I feel a cool wind breezing through the sun-shot morning air out of Provo Canyon. It may have begun warm, then cooled across a couple miles of Deer Creek snowmelt. Or it may have fingered through the icy folds of Bridal Veil Falls before brushing across my ear. It may be the first breath of autumn with a shy whispered secret for the reluctant summer sun. You see, you can write poetic as all get-out when you don’t have a clue how weather works.
I’m helping direct parking at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in the mouth of Provo Canyon. (For those Meridian readers far afield or far aspace who might be unfamiliar with this portion of the galaxy, Provo Canyon is this canyon in Utah, which is one of the political units characteristic of Planet Earth. You may have read in the last few days about the star being eaten by the black hole?
We can’t tell for sure from here, but it’s likely that the star’s planet system went with it. Backstage Graffiti lost a lot of readers that day. ((Oh wait, the Meridian Editors assure me that “that day” was 3.8 billions years ago—so I guess my readership is still holding steady at somewhere just shy of infinity. Whew! (((In the eighth grade I was in love with Christine Welch, who spent her summers at the library reading lots of books. Once in a conversation with me she actually spoke aloud the word “whew” and it made me wonder if maybe she was reading too much.))) )) )
Well, not exactly the mouth of Provo Canyon—really sort of where the soft palate would be if we didn’t drop the metaphor right where we stand (I’m standing to affect the appearance of doing my parking job—this column is being pencilled on a legal pad), not unlike a hot potato.
The Festival is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I began my association with this nationally-acclaimed institution a quarter-century ago when I told The Planemaker (“a magical story with songs”) in Karen Ashton’s backyard. Now I’m parking cars in exchange for my ticket to listen.
Cheerfully. I get to wear an orange vest and a radio! Just kidding. I really do get to wear the vest and radio (gotta communicate with my parking collaborators down at the main gate, ‘cause they’re the ones checking recommends and I don’t want to park somebody that’s unworthy), but I mean “cheerfully” because that ticket is well worth sacrificing for. Others have sacrificed much more. They’ve gotten jobs.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all sackcloth and ashes out here in the lot—I just did Boo Dog through somebody’s window to the delighted kids in the back seat. (The most delighted kid was twenty-three.)
I run into a lot of my artist friends at this festival. I had a nice visit over some sort of Brazilian food with Rick Walton, who’s highly regarded throughout most of Meridian Magazine’s colossal reach as a writer of terrific children’s picture books. Mostly we talked about the lot of artists in society (and believe me, there are a lot of artists in society). I reported to Rick that I was trying to bankroll a new CD and he pointed out that most banks are pretty tough to roll, being rectangular and all. So he’s got me keeping a sharp eye out for a spherical bank. (If you see one, you know where to find me. If you are one, you might want to pick up some Dramamine, ‘cause I’m rollin’ ya.)
The storytellers Sister Ashton and her collaborators bring in (this is really cool: world-class storytellers, the ones that are taken most seriously and have whole TV seasons built around them by BYU Broadcasting, aren’t from Manhattan. They’re from North Carolina. And not Charlotte, either. They’re from little places that don’t have running water except for creeks); they love it here. One became a sponsor of the Timpanogos festival. Another wrote a poem about how when you shake people’s hands in Utah, you can actually feel their hands. Others, mostly Catholics, work CTR rings into their stories. This year one storyteller felt a near-sealing bond with us when he mentioned the degree to which Lutherans love Jell-o and was met with more reverence than laughter. We love these people. We cherish them. They can tell.
And they love each other. Some of them love each other quite a lot. John McCutcheon, a stellar folk musician who Pete Seeger likes and who shared Sister Ashton’s backyard with me once, loved another popular storyteller so much that a couple of years ago he married her. This would be the Latin firecracker (no, full-scale illegal Wyoming Roman candle) Carmen Deedy, who didn’t come from North Carolina, but from Havana, Cuba, which is about as good, despite the abundance of running water.
Ms. Deedy and I share collaborators. Randall Wright, with whom (along with his brother, Ward) I’m building a stage adaptation of the book “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey,” has also just collaborated with Carmen on a completely fun book called “The Cheshire Cheese Cat,” which Charles Dickens, reading from Heaven with binoculars, will grin over. (Read the book.)
Randall’s plenty pleased about working with Carmen (I mean, who wouldn’t be?) but he’s also pretty jazzed about going out to Georgia a lot and jamming with John on their guitars. (If anybody else wants to jam with John, tough luck—because you probably didn’t come to the festival the year that the newlyweds invited everybody there ((who were numbered in the low tens-of-thousands or, technically, myriads)) to drop in on them and stay a bit if they were in the neighborhood—but BYORW (“Bring Your Own Running Water”). Or maybe they just meant the five hundred who were in their tent right then. Either way. I didn’t actually hear Carmen say that anybody who was in Provo Canyon that night could drop by and collaborate with her on a book if they wanted, but it was sort of implicit. The great compliment to my partner Randall is that he wasn’t there and got to collaborate with her anyway.)
So what the heck, let’s collaborate. I mean you and me. What shall we create? A book? A play? A story? A truly exquisite parking lot? Hey, I know! Zion! First we’d better review our qualifications. Let’s see, do you have to come from New York? No. Do you have to come from either of the Carolinas? No. Do you have to get yourself out to Georgia and hang with the McDeedy-Cutcheons? No, but it might help. Do you have to volunteer to help in the parking lot? Hmm… maybe a little—but it’s so lovely in September. Do you have to know Karen Ashton well enough to feel comfortable about calling her by her first name? No. But you should probably come to her storytelling festival (and I suspect she wouldn’t mind if you called her “Sister Karen”). Because the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival feels to me like Zion. There’s a feeling of consecration in the air, a feeling of generosity and giving.
Sure, you have to pay for the sort-of-Brazilian food, and yes, the tellers get paid, and yes, there are expensive puppets in the store tent for which your children will beg as un-Zionlikely as if you were in Disneyland.
But if any of the myriad souls in the soft palate of Provo Canyon today, including the storytellers, were primarily focused on making a buck and amassing fortune and power, they sure as Uncle Remus’s politically incorrect beard wouldn’t be here. It’s not about that. It’s about the spirit of things and people, the spirit that breathes through archetypes and heroes and fools and lovers and children (mostly children) and people who sacrifice a little or a lot for dreams and beauty and visions and daring possibilities and who laugh most heartily at themselves. Certain among those under the dignified umbrella of “natural man” would think it’s all pretty foolish.
Oh, one more thing. Do you have to feel compassion for those millions who were eaten by the black hole 3.8 billions years ago and never got to become faithful readers of Backstage Graffiti? Yes, I think you do—but I think we’re up to it.
Or are we? I mean, can a truly successful collaboration on the scale of building Zion occur on the strength of me liking you and you liking me and us working together politely? Like we’ve done already? Books can be beautiful things, but they’re only slivers of Zion. Plays can be beautiful things, but they’re only windows into something a lot more beautiful. And they’re the kind of windows we had in our old house in Springville, a pioneer house fitted with glass that was a little wavy. You could see the light plenty well, but the shapes weren’t always clear. With the best books and the best plays we’re only guessing at the shapes of things as they’re meant to be. So, Zion… Heart-shaped? Round? Like King Arthur’s table? Linked rings, like the Olympic peace symbol?
Or might it be the shape of a face? The face of a third essential collaborator, the one who knows how the story ends? A face that reflected the fires of creation? A face that shone in Sinai? A face that gazed down through love and tears from a cross? A face that sang up through the open door of a tomb? A face that smiled in tenderness on a boy in a grove?
If it is, how do I get to see that face? I mean, clearly? Well, the ghost of Alma whispers that if we do this right I’ll only have to look at you. That’s a lovely prospect. And of course, if we build it, He will come.