Table of Contents
|Jay performs at the National Storytelling Festival.
Photo by Tom Raymond
Last October was the 30th National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Thousands came to hear the storytellers. As always Main Street was decked with pumpkins, cornstalks and flowers. On Thursday afternoon the great striped tents stood empty and silent. Starting Friday morning in this beautiful town in the Appalachian Hills, language will be beautifully shaped, songs sung, laughter heard and tears shed. Everybody will be deeply touched. Thursday it was haunting to stand in an empty tent and listen to the silence.
One of the high points for me was telling "Father Joe" on Saturday morning. Over a thousand people jammed the College Street tent. My friend, Doug Lipman, who coached this story out of me was there. So was my wife, Linda, and the Kennedys, our hosts in Jonesborough who have become dear friends. In the kitchen that morning I had said to Virginia Kennedy, "I brought some instant oatmeal to save you the trouble. "Virginia gave me an unusually stern look and said, "Instant oatmeal! Not in this house." Virginia made me real oatmeal.
Just before I told the hour long story two things happened. Ed Stivender walked by the tent. Ed, a storyteller of great grace, tipped his hat and wished me well. Ed was off to enthrall his own tent. His graciousness was symbolic of the extraordinary community storytellers are.
The second incident was this: A woman outside the tent summoned me over. Her husband was in a wheelchair. He'd had a stroke and spoke with difficulty. I thanked him for coming and later found out he was a singer and was determined to sing again. It was especially moving to me because my story, "Father Joe," tells of my uncle having a stroke which left him a near cripple. Teaching was the thing Father Joe did best in life but the stroke made it impossible so he had to grapple with that huge sadness. His stroke was the result of pressures that built up on shipboard during World War II. Father Joe won the Congressional Medal of Honor. If I could, I would give him a medal for the way he lived the last seventeen years of his life.
I stood ready to tell. Gay Ducey gave me a warm and poetic introduction and the audience and I entered the world of "Father Joe."
Another fine moment came on Saturday night. By then, many of the listeners were worn out. The weather was turning chilly. I arrived and found the tent was only half full. "Where is everybody?" I was grumpy. Syd Lieberman, marvelous storyteller from Chicago, was in the tent talking to some children. The tent didn't fill and it was time to start. Dovie Thomason, storyteller, natural leader and emcee, introduced Syd. Syd took the stage with such spirit the tent came alive. Invisible sparks come from every part of his body. Syd reminded me of Brother Blue's saying that if a tent is half full, the rest of the seats are filled with angels. Blue always plays to a full house.
Syd filled the tent with light. He invited the children he'd been talking to onto the stage. As Syd told, the youngsters acted the story out. Wild fun. Next Syd launched into a new story about his daughter, Sarah, who was there. Then Syd put on a baseball cap and recited "Casey at the Bat." When he finished, the angels were shimmering in their chairs and the rest of us applauding. The tent was a cookin'. Onawumi Jean Moss told next. She told with such beauty there were gasps. Dovie Thomason followed with a tale of stunning images. By the time we'd finished, the tent was floating. Them angels got carried away.
|Jay with Saul and Hankje Rodriguez|
I spent most of December in Houston, Texas rehearsing and then being part of the Houston Revels. The Revels is a pageant celebrating solstice with the songs, dances, stories and rituals of a culture. This year in Houston it was the Celtic Revels. Steve Green, president of the Houston Revels, lent me his Mercedes and my wife, Linda, warned me not to get used to it. Sorry about the flat tire, Steve.
It's unusual for me to work with a cast, or at least a visible cast. When I travel to a city to perform, the plane is filled with my characters. They're invisible and don't have to buy tickets. They don't even have to go through the x-ray machine. But here in Houston, the people were made of flesh and blood. There were eighty-two of us including a large children's chorus who kept us in good spirits.
It was fascinating to work with Beth Sanford, the director. I realized once again how important consonants are. After I told "Connor and the Leprechaun" Beth said the word "drawings" couldn't be heard. Ah, consonants, the bones of speech, Blair McClosky used to tell me at singing lessons.
Which reminds me, the three people who taught me most about language were my mother, father and Mrs. Lawrence of my Pill Hill stories. " I'm goin' out." I'd say when I was seven or eight. Mother would reply in a voice that rang through the house, "Go___ing! You're go___ing out!" Words were as real as grapefruit or doorknobs to mother. Every word had its own shape, smell, touch and size.
But back to the Houston Revels and director Beth Sanford. Here are a few of Beth's maxims.
I stayed with Saul and Hankje Rodriguez, members of the cast. They live in a modern house in Houston and bring to life a spirit that would have made Jacob Marley dance. It was fun being part of their household. And I discovered something biologists should know about. Saul and Hankje and the Revels cast would do two shows and then party. After that it was morning and time to exercise and work. They don't sleep. There's a Nobel Prize waiting for the one who discovers their secret.
I've always wanted to do a concert with Jack Langstaff, one of the great lights of this country. We'll do the concert at the Unitarian Church in Brookline at 2:00 pm, Sunday, November 2nd. The concert will be full of music, stories and surprise. Put it on your calendar.
Doug Lipman and I have worked with our Creativity Group for ten years. At our last meeting in Vermont, everyone dressed up as a cliche for supper. Poet Carol Burnes, doned a wig and came "pretty as a picture." Gerry Leader was the "Marlboro Man," and I stole my friend Barbara Wall's idea of "not crying over spilled milk."
|Pretty as a Picture|
In January I spent a week as part of the Distinguished Visitors Series at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design in Ann Arbor. One of the highlights was spending a morning in Jim Cogswell's studio. Jim is a professor at the university and an artist. He brought me to the university. (His wife, Sarah said, " Bring Jay O'Callahan." Thank you Sarah.)
|Jim Cogswell with his marvelous work|
Imagine going into a garage that is now an artist's studio. You smell the paint and turpentine mixed with sunlight and heat. Jim's paintings are hanging up or leaning against the wall. Jim is drawn to color, shape and ideas. As he talks about his paintings you can almost see a mysterious dance going on inside him. He opens a can of yellow paint and the color is so bright you whoop. His paintings are worlds full of color, tension and mystery. Silent jazz, silent symphonies.
"There are times," Jim said, "when I don't know where the painting will go. I thought that one on the wall was finished but it's not."
"When I'm working on story," I said, "I often feel like I'm wandering in the dark and the image is like a candle that leads me where I need to go. I've learned to trust the image."
Jim and I spent a lovely morning talking about his paintings. Then we went off to swim at the university pool.
Carl Zinn, a retired professor at the university and an old friend, was ever at my side all week. The two of us were like Huck Finn and Jim floating down the Mississippi River. One moment we'd be exploring the performance spaces, the next talking about video taping the workshops I'd be giving. We ran into problems and solved them together. I spent the last night at the Zinn's hearing stories of Ann Zinn's daring father and eating Ann's apple pie. What crust!
I spent two evenings with Charles Kennedy at a delightful Turkish restaurant in Ann Arbor. The restaurant, Ayse's Courtyard Cafe, is near the North campus and is my kind of place. Simple. Lovely. A few tables adorned with flowers. The owner and cook, Ayse Uras, is full of sunshine. She doesn't give you her name and lots of folderall. She just makes you feel welcome. It may be the only restaurant to receive 10 out of 10 by the Ann Arbor News. Charles eats there nearly every day.
I first met Charles when he was probably twelve or fourteen in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I'd be telling stories at the National Storytelling Festival and staying with Charles' parents, Bill and Virginia. Charles has since gotten his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and plays the organ masterfully. I came home with CDs of his and after meditating in the evening, I listen to Charles playing Bach or Herbert Howells. If you go to Ann Arbor go to Ayse's Courtyard Cafe and say hello to Charles and Ayse.
Thanks. I remember visiting your class and thinking you and your students were on a raft exploring the islands of Coles, Kozol and even O'Callahan. Your class would have delighted in Socrates and Plato.
How astonishing you were when you had your leg amputated. You helped other patients. You made a phone call getting one woman a job, and were busy cheering others with your stories. You were full of tales of hospital food, nurses, and the embarrassment of it all. "All modesty gone." You reminded me of my uncle, Father Joe, who was almost crippled by a stroke caused by the war, but he never complained. Nor did you.
|Dean Joe Maguire at the Great Supper with Jay & Linda|
How I'll miss your voice. I'd call and say "It's Jay," and the phone would be filled with your warmth and laughter. You made people feel special.
How you gathered people with your royal generosity. I remember the grand supper we had the month before you died. I told "Politics." Everyone looked splendid. It was a gathering of students, graduates, old friends and new friends. Everyone there to honor you. We were all happy to be part of the evening. You made us feel elegant and dashing. Everyone loved you.
You were gatherer, helper, friend, teacher, lover of language, lover of stories, songs, drama, wit and thought.
I'm sad to think I can't pick up the phone and call you. How I miss your voice already. Your support, your kindness, your joy. But then again, how lucky we all were to have had you.
I sent an e-mail newsletter about meditation and silence a month ago. I got wonderful replies. Willy Claflin is one of the funniest and sharpest storytellers. Here is his reply.
I always used to race through stories. Part of it was deliberate, delighting in the rapidly unfolding kaleidoscope of images, and part was inadvertentóadrenaline; nervous energy. Anyway, I would always rocket along. Then I went to Texas and taught a workshop. A woman wrote a story which began with this sentence:
"Snake wanted to learn to play canasta. Only she didn't say, "snakewantedtolearntoplaycanasta!"
She said, "Snake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . wanted to learn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .to play . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . canasta." It must have taken her 20 seconds.
I had time to see the snake see the deck of cards and realize what sort of problems Snake might have say, dealing or holding the cards. Aha! thought I. And this led me to dwell on the spaces between words, and eventually to connect that empty space with the silence of meditation. I came to understand that inviting silence into stories created the opportunity for teller and audience to rest, live and breathe inside the story. Not just to rocket along towards the end, but to sit together quietly in the middle of the story. To inhabit that world together.
I still often forget to do this, in the excitement of performing. But when I remember, it is very powerful to me, and reminds me of what one teacher said, "When you sit zazen, do not sit alone. Sit with all beings."
Sop Doll & Other Tales of
Rafe Martin's Novel
A Well Kept Secret, by Laura Pershin Raynor