Jay O'Callahan's Keynote Address
Sharing the Fire 2007
The Path of Story
WHAT IS YOUR MYSTERIOUS PATH? HOW DID YOU GET THERE?
I want to talk about The Mysterious Path that brings me here and hope it will help you reflect on your own mysterious path THE STORY: CONFRONTING THE MONSTER.
When I was a boy of seven and eight, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 I’d turn off the light and turn on my radio. I would hear “Hi ho, Silver away!” It was like hearing “Once Upon a Time”; it was dependable and meant the story was beginning. Then the narrator would say, “Buck Mulligan is sitting with his gang in the bunkhouse saying, ‘The widow Jones won’t sell so I guess there’ll be a fire at her house Saturday night.’ And one of Buck’s men would say, ‘What if she dies?’ Then Buck would laugh and say, ‘What if she dies?’” There’d be a little music and the narrator would say, “Not far away the Lone Ranger and his faithful companion, Tonto, were setting up camp for the night.” The story had begun and Mulligan was the monster. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were going to confront the monster and bring justice about. I loved listening to that program and there were hundreds of other radio programs and I was doing what people had done for thousands of years, listening to a story and shaping images fluidly, effortlessly, delightedly. I was in the dark and my mind was shaping these images with the sound of voices, a few simple sound affects, a little bit of music. I was entranced with the fall of the voice, the cadence, the rhythms of the voice. I’m sure that I was aware that Tonto’s language was stiff and stereotyped, but I knew that underneath that there was a real friendship between these two men and that intrigued me.
ORIGIN OF THE LONE RANGER
If you don’t know the story that starts the whole adventure of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, was the Lone Ranger had once been a Texas Ranger with seven others. There were eight of them and a gang gunned them down and all eight were left for dead. Tonto discovered them and found one of them was alive. He picked him up, brought him to a cave and nursed him back to health. Then Tonto went out and dug eight graves, so as far as the world was concerned all eight were dead. For the Lone Ranger, putting on the mask is a great mystery now. No one has any idea what his background is. Somewhat frightening. And it begins because of Tonto.
I was intrigued with the fact that they were living unusual lives. They weren’t riding into town and spending a night at a hotel, there wasn’t a house; they were living under stars all the time. That intrigued me.
WHAT IS NOT HEARD; THE ORDINARY
And these two men who had broken through the ordinary life into the extraordinary, what interested me most were the ordinary things they would say, and we never heard those. We never heard them sitting down, making supper and saying, “How did you catch this fish?” or never heard Tonto saying, “Kimosobi, the coffee bad again.” But they must have taken turns cooking and getting the firewood and taking care of the horses and no doubt talking about growing up and parents. We never heard that, which makes it more fascinating.
THOSE RADIO PROGRAMS WERE SHINY PEBBLES ALONG THE WAY
I was intrigued with the characters, the sounds. They were like pebbles along a path that I wasn’t aware that were luring me.
THE PARTIES: PEOPLE AND THEIR STORIES ARE PEARLS ON THE PATH
On a Friday I might be lying in bed, the Lone Ranger would be over and I’d hear singing downstairs, my parents at their parties, someone would be playing the piano. One night they were all singing, “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise” I loved that song and I ran down and I knew they were singing it for Louise Counihan, a friend of my parents, and I loved running down and here there are thirty or thirty-five adults singing in honor of one of their friends. Louise had ink black hair and a face so white that the littlest sun would make her face splotch. Tonight she was glowing and it seemed to me whenever the adults sung they were bigger than themselves. And then Dad gave a toast and as he often did, it was a story and people listened in a special way. What was that about? It changed. Then the party went on and I would go down to the butler’s pantry, some of the adults would be arguing about whether the atomic bomb should have been dropped. Language was very important. Language was a stone on the path. In the kitchen Uncle Jackie was talking and he made funny mistakes. He was saying, “I was so mad I got into my Cadillac and walked away.”
MOTHER AND LANGUAGE; A PEARL
I’ve told this story often. Mother loved language; I would say, “I’m goin’ out and she’d say, “Going out, you’re going out.” The “ings” would ring through the neighborhood. Mother loved language and she couldn’t stand even the thought of my climbing high in a tree. It terrified her. One day we were on vacation and climbing up a hill in Maine. I ran way ahead and there was a water tower, it was a big one. I got on that ladder and climbed way up to the top, then I looked down and Mother was just coming up to the top of the hill, huffing and puffing looking down at her feet, and I shouted, “Mom, Mom, I’m fallin’.” Automatically she said, “Falling dear, you’re falling.” And she looked up and I saw her fainting in Dad’s arms. Language, language.
THE OUTDOOR PATH; GREEN, YELLOW, BLUE
Seeing goosebumps, a leaf that needs a shave and hearing the bonk, bonk of a gate and “Bones, where is my Bones?”
As a boy the path was very green, not just because of language or the program of the Lone Ranger. It was green, blue and yellow because I loved the outdoors. I loved the wind, I loved the Big Tree. This was a massive, gray beech tree in a woods nearby; seven realms high. I loved climbing up there late in the afternoon and that beech tree had little bumps as if it was always very cold, as if it had just come out of the ocean and had goosebumps. I wondered about the goosebumps. I’d be up there and I’d reach out and touch small leaves and they were very rough. I felt they needed a shave. I thought that was funny.
SOUNDS ARE GEMS
Then I would hear the neighbor’s gate close like this, “bonk, bonk”. Two sounds, I loved the sounds. I could hear the sound of the tennis ball being hit and the sound of the neighbor calling her dog, “Bones, where is my Bones?” All those sounds fascinated me; they were alive, they were interesting.
Sometimes I would climb high in the tree to be above the world of the adults because the world of the adults was the argument about the atomic bomb and politics and one day a neighbor said, “Come over here. I don’t understand why your father is still a Catholic because he went to Harvard.” The way she said that, there was no fun in it. She was angry about something and I didn’t understand it. It frightened me and yet it also fascinated me even though it frightened me. Intriguing. So I would be up there late in the afternoon. As it got later I would think I really should be in doing my multiplication, I should be working on my spelling, reading, but this world of outside, the rhythms of the wind, that was more powerful even though I knew multiplication would get me somewhere in life. That’s what I really should be doing.
HIGH SCHOOL; THE PATH TURNS GRAY
The path, the path. In high school things turned kind of gray. I’d been in a small school and suddenly there were sixteen hundred students. I’d seen a couple of movies about jail and this kind of reminded me of jail. A prison. I was homeroom 304 and we would be released out of our cellblock when the bell rang, to go to another cellblock. I looked forward to it. In Chemistry, I’ll never forget Mrs. McIvor. She would look at us and with her very body she would say, “Chemistry is nose to the grindstone. If you fall behind there is no hope.” How inviting. I liked my history teacher; he was very nice. He would look at us, open his book and read the book for forty-five minutes. Huh. And then algebra. My algebra teacher once in a while would get furious. She said to me one day, “You can’t find x, you should be shoveling coal somewhere.” Shoveling coal? It’s more like an insane asylum than a prison now. What is this all about? The teachers certainly weren’t on fire with their subject. But, it was not all gray.
A PEAR; MR. WELLS
There was Mr. Wells who taught Physics. Mr. Wells dressed very nicely, often in a sports coat and he would have on a sweater vest and tie, and he wasn’t quite bald. His hair was streaked back on his thin head. He was a serious teacher so we paid attention. He liked us, he liked his subject, but once in a while he would stop, take off his glasses and say, “That reminds me when I was running the hurdles in the Olympics.” He’d tell a little story and of course it was fascinating. This unathletic man was in the Olympics, but what was more interesting to me was he stopped and he told a story – maybe two minutes. Everything in the room changed. We listened differently, sat differently, we smiled differently. We were invited into his world and it was magic.
AN EMERALD AND RUBY IN THE PATH
During high school there was a ruby and an emerald on my path: my little brother and sister. When they were three and four years old and were sitting in the back of our old Ford car, headed to Cape Cod, my little brother, Christopher was saying to my sister, Mickey, “Stop singing. I hate when you sing.” I said, “Christopher, give me your hand. Let me look at the palm.” I wasn’t thinking, I just took his palm and said, “Look at that line. Ah, that green line, once upon a time Christopher was riding on a great green snake, a great green snake.” He began to laugh and stare at his hand. I told a little story and when his interest waned, I folded the story up real fast. And my little sister said, “My turn.” “This is a story, Mickey, of a balloon that takes you to the moon.” She loved rhyming and she loved playing. I told just a tiny story. It was fun. It was easy. I didn’t think anything about. It was too easy. The next night when I was sitting at my desk looking at my algebra, the kids ran in and said, “Stories.” So I began to tell them a story every night and I’d tell stories when we were outside. Hundreds of stories.
THE SERIES; THE TINY DETECTIVE AND THE GIANT
One whole year, the entire year, there was a detective story. My little brother and sister were detectives and they had a helper. It was Tiny Tim and he was small as a thumbnail. So they would have to lift him up and put him into their ear so he could whisper about clues they should follow. That went on one year and the next year a giant became their companion. Hundreds of stories along the path that I paid no attention to. But my parents would say, “You know that’s wonderful that you’re telling them stories.”
COLLEGE BEGINS GRAY
Suddenly, college, a different world, college began gray because I had to buckle down and really learn to study. To me the main thing if you really were studying, was that it was grim. That’s the big thing, it was grim and you were at it. Now I was buckling down and reading ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA, and Cleopatra was like this purple flame; she didn’t buckle down at all. She just lounged in her golden barge coming down the Nile. She kind of whispered to me, “Relax, look around. Eat a grape.”
THE NARROW BOX
I had a pretty narrow box about what learning should be. It meant buckling down and getting a good grade. That was pretty much it, getting a good grade. And if you can, get interested in your subject.
TED KEEGAN AND RISK AND THE BIGGER STORY
And then I made friends with Ted Keegan. Ted Keegan’s room was totally different from my room. It was in disarray, things all over the place. Books all over the place, there were balls here and there; there were posters up, posters about motorcycles, posters about singers. On his bed there was a saxophone; I found out he had his own jazz band in college. That was interesting. He had a lacrosse stick on the floor. He played lacrosse; he wasn’t an athlete but took a risk. He went out and played lacrosse and they said fine. We were both studying Sociology and he went on with it and I switched to English and History. Ted took another risk; he broke out of the box. This is Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1957, 58, 59.
PROTEST AT WOOLWORTHS
He goes down to the city of Worcester and he goes with a picket sign. He goes back and forth outside the Woolworth’s, picketing with some black friends because at that time if you were black down south you could not go in and eat at a counter in Woolworth’s because there were whites there. So Ted was taking this risk, he was breaking out and taking part in a huge movement; the civil rights movement. Now that was a stone on the path. If you really want to do something you’ve got to take a risk.
LAW SCHOOL DECISION (Do not see the path)
College is over and I learned to study and I had become very interested in history and literature, and it was summertime. I had not applied to graduate school and I got my draft notice. One summer night Dad said, “Well, what are you going to do?” “Well, be drafted, Dad. That’s it.” “Why don’t you go to law school?” “Dad, I would have had to apply eight months ago.” “Well, we know the president of Boston College Law School. We can pull some strings.” Law School is a gray I didn’t know existed. Instead of the world opening up now it seemed to be closing up. I was arriving with all the students everyday. We all dressed in suits and had briefcases. This did not feel very wild and woolly and interesting. The courses Property Lay and Contract Law are pretty dull. But this is my path so I’ll stick it out and I’ll be a lawyer.
TORT LAW; ITS ALL STORIES? BRUCE AND RACHEL
But there is one class I love, Tort Law, that’s a civil wrong. Our Tort book is filled with stories. One of them is about a fellow named Bruce who lives in Brooklyn. He plays the saxophone and he was drinking a Pepsi one night and it exploded and he lost his right eye so he sued the company. What I want to do is to get on a bus and go down and find Bruce. I want to knock on the door and say, “Bruce, can I come in?” I want to sit down and find out, “How are you doing, Bruce? Tell me, are you still playing the saxophone?”
Another case is about Rachel in Boise, Idaho and she had a little dance company. She’s in a store one morning and they had been careless about the floor. She slips and breaks her knee badly. I want to fly to Boise and I want to find Rachel and say, “How are you doing, Rachel? Tell me about the dance company. Still running it?” I want to meet her; I want to see what she looks like, I want to hear what she talks like. Stories fascinate me. It’s almost like a whisper on the path but I don’t hear it at all, not at all.
THE MASSIVE BOULDER
In Criminal Law I take a dislike to my professor and I decide the way to handle this is just not to go to class for the year, a very mature decision. The year is over, I take the exams, I do okay. I do very well in Property Law. I take the Criminal Law exam and I’m answering the questions and have no idea what I’m talking about. Fortunately the professor sees that. I get home three days later, I open the mail and there is a letter that I simply stare at. It’s a shock that I’m not prepared for. It says that I have flunked the exam. If you flunk the exam in a course you’re out. You can talk your way back in but that never even occurs to me. I can’t think, I can’t breathe, I am astounded. The shame, there are ghosts and they are all around. The ghosts of my grandfathers. One of them had to leave school in fifth grade to help the family, and here I get to college, law school, and I’m holding this piece of paper. It feels like a boulder the size of a mountain. Overwhelming. What am I to do?
THE PATH ITSELF SPEAKS; DO YOUR BEST BUT THEN LEAVE THIS PATH. IT IS NOT FOR YOU
So I say, “Well, Dad, I’m going to be drafter. That’s it.” “Go in the Navy.” The only way to go into the US Navy and be an officer if you have bad eyes to be a supply officer. And I have bad eyes. I couldn’t be a doctor or a lawyer. So I go to Navy school and I become a supply officer. Now you have to understand that a supply officer has a very complicated job. If you are a supply officer on a Navy ship you are in charge of thousands and thousands of parts; thousands of records; you’ve got a budget and you’ve got to work with that budget and keep that ship running. You are in charge. I was on an oiler and was in charge of feeding 250 men every day. You’ve got to make sure the food is ordered properly. You’re out six months sometimes. It’s complicated. It takes a lot of knowledge. There are a lot of records. There are a lot of cooks involved. You’re in charge of paying the men every week and the officers, and over the years you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars and complicated records. And it goes on and on. It’s very complicated and very demanding and what you really need is someone who’s very good at running a business. This path says in a bold voice: Do your best but afterwards do something else. This is not for you.
So I’m doing my best, have no idea what my path in life will be at this time, just do your best these three years. But I’m out on the Pacific, now that’s a wonder.
WONDER AGAIN; DRAMA AND THE LOST SOUL
That’s a wonder and I love wonder and I loved the wonder when I was up in the Big Tree. I loved the winds in the Pacific and there’s something very dramatic about being on a Navy oiler in the middle of the Pacific. At four in the morning when it’s dark, the whole crew is up in the darkness. And then we look and we see this mighty aircraft carrier coming right towards us, out of the darkness, skipping up alongside us, only about forty feet away, and our job is to get three hoses over to the aircraft carrier, midship, forward, aft, and pump oil, gasoline. So we’re doing that. It’s dangerous. If those two ships happen to meet the bows will explode and thousands of people could be burned and die. So we’re doing that and on the other side of our ship sweeps up a Navy cruiser. So on the right side, the starboard side, we have an aircraft carrier, on the left side we have a cruiser. We are refueling both. This is dangerous; it’s exciting.
This sun is coming up, porpoises are leaping in front of our bow, a Navy band is playing on the aircraft carrier as an honor to us. It’s dramatic. I love drama!
And I’ve always been fascinated with people.
So I watch the sailors who are in my department, but I watch all of the sailors. One of them is Jones, and I’m very interested in Jones. I’ve been intrigued with the LETTERS OF VAN GOGH and Jones reminds me of Van Gogh. He’s maybe eighteen and at this point in the Navy they said it’s okay to have a beard, so a few fellows have beards. Jones does; he’s from the Midwest, a little town and this is not Jones’ path. He’s picked on; he’s sensitive. Maybe he’s had very bad news from home. He’s unhappy. So Jones makes a mistake. We’re in Yokuska, Japan, it’s winter and very, very cold. Now when you’re off the ship you’re in a foreign land. For the first time in your life it’s frightening. All is strange and new and it’s snowing and you’re in Japan and everybody is speaking a different language and you’re by yourself, you can make a mistake. Jones goes into a bar, the bar girl speaks English. He gets some warm sake. He’s drunk. Later Jones, he goes up the gangplank and then he tries to leave the ship an hour later with some money. The officer of the deck says, “No Jones, you’re drunk.” So Jones goes to the bow of the ship and tries to climb down the long line that ties us to the pier. He falls into the frozen waters. The only reason he’s alive is a boson mate is coming back, leaps into the water and saves Jones’ life. Jones is carried up into the wardroom, that’s where the officers eat, because there’s a big table there. He’s put on the table and he’s trying to say the world cold, “co, co, co, co, co.” Jones. He’s thrown out of the Navy.
WYNDHAM SCHOOL; SOCIOLOGY AND SKITS
Three years in the Pacific. The Navy is over. What’s my path, what am I going to do with my life? I say to my parents, “Can I join the business?” They run a school down by the Boston Public Garden called the Wyndham School. It’s a fascinating school. It began right after World War II for working class young women, a secretarial school. But my parents have a vision; what if we teach not just shorthand, typing and accounting, but courses in the novel for these young women, courses in short story, poetry, the arts. These young women will have a wider view of the world. I teach Sociology and my course is exciting. Boston and the world sweeps into the world of Wyndham School. One of the women there has spent her whole life until this year, in a kibbutz in Israel. The commissioner of the Boston Police comes. Mel King, a leader in the black community. Barney Frank. On and on. At Christmas time I make up skits, really stories, for an all school gathering. And I’m so alive with these stories, it’s fascinating, it’s exciting.
But Wyndham isn’t exciting enough. I want more than this. I’ve been there six years, there’s something else on my path. I don’t know what it is, but it must be writing novels because I like to work with words. So I say, I’m sorry to my parents; I’ve got to leave. I’ve got to leave. So I leave out of the blue after six years. Everyone was sure, including me, that was my path, to run the Wyndham School. That was my path.
I get a job with my wife at a converted barn, a YWCA, in Marshfield. We’re on a saltwater marsh and I’m the caretaker, my wife Linda is the director. She is brave to support me in this wild gamble. I’ve taken a risk and the path is green again. And full of sunlight, salt air and herons on the marsh. I am released for the moment from treading the respectable and secure path which is path, the burden of the middle class. Now Linda and I have a baby son and a baby daughter. I’m reading little bits of nursery rhymes and books to my baby son, “Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man.” He loves the sound of the words; he loves the rhythms. His eyes open wide. I put him in the bath one night, he’s eighteen months or two years old, and I read a little bit of FINNEGAN’S WAKE. He splashes; he loves the sound of the words. I’m intrigued. Of course he doesn’t have a little box saying if it’s FINNEGAN’S WAKE you’d better get ready, it’s going to be hard. No, no, no, no it’s sound. He loves sound.
CLIFT ROGER’S LIBRARY SPONTANEOUS STORIES
I do a telling at a little library called the Clift Roger’s Library in Marshfield Hills. Maybe four or five kids would show up and I’ll make up a story on the spot. I’ll give them some crayons to do a little drawing and I’ll tell them a story about their drawing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. And I think one day, what if I think about the story ahead. I wonder if that would make a difference. They wanted a scary story.
I’m standing in the barn at the YWCA, the barn itself is a big old barn with rough wood, and I look up and somebody has drawn a kind of hook with a knife; it looks like a fingernail made that hook. And as I look at it I kind of curve my fingers and my back. I’m thinking of a character and a name just comes to my mind, Vargo, Vargo. And the very word is curved. And I begin to make up this scary story about Vargo set in the fall in a kingdom long ago. A sailor. As I make up the story I realize the inspiration for the story is Jones. That sailor on my ship years ago, who was hurt, frightened.
IMAGE OF A CURVED BACK
I paid attention to the image and it goes all through the story. And for the first time in my life an image is not something academic. It’s something I can play with like clay. So I begin to play more with these stories at the local library, the schools and Cub Scout groups.
PUT MY CHILDREN IN STORIES; I LOVE DRAMA
My kids get a little older and I put them in the stories. They become the hero and the heroine of stories called Artana stories. I’m working on the characters and I’m intrigued with the sound “Petrukian, the blacksmith”. It’s not Petrukian, that’s not what opens their eyes. Petrukian, there is a rhythm that the kids like. There’s a rhythm to his work. It is: Heat the metal and beat the metal. And the rhythms are coming out of my children’s eyes and smiles at night. Petrukian has a secret that is ruing his life. And I don’t realize it. I’m learning a lot about storytelling, telling them stories at the edge of the marsh, going to the dump, going to the supermarket, raking leaves, going to bed, putting them in the bath, at breakfast. Stories, stories, stories. Rhythms, characters. At the same time I’m writing novels in the morning and the novels are pretty flat. But not the stories, no, no, no, the stories. In my told stories I’m learning how to shape a character, how to build a story. I’m telling at local schools for no money.
One day my son, Ted, is hurt, and he says, “Daddy, I broke my leg.” “Well I’ll make up a story for you.” I want to cheer him up with the bones of a story called RASPBERRRRRIES. It’s about twelve minutes and it makes him laugh. And this image comes from this almost infinite place we all have within us, some call it the unconscious I call it THIS MYSTERIOUS PLACE WHERE CREATIVITY COMES FROM.
BRAD AT THE MARSH: PAY ATTENTION
So six years of rhythms, stories, telling in schools. At the end of that I’m sitting on the edge of the marsh. It’s fall, the marsh grass looks like the back of a great lion, and my friend, Brad Harding says, “You know I’ve heard these stories you tell to the kids. You’ve got to take it seriously.” And I said, “Brad, listen, what I’ve decided is I want to be an artist and if you’re going to be an artist with words what you do, Brad, is you write a novel or short stories, poetry, screen writing, that’s it.” And he says, “Who made that box, Jay?” Gosh, I don’t know. Who made that box? This is a crossroads because Houghton Mifflin liked my second novel, but finally decided not to publish it. I’ve got to make a decision. Take it seriously, Jay.
THE BLUE STAR
Could this be the path? Maybe but maybe not, because my children are little but they’re going to grow. I’d like them to go to college; I’d like opportunities for them. Can you possibly do that as a storyteller? There is one blue star in the heavens, one star and it’s Brother Blue. I’ve seen him at Harvard Square. I’ve seen him tell stories and I’ve been enchanted and I can see that Brother Blue has broken through all the boxes. He has a freedom, a freedom, I love that freedom.
I’M A PROFESSIONAL STORYTELLER: COME DOWN RIGHT NOW
So I’m lying in bed, I’ve got a cold one day and on the radio this announcer is saying, “Feeling sorry for yourself? Get up and do something.” I do, I get up and I call Mr. Dauer who runs the Governor Winslow School in Marshfield; I’ve told stories for years there for fun. “Mr. Dauer, it’s Jay O’Callahan. Listen, I’m a professional storyteller now.” “What does that mean, Jay?” “It means you pay me now.” I’d never said those words in my life. And he says something that is right out of a fairy tale. He does not say, “Jay, we have a budget here and I’m afraid…” or “Jay let’s look at our calendars,” he says, “Jay come down right now.” Now that is a great gift. See I had the energy to say, “I’m a professional storyteller.” If he had said, “Well, Jay, we just can’t pay,” who knows. Maybe I would have called him three months from now. But no, “come down right now.”
I don’t have any plan but I have twelve minutes to get there. I get there and say, “Mr. Dauer, this is my plan. I have this story called VARGO, so I want to tell it to your fifth graders. I’ll go into a class, I’ll tell them a thirty-minute story then we’ll talk about how I made it. Then I’ll go to the next class, next and next. It’ll take four hours and it’s going to cost you,” I have such trouble saying this but I finally say, “one hundred dollars.” He says, “Fine.”
In the last six years I had made fifty dollars telling stories. He says, “Fine.” Suddenly I’m walking on a path.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. So now I’m telling stories in the Brookline schools and at the same time I’ve discovered in the Marshfield Public Library this book that in one chapter has a bunch of paragraphs by Noh Theatre Actors, it’s a Japanese form of theatre. And these writers and actors lived centuries ago. So I’m hearing their voice through the ages and they’re talking about getting up early and practicing a gesture for an hour. What I love is the care they’re bringing to their work. And I’m thinking what If I bring a lot more care to the words I use, to the images, to the stories, to the sounds, to the rhythms, to the pacing, to the gestures. And it’s as if these Noh artists are speaking right to me. So I get up early and by six o’clock I’m by myself down at the YWCA and I’m practicing a gesture. I’m trying a line and I’m pacing like a character.
RUNKLE AND BARBARA LIPKE
I’m in the Brookline schools and trying to do these stories as carefully as I can and the path is widening. Barbara Lipke is at the Runkle School. What is really helpful is I tell a story and Barbara and I walk down the corridor. Barbara is really excited. I don’t mean polite, I mean excited. And the two of us are saying, “Why, why is it so exciting? I don’t know Barbara, I don’t know. I love the way they lean forward. And you know, Barbara, I’m sure their minds are working fluidly.” I can remember that and when I was a boy I was excited. We’re trying to figure this thing out. What is it, what is it about a told story, about someone being present there? What’s exciting about this form? It’s fascinating to talk it over with Barbara and several other teachers are excited about it. There are still lots of boxes.
OF COURSE THEY LOVE RHYTHM!
I’d been telling a couple of years in the Brookline schools and I’m wondering about telling RASPBERRIES but when I tell a funny part will they just stare at me? So one o’clock in the afternoon I have one more story to tell in Bobby Snow’s classroom, and she’s a wonderful, encouraging teacher. Do I dare tell RASPBERRIES? Will they just stare at me? I said, they know me, I say, “This is a story called RASPBERRIES” and pretty soon, Simon, the central character with his hat pulled down, he’s showing what he was like when he was free: Pat out the dough, and pour in the berries and seal up the top at night. Kneading, kneading, all I do is kneading. And the kids are laughing and smiling. And at the end Simon’s hat comes off and he’s free again and the kids whoop! And I’ve broken through another box. Of course these kids love rhythm. Of course they love laughter. Of course they love a deep story about a man who’s lost and comes to life, throws off the hat. The image is the hat; he throws it off and these kids whoop for him, because they all know those moments when you want to give up, and Simon wanted to give up. And it’s a breakthrough. The path is getting interesting.
THE PATH EXPANDING
I’m telling all sorts of stories to my children. Can I tell a story about worm? And suddenly the path is filled with creatures; I’m Herman the worm, I like my squirmin’ and II like being close to the ground. Boom, boom. And on the path there are two bears, Wiggums and Woogums. A Wiggums and a Woggums, and a Wiggums and a Woggums, Wiggums, Wiggums Woggums, ho, ho, ho. Wiggums and Woggums. I go to schools and tell MICHAEL THE GRASSHOPPER with Wiggums and Woggums. I come back a year later and the kids do not know my name but they’ll all point to me and they’ll say, “Wiggums and a Woggums, Wiggums and a Woggums.” They remembered Wiggums and Woggums all right. And like all storytellers I’m delighted. There are some students I can remember telling a scary story, and adventure.
THE LEANING BOY
Now I’m a storyteller on the road but I’m back in Marshfield telling an adventure story and one eighth grade boy is leaning so far forward it looks like he’ll come out of his skin. I’ll never forget the way he leaned forward. Afterwards the teacher came up and said, “He never listens. He’s a troublemaker.” Well he listened that day and he knew that his mind was good; he knew that his mind produced these images effortlessly. Every storyteller experiences that and I love that.
THERE’S A QUESTION IN MY MIND NOW
There’s a question in my mind now. I’m on the storytelling path using rhythms, images, characters, sounds, language and drama. Can I shape a story with all of that about adults for adults? I don’t know. I don’t know.
PUGWASH, NOVA SCOTIA
My wife, my children and I go up to Pugwash, Nova Scotia. We had to get the key at an old farmhouse, Charlie Robinson’s farmhouse. So we go in and Charlie Robinson is about ninety and he’s close to his end, sitting in a rocking chair, and Maggie Thomas, a blind woman who looks to be in her seventies and is infirm, leaning on her cane. Maggie Thomas says, “I’m Maggie Thomas. Are your children with you? Here are the keys to the cottage. I’m sure you’re tired but come back. We’d love to see you. You come back.” Well we do come back and back and back and back because Maggie and Charlie are these presences. Everybody knows Maggie and Charlie. Blind Maggie in her seventies came long years ago to be housekeeper/caretaker to Charlie’s wife. Charlie’s wife is dead now and here’s the odd couple, Charlie close to death and Maggie blind and infirm and they’re full of life and everybody comes from Pugwash just to sit in the kitchen and talk. Maggie’s mind is sharp; she remembers everything that happened in Pugwash. Charlie’s charming. I’m a new storyteller, I’ve got my recording machine and my notebook, “Maybe there’s a story here, Charlie, Maggie. What do you think?” I loved Charlie’s phrases. I’d leave in the afternoon and say, “See you later Charlie.” “Well I hope so.” I loved the way he said, “Well I hope so.”
MAYBE YOU’RE RIGHT THERE
One day I say, “Charlie it’s so beautiful here. I feel close to nature.” He says, “Well maybe you’re right there.” He’s charming. I feel very close to Maggie, this blind woman who when she walks bends over because of operations on her back. She doesn’t like to talk about herself but one day Charlie isn’t there in the kitchen and Maggie’s going to set the table and she reaches into get forks and knives and she pulls back and then she laughs and says, “Jay, I’ll never get used to being blind. I lost my left eye when I was fourteen, but my right eye just a few years ago. I reach in and sometimes I feel another hand and think it’s somebody else.” How wonderful she would say that to me, talk about blindness.
WHAT IS BLINDNESS
The weeks go on and I have time to steep. I’m now learning that’s part of my process, needing time. Charlie and Maggie are talking a lot about World War II so I’m thinking, Maggie’s blind but World War II is going on and millions and millions of people are dying. Isn’t that the blindness? I have time to think about their lives and what they are saying and my logical mind is saying, “This story has got to be about Charlie Robinson because it’s his house.” One day we’re going into Pugwash to shop and this rhythm comes out of the same mysterious place that RAPSBERRIES and all my stories come out of. The rhythm comes to mind about Maggie and the herring shed. She’s told me about it but there was no actual rhythm. They didn’t sing a rhythm, but that comes to mind: Thumb in the gill, open the mouth, slip it on the rod in the herring shed. As a girl of fourteen I was very very keen. My imagination has made up a story and Maggie is the central character and she’s a girl. Something in me sees the girl in Maggie, the innocence. Charlie is an important character but it’s about Maggie. My logical mind does not make the story. My logical mind helps, but my imagination just discovers this rhythm. It’s the bones of the story and I discover a new thing, that an image can be a sound image.
So the path keeps widening and widening and I meet Judith Black and Doug Lipman and we work together and form Storytellers in Concert and now the path is filled with colleagues. Judith and Doug are brilliant and fun. Judith is not only creative and daring, but also devoted to justice. Doug is closer so when I’m in town I drive at 5:30 in the morning to Doug’s office in Medford. By 7:00 we’re walking down the railroad tracks to breakfast and I am so pleased to be walking down the railroad tracks. We don’t have briefcases, we don’t have ties on, we’re two guys talking about images and talking about a gig that failed last night and maybe we can do this, and talking about voice and books and politics. And then we’re going back in his office and we’re working and I’m finding that the path for me is that you need people. Maybe others don’t, but for me you need people, you need people. And I have lots of colleagues and then more and more on this path.
So now let me finish up by imagining that we are on a spiral going back in time. Spiraling back so that I can see this young boy climbing that tree at nine years old. I’d say to that boy, “Yes, it’s important to do that multiplication and spelling and arithmetic, but I think it’s great that you see the goose bumps on this tree. Don’t worry where it’s going to lead. It’ll take care of itself. You just pay attention to the bonk, bonk of the gate. You pay attention to Bones, where is my Bones? You delight in those sounds. That’s wonder and wonder will lead you where you need to go. Don’t worry about where you’ll go. And I think you’re right, the leaf needs a shave.
THE LAW STUDENT
Then I would spiral forward to that young fellow who had flunked out of law school and I would say, “Yea, I’m sorry that that boulder feels like a mountain. It feels like a mountain because it was a mountain to you, but it had to be a mountain. If it wasn’t that big you would not have left that path. You were very much duty bound, you would have become a dutiful lawyer. You needed something big to get you off that path so that you could find a path that was truly yours. When you find that the right path then you can give the world the gift that only you can give.
I will finish by saying, that when I look back at those gray parts, the gray times, if I look carefully, even in the grayest time I can see the glint of a ruby, the flash of an emerald and the sheen of a pearl. It’s wonderful to be on this mysterious path with you all.