The Storyteller

Ozma of Oz

The wind blew hard and joggled the water of the ocean, sending ripples across its surface. Then the wind pushed the edges of the ripples until they became waves, and shoved the waves around until they became billows. The billows rolled dreadfully high: higher even than the tops of houses. Some of them, indeed, rolled as high as the tops of tall trees, and seemed like mountains; and the gulfs between the great billows were like deep valleys.”

Can you picture a storm-tossed ship, far out on the waters, rolling up and down and tipping side to side? Do you begin to feel a little anxious, imagining yourself in that tiny vessel as it submits to the mercy of the sea? Or are you distracted as you read this by the papers on your desk or the pinging of a smart phone at your side?

When I was first exposed to these lines from L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz, I had no such distractions. I was snuggled in my twin bed, clutching my bedspread in the circular pool of light that flowed from my bedside lamp. I grew fearful as the storm worsened and the light was extinguished from the blackening sky.

To me, the story wasn’t something comprised of words on a flat page. I didn’t even read them. They were read to me by a master storyteller, my father. His voice traveled outward, rising with the tempest and bouncing off the ceiling, and then softening with reassurance when our narrator reminded us that our heroine, Dorothy, was an experienced traveler who had after all made far more difficult trips, arriving in Oz by way of cyclone.

Though his primary career was the United States Marine Corps, my Dad had the sensibilities of a thespian. He learned to tell stories from his father who, despite being demanding and detached, could spin a tale of the Old West that put you in the Pastime Saloon as Uncle Jake Cottrell faced down the Montana Kid.

Dad told a story with his whole body. He leaned forward and paused to see if he had the attention of his audience. His body coiled and his shoulders squared as he prepared to slowly unwind the story. He painted the setting, be it a hot Yakima day crouched in the sage brush at the edge of a canyon, a starry Seattle night when he held my mother in his arms, or a too-quiet lonely dirt road on a war-torn Pacific island with nothing more than a sidearm to protect him. He could startle his audience by booming out a phrase capable of reaching the length of a parade ground, or beguile it with low, mellifluous tones as he recited Antony’s description of Cleopatra on her barge.

I loved stories, but I especially loved hearing stories.

Today’s Daily Good article, reprinted from Aeon Magazine, reminded me how much my father’s stories have shaped me.

The story describes the response to  “pin drop” oral storytelling readings created by writer and journalist Elizabeth Day, reporting that Day “believes that reading aloud is more intimate than theatre because all the scenery and props have been stripped away, leaving only the listeners’ imaginations: the theatre of the mind.”

Just as Dad’s voice comforted me when I worried about Dorothy on the turbulent sea, I hear his voice in my head as I write the next chapter in my own story. Dad has been gone for a year, and I know I discharged my duties as caregiver with honor. This summer I will embark on a new venture in writing, and I confess to feeling a bit scared.

Maybe that’s what this quote shared by Daily Good means:

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” – Ben Okri

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