to our Pill Hill neighbor, Mrs. Lawrence, to sell a vacuum. The salesman had never met anyone who talked to her dog in ancient Greek. The salesman was way over his head. The last line of the new story made me laugh out loud. When I told it to my brother-in-law, Chip Steimle, he laughed even harder. Electra was born!


Hot on the heels of Electra came the desire to capture some of the delightful eccentricity of the Lawrence household. There were Norwegians in the attic, a boa constrictor on the loose, roofers ever appearing on the stairway with tar to fix leaks that grew larger when the roofers left. Helge, one of the Norwegian graduate students, would sit his near seven foot body down at the piano and sing the Mikado while another of the Norwegians would sing Chiquita Banana. I wrote Equations and sent it to Esquire magazine. The editor said it was was "wonderful, funny, singing and smart," but wondered if I'd thought the concept of equations through. In time I did. Two short new Pill Hill stories were bubbling along.


In Sacramento, California, my old Pill Hill friend, Russ Wyluda reminded me of two roguish things we did in high school. From those memories came a new story called Muddy River High. I went to high school at the height of the cold war. Many of the teachers behaved like cold warriors. The Russians had sent up a satellite called Sputnik and it had the nation trembling. Our high school definitely needed to laugh. Russ and I helped out.


Illustration by Devera Ebrenberg
Illustration by Devera Ebrenberg

And finally, A Good Nights' Rest. When I was seventeen years old I desperately needed a bike in the middle of the night to get to my summer job in Boston at 4:30 am. My bike had a flat and so I went across to the Lawrences to borrow one. I don't want to spoil the story but Mrs. Wallace was staying at the Lawrence's to get a good night's rest.


These stories have been such fun to develop and tell. Here I am at home creating stories about the home of my childhood. I have the advantage of having good listening friends, and the laughter of my brother-in-law, Chip Steimle. Devera Ehrenberg has created illustrations that capture the spirit of those stories. Devera was in the studio audience when I recorded them and it was my pleasure to see her laughing.


Devera has done two New Yorker covers and I love her work. Kay Dunlap is a terrific copy editor. Sue Ladr, magician with design, has put it all together. And in my office, Sue Desmond kept it all on track.


You too have all those stories inside you. Begin with a character or memory or a feeling. You can develop them going to work. Tell them to a good listener. And it's wise to say you just want a listener or maybe appreciations but don't let them "fix things" when they are emerging. You don't fix a new story any more than you look at a brand new baby and say "Nice, but can she talk." No, you say. "Wonderful! A miracle!"


Time Is Curved


I write this on a summer evening. I came back home after a dip in the ocean and paused to look at a curve in our road. The curve seemed part of eternity. Our street is one of the oldest in Marshfield. The curves were probably part of a path started in the 1600s. Or the curves may have been part of a trail of the Wampanoag Tribe. In the 1700s the trail became a dirt road for the first two houses, ours and the Norris's house next door.


The house by the curve is the Norris's house. For years their yard has been full of life. Jessie is in high school and often practices soccer in the yard. Young Jake is often roller blading or riding his bike around that curve. April Norris might be pushing a carriage while Sue Norris is looking after all the family.


The next house is Bud and Shirley Trout. Shirley retired from teaching years back and she and Bud bought a huge camper and traveled as far north as Newfoundland. They skied in the winter. Bud took skiing up in his sixties and was happy to reach eighty because then the ski lift was free.


A few weeks ago Sue Norris came over to my yard with tears in her eyes. "Shirley just died," Sue said. "She was like a mother as well as a friend." Shirley got cancer six years ago and after chemotherapy began a yarn shop in Duxbury, the next town. Shirley was a hero to me. She kept going with such spirit. She was always part of neighborhood gatherings. In our annual clean up campaign, Shirley wore a mosquito netting hat while the rest of us got bitten.


Shirley and Bud Trout and Sue Norris were part of a long effort to keep our street from being permanently changed by a development scheme. Over a period of several years, we'd meet at our house and discuss strategy. We miss Shirley.


There are new neighbors, Dave and Kristen, in the last house on our street. They've just had a baby. Hopefully, in time the baby will be riding a bike around the curve.

Eriko, Wataeu, Yoko and Carl Kay from Japan  visit the curve on our road.
Eriko, Wataeu, Yoko and Carl Kay from Japan
visit the curve on our road.



Go To Your Room!


Maria MacArthur sent this letter. I couldn't resist passing it on.


April 18, 2001


Dear Jay,


You are like an old friend to me. And we have never met! Yet here I am writing you a letter, something rarely done these days.


I've been a mostly full-time at-home parent for the past 10 years and you have accompanied me on most of that journey. My son listened to Herman & Marguerite every day on the way home from nursery school. My daughter goes to sleep to Petrukian almost every night. Whenever I have found myself in a minivan held captive by screaming, rowdy kids, I have popped in one of your tapes. I have been visited by the spirits of my deceased grandmothers (one French, one a proper lady) while listening to Tulips and Orange Cheeks. I have found forgiveness and understanding for my chronic tardiness by listening to "Brian."


It was Christmas, and the gifts had been opened, we'd taken our annual Christmas hike, and the kids were spent. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon and, at ages 5 & 9, they'd long since given up naps. Like tired children do, they began to fight. As the bickering escalated I responded with the universal motherly cry of "Go to your rooms!" Then popping in their new tapes (every Christmas stocking includes a Jay O'Callahan tape if possible) I implored them to lie down and rest. A gentle quiet took over the house but not for long. Slowly but surely your voice increased in volume coming from both rooms until you were fighting with yourself to be heard. The triumph of children over adults. They had found a way to continue their willful struggle. And you were each of their champions!!


Thank you for your gifts. My best to you and your family.

Maria MacArthur


Enlightened Writing Group


Every Tuesday I lead a writing group. I suggest an idea, an object, an image or experience and we write for as long as an hour. We read and appreciate what's alive in each piece.


The creativity astonishes me. One person writes with the fluidity of a jazz musician, another creates whole worlds, a lawyer writes chapters of his novel. Still another delves into her past and touches deep sadness in the lives of people she's known. Poems, songs and scenes flow freely.


Recently as we were writing, there was a wild summer storm. Barbara Wall read what she had written and another Barbara said, "That writing is like the storm outside. You should go and stand in the rain."

Barbara Wall got up and went out and stood in the rain with the thunder crackling and the lightning flashing just above. I was afraid she'd be zapped, but she came back shining. We never can tell what will happen in the writing group.


"Enlightened" Photo by Wiesy MacMillan
Photo by Wiesy MacMillan

A Joy To Work With Flora


In June I led the Storytelling Institute at East Tennessee State University. The participants were ready to explore the craft in every way. Tom Banaszewski, of Somerville, Massachusetts, told the group about being in a championship baseball game when he was nine years old. He got a hit and never forgot that game. Tom described the field, the parents in the stands and the advertisements that lined the outfield.


Dr. Flora Joy
Dr. Flora Joy

In order to get a sense of place, we reenacted the scene. One group became the clouds floating overhead. Three different groups became the advertisements, while another became the parents in the stands. Jim Gregory became a glorious sun as Tom came up to bat. Larry Kelly was so real as a tobacco chewing advertisement, I thought he'd spit. Dr. Joseph Sobol, Coordinator for the ETSU Storytelling Master's Degree Program, picked up his guitar and led us in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The room was transformed. We were at the game.


All this was made possible by Dr. Flora Joy, who created the Storytelling Institute. Flora has received just about every imaginable award including the Lifetime Achievement from the National Storytelling Network. Seeing Flora Joy in action was like watching a dolphin in the Pacific. She's fun, imaginative, efficient and about as bright as you can get.




Want Two Great Caretakers?

"We're ready!"
"We're ready!"


My daughter, Laura, and her sweet- heart, Derry Mason, are moving back to the New England area. Laura interprets for the Deaf, leads expeditions for NOLS and Outward Bound, and is an illustrator. Derry is an outdoor educator and NOLS leader who has just finished several very successful years developing the Outdoor Program at Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey.

They are looking for a caretaker position so that they can build up some equity. If you know of such a position or if you know of someone who would like to have two wonderful people taking good care of their house while they're away, please let me know.

Or you can email Laura at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Zen Retreat


I went to a Zen Retreat in Manhasset, New York in June. It was a silent retreat and thirteen times a day we would meditate for twenty-five minutes. In Zen Meditation, you are alert, you sit still, your spine erect, and your eyes half closed. You concentrate on the breath. When thoughts come, you become aware of them and then come back to the breath.


I didn't know if I could get through thirteen sittings a day, but the head monk was especially helpful when I had back problems. We meditated in a beautiful room with a stone floor. The people in the front two rows, were the experienced meditators. They looked really good. One young woman down at the end had on a football sweater with the number 01 in orange. It was encouraging to have a young woman with a football sweater meditating.


We would bow as we entered the room, and bow to our seat and to the person opposite us. Everything was done with the care of a Japanese Tea Ceremony. The thing I like about Zen Meditation is that it brings calm and clarity. It's about the awareness of living moment by moment, breath by breath.



Reveling in Houston


Paddy Swanson, Artistic Director of the Revels, is basing the Houston Celtic Revels on images from my story The Cliffs of Culdurragh. It's a story about an old man who lives at the edge of the world. He dares people to take great risks and fall in love. I can't wait to get back with director Beth Sanford in Houston and all the singers and dancers of the Houston Revels. I hope all of Texas comes.



Ted Meets Magellan


Ted O'Callahan
Ted O'Callahan

Our son, Ted O'Callahan, phoned at the end of July from Alaska, where he's leading a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) expedition. "Does it get dark yet?" Linda asked. "Well," Ted said, "you can't read in the tent at midnight any more. . . but it doesn't get dark."

In September, Ted will go to Patagonia, Chile to lead NOLS groups for seven months. When Ted was six, I was working on my story about Magellan. Ted helped with the story. He said, "Put in some funny sailors." I did. It's the best part. The story is about Magellan's epic search for a passage through the land to the Pacific . . . the Strait of Magellan. That's where Ted's headed. Ah, the mystery of story.



Thanks Emma


Dear Jay O'Callahan,

My name is Emma Rose Bennet and I am 5 years old. I am writing to tell you I think you're the best storyteller in the world. I listen to "Rasperries" and "Little Heros" all the time. Me and my dad love makeing up stories at snack time before bed. My dad said he saw you when he was in 3rd grade in Brookline, Mass.





In Brief


Catherine Conant's new CD
Catherine Conant's
new CD

*Catherine Conant has a wonderful CD called Exit 11. She describes growing up in the shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike. Her sense of place is so vivid the listener is transported to her childhood. Her story of Breaking Dishes, is a story of freedom found in the heart of a young girl. Exit 11 is lovely. Her website is


Dick Wheeler
Dick Wheeler

*In the last two years, Dick Wheeler, hero of The Spirit of the Great Auk, has rowed around Cape Cod. Thousands have followed his journey on the internet. He goes into schools and students pepper him with questions about his adventures and the environment. He continues to inspire. Dick's email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


*Pat Schneider's book, A Continuing Passion: Writing Alone and With Others, will be published in the fall of 2003 by Oxford University Press. Pat, writer, poet, essayist is one of the great writing teachers. Pat's email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


*Judith Black's show, Retiring the Champ, is a marvel. The show is funny, moving, beautifully crafted and performed. It explores Judith's relationship with her mother-in-law as her mother-in-law ages and approaches death. Here is the work of a mature artist. Retiring the Champ moved me in the way that Tennessee Williams moves me. Judith's email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Len Cabral
Len Cabral

*Len Cabral, Prince of Storytelling. In February, Len was walking his dog on a Sunday morning and was hit by a speeding car, breaking his leg and seriously injuring his shoulder. He has healed with the loving care of his wife, Judy, his brothers, and hard work on Len's part. In July, Len's Dad died. In the eulogy the speaker called Len's Dad a prince. It runs in the family.


*Storytellers, Wiesy MacMillan and Andrea Lovett, got a grant from the Marshfield, Massachusetts Cultural Council to interview World War II veterans. The veterans were overjoyed someone was interested in their stories. The Massachusetts Cultural Council said their project was exemplary. Wiesy's email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Andrea's email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


*Tom McCabe's CD, The Queen of Filene's Basement, is terrific. The opening story is on the list of my top favorite stories of mine. Tom's email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.