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“Rebecca” – a repeat performance

June 8, 2017

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The story of “Rebecca” began as many stories do – by accident. I was rummaging around the Island County Historical Museum Library when I stumbled upon a pioneer diary. It was written by Rebecca Ebey, wife of well known Washington pioneer, Isaac Ebey. (Note: the photograph above is not Rebecca…merely my image of her….)The Ebeys were part of the first group of homesteaders on Whidbey Island, my home.  In my research, I have read many frontier diaries. But this one was special….  I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Five years later, in 2012, “Rebecca: the story of Rebecca Ebey” premiered at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Since then, the show has received national recognition and been performed all over Washington State – and in other states as well. This month, “Rebecca” is coming back to Whidbey Island… to the Day Use Area at Camp Casey State Park in Coupeville on June 23rd at 7:00 pm. The story traces Rebecca’s journey from Missouri to the Oregon Territory in 1851; in the second part of the show,   the diary is brought back to life as Rebecca describes the joys and sorrows of being a homesteader. The performance, sponsored  by the Sound Water Stewarts and the Park, is free.

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Memorial Day 2017

May 31, 2017

 

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The day was cool. Rain clouds loomed at the edge of the cemetery as people parked their cars, pulling portable chairs out of trunks, and then walked slowly down the cemetery lane, past pine and oak trees toward the podium. Despite the weather, it was a good- sized crowd. The Boy Scout color guard twisted impatiently in formation waiting for their cue. As the mayor of Marine, Minnesota greeted us, the wind whipped across his microphone, creating what sounded like a muffled drum beat. After the greeting, came announcements. There would be no garbage collection on Monday…the crowd chuckled. We heard about the upcoming Fourth celebration (which would actually be on the 3rd) and the Art Sale to benefit the Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Team. The appropriate people were acknowledged and thanked.

Over sixty-five years ago – as a child – I was in this little town on Memorial Day – with my parents and two younger brothers. My father, great-grandfather, and my Dede, his second wife are buried in this place. Today I set my canvas chair down beside my youngest brother and his wife who have lived here for forty years. Over those years, Marine has seen many changes. But, for a lot of reasons, the town’s size (689 residents) and spirit have remained pretty much the same.

As the color guard advanced with the flags, there was a respectful silence – and a slight sprinkling from above. Hoods were pulled up and umbrellas appeared, but no-one ducked for cover. As a state senator gave a short speech and the fifth graders read the names of all the Marine citizens who died in service to their country, and taps was blown, rain periodically spit down on us. Nobody moved then either.

As I stood and sang the appropriate songs, there were moments when I began to tear up. There is something about these ceremonies which is both fragile and enduring. There is something enduring (and endearing) about watching a little girl in a sun-dress solemnly read the names of soldiers she does not know – and then sprint back to her place in line. There is something infinitely fragile that brought us all here today to share in this ritual. We remember those who gave their lives in service. But let us also remember that fragile spirit which united us here – and resolve to do everything we can to preserve it.

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Rain

May 5, 2017

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Yesterday’s rainstorm was atypical. After a gloriously sunny day, grey clouds began to roll in. The air was warm and moist and smelled of the coming storm. Then came the thunder…thirty minutes of it as the sky continued to darken. I remembered Minnesota childhood days: watching dark clouds roll in, feeling the breeze pick up, smelling the changes in the air – and then racing across the yard towards the house as the first raindrops began to fall. The thunder and the sky, the smells and the sounds were taking me back… to different times and places….

I was six, sitting on my Uncle’s lap on the front porch of the cabin in a thunderstorm. Rain was pounding on the stones outside; we could feel the moisture through the screens. Suddenly, the lightening would flash, there would be a cascading series of thunder “cracks” – and then BOOM! – the big one. I burrowed into his chest, hiding my face in his shirt, and started to cry. He did not comfort me; instead, he told me a story – about the elves and their game of ninepins up in the sky. I listened, fascinated, imagining little men – like the dwarfs in “Snow White” – rolling bowling balls across the sky.

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In Manila, it was raining. At our tiny little house in San Andres Bukid district, we watched the street fill up and then closed the door and stuffed rolled newspapers under it. Fortunately, the bedrooms were upstairs, so the baby was safe and we could sleep. The next morning there was ankle-deep water on the first floor and the refrigerator had shorted out. The jeepneys were still running and I had to go to the market for food. Later, grocery bags full, I started across a main street to catch a ride home. “HWAG NA!” A man shouted at me from across the street. He was waving his arms and pointing to a spot on the street in front of me. I had almost stepped into an open manhole….

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It was 4:15 am in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon in Central West Africa. I had been awakened by a loud rattling sound coming from the metal roof of our home. Could it be? I jumped out of bed, turned off the air conditioner, and threw open the windows. Yes, it was true… the rains had finally come.

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As I stood there, drinking in the cool, fresh air, rain drummed on the roof, falling in sheets on the ground tiles below. The leaves glistened with wetness.  I imagined the dust on the street outside running in red rivulets into the ditch…all over the city, running from hills, streets, cracks in the earth, carrying away the dusty refuse of this dry season.

Whole districts of the city had been without water for weeks. As the sun shone fiercely day after day, everywhere people had been looking up… asking, “when will it come?” Like tens of thousands of others, I had given up trying to keep things clean. I was beginning to wonder if the smell of dust, the faint reddish haze on everything, would ever go away.

The next morning, my brown yard would look clean. The respiratory problems which come every year at the end of the dry season would begin to recede. People would smile as they walked around or stepped over puddles. The thunder rumbled gently in the background as the wind and rain slackened.  And, standing at that window, I began to understand – in my gut – what the threat of drought in Africa means.

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Spring: Flowers and Baseball

April 7, 2017

I keep stumbling into things. Preparing for my monthly visit to an assisted living center, I decided on a Spring theme. The month before, I had asked them what the word “Spring” conjured up for them. There were two strong responses: flowers and baseball. So – why not do a program on both? Voila!

I already had a great Ojibwe folktale describing how the great Nanabozho created first – the colors of the flowers and second – a rainbow. During my research for this tale, I discovered that there were many First Nation stories about flowers: ex. the Ottawa story about their tribal flower: the trailing arbutus.

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But I had no stories – or knowledge – about baseball. There were dim memories of my first year of teaching at Silverado Junior High in Napa, California. Our principal, deans, and many teachers were fervid baseball fans. Therefore, the World Series was broadcast over the school loudspeaker system – much to the chagrin of un-informed and illiterate teachers like me. Then I remembered a book written by a prominent historian, a memoire of her childhood –  including her love affair with the Brooklyn Dodgers. I found the book in the library.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Wait Till Next Year” is a delight. With a deft and unsentimental touch, she brings back memories of growing up in suburban New York in the 40’s and 50’s. Her love of baseball began early:

“When I was six, my father gave me a bright-red scorebook that opened my heart to the game of baseball. After dinner on long summer nights, he would sit beside me in our small enclosed porch to hear my account of that day’s Brooklyn Dodgers game. Night after night he taught me the odd collection of symbols, numbers, aned letters that enable a baseball lover to record every action of the game.”

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Doris had the great good luck to fall in love with baseball at the beginning of a grand era for New York fans. Between 1949 – 1957, all three New York teams: the Giants, the Yankees, and her beloved Dodgers competed in the World Series. She describes her first actual game at Ebbets Field:

“I reached over instinctively to hold my father’s hand as we wended our way to seats between home plate and first base, which like thousands of seats in this tiny, comfortable park, were so close to the playing field that we could hear what the ballplayers said to one another….I was witness to a splendid game… the Dodgers won 4 – 3.”

What a wonderful resource… it brings back an era my audience will remember and a sport that many of them followed as avidly as Doris. Play ball!

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An Epic Revisited

March 28, 2017

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Two storytellers stand onstage, facing on another. They join hands and begin to sway gently back and forth – and sing. The presentation of Finland’s national epic, “The Kalevala”, at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle opened the way it traditionally is performed – in song. The song was simple, repetitive… almost hypnotic. By the time the fourth teller (each teller presented one chapter or Runo) made her entrance, the audience was spontaneously humming it. It became the glue that held this performance of Finland’s national epic together.

Sixteen storytellers from Washington, Oregon, California and Canada came together to create this six hour long performance. (Yes, there were two intermissions.) I’d lay odds that most of the audience had never heard an epic told or knew much of anything about this one.  But, surprising to us all, they stayed – a good many of them -for the entire epic. Some of the chapters were funny, others dramatic, even violent, and others full of lyricism. Each teller brought his or her own energy and interpretation to their telling. But what bound it all together was the music: first the song, then a guitar, a harp, and the kantele, a Finnish zither-like instrument, which is featured in the story.

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For those of us who told, it was grand – to watch our own carefully prepared and rehearsed chapter magically mesh with all the others to re-create an ancient tale… to see our audience become mesmerized by a centuries old mythology. Happy 100th birthday to Suoni…to Finland.

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What does it mean to be Irish?

March 11, 2017

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Years ago, I was cast in a play as an Irish nun. As I prepared for the role, the accent seemed to come so easily: the rhythm, the sound of the words, the way the words came together in thoughts. I was puzzled; I’d never before played an Irish role. I wondered about it.

One day I was talking long distance to my mother on the phone. I happened to mention the play – and the accent. There was a pause on the other end of the line.

Well, you do know, dear…that your grandfather was full blood Irish.”

You never told me that!”

You never asked.”

My grandfather died when I was a small baby. Mother had always spoken about him with great affection, but no lineage was ever discussed. I had always assumed that his family was English and Scottish like my grandmother’s. So…my grandfather was Irish; his family came from the same part of Ireland – County Mayo – as my character. I began doing some research – about the potato famine and the mass starvation and immigration it caused. I saw pictures of the immigrants on the boats; in long lines at the immigration center. I learned that, during that time, the population of County Mayo plummeted – and it did not get back to it’s original number until 1956.

Years later, I visited Ireland. I tried to find my grandfather’s family records, but was unsuccessful. But once again, there was something familiar about the land… and there was one unforgettable memory.

We were on a tour bus headed for the Aran Islands. We passed yet again one of those little plots of land marked by a fence of stone with a crumbling stone cottage inside it. The guide pointed it out – another small farm abandoned during the famine. And then he told a story….

It seems that his grandfather had one of these plots on his land. One day, when the guide was a young teenager, he casually remarked to his grandfather that he should knock the old place down; it was useless … an eyesore. His grandfather was furious… almost cuffed the boy as he shouted:

That’s someone’s home out there! Someday… someone from that family may come back. And if they do” – and he cursed and swore under his breath – “their home will still be here!!!’

To me, THAT’S what it means to be Irish.

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Three Storytellers/One Concert

February 26, 2017

On March 17th, Jill Johnson and two storyteller/musician friends will gather  at Ott and Murphy’s Wines at 204 1st Street in Langley, WA on Whidbey Island for “The Celtic Heart”, a special celebration in which they will tell tales and play music from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.

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Jill is a familiar face on Whidbey. She premiered two one woman shows there, both of which received national recognition, and has performed as an actress and storyteller at venues all over the island. A former teacher and international training consultant, Jill “recycles” her extensive international experience into her storytelling. She has performed and given workshops in eight states and in Africa, New Zealand, and the South Pacific.

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For 35 years, Allison Cox of Vashon Island has been sharing stories that touch the heart, sooth the soul, and celebrate the diversity of life. Storytelling also accompanied her 23 years as a health professional and inspires her work as the Coordinator of the Healing Story Alliance and editor of their journal. Allison is also a co-editor and contributing author for The Healing Heart books and she is currently on the board of the Seattle Storytelling Guild.

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Katherine Gee Perrone of Seattle is an award-winning storyteller for children and adults, a singer/songwriter, and an award-winning playwright. At Brigham Young University, she was on the founding board for New Play Project, a company dedicated to bringing new works to the stage. Her plays have been produced in Texas, Colorado, New York, Washington DC and here in Washington State. She teaches and writes creative dramatics curriculum for Stone Soup Theatre and recently received her MFA in Playwriting and Screenwriting from Lesley University.

Jill is delighted to be bringing her two friends to Whidbey. “When you put three storytellers like us together – sparks fly! It’s going to be a fun evening!” The program starts at 7:30 pm and reservations are recommended. Call 360-221-7131 for more information.

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