stuart McLean.jpg

“Tell me one more DAMN story Mommy! PUH-LEEEASE!!”

I know you’d never talk to your mother this way, but I was a sugar-high wide awake ragamuffin and desperate, and of course… I’m joking. I would never have spoken to my Mom like that.

Even before we catapult into this world all wet and wobbly, our excited parents-to-be begin telling us mumbled stories across the shielding barrier of the womb.

And then, once we emerge all pink and gassy-smiley, storybooks become a staple of most of our childhoods. The Velveteen Rabbit. The Cat in the Hat. Winnie the Pooh. 50 Shades of Grey.

We’re born, we grow up, we grow old… on stories. All kinds of stories.

Every day we hear and see stories that penetrate our hard outer shell because in some way they reflect a hazy image on the pond’s surface that shines a spotlight on what we think we look like.

This week I was put to thinking about masterful storytellers when I heard that Canadian raconteur Stuart McLean had died.

Icons are hard to lose.

McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe has shuttered its doors forever just like Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) bookstore in You’ve Got Mail.

Life is stories. We are stories.

My most read blog posts are ones where I recount a story. Stories like a little boy missing his deceased Mommy at Christmas, or a young couple finding romantic love over a fancy mixed drink that I “bartended” for them.

restaurant table

Listen closely to yourself when you talk to your friends or co-workers.

It’s always a story. This happened, that happened, and this is the end result. Beginning, middle, end. Yup, a story.

I’ve encountered and admired a lot of storytellers in my lifetime.

Great storytelling is a wondrous art and a sacred beauty in the hands and voice of a skilled practitioner. Maybe you’re one of those talented people.

Of course stories come in different forms, served in different recipes and formats. There’s a smorgasbord of ways to convey a story.

Some stories are woven in books, some in campfire folklore, some in visual art, others in movies, and still more in harmonious music.

Stories are the background of our humanity. Each of us is touched by storytelling in ways that are unique to us.

red coat girl.jpg

Steven Spielberg told us movie stories about Oskar Schindler and the Holocaust (Schindler’s List)… how can I ever erase the heartbreaking vision of a little red-coated girl (set against a stark black and white background) entering a concentration camp?

Harry Chapin told us musical stories about desperate love (A Better Place to Be) and misplaced fatherhood (Cats in the Cradle) …

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

 

Peter Gzowski told us radio stories about Canada that made us feel a part of the whole country…

Galt is the setting for a quintessential Gzowski tale, one he told often, about a game of hockey that began in a park. After the puck flew over the boards, the boy who went to retrieve it found the grounds—the whole city, in fact—transformed by verglas, a French word describing fields of ice created by frozen sleet overlying snow. Soon every local boy, “40 of us, 50 of us,” were skating “across roads, across lawns, racing down hills like skiers, out into the country, soaring across farmers’ fields, free as birds.

Garrison Keillor told folksy stories on NPR about Lake Wobegon and its residents in his Prairie Home Companion:

I checked in at the desk and a man at a nearby table said, “So how are you doing tonight?” and that seemed to be an invitation. So I sat down. Two other men and two women at the table. A cheerful group, as people tend to be in winter once they’re warm and in off the road. “How was the drive?” he said. “Almost rear-ended a snowplow,” I said. Other than that, I had listened to the Beatles’ “Because” eight times, which I never cared for because of the dumb lyric, but now I do. A woman at the table didn’t know the song, so I sang her a little of it. “Because the world is round, it turns me on. Love is old, love is new. Love is all, love is you.”

keillor.jpg

Garrison Keillor

Stuart McLean told us heartwarming stories about Sleeping Crickets and Dave and Morley (Vinyl Cafe).

Dave, the bumbling protagonist, promises wife Morley that he will take care of their Christmas turkey. Come Christmastime, however, Dave realizes that he’s forgotten to buy a bird. He rushes to a grocery store in the middle of the night to find that they only have one unappetizing, frozen, Grade B turkey left. Dave takes it home and defrosts it with an electric blanket and hairdryer.

“As the turkey defrosted it became clear what Grade B meant,”  the story goes. “The skin on the right drumstick was ripped. Dave’s turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death.”

But Dave’s not out of the clear yet.  After Morley and the kids leave the house to work at the soup kitchen for a few hours, Dave discovers that he can’t figure out how to turn on the stove.  In an escapade that involves a hairdryer, a hotel, and a bottle of scotch, Dave somehow manages to deliver on his promise.

vinyl cafe.jpg

Stuart in his Vinyl Cafe

Stories.

Multitudes of stories, a few key themes … but a million unique ways of expressing something that crawls inside of us and shakes us like a mini-earthquake until we laugh, or cry, or nod in recognition. Stuart McLean did all three in every one of his stories.

In years past, my old friend John would sit in our living room, cockeyed grin aglow, and recount tales of his experiences, ordinary daily life stories… told in a way that made us laugh and shake our heads. A consummate storyteller.

When John was bravely succumbing to cancer a couple of years ago, when his tales drew slowly silent, I was inspired to write a small-scale story about him that I set to music and occasionally sing to folks (including at Open Mic last night) in his memory … and the memory of his stories…

One John sang sweet about his Annie
When we grow old we sing our Swan Song
One western John we called him Duke
But this verse and melody
are what I’m gonna call for you a John Song  

We drank beer in the Overlander in the midst of a western town
William’s Lake both dusty and brown
where your probation days
melted into music nights
played your Ovation guitar after the sun lost its light

CHORUS:
There was always a saga
a tale on your tongue
and a breeze that blew wind in your sail
a crooked grin on your face
a laugh in your strum
a weathered cowboy hat that lies waiting
for its story at old Pier 21  

The years slipped by and we lived our lives
we drifted in circles afar
I smiled when I saw a pic
of you and Jane overlooking Barnhartvale
with Jesse your new son

One day you were a Kamloops politico
Then I heard you settled onto Vancouver Isle
spent some time on the Indian reservation
and wrote your songs
in southern Nashville style

Bridge:
Your days may seem long now
the years somehow short
Aint forever always shorter than we plan  

CHORUS:
There was always a saga
a tale on your tongue
and a breeze that blew wind in your sail
a crooked grin on your face
a laugh in your strum
a weathered cowboy hat that lies waiting
for its story at old Pier 21  

Life is stories. We are stories.

storytelling.jpg

Advertisements