Devotee in Limbo
Copyright ©Yvonne Healy, 2006. All rights reserved.
Storytelling Magazine, National Storytelling Press, TN, 2007.
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Hair on my neck stood upright. I turned, then thought “Dang kids! They left the door unlocked when Bob drove them to the fireworks.”
Looming in the shadowy hall stood Monica Wells, tall, unannounced and wearing her trademark black. Monica believed colorful clothes distracted from the told story. I figured a monochromatic wardrobe taxed a storyteller’s limited income less. Similarly, doorbells and other boundaries were dismissed when Monica wanted you to focus on something.
“Before I forget,” Monica said. “You must do something. While driving home from Detroit, I was thinking. There were fireworks, bangs…” her voice trailed off.
Monica possessed an incisive mind and no family to occupy it. The flat farmland between here and Detroit, interrupted only by a few towns and occasional deer, provides time for deep thoughts. But my house is miles off the highway. No one drops by without calling first. I didn’t say it. Monica didn’t believe in cell phones either. Instead I asked,
“What’s so important?”
“Standards.” she replied.
“Poodles?” I puzzled.
“Storytelling.” snapped Monica. “I met the district director for Lakeland City libraries at the conference. I gave him my brochure.”
“The man scoffed. “Storytelling? Once some townspeople told stories to kids in the reading program. The kids ran wild.”
“I informed him that managing crowds of children of varying ages requires skill. Experienced storytellers have studied and practiced techniques which are unfamiliar to many newcomers. But the director only said, “We don’t offer storytelling anymore. Storytelling is boring.””
Night’s deepening shadows outlined Monica’s face which glowed with white-hot fury. My nose twitched. Burning rubber? Must be my imagination. Maybe I should turn on a light.
“Now those children lose all storytelling! Because That Man lumps all storytellers together. Some people need banners outlining the variety of abilities. Standards! ” Monica sounded her battlecry. “Guess what happened next.”
Papers to grade for the summer semester waited in my briefcase by the door. But who talks to a runaway train? Monica held onto opinions like a terrier grabs a bone.
“Before leaving, I called my voicemail. There was a message from the Smallville Concert where I’m telling a story. Each teller is now required to attend a rehearsal for direction and coaching.”
“Smallville is a great guild!” I protested. “It gives chances to new voices; it creates venues for tellers of all levels. The newbies are nervous. The part-time tellers aren’t accustomed to microphones or adult audiences. Coaching and practice will help. The organizers don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by singling someone out. It’s like saying “Storytelling may be for everyone. But you need special help.”
Monica shook her head.
“Is it OK to hurt my feelings instead? It devalues the 20 years of time and money I’ve spent learning from people who know more than me. I’ve studied mime, folklore, voice, education, improvisation, writing, and – yes – storytelling. I crisscross the U.S. to hear other storytellers. I learn from people who’ve walked this road longer than me. I’ve devoted my life to storytelling! Why pretend that my craftmanship is equal to someone who attended a few guild meetings? Or took a college acting class? I want standards!”
Dirty dishes settled in the sink. The clunk pulled my attention away from Monica’s familiar rant. There was work to do and only one way to get rid of her.
“You win, Monica. What do you want from me?”
Monica’s eyes gleamed in the night like cat eyes in a graveyard.
“The conference keynote was a computer maven announcing a grant to benefit one art. Apply for it. Hire a panel. Establish graduated criteria. Include storytelling on all levels. Arts councils will use these standards to evaluate grant and artist roster applications. The NEA and the Grammys will create storytelling categories.”
“No more will Yo-Yo Girl sell herself as a storyteller because she recites “Henny Penny” between tricks. No more will storytelling dwell in limbo between theatre and folkart. No more will anyone ask a storyteller what books she’ll read.”
Peering through the gloom, Monica’s eyes caught me like a deer in headlights. “Download the form at Geeks-for-Art.com. Postmark it July 5th.”
“Tomorow? That’s not much time.” I whined.
“You have more time than me. Do it.” Like a wisp of black smoke, Monica was gone.
“Who died and made her queen?” I grumbled but completed the application before Bob and the kids returned from the fireworks. Early the next morning, I rang Monica as I left the post office. So she wouldn’t nag. When no one answered, I guessed she’d trotted off to hear tellers in the mountains or in Madagascar.
The flood of summer storytelling began the next day. Juggling art, teaching and family overwhelmed me. But Monica’s was the first number I dialed after Geeks-for-Art awarded me the grant.
A startled voice answered.
“Monica Wells? Oh dear, I guess you don’t know. I’m from her church. We’re packing her things. I’m so sorry. You know that long stretch of highway between Detroit and the Lake. Michigan gets a lot of rain. Lightning looks like fireworks and the fields are filled with deer. They leap right into traffic. Cars slide in the rain. On Independence Day, at high noon, Monica’s car slid under a 22-wheel semi. I’m sorry. Your friend died instantly.”
Monica had devoted her life, her passion and – her eternity – to storytelling.