Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page


Table of Contents

Creativity Group


Family News

The Spirit of the Great Auk

How I Came To Storytelling

Couldn't Walk

Steel Festival

Widening Circles



Creativity Group


Six years ago Doug Lipman and I gave a Creativity Through Storytelling Workshop in Hebron, Connecticut. We almost canceled because there were only twelve registrants. Fortunately we did not. Doug and I have met with that group now for six years. We meet twice a year for a four day period. Working with these wonderful people has been one of my richest experiences.

We met this January at Carol Burnes' Vermont farm. For four days we were in a lovely farmhouse gathered around the fire, looking out on a snowy hillside studded with black cows. We wrote in the mornings and then read our writings. The writing was moving, poignant and beautifully done. Then we played with voice, character, sound and movement.

Over the years we have divided into groups of three or four and created mini musicals, satires and skits. This time we gave ourselves about half an hour and each created a mini detective story. The detective stories were fun, but more than that they were fascinating. I came away feeling that no one should go through life without creating a detective story or at least a mini musical.

Working with two or three people intensely for anywhere from five to thirty minutes creating an instant production is a thrilling experience. You're on the spot trying to come up with ideas, characters and movement. You're using language and figuring how to use your body and the space while developing a structure. It's all done so quickly that there's no time for much nervousness.

Why do we come together time after time? Because as one member said: "The group totally confirms who I am at heart."

This has been such fun, so rewarding, I encourage you to form your own creativity group. Creativity flows when we are at ease and present in the moment. What a gift to have times in life when we can truly be ourselves and be accepted for who we are.





In November I had the chance to perform "The Spirit of the Great Auk" at the City Hall in Bermuda. It is a very beautiful hall and I want to thank Kathleen Frith of the Bermuda Marine Biological Research Station. I loved telling this story of the sea to people who live surrounded by the sea.

The highlight of our Bermuda stay was visiting David and Helga Wingate on Nonesuch Island. David Wingate has devoted a good deal of his life to bringing back the Bermuda petrel, or cahow, from the brink of extinction. In addition, as Bermuda's chief conservation officer, David is restoring Nonesuch Island off of Bermuda to its pre-colonial "native" environment.

David gave my wife Linda and I a long tour of the flora and fauna of Nonesuch Island. Then in the afternoon, he took me to a number of the rocky islands where he personally watches over the cahow nests. The cahow burrows deep into the earth and keeps its nest in total darkness. When the cahow were driven off "mainland" Bermuda by people and rats, they found it far more difficult to burrow into the rocky islands.

So David has constructed a number of artificial concrete nests. He is able to lift up a top and look down into the darkness to see if the nest is being used. Just seeing two Bermuda petrels was thrilling. But the most unforgettable time was when the four of us were sitting in David's boat in the darkness with the Bermuda winds rushing about, looking for a petrel in the night. The petrel is a night bird. I saw only one, but it was like watching winged magic.

How rare a day it was. Spending all of that time with a man who has dedicated his life to aiding a near extinct bird. David reminded me both of Dick Wheeler and a dear friend, Sarah Reynolds. David is a man of enormous knowledge, kindness, and humility. In my mind, he too, like Dick Wheeler and Sarah, is a hero of the planet.

If you know of other heroes of the planet, let me know. We all must make allies. We mustn't remain in isolation. If we gather together we can be a voice for change.



Family News


Linda, Ted, Laura and I spent Christmas on Sinclair Island in the Puget Sound. Ted is at Western Washington University getting a Masters in creative writing, so Laura, Linda and I flew out and hired a boat to take us out to Sinclair Island. On a freezing cold December 23rd, we off loaded our luggage, said good-bye to the boat, and carried everything into a frigid four room cabin. Linda and Ted trekked off to find the well. There was a propane stove and a tiny kitchen, so Laura began to make cocoa and I worked at starting a fire in the fireplace.

An hour later, with our winter coats and hats on, we sat huddled around the fire, drinking cocoa. We could still see our breath, and Laura said, "We might as well face it. We'll have our winter coats on all the time." But hours later it did warm up.

We had no phone, no electricity, and no running water. There was a fine outhouse outside with a double door, so if you wanted you could swing the top part open and look out on the water. It snowed and was silent. For three days we laughed and read and napped. I had secret fears that if some accident occurred we were stuck. And what if the boat never returned? We might be there until spring or early summer when we would finally be rescued. Ah, the strange fantasies one has. It was a rare and wonderful time to laugh and be together.

When we got home we were glad to have Laura with us for a couple of weeks. Now she's back, busy as can be, getting her Masters in interpreting at Gallaudet.



The Spirit of the Great Auk


Flannery O'Con-nor felt that one of the great dramas in life was that grace is offered and usually refused. I wonder how often we are offered gifts in life that we don't accept. Perhaps we're too busy to notice we're being given a gift.

I'm thankful Dick Wheeler gave me the chance to work with him years ago. Before Dick started out on his 1500 mile kayak trip from Newfoundland to Cape Cod, he gave me a call and said he thought I might be interested in his journey. I'm glad to say I asked Dick to come over. When Dick finished his journey he worked with the Nova television people, making a fine documentary of his trip. But he didn't stop there. He thinks that an artist can move people in a way that a documentary or a lecture cannot.

I worked with Dick for three years creating the story. Dick's journey changed his life. He's dedicated to making people aware not only of the plight of the sea, but of the need to see ourselves as part of nature. Dick sees this as a spiritual challenge.

I want to thank so many people who wrote about "The Spirit of the Great Auk." It is crucial for any artist to know that his or her work moves people. I will mention only two. Emily and Cliff Cole wrote, "I believe that you have created one of the most important environmental statements of our century."

Melanie Judge and Tom Parker wrote, "The story of the Great Auk captured our thinking, our perspectives, our feelings; you told OUR story even though we live in Montana and work with grizzly bears and loggers in the mountains, not birds and fishermen in the ocean. Our townspeople secretly say the same thing, 'Tell Them not to make us cut the little ones, the last little trees; let them recover.' Yet publicly they unite for the sacred rights to take as much as we want whenever and how we want. We live your story . . . every day."



How I Came To Storytelling


I started making up stories for my little brother and sister when I was 13 years old. Mickey was four and Chris was three. We'd sit in the back seat of the car driving to Cape Cod and I'd say, "Mickey, let me see your hand." I'd take her tiny hand, look at her palm, and see a bump or a crease which would set my imagination going. "Mickey, look at the line in your hand. It looks like a river. Once upon a time, there was a river of milk that flowed into the cave of the thousand eyes. One day Mickey and Chris were sitting on a great green leaf which was floating down the milk river."

As I told the story I'd watch Mickey's face and pick up the action when her interested flagged. "A red bird called out warning the children. Beware! Don't go into the cave of a hundred eyes!" I told hand stories only to Mickey and Chris and other children. I'd never tell them to my friends or to adults.

I wasn't aware of it but we were surrounded by stories. My Uncle Jackie would drop into the kitchen and start telling funny stories about all of the politicians he knew. And we loved it when Uncle Jackie got his words mixed up. He'd say things like, "I got a lot of ankles in the fire." And Mother would tell stories of her students, people she'd meet in Boston, of sales people. She'd say things like, "There's a man on Marlborough Street who shines only one of his shoes." Her eye was as sharp as Dickens'. And when we were still in elementary school, Dad got us acting in plays with him at the Footlight Theatre in Jamaica Plain. We loved being on stage in front of an audience and we loved the odd characters that hung around the theatre. It was as if the theatre basement gave birth to wonderful strange people.

Then there were the stories we were living. Gram was on the third floor of our huge old fashioned house. We sensed that hers was a story of another era. We could not fathom Gram had ever been a young woman who had fallen in love and raised a family. It was shocking and hilarious to think that Gram had been born when Jesse James was still alive. So stories got mixed up. Gram and Jesse James were in the same story.

Then there were the huge stories like the parting of the Red Sea, the Burning Bush, Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. We were bathed in stories.

And the radio stories. The Lone Ranger was brought to us by Cheerios. He and Tonto led interesting lives. I wondered if he took his mask off at night as he and Tonto told stories by the campfire.

People themselves were stories. Barbour the fruit man in the village was a rough old potato who took care of the town drunks. Mrs. Barbour moved like blue lightening amidst tangerines and apples. Mr. Paine, the stationery man, had a water mark stamped on his soul.

I was telling hand stories but was unaware that I was swimming in a sea of stories.

To be continued. . .



Couldn't Walk


Last summer I swam in the sea every day. I walked, and during vacation began to ride my bike. I was going to get in shape. Inspired by a woman who bikes instead of driving, I decided to bike everywhere in Marshfield. I biked to church one Sunday morning, then biked several miles to the beach where I swam, then biked home and made bread. Later that day I felt a pain in my groin.

I thought a day or two of rest would take care of things. It did not. I was on the road for most of the next four months and the pain just kept getting worse. It turned out I had a pinched nerve. I went to an acupuncturist, chiropractors, a homeopath, and a medical doctor. The doctor gave me pain killers and said modern medicine could not heal a pinched nerve. At the Touchstone Theater in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania I'd limp onto the stage and sit for the two hour performance. I was now walking so strangely everything hurt.

It's incredible not to be able to walk. I looked with envy at the people who walked down the sidewalk. I thought they should be leaping with joy. They should be singing. They can walk! Why aren't those jerks smiling!

I performed in Bermuda after which Linda and I planned to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. I had one great day but then the pain was such that we had to go home.

Nothing had healed me, and so, encouraged by a dear friend, I called a Christian Science practitioner. I am not a Christian Scientist but my friend is so deeply spiritual, I had total trust in her. The practitioner said on the phone, "You know we are made in the image and likeness of God." I know that phrase from the Old Testament but it was startling to hear it. What could that extraordinary phrase mean?

I read the prophet Jeremiah who tells us that God says "You have been with me everlastingly." How stunning. If I am loved by God, why don't I know it? Is there something in the way?

Julian of Norwich, fourteenth century English mystic, says wrath gets in the way of knowing we are loved. So what was my wrath? What was making it painful to walk, to move forward in life? Ah ha! I finally realized that in the summer I had high hopes that a publisher would accept a book I'd worked very hard on. When the publisher said it needed work, lots and lots of work, I ignored my disappointment and it went underground. I was angry and hurt and pretended I wasn't. The wrath was still there waiting to be acknowledged, expressed and let go of. It pinched me.

Acknowledging and dealing with the wrath took time. I shouted and prayed and did yoga. I basked in the kindness of the Revels cast in Houston. I rested when I could. By the end of December I was finally able to walk again. Now when I'm walking along I think, "I'm walking! Smile!" And I do!



Steel Festival


There will be a Steel Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania which will run from September 9-19, 1999. The festival is to celebrate all that steel making meant for almost a century and a half in Bethlehem. The great blast furnaces went silent on November 18, 1995 and a long era came to an end.

Bridget George, Jenny Gilrain and their colleagues at Touchstone Theatre felt that steel making and life in Bethle-hem during the steel years should be celebrated. They teamed up with Deb Sakarakis at Lehigh University, and together they conceived of The Steel Festival, which will include a great dramatic production call "Steel Bound" to be performed at the steel mill. Ysaye Barnwell, of Sweet Honey in the Rock, will lead members of the community in song. There will be workshops, a play, walking tours, lectures and panels. I will perform my new story, which at the moment I'm calling "Pouring the Sun."

Over the last three years I've interviewed about 75 steelworkers and their families. I talked with professors and historians. I talked with management and labor. I talked with women who worked in the steel mill during World War II. In fact I interviewed so many people that I became overwhelmed, because the story could be about every one of them.

The South Side of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was home to thousands of immigrants who went there and found work in the steel mill. Three times a day, steelworkers would pour down the steep hills and into the mills. Back in the twenties and thirties, you could hear steelworkers speaking Italian, German, Polish, Greek, Hungarian, Russian and Spanish . . . So what would my story be about?

I had the good fortune to interview John Waldony. John's memory is extraordinary and I appreciated his deep sense of humor and justice. He said to me, "The best thing that ever happened to me was joining the union."

John introduced me to his sister Mary. The story I finally settled on is about John and Mary's mother, who at 18 years old left a small farm in Poland and came by herself to the United States. Her story seemed to capture the story of thousands of people who came to this country and whose lives became intertwined with both the steel industry and the labor movement.

As with most stories, the process has been very much like riding a wild horse. One moment I'm in the saddle, then suddenly I'm thrown to the ground. Sitting on the ground feeling sore and hurt, I know I have to get up and get back on the horse. It's then that I think of Mozart. How did he do it with such ease and such grace? And beauty! After working on the story for almost a year, I think I have a sense of what the story is about. So if you're anywhere near Bethlehem in September, come by.



Widening Circles


Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of the most extraordinary lines. He wrote,

I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, that primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years
And I still don't know: Am I a falcon,
a great song or a great storm?

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