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Once More, With Feeling

November 17, 2018

the wall

Last weekend was such a whirlwind. First – an all day plane ride from Washington (the state) to Washington (the city) to attend the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Women’s Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall near the Wall.

Then -the next morning – early – a video interview with a production company making a documentary on women in Vietnam. The interviewer and camera crew were young, energetic, highly skilled. They reminded me so much of the “kids” I trained as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. I was so jazzed: just to be with them and watch them work gave me new energy. It made me really want to give them what they needed: a good story. After a LONG interview, I was tired, but wonderfully alive.

 

Without time to breathe, we were whisked off to a restaurant and a brunch for women who had worked for Army Special Services or the Red Cross (the “Donut Dollies”). The room was crowded, the food was mediocre, but the discovery of old comrades I hadn’t seen in almost fifty years made it all worthwhile.

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“Nikki…!!! Do you remember coming to the opening of the club in Vinh Long?” Tiny gray-haired Nikki smiled and looked blankly at me. “Not really….” Then I re-created the picture of her youthful self: small and sassy with straight jet black hair. “You danced with every guy there…remember??” A smile slowly came to her face, “yes… yes, now I remember. I remember that one young kid I danced with… damn, he was good!” And in her eyes and her voice, there was a glimmer of the young hot-shot she once was.  

Then – on a bitterly cold night- we were off to a candlelight ceremony at the Memorial now known affectionately as “The Women’s Statue”. The bronze of the three figures glowed in the floodlights as we waved plastic candles and sang and remembered. Thirty five years ago, Diane Carlson Evans, a young woman who had been a nurse in Vietnam, looked at the statue of the three soldiers near the Wall and wondered – where are the women?

 

It took ten more years to make that Memorial a reality. Just getting site approval involved four years of work: getting approvals from seven different agencies and five different pieces of legislation through the  Senate and House. At first, the memorial was directed only at nurses, but gradually Diane and her supporters realized that many other women had served in Vietnam and the vision was opened to include them as well. At least 11,000 military women served in Vietnam, but the actual number of civilian women is not known. However, between 1966 – 1972, some 300 – 600 civilians served in Army Special Services – 75% of which were women. I was one of them – serving as a Service Club Director in Can Tho and Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta. And here we were all gathered – military and civilian – in the freezing wind to pay tribute to Diane’s vision and the incredible memorial created by sculptress, Glenna Goodacre. As I circled the statues of the three women, the lights and the speeches and the voices of the crowd faded away. I stared at the figures… and  felt again their pain; exhaustion, and looming despair… and the grit that kept them going. I saw the strength in the taut muscles of their faces and the sinews of their arms as one of the figures cradled a wounded GI. And just as I had done twenty years before, I reached out and touched them – gently. And I was once again honored to be considered one with them.

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And then it was Sunday… time to go once again to the Wall, to mingle with the now aging vets and their families, gaze at the roses and the medals and the fading photos of the young men they remember today… and all days.

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I chatted with a vet and his wife from New Jersey. Just last month, he found out that a kid he knew really well in high school was killed in Vietnam.  He was searching for his name; I watched his fingers go up and down the panel in a random, confused sweep. Gently, I intervened… “What line is he on, sir?” “Line 26” I counted down with him to Line 26. The name he was searching for was the first in the line. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke up as his wife patted his arm. Quietly, I left them there … to search for another name. He was my commanding officer at Vinh Long Air Base killed during the Tet Offensive… LTC Bernard David Thompson…from Los Angeles, CA…killed January 28, 1968. I traced my fingers gently over his name as I remembered the man….

And then, we waited in a long line – for fifteen, twenty minutes while the security dogs scanned the hundreds of folding chairs set up for the ceremony. The sun sparkled on the autumn leaves – red and gold – poised to fall soon to the grass below. When I finally found my seat in one of the front rows, I turned to look at the wreath that- with another Special Services “girl” – I would place near the wall. I was so honored to be there; to be in that spot; to do this incredibly simple but profoundly moving task. My mind wandered and I saw images of all the young women I had worked with: Georgeanne, Kay, Sharon, Judy, Christy, Renna… and some whose names I couldn’t remember, but whose faces I could see and voices I could hear. They were all of them echoing in my head. I remember you… and I am here to honor you all… on this day.  

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“Kohlaika”

October 22, 2018

Pardon the black lines…I couldn’t get rid of them. COME JOIN US!!!!

Kohlalika2

 

A Meditation

October 14, 2018

autumn

There is a trickling of time in my life,

A cascading mountain stream of moments

That connect each spring and fall,

Each blossoming and harvesting.

What will be the colors of my flowers

Come next Beltane time?

The answer lies in the ways

That I now prepare the soil

Of my inner garden,

And in how lovingly I water the seeds

From summer’s fruit.”

Danaan Perry

 

 

What’s In A Name?

September 15, 2018

What's in a name

A while ago, I was squirreling around trying to think up words to use as passwords for my computer files. I stumbled upon some foreign words for “storyteller”. A-hah, I thought – and began looking up others – and the curious words brought back memories; images of tellers I’ve seen and experiences I’ve had. The strange thing was – sometimes… the cultures and the tellers/experiences did not match.

KADHAAB: the Arabic word brought back a teller from Cameroon in Central West Africa. A college professor in Cameroon, he came to a storytelling institute I held in the capital city of Yaounde. When he walked into the hotel room, he was quiet, composed… his clothing and demeanor very professorial…very Western – until he got up to tell. Suddenly he had on a large, multi-colored cape – and he was dancing and leaping about the room, creating loud, rhythmic calls and responses, and bringing his audience of teachers from five African countries to their feet, laughing and clapping and shouting. Suddenly the walls of that hotel vanished and we were in a village with a fire blazing, dogs barking, children dancing, and the beaming faces of the villagers reflected in the firelight.

CUENTISTA: the Spanish word created a picture of a young Mexican man who was doing some yard work for me. We got to chatting one day and he told me – shyly – about his new infant daughter and how he sometimes sang Spanish songs and lullabies to her at night. I was pleased – and told him so. We talked a bit about the importance of sharing our cultural heritage with our children. As we talked, I could see him sit up a little straighter; speak with more confidence – and I was glad. Sometimes, what we do as storytellers has little to do with performance….

SUTORITERA: the Japanese word conjured up a tiny Japanese-American teller re-creating the famous tale of “The Crane Wife”. I have told this tale myself – many times – but never the way she did…. Soft-spoken and still, she created the unbearable tension of this gentle, sad tale with powerful pauses and exquisite hand gestures.

CONTEUSE: the French word brought to mind a Canadian teller I saw in Vancouver BC at a national festival. She was telling a rollicking folktale – in French – and I was trying – mightily – to follow along. I remember the rush when I finally was able to nail an entire phrase or sentence! But, at the end, when I was clapping and hooting with the others, I realized that it didn’t matter that I’d lost at least half the words. I had still managed to participate; to be a part of the telling of the story.

I am humbled to be part of this world; to stand shoulder to shoulder with storytellers and their stories from all over the world.

Visit 2018

August 26, 2018

Who is this child-woman in my house? She bears scant resemblance to the kid I once knew.

The child squeaking out “Hot Cross Buns” on her sax in my dining room is now a confident member of her high school marching band.

The little girl timidly stirring a steaming pot is now stirring, pouring, and putting lids on delicious jams.

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The kid who couldn’t find what percent 7 is of 35 – now looks it up on Google!!

But some things are still the same: the giggle, the disapproving look as she stares at me and then – “Oma!”, the impulsiveness, the raucous laugh – and gentle spirit.

Time passes… and as she gets more energy – I get less. But it’s OK, because we make the necessary allowances for one another. “Oma, you’re tired. You should go to bed” Good advice. So I can be ready for the excitement of tomorrow.

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The child who was (and still is) squeamish about bugs can now watch surgical operations at the vet clinic where she is shadowing this week – without a flinch. She has wanted to be a vet since she was six. Of course, goals can change…but my bet is that this one won’t.

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We’ve traveled together: rode horses in Arizona (god, it was hot!), visited a wild wolf preserve in Oregon, walked the Capilano Suspension Bridge in BC, and flown kites on beaches in two states.

And it’s grand – really grand – to know that now, years later, we still share many of the same interests, can teach one another new things, and – sometimes – laugh uproariously at the same joke!

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Kids and History

August 5, 2018

Road Scholar July 2018 (2)

“Wind up the Apple Tree – hold on tight!     Wind it all day and wind it all night!”

Fourteen giggling kids ages 9 – 13 formed a line – tallest kid to shortest – and proceeded to wind themselves up. They were playing a game that pioneer farm children who lived in this place many years ago might have played. The kids – and their grandparents – were part of an Inter-Generational Road Scholar program that was exploring Whidbey Island. As a presenter/performer, I was introducing them to Ebey’s Landing, the Ebey family and life as a pioneer.

That morning at the motel, they learned a bit about Rebecca Ebey and her long trek from Missouri to Whidbey with her two sons, Eason and Ellison, in 1851. They learned that over 120 years later, many of the lands, farms, and forests of those early pioneers were preserved: at Ebey’s Landing. Later, we played Cat’s Cradle and taught each other string tricks and fooled around with simple wooden toys that Eason and Ellison may have whittled and then played with. Then, we took a bus out to the Reserve.

It was a beautiful sunny day and the wind off Admiralty Inlet wasn’t too strong. As we walked along the trail to the Jacob Ebey Farmhouse, I talked a bit about Whidbey Island farming – then and now. Did they know that Whidbey Island – back in the 1920’’s – produced more wheat per acre than any other place in the US? That- today- 50% of the world supply of cabbage seed is grown right here? The grandparents were suitably impressed; the kids were busy chasing one another and goofing off. But everyone listened as I described the back-breaking work of clearing the land and the fears that first winter when the potatoes froze.

Then the mood changed as I taught them the game. They looked a little foolish, but I could tell they were game. The grandparents joined in the singing as the little line wound up tighter and tighter…

Road Scholar July 2018 (3)

“Stir up the dumplings —  the pot boils over!”

Laughing and lurching back and forth, the kids unwound themselves – and managed to keep the line intact. Their grand-parents and I applauded.

We finished the session with a group shot on the steps of Jacob’s farmhouse. As cameras clicked and kids tried out silly poses, I thought about Jacob Ebey. His wife Sarah bore him twelve children, but only seven made it into adulthood. I could almost imagine him peering out the window at this bunch – with a big smile on his face.

Road Scholar July 2018

Ray

July 26, 2018

 

 

rayonPorchFinal1

It was an early fall day as we wound up Old Mountain Road to the top of Beech Mountain in North Carolina. I was a novice storyteller living in nearby Jonesborough, TN; I was on my way to meet a legend.

At my first National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, I had become vaguely aware of an old man, a traditional teller, who had – along with others – started this festival. People said he came every year. I quickly found out it was true; he had performed every year – for 30 years. He had also received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Education Association in Washington DC and been written up in newspapers and magazines from Los Angeles to New York. I was more than a little intimidated.

As we climbed the mountain, I remembered hearing stories about how Ray sometimes “schnookered” visitors. A Yankee reporter would stop his car and ask where Mr. Hicks lived. Ray would smile…”over yander” – and the duped driver would continue on up the road. By that time, as a gullible Yankee, I’d been schnookered a few times myself….

When we reached the house, firewood was stacked all the way around the porch. Inside, there was no greeting; Ray was in the middle of a story. He sat in an old upholstered chair near an ancient wood stove. The floor was bare planks. After a few head-nods and smiles, I sat – and listened. His speech was so strange. An anthropologist once said that George Washington and Daniel Boone would have recognized it. I had a little more trouble. But gradually, I was drawn in, fascinated by what I was witnessing. At funny moments, his face would crinkle up with glee – and he’d laugh with us. This was FUN!

At one point, I wandered into the kitchen. Ray’s wife, Rosa, was drying apples. As she put yet another huge tray of apple slices on top of the old wood stove, we talked. Bundles of herbs hung in every corner of the room. We went into the spring house and she showed me her preserves. Then she dipped a tin cup into the water and handed it to me. I will never forget the taste of that ice-cold spring water.

Later, in the car, in hushed tones, I talked about what a unique experience it was. “I’ve just witnessed a piece of living history!” Jim, the driver, nodded. He’d heard it all before. But for me, that afternoon was so special… a gem I would hide away inside me to keep…forever.

For the next three years at the festival, I always went to Ray’s tent early – to be sure and get a seat. In between, I read every Jack Tale (the stories Ray told) I could get my hands on. Bit by bit, I began to really understand; I even got the jokes! Each year, Ray would sit – in a brand new pair of overalls – onstage in his chair… and 800 people in that tent listened. He was kind and generous and funny – and utterly genuine.

I have a souvenir from those times – a buckeye nut. In Tennessee, the saying goes that if a friend gives you a buckeye nut, you must keep it always and never lose it. The nut is kind of bumpy and old and worn – just like the man who gave it to me. Both Ray and his wife, Rosie, are gone now. But I will never lose that nut…not ever.

                                                                          Rosa, Ray, Jill Johnson 1

 

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