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Finding Light in the Darkness

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Many years ago I was invited to tell stories at a benefit for Amnesty International. It’s an organization I’ve long admired for their tireless work on behalf of those who might otherwise be forgotten. In preparing for the show I came across a snippet of a story that has always stuck with me. I’d like to share it with you.

It was toward the end of World War II that a resistance fighter sat alone in a dark prison cell. After being captured he had been tortured, starved, abandoned, and was waiting to die.

One night the door to his cell opened. Someone shouted words of abuse at him, then hurled something into the darkness and closed the door. Feeling around on the dirt floor, he found a loaf of bread. Ravenous, he tore it open and discovered something – a matchbox. Inside were  several matches and a scrap of paper. Lighting a match, he read a single word on the paper: Corragio!

Courage.

He never did find out who wrote the message.   But he lived through the war, and credited that box of matches – and that piece of paper – for giving him the strength, hope, and courage to survive.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas or the Winter Solstice, this is the season to peer into the darkness in search of light. This year, I believe, we have an abundance of darkness, taking the form of intolerance, arrogance and hatred.

Here’s to the brave women who are telling their stories, speaking truth to power – and to the men who are joining them.  May their actions inspire all of us to shine light into the darkness and heal our world.

Corragio!

 

 

 

An Island of Stories

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This fall I had the opportunity to lead a storytelling retreat in one of the richest places in the world for stories, the southernmost island in all of Ireland – Cape Clear.  The picture of the group is below, and their stories were wonderful.  There were true tales of banshees, of a fellow named Walter, whose name had come from a Flemish song about a goldfish, and his good friend, Michel, whose name had come from the Beatles song.  Though the two had been friends since childhood, neither had ever known that both their names came from songs.  There was the story of the man who had no story,  and the recounting of an ill-fated attempt to blow up a bridge during “the troubles.” There were tales of languages, the land, village characters, Irish folk hero, and the story of a young boy and hazelnut tree I don’t think I’ll ever forget.  While these stories are not mine to tell, they are certainly rich, so if you happen to see anyone from the photo below, ask them to tell you a tale.

Wherever you may be from, if you are a lover of stories, you are likely drawn to Ireland.  And, if you are thinking of going, you would do well to plan your trip during the first weekend in September, to attend the Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival.  You might also consider the weekend workshop that grew out of the festival, which takes place during the last weekend of October.

I have a long history with this festival, which has grown to be one of the most beloved in all of Ireland.   It dates back to my travels telling stories around Europe in the 1980’s, and a meeting with Chuck Kruger in Zurich, a writer and great lover of stories.

Chuck founded the festival in 1994 and, true to his word, booked me as one of the featured tellers at that first teller at that first festival.  My wife, Taly, and I went with our son, Elijah, who had just turned two.  I had never been to Ireland before and, honored as I was, the prospect was more than a little intimidating – telling stories in Ireland! It seemed I should make an add-on trip to bring some coals to Newcastle.  But the Irish audiences were just as warm and welcoming as could be, and I got to share the stage with some truly beloved Irish tellers, including Eddie Lenihan, Paddy O’Brien, Pat Ryan (an American, based in London) Liz Weir & Billy Tear.

That first festival stands out like an island in my memory, as befits a gathering on an island.  Though I was invited back numerous times for future festivals, the timing was always a problem, as it always coincided with the first week of school here in California.

Finally, however, in the summer of 2016, with both kids grown and no longer needing us to shepherd them to school, Taly and I returned to Ireland. And what a treat it was to see the country – and to return to Cape Clear. Catching the boat from the small town of Baltimore, it was just as we remembered it.  And in a world that seems to change all too rapidly, what a pleasure that was.

That festival led to an invitation to the weekend workshop, pictured below, twenty people, mostly from Ireland, with a few from Germany, Belgium, England and the United States, all harvesting the stories for their life.

And what better place to do it than on the enchanted island of Cape Clear.

 

While thinking about Ireland, here’s a link to an audio story tour through Cork!

Take an Online Story Tour Through Cork, Ireland!

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You’d be hard pressed to turn over a stone in Ireland without unearthing a story beneath it.    Such is the beauty of a country that seems built for stories, that bubble up from the land itself and work their way into every aspect of the culture, from the language to the music to the humor, but mostly to the people.

Ah, but keeping track of those stories is another matter altogether.   Thus I was quite intrigued when I visited University College Cork and gave a guest lecture in their folklore department.  As you might imagine, it’s a robust department, and keeping track of tales is part of what they do.

Toward that end, they’ve created a an online “memory map” with stories collected from the city of Cork, which is particularly rich in folktales.  The great thing about it is that you get to travel around the city and hear older folks share tales, and their voices are as great as the stories.  Have a listen!

http://storiesofplace.org/neatline/show/stories-of-place#records

And if you’d like to take that tour through music – and smell! – have a listen to John Spillane’s song Prince’s Street/Follow Your Nose.  I got to share the stage with John at the 2016 Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival and fell in love with his songs of Cork.  This one is particularly powerful, as it weaves in a a journey by nose through Cork recited by playwright and novelist Conal Creedon, which is simply magical.

By the way, on this trip I learned that Cork was once the producer of 40% of Europe’s butter.  Those at the top of the butter supply chain grew wealthy and lived like Princes – hence the name of the street, Prince’s Street.

Like I say, in Ireland, there’s a story to everything.

A Tribute to a Lover of Stories – An American Seanchaí

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You never can tell where a story will lead.

Back in 1984, during my first storytelling tour abroad,  I remember arriving at the Zurich train station and making my way out to the nearby town of Kilchberg, where I’d been booked to tell stories at The American International School of Zurich. Having never been in Switzerland before, what struck me was that it looked exactly how I thought it would look, with it’s quaint houses and sweet villages, old men with suspenders riding bicycles down the streets, and koo koo clocks in the shop  windows. And what first struck me about Kilchberg was the smell; it’s the home of Lindt chocolate, whose factory is down by the lake, and the smell wafts upwards to the school.

At the school I met an English teacher by the name of Chuck Kruger, an American expatriate who had left the United States years before, not wanting to live in Nixon’s America. When I told him I was a storyteller he looked baffled.

“You mean you’re a writer?”

“No,” I explained.  “I travel around and tell stories.  Like in the old days.”

“Well I’ll be,” he said.  “I’ve heard of traveling storytellers, but never actually met one.”

After the school assembly, Chuck invited me to visit all his English classes and tell stories.   Over the years I became a regular visitor to the school, and always stayed with Chuck, his lovely wife Nell, and their family in nearby Freienbach, where we would sit telling stories until late into the night.  Chuck loved stories as much as anyone I’ve ever met.

“You know what I’m going to do, Joel?” he asked on one visit.  “Some day I’m going to start a storytelling festival, to bring storytellers from all over the world together to share stories. And you’ll be the first I invite.”

“Sounds great,” I said. “Here?”

“No, no,” he laughed. “Are you kidding? Some place warm.”

“You mean the weather?”

“No, I don’t care about weather – I mean the people.  Nell and I are thinking of Ireland.”

On my next visit he announced that he and Nell had traveled to Cork, Ireland, where they’d met a real estate agent who’d said he had something special to show them. They traveled to the southernmost port of Baltimore, and took a boat to an island called Cape Clear, the southernmost island in Ireland.  On the boat down, the estate agent explained that the southernmost 60 acres of the island – including two houses – were for sale. Even before seeing the land, he was smitten.

“I have two loves in my life,” says Chuck.  “One is my wife Nell, who I’ve been married to for over 50 years.  The other is Cape Clear.”

It was in 1992 that they moved, and in 1994 that they started the first Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival.

True to his word, Chuck and Nell invited me to share stories, and what a festival it was, and island in time.   In 2016 my wife, Taly, and I finally had the chance to return to this Island of Stories, and again, to lead a workshop in October of 2017.  This last visit was bittersweet, however, as health concerns have forced Chuck and Nell  to leave the Island and return to the United States, now living in a Quaker Community in Pennsylvania.  You can read all about Chuck and Nell and the festival in this article in the Irish Examiner.  Chuck has written extensively about the island, with award winning books of essays and poems.  While you can pick them up in the shop on the Island, it may be easier to find your way to them here.

While Chuck and Nell are doing well in Pennsylvania, the island misses them dearly.  Nell explained that when they came to the island and fell in love with it, they’d thought they had found the place where they would some day die. “In fact,” she said, “what we’d found was a place to live.”

And it was a great life they lived there, and a great gift they gave – one of the truly beloved storytelling festivals in Ireland, a destination for storytellers and story listeners from around the world.

As they say in Ireland, Chuck and Nell, Go Raibh Míle Maith Agat!

And, for the rest of us, we raise a pint of Murphy’s to you both – Slainte!

 

 

The Tale of a Survivor and a Violin

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When I chose the name “storypage” for this web site, way back in the early 90’s, it was with the intention for offering a place where great stories could be shared. Now that I’m turning this into an actual blog, I’ll begin doing just that.  They may take the form of words, pictures, links or videos.

Someone sent me a link to this beautiful documentary entitled Joe’s Violin.  It had been nominated for a 2017 Academy Award, and was posted by the New Yorker.  At a time when we seem to have more than enough bad news and America seems to be closing its doors to refugees, it’s well worth 24 minutes of your time to hear this inspiring story.

 

Watch “Joe’s Violin”