Category Archives for Memoir

Digging deep for truths

Son House

Mississippi bluesman Son House (photo in public domain)

The image still resonates for me. Bart Becker described a young fellow leading a frail old man to center stage. He sat the old guy in a chair and took off his hat. Then he walked offstage and came back carrying an acoustic guitar.

What happened next was one of those moments when fireworks go off in our brains, when we know the world will never be the same again. Son House picked up his guitar and “transformed from a little old man who couldn’t walk 20 steps by himself into a churning bundle of raw, exciting, sensual energy”.

The 80-year-old Mississippi bluesman poured every cell of his soul into the music. Becker had played in bands from the time he was in seventh grade. He had spent every extra dime on records. Music was in his bones, but he had never sat under the spell of music so profound it was “the inarticulate speech of the heart”.

By the time Becker wrote those words he had gone on to become music critic for the Seattle Times. I read his piece in the April 1, 1987, edition. I know the date because I still have the yellowed article. The paragraph he wrote about two-thirds through the article is engraved on my heart. Whenever I taught a new group of storytellers after that, I shared it with them. And now, as I sit down every day to pour my soul onto the page, I hear the words again.

Becker wrote:

“What Son House dropped on me was that art is alive, not dead. Creativity, whether primitive or futuristic, is not schooling and technique and logic and analysis; it is intelligence; it is unselfconscious, natural, spontaneous, free expression. Art is subversive, it’s about not following rules. And greatness has nothing to do with popularity and the marketplace. In Son House’s case, he had made a few recordings some 50 years before that hardly anybody ever heard, even then. When you dare to open up and express yourself, you have already not failed. It takes guts to dig into yourself looking for real truths, and the success is in the deed itself.”

Whatever you do that reaches right down into your soul, whatever is born of that ache for expression, is the gift you bring to the world. It is the gift only you can offer.

Dig deep and fearlessly. The world needs the truths you’ll find there.

Answering the call of stories

Stumbling onto What’s Your Calling? was like finding myself in a meeting where the chemistry is right and the conversation flows freely. So when we connected on Twitter (@whatsURcalling), and Erin Williams (Engagement Campaign Manager for The Calling & What’s Your Calling?) asked me to participate in a blog tour, I jumped at the chance to try to articulate my calling: stories.

What’s Your Calling? is sponsoring a Calling Dream Kit contest. Find details at the bottom of this post.

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross lies your calling.” ~ Aristotle

From eavesdropping to storytelling

One advantage of being a quiet, well-behaved child was that I could listen for hours to stories not meant for young ears. I could color or play with dolls while adults within earshot spun tales about betrayals, triumphs, furtive meetings, secrets. I never tired of the stories and stored them away in my heart.

I didn’t think of their hold on me as a calling until I was in my thirties. I credit a kindergartener with helping me see I could turn that fascination into a career. Her rapt attention as I told a story to her class threw me headlong into storytelling, first as a school librarian and then through twists and turns in my professional life.

I discovered I could take the stories I’d heard, read or lived and give them back and that sometimes people listening to or reading the stories found a measure of healing in them. I also learned I could nudge people, and even organizations, to believe in the power of their own stories to heal themselves, others, their communities.

Finding healing in stories

Dinesen quote

Isak Dinesen is often quoted as saying, "All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell them as a story." (Photo of Cathryn in Queenstown, New Zealand)

In Storytelling: Imagination and Faith William Bausch nailed my calling in two sentences: “When a man [sic] comes to you and tells you your own story, you know that your sins are forgiven. And when you are forgiven, you are healed.”


When I began to contemplate sharing stories in the public sphere of blogs, I chose this quote from Carolyn Heilbrun, in Last Gift of Time, to guide me: “Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires the reader had hardly acknowledged—desires that now seem possible. Women can catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.”

Though both quotes are gender specific, I re-write them in my mind to include any hearts that vibrate when touched by stories.

A legacy of stories

My calling is to create a legacy of stories. I’ve done that in many ways during my meandering career as teacher, librarian, storyteller, farmer, musician, rancher, consultant, community developer. Now I’m doing it as a writer, primarily through three blogs: Catching Courage, Story Route, and Crossroads.

Stories are the one thing of value I can pass on. Not just my own stories but others that inspire and teach me. I write and tell stories because they have the power to stitch together sorrows, passions, joys, and confusions. I piece them together to lay a quilt of comfort over a wounded world.

In a 1990 interview with Common Boundary magazine, Alice Walker said, “Stories differ from advice in that, once you get them, they become a fabric of your whole soul. That is why they heal you.”

And so I write—and occasionally tell—stories. They are my most valuable possessions, my life’s calling. This is where I find meaning, working to create a healing legacy of stories.

“If we look upon our experiences as assets, we must manage to preserve or transfer those assets to other people before we die or they dissolve in the grave with us.” Phyllis Theroux, The Journal Keeper

Calling Dream Kit contest:
You can follow the blog tour on the What’s Your Calling? Facebook Page. Subscribe for a chance to win a Calling Dream Kit including $200 in gift credit to buy supplies you’ll need as you pursue your calling, a DVD and poster of The Calling, and an hour of coaching to help plan your project and the chance to share your calling with the community.

What’s Your Calling? explores notions of “calling” from both religious and secular perspectives, or what people feel most passionate about doing with their lives – and why.

Two of my personal favorites on this wonderful site are:

  • Poet Ruth Forman on The Power and Magic of Language, who says: “Have the courage to address those things inside of you that you’re afraid to address. So, for instance, as a writer, have the courage to write about those things that you’re afraid to write about, that you wouldn’t even want to admit to yourself because if you can conquer that in yourself, you can probably conquer everything else that’s going on around you.”
  • T.J. Anderson, talented composer who says in Any man or woman in a bathtub can give you a tune, “The reason people doubt is they’re seeking perfection. I sought to be the best I could be at a particular time and am still seeking that.”

Digging in the treasure box of memories

“I can’t tell a story,” he said. “My memory’s gone. I’m just here to listen”

The man sat on his motorized wheelchair, in a workshop on telling stories. I remember his jaunty cap and the fringe of grey hair around his ears and the back of his neck. We were at the Tulsey Town Storytelling Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was giving the group some tips on crafting a compelling tale from the flotsam and jetsam of their lives.

We did some exercises to stir their creative juices. I wanted them to leave with one good story they could wow their friends with, some gem mined from the ore of their lives. We worked at chipping away extraneous detail until only the shining core remained.

They all tried and most were eager to share their polished stones. The man in the wheelchair listened. His eyes were lively. But he couldn’t handle any of the exercises. They were tapping into the labyrinth of his short-term memory. That part of his brain was a jumble. Words dropped in and rolled off into dead ends or got lost around corners.

He dug a gem from the treasure box of his life (Photo courtesy of Sam at, whose work is brilliant)

Still, he laughed and nodded and sighed. I could see he was enjoying himself but was disappointed he couldn’t participate. At the end of the workshop, I learned how wrong my definition of participation had been.

He looked at me with a mischievous grin. “I love listening to stories, but I didn’t think I could ever be a storyteller. Now I know I can.” Others had stopped to talk so he ignored my startled expression and rolled away.

A story swap ended the day. That’s where anyone with a short story to tell can sign up for the chance to share a tale with the kind of receptive audience that flocks to storytelling festivals.

Our man in the wheelchair motored to the front. When all eyes were on him, he said, “Until today I believed I could never be a storyteller. My short-term memory is gone. I thought I had to learn stories in order to tell them. Now I know I can dig in the treasure box of my memories.”

That man dug a gem out of the treasure box of his memories. His short story had us holding our sides with laughter. The storytellers in the audience were wide-eyed with admiration. Here was a natural spinner of tales, a weaver of words, a teller who held us spellbound.

He also had an audience. I don’t know if he found other audiences after that day. I hope so. He was a gifted storyteller.

I thought of him yesterday when I ran across the report of a study carried about by University of Missouri Researchers. Patients with mild to moderate dementia increased their social interaction and were happier, an effect that lasted for weeks after the storytelling sessions. They were using the TimeSlips Creative Storytelling program, designed to tap into the imagination of Alzheimer’s patients. TimeSlips discovered that people with mid to late stages of memory loss may no longer be able to string together a story with beginning, middle and end. But they still have a treasure box of memories, full of shining stones.

We all have a treasure box. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to share our shining stones.

Storytelling lifeline for a homeless boy

Missing a chance to shine

“Sol’s” story is true, though I’ve changed his name out of deference for the young hero. I met him while working as Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, the US’s oldest senior theatre company

Marijo Joseph, a talented performer who often worked with Stagebridge, was teaching Sol and some of his classmates to be storytellers. The day of their school performance, Sol nearly missed his chance to shine.

When I stopped by the office to sign in, Sol was there on “house suspension”.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“The teacher said I was talking, but it wasn’t me.” Whatever the case, at that moment Sol was about to miss one of his few chances for positive recognition.

Marijo set off to persuade his classroom teacher to give him a reprieve long enough to perform. I chatted with him briefly, then went to the auditorium.

Sol becomes the story

Minutes before he was to take the stage, Sol hurried into the room. When his turn came, he gave a first-person narrative of a slave who had rowed hundreds of others to freedom. Sol was a natural storyteller. When he performed, he was the story. Though he was the only white child in his class, Sol crawled so completely into the character his skin color didn’t matter.

My eyes were on Sol so I didn’t notice a few classmates lifting their arms to sniff their armpits in a gesture of disdain. The mockery was cruel, but Sol often did reek of unwashed clothing on an unwashed body. His home was a van with no electricity. If he did homework it was by the glow of battery-operated tap lights. Baths and clean clothes were luxuries.

The children’s teasing was not surprising. I’d seen turkeys do the same thing. They’d spot a bit of blood on another turkey and keep pecking at it, sometimes until the victim died. In this case it was Sol’s spirit they were pecking.

Sol was one of those children who talk easily with adults but have trouble finding a niche with their peers. He was one of the few white children in the school, but deep poverty and a lack of age-appropriate social skills were what isolated him from his classmates.

He adored Marijo, who inspired him to stand tall in spite of the stones life was throwing in his path. As we left the gymnasium after the performance, Sol came up to her. “Thank you,” he said. “Stagebridge has provoked my interest in storytelling.”

Wondering how to help

Lady Laura

Lady Laura performing at the 2004 Tellabration

Success in storytelling did not improve Sol’s classroom behaviour. When she couldn’t handle him any more, the teacher transferred him across the hall, to a classroom with a male teacher.

At Stagebridge we pondered how we could help the talented but troubled young man. We decided on a modest plan to focus his energy on something besides stirring up trouble.

Aside from Marijo, he also knew one of our skilled elders, Lady Laura. She had been his classroom’s special storyteller. She was the one who had first sparked his interest in storytelling. We decided to enlist her in our scheme.

Lady Laura was a retired black school teacher. She had dealt with every kind of challenge a student could throw in a teacher’s path. She graciously agreed to go into the school and let Sol interview her, then help him write a story about her good enough to record on radio.

With Lady Laura and Sol’s teacher both supportive, I drove to the school and spoke to Sol. I reminded him that we thought he was a very talented storyteller and asked if he would be willing to interview Lady Laura and write a story for radio. He would have to agree not to act out in class between then and the radio taping, and he would have to keep up with his studies in spite of the extra work. Sol was thrilled and promised to adhere to his end of the bargain.

A small success

I’d like to report the next few weeks were smooth sailing. They weren’t. Lady Laura found working with Sol challenging. His listening and writing skills were not well developed. And, to be honest, being in close proximity to a child with no washing facilities was not always pleasant.

But they both persevered, and on the day of the radio taping, Sol was one of nine children whose stories were recorded for future broadcast on KPFA.

As usual, I had loaded my van with children and adults needing a ride to the studio. My last stop on the return trip was Sol’s. A day earlier, when I offered to pick him up at the school and take him home after the taping, he told me I could drop him off at the bus stop. He’d catch the bus home.

So I was honoured when he felt comfortable enough to let me take him all the way to the beat-up van he and his mother called home. It was parked on a freeway overpass in a neighborhood so rundown the police probably didn’t bother with anything as insignificant as a broken-down van piled high with a family’s few worldly goods.

The school year ended shortly after the radio taping. Next fall Sol was no longer in the same school. No one knew where he had gone. I’ve no idea what happened to him and don’t kid myself his life was forever transformed by his brush with storytelling.

I do know that for at least a while he knew others saw him as talented and valued. For at least a few weeks he believed he was strong enough to draw gems from the rough stones of his life. I hope the memory was a source of courage on the rough path ahead.

And sometimes, when I think of him, my heart just hurts.

The scant geography of wisdom

This piece first appeared in October 2010 as a guest post on Mary L. Tabor’s blog, Sex After Sixty. Mary is one of the most literate, eloquent writers I’ve come across. Her posts, and those of her guests, are consistently stimulating and thought provoking.

“The places I am hurt most mark the places I am least tolerant, most vicious. Where I have been gravely injured and am most healed, these form the scant geography of my wisdom. Where I have never been hurt at all, where I have never lacked for resource or nurture, these are the stories I find it most difficult to perceive.” ~ Joanne Arnott, “Storytelling: A Constellation” in By, For & About Women

Writing truth

The dear friend who sent me this quote years ago knew my story. I was a bird with broken wings when she and her spouse took me in. They gave me a resting place until I could fly on my own again.

The words came back to me as I read Mary L. Tabor’s literate, eloquent, and painful memoir, Sex After Sixty. There were times I was holding my breath, shrinking from the next revelation.

I know why. Mary has worked through her pain, resolved her confusion, and risen like the Phoenix. But while she was writing the blog that became a book, she was still in the middle of it. The rawness of her journey made me look into the sore places in my heart. In spite of the passage of years, I still have stories I am not ready to lift out of the journals and letters where they lie like ogres ready to eat my soul.

So it did not surprise me to learn that one of Mary’s readers reacted with alarm to something she read in Sex After Sixty. No one can write that honestly and not rake fingernails over someone’s soul wounds or deepest fears. When a reader recoils because the door to her spiritual closet has been flung open, the monsters released, the writer can’t help but feel responsible.

Daggers to another’s soul

During my years as a traveling storyteller, I occasionally knew I’d hit the explosion button in someone. (Others likely just smoldered quietly.) Sometimes the story that triggered the response was so innocuous I was completely flummoxed by the strong reaction. Other times, I knew the story might be difficult for some but hoped my telling would lead them to safety.

Early in my storytelling career, one story exploded in my face. It was the true account of a child who was the butt of teasing. I thought I had dealt with my own complicated reaction to her plight. So I launched the new work with a group I figured would be receptive to a story that dealt with difficult matter.

Cathryn Wellner

I could feel the atmosphere in the room change

I could feel the atmosphere change as the story unfolded. By the time I finished, the temperature in the room had changed from warm to frosty. Though the stories that followed were among my sure-fire audience pleasers, they might as well have been blocks of ice. They did nothing to thaw the room.

I’d experienced the gamut of responses to more challenging stories but never this kind of sudden freeze. Fortunately, a friend was in the audience. We had coffee together the next day. As I poured out my distress, she gently asked questions that helped me see that particular story was one that triggered emotions in me I hadn’t fully processed. I had told it too soon. The audience felt my discomfort, and it set off their own.

The experience taught me an important lesson about doing my own inner work on a story before sharing it with an audience. Most people are too polite to walk out when a story jars them. But a told story is not a book they can close or throw across the room. They are held captive.

Going public with pain

So it was with that painful lesson in mind that I was horrified when, years later, one of my storytelling students invited me to a one-woman show. She was inviting everyone she knew to hear the story of her years of being sexually abused by her father. She had rented a hall and baked cookies.

I was mortified but could think of no gentle way of refusing to come. She wanted me there, wanted me to see what she had done with what she had learned in the workshops. I wondered if she had been absent when I talked about the importance of not using the audience as a crying towel.

The hall was packed with her friends. She set the scene and began to spin a story of survival and triumph so magical I still get shivers when I think about it. She was no longer a victim. She carried no guilt. She was a strong, beautiful woman who had experienced the horrors of degradation but emerged whole and healthy. When the last words of her performance died away, the audience rose spontaneously in a standing ovation.

We cannot control others’ responses

Most of my own challenging experiences, and those of colleagues, have not had such straightforward causes and effects. A colleague was telling a story to a group of school children when one little girl burst into tears. The death of a parent in an old folktale sent the child into spasms of grief. The storyteller decided to retire that particular story from her repertoire.

Some time after the incident, my friend learned the child’s mother had died only months before. Her father had never talked with his daughter about their loss. Instead, he had walled off his emotions and tried to give her a normal childhood.

The child felt she had to protect her father from her own sorrow so never mentioned her mother—until the story ripped off her protective scarring. The teacher who called my friend had spoken with the father and learned the story had been a key. Father and daughter used it to unlock and share their grief.

The truth is, beyond setting our own internal house in order and trying to act responsibly, we cannot control the impact our stories have, whether they or written or told.

An opportunity to reflect

I remember telling a story to a group of American middle school students on a military base in Germany. It was clear they were on the edge of out-of-control when they walked in the room. With young people this age, a storyteller has less than five minutes to captivate or lose them. If they’re not captivated, they will make the next hour feel like a year, a very tortured, painful year.

So I told them the story of Tayzanne, a haunting story that never failed to calm the antsiest group. I did not tell it because I loved the story, though I did and still do. I wielded it like a club, hoping to bludgeon them into submission. [The whole episode can be read in “Bite till the blood runs”.

It worked. They were still and attentive and actually seemed sorry when the hour ended. I didn’t know until a year later how much the story had unsettled them. When I returned to the school, they wanted to hear the story again. It was the only story they wanted to hear. We spent the entire time exploring its mysteries together, examining their questions like precious jewels.

When our best efforts are rejected

For the most part, storytellers and writers are not offered the luxury of exploring together whatever it is that unsettles our listeners or readers. Critics can trash us. Audiences can turn away. They can send angry letters or make distressed phone calls. They do not owe us any deep, honest exploration of what it was that prompted their dismay.

When Mary shared one reader’s troubling response to her eloquent book, I wrote back: “The woman may not be able to articulate what scared her so much that she had to run away screaming. Perhaps she’s not yet healed from some relationship or is involved in one that’s on shaky grounds. Maybe she’s held captive by religious teachings she is afraid to question, in case the answers might crumble her world.

“Whatever the case, she’s taken her own anxieties and projected them onto you, in a way that triggers the deepest fear in any writer – that what we have to say is unworthy and that perhaps that means we are unworthy. That you’ve had so much positive response to your splendid book gets placed on one side of the balance. On the other side is the heavy stone of her reaction. No one’s immune from the bashing that does to the spirit, even someone as accomplished, talented, open, and intelligent as you.”

Wisdom from one who came before

In her 1938 book, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, Barbara Ueland wrote, “I think that when people condemn what we do, they are symbolically destroying us. Hence the excruciatingly painful feeling, though to our common sense it seems foolish and self-centered to feel so badly.”

When we release our story children, the products of our creative imaginations, into the world, we become sensitive plants, recoiling from unkind touch. It is then we need the words of Barbara Ueland:

“What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.”

Engraved on my heart

Sometimes a casual remark is a boulder in our river. Our lives bump up against it and are rerouted. If we’re lucky, it sends us off in a good direction instead of a dead end. I have Jay O’Callahan to thank for five words that helped set me firmly on a new Story Route. I carried those five words in my heart and pulled them out whenever I needed a boost.

At the time, I was still pretty new to storytelling. I’d stumbled into it in Rochester, New York, while trying to figure out how to survive as an elementary school librarian. A five-year-old had taught me how entrancing storytelling could be.

Then I discovered there was a local storytelling guild. Ann Gibson, who worked for the Rochester Public Library, invited me to join. I think the others were a bit leery at first since they were a group with serious intent, and I was a newbie. But my enthusiasm overcame their understandable initial uncertainty.

They introduced me to a magical world. I caught the storytelling bug so badly that when Rafe Martin told me he was going to be offering storytelling performances in his book store, I blurted out, “I’m a storyteller. Can I tell stories here?”

I don’t kid myself. The only thing Rafe had to judge my storytelling by was my penchant for buying armloads of books. Hard to turn down a good customer. So I joined the storytelling scene at his book store and loved every minute of it.

When my husband decided to accept a job at the University of Washington, I began weighing my options. I wanted to throw myself into storytelling full time, but I was afraid.

The storytelling guild held a farewell gathering, and I picked a new story to be my pièce de résistance, the tale no one would forget. It bombed (or so I thought), but I was still burning with a desire to launch myself into what felt like a calling.

Between the end of school and the big cross-country move, I traveled to the beating heart of American storytelling, Jonesborough, Tennessee. The annual storytelling conference was being held at Washington College Academy, seven miles west of Jonesborough.

Some of the stars in the burgeoning storytelling movement were scheduled to be instructors at the conference. The one whose work I was most drawn to was Jay O’Callahan. I was determined to learn everything he was willing to share.

Photo of Linda and Jay O'Callahan, taken in Marshfield, Massachussetts in 1988

I participated in every workshop he gave and signed up for any critique session he was offering. Looking back, I’m sure I was the eager puppy, following him around with my tail wagging, desperate for a pat on the head.

He gave me more than that. Jay’s the sort who listens with the kind of attention that opens people like flowers. Toward the end of the conference, we sat chatting about storytelling. I told him of my upcoming move. He asked what my plans were.

I was afraid to tell him I was burning with the desire to be a storyteller – a real storyteller, performing and giving workshops and making a difference through stories. I remember stumbling uncertainly, muttering something about maybe doing some writing, about not being sure.

That’s when he gave me the five-word gift I carried like a shining star. “You can always tell stories,” he said.

He’d heard me tell four or five stories, not enough to offer the endorsement I heard. But I took that sentence and turned it into a talisman. I moved to Seattle, announced to the world I was A Storyteller, became an active part of the Seattle Storytellers Guild, and threw myself into the work of my dreams.

Belfast storytelling

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nigel Dodds, on the left, Northern Ireland storyteller Liz Weir on the right, Cathryn in the middle - taken during a 1988 storytelling tour set up by Liz

I had no idea just how interesting that work was going to be nor in what unexpected directions it would take me. I’d have followed that dream whether or not I’d met Jay. But he gave me a talisman for the journey, and that made an enormous difference.

We all carry words in our souls. The best ones to keep are those that give us a boost. For years now I’ve had a file of them on my computer. My “nice words” folder holds the particularly encouraging or complimentary things people have written to and about me. They’re for times when I’m judging myself far more harshly than anyone else ever has.

“You can always tell stories” isn’t in the folder. It doesn’t have to be. It’s engraved on my heart.

We’re not dumb kids

From February 2004 through April 2005 I was Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, America’s oldest senior theatre. My job was to work with seniors who were taking stories into the inner-city schools of Oakland, California. At the time, the position was supported by a federal grant intended to support literacy programs. Though reading improvement is hard to correlate with any one thing, the researchers working with the program were able to measure a statistically significant difference between students in classes with a storyteller and those without. “We’re Not Dumb Kids” is just one of many stories from an extraordinary year.

When Jim McWilliams walked into the class, a room full of fifth graders fell silent. They knew something good was coming.

Jim was “their” storyteller. Once a month the retired lawyer came into the inner-city Oakland school to tell stories to the class. When he spoke of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he called them Medgar (Evers) or Martin (Luther King). They had been friends and fellow activists, not just names he read in the newspaper.

The school lay in the heart of a city pocked like a bombing target. Some neighbourhoods were so derelict they looked as if they had been abandoned, and in many ways they had been. Drugs were sold openly. Violence was so common when children talked about gang beatings or drive-by shootings they were generally not referring to television shows.

Most of the houses surrounding the school were in good repair. The streets were home to Black American families with middle-class aspirations, but many of the children in the school were from families barely scraping by or living in poverty. The hills above them were populated be comfortably middle- and upper-class white families. That kind of social disparity has high costs. The average academic ranking of the students in the school was low.

I visited the school to watch Jim in action. He started out with a short folktale, something  surefire to warm up his audience. They listened, as they always did when Jim spoke, but they were listless and distracted.

Jim finished his story and looked around. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

The children answered glumly, “They’re closing our school.”

School closures were being announced regularly in the Bay Area, a curious consequence of the federal “No Child Left Behind” program that was mandating standardized tests and minimal performance standards. Schools that didn’t measure up to required standards were losing funding.

“Why are they closing your school?” Jim asked.

“Because we’re dumb kids.”

Jim McWilliams

Jim McWilliams speaking with a young admirer after a performance in Oakland, California

Jim was startled, but he understood after their teacher read part of a news release. It named schools being closed because they were “underperforming”. The kids knew what that meant. They were dumb.

“Are you dumb kids?” Jim asked.

“No,” they chorused.

“So what are you going to do about it?”

It hadn’t occurred to the children they could challenge the school board’s decision. As Jim talked with them and asked them questions, the gloom in the class lifted. Jim organized students to write letters to the school board. He taught them how to protest the closure of the school and their portrayal as underachievers, how to get on the speakers’ list at the next board meeting, how to stand up for themselves, how to contact media and enlist allies. (They learned the lesson well and talked him into coming with them to the board meeting and speaking on their behalf.)

The children’s eyes were shining when we left. They were sitting tall. They were afire with enthusiasm and not because they expected the school board to reverse its decision. Jim had been clear that was unlikely.

Jim had given them something more important than winning a battle to keep the school open. He had given them a new story. They were not “dumb kids”. They were smart, socially active fighters for justice.

I don’t know how long they held onto that new story. I don’t know how many lives were changed that day. I do know a room full of children learned they could refuse to be labeled.

And that is a powerful story.

Man with no brain

When I translated this story for Margaret Read MacDonald’s Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk about, I ended the story here: “if I had any brains at all, I would never have come with my ‘friends.’” Audiences taught me to stop at that point. That’s where they reacted.

Looking at the story again, I see my telling and their reaction were cultural. My audiences and I interpreted the story as an anti-war tale. As Algerian storyteller Mohammed bel Halfaoui told and wrote it (in Arabic, then translated into French), the story has a quite different intent.

How would you interpret it?

In the past, many things happened.

Many things happened in days gone by.

Basil and lily I offer to the Prophet Mohammed. May God bless and honor him.

Arabesque wooden art

Arabesque wooden art, photo by Sam Mugraby from his stock site

Here is one of the adventures of the renowned Jouha. In Algeria he is called Jha or Ben Sakrane. Farther to the east, he is Nasredin Hodja. He is, in fact, Tyl Eulenspiegel, or Jean le Sot: the fool who sells his wisdom, he who brays like a donkey in order to be heard, and sometimes the most unbeatably cunning.

One day Jha met some friends armed for battle with shields, spears, bows, and quivers full of arrows.

“But where are you going in these disguises?”

“Listen, don’t you know we are soldiers? Obviously we are going to into battle, and it promises to be rough!”

“Good. This is my chance to witness one of these things I’ve heard about but never seen with my own eyes. Let me come with you, at least this once!”

“Well, come on then. You are welcome.”

And there Jha was among the small platoon going to join the rest of the army on the battlefield.

The first arrow struck him in the forehead.

Quick! A surgeon! The doctor arrived, examined the wounded man, nodded, and declared, “It has gone in deeply. To remove it will be easy. But if the tiniest piece of brain comes with it, he will die.”

The wounded man seized the doctor’s hand and kissed it, expressing his “deep gratitude to the Master”. He declared, “Doctor, you can remove the arrow without fear. There won’t be the tiniest atom of brain on it.”

“Hush!” said the doctor. “Let the experts take care of you. How can you tell the arrow hasn’t penetrated your brain?”

“I know only too well,” said Jha, “because if I had any brains at all, I would never have come with my ‘friends.’ I’m not a soldier. I just wanted to watch. I got mixed up with something that didn’t concern me. Punishment was swift.”

The story has tumbled down the hill. I climb back in my boat.

Landing a new story

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, I was in Rome. An appliance store employee had thought to point a television toward the street and turn up the volume. A circle of excited Italians was gathered around me.

I didn’t speak Italian so it was only later that I heard Armstrong’s now-famous sentence: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The “a” in that sentence is not a misprint. Nearly forty years later, sound analysis confirmed what Armstrong always insisted he meant to say.)

Summer of 1969 was not the easiest time for young Americans to be backpacking around Europe. The War in Vietnam stirred anti-American sentiment to a high pitch. Hitchhikers who could be identified as from the US waited longer for rides. The French conveniently swept their own colonial presence in Vietnam under the political rug. German youth, weary of the long shadow of Nazism, were happy to have another target for finger pointing.

I’d had a year of political debates as a graduate student at the Université de Clermont-Ferrand. When the academic year ended, I just wanted to enjoy some carefree travel months before returning to the States. The fierce questions followed me into every youth hostel across Europe.

But not in Rome, on July 20, 1969. On that day I could wear my heritage proudly. For a short time, I could bask in the congratulations of an impressed world. I was part of a new story.

Stories. That’s how we remember major events. We set them into the context of our lives, give them personal meaning, exchange them like precious stones, ask each other, “Where were you when…?” The stories allow us to circle around a momentous happening, turn over the stones of our memories, and share our own perspectives.

That’s what Jay O’Callahan did when NASA asked him to create a story in honour of the space agency’s 50th anniversary. One of the three stories he chose for his extraordinary work, “Forged in the Stars”, is the 1969 Apollo moon landing.

Jay’s story adds a new stone to my collection. He tells the story through Neil Armstrong’s voice, recounting what it felt like to see the blue ball of Earth from the bleak landscape of the moon. He has generously shared an excerpt on YouTube.

I love the story he tells, both for its grandeur and artistry and also for its power to take me back to a street in Rome, in the summer of 1969.

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