Monday, June 16, 2008

Notes from the Field (X)

A Story About A Story

I will freely and willingly admit that when it comes to stories, I like ‘em short, fast, and funny - the type of tale that keeps a smile on one’s face, and a giggle on one’s tongue. Big, bright, musical comedy type affairs – that, as they say, is how I roll. So it makes prefect comic sense that a story containing none of the things I am normally drawn to, has given me more deep, rich, meaningful gifts than any of my “Ha-Ha” tales combined.

The tale of “The Spirit of the Tree” first came into my life when I was asked to tell stories at a wedding. A teacher who used storytelling in her classroom, and appreciated the transformative nature of folktales, contacted me through a friend of a friend. My first response was, “Wow! Cool idea! Of course I’ll perform for you on THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF YOUR LIFE!” My second thought was, “AAAAAH!!!!!!!!!! Me?? What will I tell?? What will I wear??”

I knew short, fast, and funny was NOT going to cut it – especially after meeting Jennifer and Richard. You know all those catch phrases like “made for each other” and “two peas in a pod”? That was them. She had those kinds of looks that screamed, “I’m a good doer - as beautiful on the inside, as I am on the outside!” And he had that “the guy who would always have your back” face. No wonder they fell in love with each other – I was smitten with them both.

I listened intently as they told me about their lives, their likes, and their families. I took more notes than someone studying for the Bar Exam. The part that really got to me, was the fact that both of them had just lost grandparents, who were very dear to them. “Their spirits,” they told me, “are still with us.”

To find the prefect tale for them, I unleashed my research loving side, and hit the books – HARD. Using my personal folktale collection (which is WAY larger than someone who lives in a one bedroom apartment, with a very tolerant husband, should be allowed to have), and the resources of the New York City, and Jersey City Library systems, I searched for the prefect story for Jennifer and Richard.

I found lots of love stories, lots of deceased parent/grandparent stories, lots of love stories about people who had deceased parents/grandparents. Most were beautiful, a lot were moving, a couple were almost short, fast and funny, but none, to quote good old Goldilocks, was “just right”. But we all know how those tales go, “They looked, and looked, and just when they were about to give up – THERE IT WAS!!” And don’t you know, that’s exactly what happened.

In a book I had owned for several years, but hadn’t looked at for a long time, I found “The Spirit of the Tree”. I don’t know why I didn’t discount it immediately, because at face value, it looked like a dozen other stories I had already rejected. It is one of the hundreds of Cinderella variants – young girl, dead mother, step mom’s a meanie- but what grabbed me is how the spirit of the girl’s mother, and not a handsome prince, is really who guides her to a “happily ever after”. Yes, she falls in love (with a hunter, not royalty), but only as a result of her mother’s guidance, and promise that, “I will always be there for you, I will always care for you.” Tears came to my eyes when I read it, and I realized it was the prefect tale not just for Jennifer and Richard, but for me, as well.

The mother’s promise, and love in that story, reminded me of the powerful blessing my late mother-in-law had bestowed on all of her children. I will gladly tell anyone who listens, that I married an amazing man – compassionate, intelligent, and loving beyond belief. His innate goodness, and that of his brother, and sisters, is a living testament to their mother, whose face always shone with pleasure and delight at the site of one of her children. Her death was, unfortunately, a long, drawn out affair, but because my husband and his siblings each got a very real chance to say good-bye, I feel like they were all encased forever in their mother’s love. This story, then, was a chance to honor the woman who had given birth to my greatest gift.

There were a lot of tears when I told “The Spirit of the Tree” at Jennifer and Richard’s wedding – but I had never felt so joyous. While I LOVE, and I mean LOVE my work with children, this was an opportunity to help seal a bond of love between two people who had already weathered loss together. That I was able to contribute, in even a small way, to their path of marriage was an honor I will always cherish, along with the loving memory of my mother-in-law.

Wanting this tale to remain a tribute to that happy couple, and to my husband’s mom, I sort of put it to bed. I didn’t often have the occasion to tell such an “adult” story anyway, so it was easy to let it slip to the bottom of my “play list”. I pulled it out occasionally, and once recorded it, along with two other tales, for the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University.

Fast forward a few years. I was EXTREMELY flattered, honored, and floored to be nominated, this spring, by my fellow New Jersey storytellers, to perform at a Regional Concert as part of the upcoming National Storytelling Network’s Conference. If selected, I would be representing not just New Jersey, but the entire Mid-Atlantic region! The judging committee would need a tape or CD of my work, and even though I didn’t think I had a shot of making the cut, I popped the CD I had from the Cotsen Library in the mail.

“CONGRATULATIONS!!!” the email, that arrived some time later declared. “You’ve been selected to tell your story, “Tangiers Cinderella” at the NSN Conference on August 9th, 2008!!” Yeah! Yeah!! HUH?? “Tangiers Cinderella”? I’d never even heard of that story, much less told it. Chalking it up to a “miss-dial”, I sent a reply saying, “Sorry, wrong storyteller.” But another email quickly came back saying, “Maybe we got the name of the tale wrong, but not the name of the teller. We want YOU, and the third story on your CD.”

Third story? To my recollection, on the Costen Library CD was “Mommie Mouse”, a story for toddlers, “The Clever Turtle”, for the grade schoolers, and finally, “The Knee High Man” for all ages. I was sure of it. Positive of it. Certain – or was I? It had been soooooo long since I’d recorded that CD, and I had never listened to it. Could I actually have forgotten what I had told? I rose from my computer desk, and grabbed the CD. I listened as my own voice announced, “Mommie Mouse” – just as I knew it would. Jumping to the next track, the words “The Clever Turtle” sang out, again, in my voice, and, again, just as I had expected. But just as I was beginning to feel a little irritated at this “judging committee” – I mean, how could they raise my hopes up, and then mistake me for someone else – the words “The Spirit of the Tree” cut through my indignant silence. OOPS!!!!

I’d love to say, “and in a flood of memories, it all came back to me, and I laughed at the ironies of fate”. But actually, I felt pretty stupid, and wanted to kick myself for almost blowing a BIG opportunity.

So, on August 9th, at the National Storytelling Network’s Annual Conference, I will tell a story that is unlike any other in my repertoire - a tale that came to me through a loving couple I didn’t really know, and one that binds me, forever, to my husband’s family. I will happily, proudly, and probably tearfully perform “The Spirit of the Tree”.

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