Thursday, December 30, 2004

The story of a pair of wooden skis

It's no secret to family and friends. I would go cross country skiing every single day of my life, if time and climate permitted. So it's not as flashy as its wilder cousins, alpine skiing or snowboarding. So what?

I started out alpine skiing in my college days. I loved it. There I was, on the slopes of places near the Twin Cities bearing names such as Snowcrest, Afton Alps or Trollhaugen. My friends and I would pack up on a Saturday morning, before dawn at times, pile into someone's car, and spend from 10 am till closing, up the lifts and down the slopes. It was fun. It was hip. It was happenin'.

It was expensive!

We were in college, for crying out loud! College kids don't have that kind of money, at least not back in the way early 70s, when we were college kids.

One day, around 1975, my friend Kevin noticed a great sale on cross country ski packages at the Campus Ski and Bike shop. So we checked it out on our way back to the car from Wilson Library. Bought ourselves a matched set of Silva cross country skis, for about $65, including poles, boots and three pin bindings. That very night, under a full moon, we headed over to the Como Park golf course to try them out.

It was quiet, one of those crisp Minnesota winter nights when the stars seem legion, even bathed in the lights of the cities. How could it be so quiet, just a couple miles from the Nicollet Mall?
We were hooked. No more did we require a tank of gas and an hour's drive before shelling out the $13 lift ticket fees. We could snap on our skis and go anywhere. My love affair with cross country skiing had begun.

Those Silvas logged many miles over the years. After starting graduate school in Stevens Point, I discovered that just outside my apartment complex parking lot, I could glide through undeveloped woods north of town. Every afternoon, when I returned from class but before I hit the books, I'd head out. Especially memorable were those afternoons with falling snow, when I moved silently through those woods, scaring up the odd rabbit or squirrel, and sometimes, if I was quiet, coming upon whitetail deer browsing through the brush.

Rarely did I ever bother with what were called "groomed trails." I preferred finding a spot in the woods and just slogging through to see what I could find. I relished checking conditions and then trying to apply my klister just so. Even when I reached the point where I could afford new skis, I kept those Silvas. I refused to embrace the new, waxless technology. I'm sure part of what kept me on my circa 1975 skis was the association with my friend, his matching set sitting somewhere in his upscale townhouse storage closet in St. Paul. day, while browsing the ski shops in Ironwood Michigan while visiting my in-laws, I saw them. Solid wood skis. Pure, unadulerated ash, lightly sealed but never hiding their origins as part of a felled tree. My size, 205cm long. Mine!

Finding someone who still knew how to apply the necessary pine tar finish was a challenge. I'm sure there are many ski shop employees who laughed at the notion of this middle aged woman, wanting to know if they could treat her brand new skis with pine tar. Oh, I knew how to do it, and that was why I wanted to pay someone else!

I was persistent, though, and finally found a place not far from home that knew what I wanted. These guys actually appreciated my skis, wanting to know where I'd found beauties like these. I had the new binding style placed on them, bought new boots---really, boots that are almost thirty years old do start to crack and show their age, anyway. It was time for me to head out on new wooden skis.

However, el Nino has been telling me otherwise. For two long years, very little snow has fallen in my corner of Wisconsin. At long last, a few days before Christmas, about 7 inches of lovely, fluffy flakes began to cover the ground, before plunging the area into a deep freeze. The day after Christmas, though, the planets must have lined up. Sunshine, just a light haze, and fresh snow. We were off!

It was just a jaunt through the county park, but it was wonderful to feel the kick and glide. My age could feel it later, but in another day, my muscles had forgotten that cross country skiing is a full body workout. All they knew was it was wonderful to be out there, in the quiet air, hearing a tree sparrow or chickadee, looking for tracks as we made our own. Somehow, getting out on the trail again brought me back to that first glorious night skiing the golf course with my friend. It was a bittersweet memory. I gave the eulogy at his funeral a little over a year ago. Of course, I started with a story, then told stories about him, including the story of our introduction to the joys of cross country skiing. I hope I never have to do another eulogy, but I'm glad that I shared that little bit of history with others there. I'm glad that thirty years ago, my friend Kevin saw that ad in the Minnesota Daily and said, "Hey, let's go check this out!" Though Kevin and I went our separate ways, we never completely lost track of each other. I'd like to think that maybe, at those moments when my husband is trying to challenge me to fall, and I don't, that perhaps Kevin is guiding my glide and keeping me upright. I hope it snows again soon.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

There's some great storytelling in heaven!

Tuesday, November 30 was a sad day when I opened an email from Janice delNegro, sharing that she had just learned that Jackie Torrence, storytelling legend, had died earlier that day from a fall that led to a heart attack. Since that post was made, there's been an outpouring of recollections and memories of this fine lady.

I never had the privilege of hearing Jackie tell in person. I have some of her stories on videotape, and a much loved volume that showcases not only her stories, but her incredibly expressive face and hands, in the book Jackie Tales. I had hoped to finally attend the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough Tennessee for the first time this past October, but my own performing schedule created conflicts for me, and I told myself, "Another year." What a loss for me. Although Jackie had suffered from declining health the past several years, through donations from the storytelling community the world over, she was able to come and perform one last time. The reports from those in attendence spoke of her stories just carrying her to a place where the illness faded away and the words and her face glowed.

Rather than trying to explain that which I've only experienced through static media, I have been given permission to share the story of another teller who had the wonderful gift of a weekend with Jackie at a time when she was just becoming a storyteller herself, Marilyn Kinsella of Fairview Heights, Illinois. In gifting me with her story, Marilyn said, "If there was one thing I learned from Jackie it was not to hold onto a story...give it wings." So in remembrance of Jackie and all the gifts of wings she shared, here is Marilyn's story.

On Butterfly Wings a tribute to Jackie Torrence who lighted on my

shoulder one hot August morning. By Marilyn Kinsella

It was the summer of 1981, and I had just arrived at Jonesborough, TN to attend a workshop sponsored by NAPPS on creative storytelling by someone named Jackie Torrence. I came from my home in Illinois with no idea who this person was that called herself “The Story Lady.” All I knew was that I wanted to be a storyteller.

For three days time stood still as Jackie spun her magic around our little group. She modeled, cajoled, scolded, and beamed – always knowing how to give…just enough.

That Saturday night there was to be a public concert with Jackie. The town would show up at the old Salt House to hear her. But, she wanted to share the stage with her newbies. Anyone who wanted to tell was welcome.
Most declined, but my hand shot straight up. This was what I came to do –to be a storyteller.

I chose to tell a version of “Wiley and the Hairy Man” that relied heavily on rhyme and meter. I was so nervous that I asked a fellow workshop attendee to follow along with me in the book – just in case I got lost. After all of Jackie’s coaching and coaxing, I still didn’t trust myself. I had to stop three times and ask my new friend, Norris Spencer, where I was. I thought I was a disaster. I’d never ever, ever be a storyteller.

The next morning we gathered to “critique” our attempts at telling. Before Jackie could say a word I blurted out…”All I needed to was tell the story until I got back on track!” Jackie just shook her head, “Mmm, mmm, mmm, didn’t I try to tell you that this weekend? You just had to learn it for yourself. Now the next time you get up to tell a story, you will know what to do.” (It was Jackie’s subtle way of telling me that I hadn’t failed at all, I had learned.)

That is the way she taught us all weekend– giving us just enough so we would have to struggle and work it out on our own. She saw in me (and everyone else) the potential to be a storyteller. She told each of us what our strengths and weaknesses were.

Later, on Sunday, when most had left, Jackie and Norris and I got some chicken salad sandwiches and bottles of Grape Nehi (or was it Orange Whistle?) to eat on the steps of the Old Courthouse. Suddenly, there was a rip in time and space. Things started to happen that I swear would never have happened if Jackie had not been there. Our senses heightened and stories began to appear along the main street and around every corner. “Listen. Pay attention,” Jackie said. “Stories are everywhere.” I had entered into her magical world where stories began.

Since I arrived by a Big Red bus and there was no bus station, I asked Jackie to stay with me until I could flag down the bus as it came swooping down the hill on 11E. When it arrived, I gave her a hug, and the bus doors opened. The bus was empty except for a little old lady sitting directly behind the bus driver. Normally, I would have taken a seat some ways away, but this little old lady was wearing a blue baseball cap and I remembered what Jackie had taught me – pay attention! This woman had a story. So, I asked her if I could sit next to her. She turned and looked at the rest of the empty bus and said, “Sure, go ahead.”

After I settled in, she looked at me with curious eyes, “And just what were you doing in Jonesborough, TN?” Well, that opened the floodgates for me. I started talking non-stop for the next hour. I told her about Jackie Torrence. I told her the stories she told, that the others told, that I told. Her eyes got big and wide, and I even caught the bus driver giving me strange looks in the rearview mirror. When my stories finally wore down, she told me her story.

She was a professor at MIT and was on her way to do a workshop in Chattanooga. The only reason she was on a bus was because the air controllers were on strike and she didn’t trust any greenhorn to bring a plane in safely. She said that when she was young she was sent to Japan after the bomb hit to help some students at an artists’ colony. Everything was in disarray or contaminated. So they used an ancient art form of taking cloth apart and making pictures using one thread at a time. It not only produced beautiful pictures but it was great therapy for these artists.

Then she looked at me and said, “Marilyn, you have discovered your artist’s palette this weekend with a lovely color on it called storytelling. You will want to work with this color until it is just the right shade and consistency, but soon you will discover other colors on your palette and when you combine those colors, your true artist self will shine through.

Whoa…did this little lady in a blue baseball cap really say that. We talked on until we parted ways in Knoxville. As she walked away I thought, “I’ve just met my angel and she was wearing a blue baseball cap.”

I would have never sat next to the woman if it hadn’t been for Jackie. She not only opened up the world of storytelling, she opened up the world to me. I could tell you many such times when the world stood still or the fabric of time ripped open. It was because I heeded the words of my teacher, my mentor, my friend, Jackie Torrence, “Listen…Pay attention.”

As the doors opened on the Big Red bus, I stepped back into my time, but something was different. Something had changed forever. I was a storyteller.

Marilyn A. Kinsella, Taleypo the Storyteller Fairview Heights, IL
Storyteller, Writer, Puppeteer, and Workshop Presenter

In honor of a woman once called a living legend in the storytelling world, share a story with someone you love. You can be sure all the saints and angels in heaven are enjoying her stories now.

To see more about Jackie's book mentioned here, read on.