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Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

June 19, 2010 8 comments

Mark Twain

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Roger Welsch is a born storyteller and there’s nothing he enjoys more than holding sway with his spoken or written words, drawing the audience or reader in, with each inflection, each permutation, each turn of phrase. He’s a master at tone or nuance. New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt and I visited Welsch at his rural abode, and then into town at the local pub/greasy spoon, where we scarfed down great burgers and homemade root beer. All the while, Welsch kept his variously transfixed and in stitches with his tales.

On this blog you’ll find Welsch commenting about his longtime friend and former Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett in my piece, “Homecoming is Always Sweet for Dick Cavett.” Welsch shares some humorous (naturally) anecdotes about the talk show host’s penchant for showing up unannounced and getting lost in those rural byways that Welsch lovingly describes in his writing.

 

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

It’s been years since Roger Welsch, the author, humorist and folklorist, filed his last Postcard from Nebraska feature for CBS’s Sunday Morning program. Every other week the overalls-clad sage celebrated, in his Will Rogersesque manner, the absurd, quixotic, ironic, sublime and poetic aspects of rural life.

That doesn’t mean this former college prof, who’s still a teacher at heart, hasn’t been staying busy since his Postcard days ended. He’s continued his musings in a stream of books (34 published thus far), articles, essays, talks and public television appearances that mark him as one of the state’s most prolific writers and speakers.

In 2006 alone he has three new books slated to be out. Each displays facets of his eclectic interests and witty observations. Country Livin’ is a “guide to rural life for city pukes.” Weed ‘Em and Reap: A Weed Eater Reader is “a narrative about my interest in wild foods, a kind of introduction to lawn grazing and a generous supply of reasons to avoid lawn care,” he said. My Nebraska is his “very personal” love song to the state. “I believe in Nebraska. I love this place for what it is and not for what people think it ought to be,” he said. “I hate it when the DED (Department of Economic Development) tries to fill people full of bullshit about Nebraska. Nebraska’s great as it is. You don’t have to make up anything. You don’t have to put up an arch across the highway to charm people.”

In the tradition of Mark Twain and William Faulkner, Welsch mines an authentic slice of rural American life, namely the central Nebraska village of Dannebrog that he and artist wife Linda moved to 20 years ago, to inform his fictional Bleaker County. Drawing from his experiences there, he reveals the unique, yet universal character of this rural enclave’s people, dialect, humor, rituals and obsessions.

Roger Welsch on his beloved farm

 

 

He’s also stayed true to his own quirky sensibilities, which have seen him: advocate for the benefits of a weed diet; fall in love with a tractor; preserve, by telling whenever he can, the tall tales of settlers; wax nostalgic over sod houses; serve as friend and adopted member of Indian tribes; and obsess over Greenland.

The only child of a working class family in Lincoln, Neb., he followed a career path as a college academician. His folklore research took him around the Midwest to unearth tales from descendants of Eastern European pioneers and Plains Indians. He lived in a series of college towns. By the early ‘70s he held tenure at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then, he turned his back on a “cushy” career and lifestyle to follow his heart. To write from a tree farm on the Middle Loup River outside Dannebrog. To be a pundit and observer. People thought he was nuts.

“I walked away from an awfully good job at the university. People work all their lives to get a full professorship with tenure and…nobody could believe it when I said I’m leaving. ‘Are you crazy? For what?’ And, it’s true, I had nothing out here,” he said from an overstuffed shed that serves as an office on the farm he and Linda share with their menagerie of pets. “I was just going to live on my good looks, as I said, and then everybody laughed. That was before CBS came along.”

Before the late Charles Kuralt, the famed On the Road correspondent, enlisted Welsch to offer his sardonic stories about country life in Nebraska, things were looking bleak down on the farm. “We weren’t making it out here,” Welsch said. “I told Linda, ‘The bad news is, we’re not making it, and the even worse news is I’m still not going back.’ And about that point, Kuralt came along.”

No matter how rough things got, Welsch was prepared to stick it out. Of course, the CBS gig and some well-received books helped. But even without the nice paydays, he was adamant about avoiding city life and the halls of academia at all costs. What was so bad about the urban-institutional scene? In one sense, the nonconformist Welsch saw the counterculture of the ’60s he loved coming to an end. And that bummed him out. He also didn’t like being hemmed in by bureaucratic rules and group-think ideas that said things had to be a certain way.

His chafing at mindless authority extended to the libertarian way he ran his classroom at UNL and the free range front lawn he cultivated in suburbia.

“I was a hippie in the ‘60s and I really got excited teaching hippies because they didn’t give a didly damn what the bottomline was. They just wanted to learn whatever was interesting. You didn’t have to explain anything. I never took attendance. I’d have people coming in to sit in on class who weren’t enrolled, and I loved that. I hated grades. Because I figured, you’re paying your money. I’m collecting the money and I deliver. Now, what you do with that, why should I care? It’s none of my business,” he said. “The guy at the grocery store doesn’t say, Now I’ll sell you this cabbage, but I want to know what you’re going to do with it.”

Welsch said the feedback he got from students made him realize how passionate he was about teaching. On an evaluation a student noted, “‘Being in Welsch’s class isn’t like being in a class at all. It’s like being in an audience.’ I asked a friend, ‘Is that an insult or a compliment?’ ‘Well, Rog, actually being in your class isn’t like being in a class or in an audience. It’s like being in a congregation.’ And I thought, Oh, man, that’s it — I’m a preacher, not a teacher. It really is evangelism for me.”

“By the ‘80s they (university officials) wanted to know how they were going to make money out of the popular classes I taught. I said, ‘I have no idea. It’s not my problem. All I’m doing is telling them (students) what I know.’ So, there was that.”

Then there was the matter of UNL selling out, as he saw it, its academic integrity to feed the ravenous and untouchable football program, which he calls “a cancer.”

“I was and still am extremely disillusioned with the university becoming essentially an athletic department. Everything else is in support of the athletic department. And that breaks my heart, because I love the university. There was that.”

But what really set him off on his rural idyll was the 1974 impulse purchase he made of his 60-acre farm. He bought it even as it lay buried under snow.

“So, I bought it without ever really seeing the ground, but it was exactly what I wanted. I loved the river. I loved the frontage on the river. Then spring came and the more the snow melted…it was better than I thought….There are wetlands and lots of willow islands. The wildlife is just incredible. We’ve had a (mountain) lion down here and wolves just north of here.”

 

 

 

 

He used the place as a retreat from the city for several years. Each visit to the farm, with its original log cabin house, evoked the romantic in him, stirring thoughts of the people that lived there and worked the land. “That’s what I love about old lumber…the ghosts.” By the mid-’80s, he couldn’t stand just visiting. He wanted to stay. “I told Linda, ‘One of these days you’re going to have to send the highway patrol out, because I won’t come home. I can’t spend the rest of my life wanting to be here and living in Lincoln.’” Their move to the farm “really wasn’t so much getting away from anything as it was wanting to get out here.”

Then, too, it’s easier to be a bohemian in isolation as opposed to civilization.

“My life is a series of stories, so I have to tell you a story,” he said. “In my hippie days, I really got interested in wild plants and wild foods. As part of my close association with Native Americans, I was spending a lot of time with the Omahas up in Macy (Neb.). I was learning a lot of things from the Indians and, well, I was bringing home a lot of plants that I wanted to see grow, mature, go to seed and become edible. Milkweed and arrowhead and calimus. I got more and more into it. I loved the sounds and flowers and foods coming from my yard.

“One day, I come home to find a notice on my door that my lawn’s been condemned and I have six days to remove all ‘worthless vegetation.’ So, I invite the city weed inspector over to show me what’s worthless. He said, ‘OK, what about that white stuff over there?’ He didn’t even know the names of the plants. And I said, ‘Well, we had that for lunch.’ ‘How ‘bout that?’ ‘That’s supper.”

Welsch said, “As I started looking at this, I found out people were nuts. Anything over six inches high in Lincoln was a weed. The county weed board was spraying both sides of all county roads with diesel fuel and 24D. That’s essentially Agent Orange. They were laying waste to everything. Strawberries, arrowhead, cattails. So, I ran for the weed board on a pro-weed ticket. About this same time, Kuralt was coming through Nebraska. He asked somebody if anything going on in Nebraska might make a good story for his On the Road series. And whoever he asked, God bless ‘em, said, ‘Yeah, there’s a crackpot in Lincoln…’ So, Kuralt called me up and came over to the house with his van and his crew, which eventually became my crew. We sat down and had a huge weed salad and walked around and talked about weeds. And he had me on his On the Road. Well, then over the years every time he came through Nebraska he stopped. I kept a file of any stories I thought were interesting that he might use. That was my way of luring him to Lincoln.”

 

 

Charles Kuralt

 

 

The two men became fast friends and colleagues.

“We always went out to eat and drink. He loved to drink and I do, too. We would just have a good time. He used me for six more On the Road programs, for one thing or another. I tried to then steer him to other things — the jackalope in Wyoming and stuff like that. We got to be really good friends. When he started hosting Sunday Morning, he asked me to watch the show. He called me up and told me he wanted to bring the culture of New York City to towns like Dannebrog.”.

By the time Kuralt next passed through Nebraska to see Welsch, the author was giving a talk before a gathering of the West Point, Neb. chamber of commerce. What Kuralt heard helped him change the course of Sunday Morning and Welsch’s career. “He walked in the back of the room and listened to the program. We drove back to my place and he said, ‘You know, you said about 13 things we could use on Sunday Morning. What we need to do is to take the culture of a little town like Dannebrog and show it to New York City. So, that’s essentially how we got together. He originally thought about doing Postcards from America, where he had somebody (reporting) in every state. It got to be too expensive. I had six or seven years all by myself (with Postcards from Nebraska) before they added Maine. Then, by the time he went off the road, he gave me his old crew. They were like family. It was a great 13 years I was on that show. We had an awful lot of fun.”

Two years into Postcard, Welsch said Kuralt confided, “I thought we’d be lucky to get six stories out of Nebraska.” Ultimately, Welsch said, “we did over 200.”

What Welsch found in the course of, as he describes it, “my rural education,” and what he continues discovering and sharing with others, is a rich vein of human experience tied to the land, to the weather and to community. He’s often written and spoken about his love affair with the people and the place.

When friend and fellow Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett asked him on national television — Why do you live in a small town? — Welsch replied: “In Lincoln academic circles everybody around me is the same. They’re all professors. In suburbia, everybody pretty much has the same income. But in Dannebrog, I sit down for breakfast and converse with the banker, the town drunk, the most honest man in town, a farmer, a carpenter and my best friend.” What Cavett and viewers didn’t know is Welsch was talking about his best friend Eric, who’s “been all those things. That private joke aside,” Welsch added, “the spirit of what I said is the truth.”

In his book It’s Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See it from Here, Welsch opines: “I like so many writers…have come to appreciate the power of what seems at first blush to be some pretty ordinary folks doing some pretty ordinary things. There is a widespread perception that small town life moves without color, without variety, without interest…but that has certainly not been my experience. My little town is like an extended family. There are my favorite uncles. A mean cousin or two. Some kin I barely see and do not miss. And some I can never get enough of.” It took leaving the city for the small town to find “the variety I love so much. The American small town seethes with ideas and humor, with friendship and contention, with wit and warmth, with silliness and depravity.”

He finds among the people there an inexhaustible store of knowledge to draw from, both individually and collectively, whether in the stories they tell or in the jokes they crack or in the observations they make. “It amazes me how much people out here know,” he said. “I came to love the land and its river so much. I was drawn inexorably to this rural countryside. But the land was the least of it. The real attraction…is the people. As I got to know the people in town, it just really blew me away. I love the people. It’s a cast of characters.”

“When I did It’s Not the End of the Earth I got mail from everywhere, with people saying, ‘I know what town you’re talking about…I live there in Pennsylvania,’ or, ‘I was in that same Texas town you write about.’ It’s the same cast of characters everywhere.” His characters may be fictional, but they’re extracted from real life. “There is no CeCe, no Slick, no Woodrow, no Lunchbox…and yet, I hope you will recognize them because they are not only people I have known, they are people you have known…In fact, if you are at all like me, they are people you have been.”

As he found out long ago in his folklore studies, there is a beauty, a charm and a value in the common or typical, which, as it turns out, is not common or typical at all. Like any storyteller, his joy is in the surprises he finds and gives to others.

“It’s not just me being surprised, but the pleasure I take in surprising other people,” he said. “I like to tell them, ‘Hey, guess what?’ And there are so many surprises. Every week out here when we turn on television to listen to the weather, there’s a new record set — record highs, record lows, record change, record snowfall, record draught. That means we don’t know anything yet. We haven’t the foggiest notion what this place is like. We still don’t know what the parameters are of this place. And as long as it keeps amazing me like that…”

The amazing stories he compiles keep coming. Like the woman who left an elegant life behind in Copenhagen to keep house for two bachelor farmers in their dirt-floor dug-out. Or the American Indian who witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre. Or the children that perished on their way home from school in the Blizzard of ‘88.

By now, Welsch is not quite the oddity he was when he first arrived in Dannebrog, an historical Danish settlement of about 265 today. Ensconced at a table in the Whisky River Bar and Grill, he’s just that loud, funny fella who cultivates stories.

“Up here at the bar, whenever people start to tell stories, I start doing like this,” he said, gesturing for a pen and napkin, “because they know I’m going to jot them down. Eric, who used to run the bar, said, ‘Welsch, everybody hears these stories, but you’re the only one who writes them down, takes them home and sells them.’” Welsch likes to tell the story of the time he and Linda were bellying up at the bar with a couple locals, when they asked, “‘How do you make a living writing?’ And I said, ‘Well, Successful Farmer pays me for the article and Essence pays me $2 a word…’ And one of them said, ‘You mean, each time you say — the — they pay you $2? And Linda said, ‘Well, he can use the same words over and over, but he has to put them in a different order every time.’” That’s when it dawned on Welsch, “Oh, God, that’s all I’m doing. Same damn words — different order.”

He remains a suspect figure all these years later. “To a lot of people in town, I’m still the professor, writer, outsider, eccentric. There’s still people that say, ‘Is that all he does is write?’” He’s used to it by now. This son of a factory worker and grandson of sugar beat farmers long ago set himself apart.

 

 

 

 

His initiation as country dweller was complete once he fell head over heels for a tractor. A 1937 Allis Chalmers WC to be precise. Many vintage models sit in a shed on his farm. He tinkers, toils and cusses, refurbishing engines and discovering stories. Always, stories. He’s penned several books about his tractor fetish.

“On an Allis, there’s a piece of braided cloth between the framework and gas tank to prevent friction and wear. I was taking apart a tractor and it was obvious somebody soldered the gas tank before and hadn’t put back the cloth. What they had done was take a piece of harness and put it in there. What that meant was a farmer working on it looked on the barn wall and made a decision: ‘I’m not going to use that harness again; horses are done; you’re now in the tractor age.’ To me, it said a world of things, and tractors are that way. I’ve still got the harness.”

Welsch feels he only gained the respect of some townies when he “admitted total ignorance” as a tractor hack. “No longer was I Professor-Smart-Ass. I was the dumb guy who didn’t know shit. I’d bring in my welding. I’d ask how to adjust a magneto. They were showing the professor…the guy from the city. That put me in touch with people here in town I never would have known. There was a connection…”

Perhaps no connections he’s made for his work mean more to him than do his ties with the Omaha, Pawnee and Lakota tribes. He said his experiences with them have “changed my life. What amazes me is that the culture is still alive. They’ve maintained it in the face of unbelievable pressure and deliberate efforts to destroy it, and yet it’s still there and they’re still willing to share it. That, to me, is astonishing. It’s being able to go to another country and another world within striking distance of Omaha that has different ideas about what property is and what time is and what generosity is and what family is.” His adoption by members of the Omaha and Lakota tribes has given him large extended tribal families. He treasures “the brotherhood and the closeness of it. Maybe because I was an only child.”

A trip to Greenland gave him a similar appreciation for the Innuits. He hopes one day to write a book about his “love” for the Arctic country and its people. It used to be he wrote books on contract. Not anymore. “You’re really obligated then to write the book the publisher wants. The books I’m doing now are so idiosyncratic and so personal that I want to write the book I want.” Besides, he said, “everybody loves to hear stories,” and he’s got a million of them.

Welsch knows how rare and lucky he is to be doing “exactly what I want to do. So much of my life is just unbelievable fortune. My daughter Antonia said I belong to The Church of Something’s Going On. I really believe there is. That’s about as close as I come to dogma.”

Nancy Duncan: Her final story

May 9, 2010 1 comment

PorDoSolRibeira

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I got to know the late Nancy Duncan better than I do a lot of my profile subjects.  You might even say we became friends.  I had written about her and her work as a professional storyteller.  We hit it off.  When she developed cancer and began undergoing a regimen of treatments and surgeries, she began doing what came naturally to her — putting her experiences into stories.  When told she was terminal, she and I eventually arrived at the idea of her telling one last story, in effect, by sharing her odyssey with the public.  The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).  Not long after the article appeared Nancy died peacefully, having said all her goodbyes and having left the gift of her humor and intelligence and grace with thousands in the form of her stories, which will live on forever.

 

Nancy Duncan: Her final story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Professional storyteller Nancy Duncan felt the tell-tale lump on her right breast in 2000. She recalled it being “about two digits long, as round as a pencil and as hard as a rock. I knew the minute I touched it what it was.” Doctors soon confirmed her suspicion. Cancer. “Somehow it had just sneaked through the mammograms.”

After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, her illness appeared under control. Then, in April 2002, she found “a little chip of a tumor” under her arm pit. “They told me it had recurred, and when they found it there they figured it was somewhere else. They did a CAT scan and there were these little specks everywhere in my liver — like from a shotgun blast,” she said. Her cancer had spread. “Metastasized. It’s a nasty word. Nobody wants to hear it. You never know where it’s going to go when it gets outside the breast,” she said. “It’ll go to your bones or to your lungs or somewhere else. Mine just happened to go to my liver.”

“Well, Nancy, you’re a terminal,” is what her doctor told her. Terminal. Aren’t we all? — Duncan wondered. The only difference between me and my doc, Duncan thought, “is that she thinks she knows what I’m going to die of.” That, and the fact the malignant tumors carrying Duncan’s death sentence play a cruel game with her. “They grow and then the chemo shrinks them. Enough so you can barely see them or they’re not visible. In about four or five months, they figure out how to get around that drug and then they come back. That routine is what I’ve been doing the past two years,” said Duncan, the Nebraska Arts Council’s Artist of the Year.

Her four-year “dance with cancer” has propelled the former theater maven into a journey of self-discovery that’s informed every aspect of her life and work. Her unfolding death is the subject of her final, most profound story.

“Storytelling is always a process of learning about yourself,” said Duncan. “The story transforms along with you and that’s exciting to realize that and to let that happen. It’s a dialogue you maintain with that story for the rest of your life.”

The most surprising thing to happen in the narrative of her evolving death, she said, is the tranquility she’s found. “It’s totally taken away the fear” she had of dying. Her late husband, Harry Duncan, an acclaimed poet and fine book printer, died at home under her watch. That experience is helping her prepare for her own death.

When she first got news of her terminal illness, she panicked. “Then, I remembered what Harry did. He just stopped eating and drinking and he was unconscious after three days and gone in a week. From the day he decided he didn’t want to live anymore, he went in this kind of graceful state. It wasn’t like he was a beaming idiot or anything. He just seemed totally at peace. Very relaxed. Loving. It was like he was teaching us all that when you’re ready, you don’t have to hang around and be tortured to death. So, I thought, I always have that option. My kids have agreed they’re not going to mess with that choice.”

The comfort Duncan gained in contemplating her own blissful exit carried over to a new freedom she felt on stage. “The interesting thing is I totally lost my fear in performing. I became completely relaxed,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to perform two years without any fear. Yahoo! Because that is what your audience really wants. They want you embodied in that art form. They want to see you, the most they can possibly see you, broken open. And fear just gets in the way. It’s a barrier between you and the audience. It’s a good thing, because it tells you this is an important occasion and you need to be present for it. It helps you stay on your toes. But it’s also a bad thing because then you’re editing, and you don’t want to edit. What you want to do is listen to your audience and remember things and let them pop into the story. Why did I have to have cancer in order to lose that fear?”

She’s considered her cancer from every conceivable angle. She’s talked frankly about it in stories. In the published Losing and Getting, her cancer-ridden breast converses with her healthy left breast in a stream of bitterness, guilt and humor. She’s talked about losing her hair but gaining a new appreciation for life. She’s performed her cancer story for many audiences, but especially for women who are cancer survivors, patients and potential victims. She knows firsthand their fear.

“There’s also a lot of lessons you learn…” Like the harsh reality of health care in America. “If I didn’t have supplemental insurance I wouldn’t be alive today because I couldn’t afford all these chemo treatments. And a lot of people can’t afford them. They don’t have a choice. They’re not given the opportunity to have their lives extended like mine has been. Given the fact there’s so much money being made treating cancer and that cancer is growing exponentially in the world, there’s no incentive to find a cure…and definitely no incentive to prevent it. I think we don’t really want to prevent it because we don’t want to change our lives. We’re too lazy. We don’t want to give up our fossil fuels and our fatty foods. We’re so complacent. I’m as bad as anyone else. That makes me mad sometimes.”

Since finding she’s terminal, she’s tried maximizing the brief periods she feels well between her taxing treatments, stealing moments here and there to work and to spend time with the many friends and relatives who comprise her extended care team. She’s also managed performing occasionally and nurturing some of the storytelling festivals she’s helped found and grow, particularly the Nebraska Storytelling Festival in Omaha. She’s annually given 600-plus hours of volunteer time to Nebraska Story Arts, the organization that puts on the festival.

Even as her condition’s worsened, she’s continued being the state’s most visible and vocal advocate for storytelling. Omaha sculptor Catherine Ferguson called Duncan “one of Nebraska’s most treasured women. She has dedicated her professional life to connecting people to the arts and humanities. Nancy’s performances have always gone beyond entertainment to become educational.” Story Arts president Jim Marx said, “Her gift is to imagine possibilities, inspire others to join her vision and to will them into existence through tireless effort and encouragement.” Nancy’s daughter and fellow storyteller, Lucy Duncan, said, “She has a great generosity of spirit in her teaching of storytelling and wanting to spread the art form. Her support of my telling is a direct example. Instead of feeling, This is my territory, she says, Let’s share this. She’s done that with a lot of people — not just me. She’s also very beloved in the national storytelling community.”

Lately, Duncan’s good spells have grown fewer. The artist has been homebound since the end of May, when she gave her “last” performance at the Darkroom Gallery in the Old Market.

Her three grown children and several grandchildren are staying with her now in the big mid-town house she and Harry shared. It’s where he died of cancer in 1997. It’s where she intends dying, too. As the debilitating rounds of chemo have taken her longer and longer to recover from, she’s considered not undergoing them again, knowing full well stopping them will mean certain death.

“I have to pay such a huge price to feel good for about two months,” she said.

For now, at least, she tarries on, telling stories to her grandchildren or soaking up
the good vibes of her army of friends who flit in and out of her place all day long. Some come to do chores. Others bring her things. Some just come by to chat.

 

Reminders of her friends are everywhere, most poignantly in the paper, silk and rubber hands adorning the inside of her front door. Each “helping-healing hand” was sent or delivered to her and is adorned with a message that’s variously funny, outrageous, wise, enigmatic, just like the stories Duncan’s told since 1984, when she turned away from a career in the theater to pursue storytelling professionally.

Some visitors come to say goodbye, although few use that word, because even though Duncan is physically frail now and needs around-the-clock support, her effervescent spirit shines through, making it all the harder to imagine her gone. The light-up-the-room sparkle is still there in her eyes. So, is the ear-to-ear smile. And the cascading laugh. Ah, The Laugh. It’s an irrepressible cackle that starts in her chest, rolls up her giraffe neck and spills out her crescent mouth in a high-pitched sound that recalls the coyote-witch figures she portrays in tellings.

Then again, there’s a chronic fatigue that didn’t used to be there. Every now and then she catches her breath, swallowing hard to stem the pain from the stints in her liver. Her body, once as expressive an instrument as her animated face and voice, is gaunt and still, betraying the fight she wages to keep death at bay.

Her impending death is being recorded by Omaha videographer George Ferguson. The documentary she asked him to make is meant to help other dying individuals in their search for healing. It’s only natural that Duncan, who’s used stories as a way to interpret life, should use storytelling as a means of understanding her own end.

“I thought it might be useful to somebody else who’s dying the same way, but also to see how useful storytelling can be in helping you go through this process,” she said. “where grotesque things happen to you and people are poking your body here and there. And, where, in the middle of having stints put in your liver, people around you are talking while you’re drugged. And the craziness of discovering systems that you are either a victim of or you have to figure out how to defend yourself against. Not to mention a whole new vocabulary you learn.

“I’ve met people who, when diagnosed with cancer, kind of isolate themselves and live at home quietly and some who sadly get really angry and stay angry until they die. And to me dancing with cancer has not been like that. I was angry the first weekend before the biopsy results came back. That was the weekend when I fired God and hired HER back a couple times. But then I got over that because I’ve always believed that in every trauma there’s some kind of a grace at work and you just have to open yourself to it and figure out what it is. It doesn’t make you a better person, but it says, Wait, stop, who do you really want to be? And, so, cancer gives you some time, mostly, to do that and that’s a great privilege. I mean, I think it would be a great privilege to drop dead of a heart attack, but it wouldn’t be for your family because it’s so traumatic.”

Her decision to have her odyssey filmed was one she came to after much thought. “It took a long time to decide what my motives were here. Was I just doing this out of ego? Was it really a good idea? I talked to a lot of friends about it before I talked to my family. Most of my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, you better do this because it will give you something to keep you busy.’ My kids in the beginning were thinking what it would be like to have somebody around filming during the last week of my life. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was thinking about talking about the things that happened to me in terms of my cancer, but also in terms of how the cancer affects my life and the stories. So, finally, I think my kids have all come around to it.”

Storytelling, she said, constitutes the way we make sense of things. The story of her cancer and dying, she said, is “no different. Every time you narratize your story to explain something to yourself, that’s healing, because then you’re no longer so confused or befuddled by it. Then, when you tell it to somebody, they give it their own meaning based on their lives.” This search for identity and meaning is one she thinks America suppresses in its instant gratification apparatus.

“I think all my work with storytelling has been trying to fight that tendency in our culture that does everything to avoid having people talking deeply to each other, especially about death or anything important. As a society, we want to be entertained and we avoid things that might make ask us to think or deal with situations going on in the world. Problems are not going to get solved until we sit down with somebody else and really listen to their stories, so we can get to understand each other rather than blowing each other up. The more we put labels on people, the more we’re destined not to know them. When you really know somebody’s else’s story, you can’t hate them anymore. It’s a wonderful tool for peace,” said Duncan, whose residencies in schools and other settings have used  storytelling to break down barriers, to build self-esteem and to promote diversity.

“But nobody trusts it (storytelling), partially because nobody has ever listened to our stories. We narrow ourselves so much by not knowing each other. Storytelling works against that. That’s why I keep working on storytelling.”

She said too many of us seek the cold isolation of mass media diversions as substitutes for interpersonal communication around the dinner table or fireplace, where gathering with friends to talk and tell stories is a communal event and a celebration of our shared humanity. “That’s what storytelling is all about.”

 

Harry Duncan

 

Her many tales, from the repertoire of “platform” stories she’s crafted for performance to the private stories she’s passed on to loved ones, are sure to live on through her family members, all of whom, she said, are born storytellers. That’s why her dying is more celebration than requiem. “Not only is it a celebration,” she said, “it’s a transition. It’s a very important transition from my versions of the stories to everybody else’s. Now, they’re all going to own these stories. I would love to someday eavesdrop on them, although that’s probably not possible.” Her performance stories are available on CD.

Duncan’s love for stories extends back to childhood. Born in Indiana to “depressed-alcoholic” parents, she did most of her growing up in Illinois and Georgia. A tomboy with a big imagination, Duncan roamed the woods in back of her Georgia house to act out the dramas in her mind. It was her pipe-smoking grandma, with whom she shared a room and found refuge with for eight years, that introduced literature and storytelling to her. “She read books to me until she dropped. She was not a big talker, but she told very well-honed stories all about her life. She was the unconditional loving parent in my life and my rock of stability,” Duncan said. “If I hadn’t of had my grandmother, I think I would have ended up in a booby hatch.”

Expressive by nature, Duncan first heeded her talents as a writer, earning a scholarship to the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1958. It was there, as a student, she met and married Harry, then a teacher and fine arts press director. Eventually, she and Harry moved to Omaha, where he ran the Abattoir Press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She acted on area stages and served as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse and as artistic director and, later, executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Company for Young People).

She applied drama techniques to her early storytelling. She built her signature story performances around Baba Yaga, a witch character adapted from Russian literature, and a chicken. “Baba Yaga was really the one who broke me open because she could say anything,” Duncan said. During the Fundamentalist Right’s rise to power, Baba Yaga got her in hot water with some area school districts that outright banned or picketed her shows. She was even spat at once.

Dissatisfied with her hybrid of theater and storytelling, Duncan began shedding makeup and costume to explore and expose more of herself on stage. Once she made herself more present in her increasingly personal stories, she found her voice as a teller. She never looked back at the theater, which she found limiting. “In the theater, you’re really not in charge of the material. The playwright or director is. In storytelling, there’s no separation of yourself from the story. You have to take total responsibility for it. You can’t blame it on the writer or director. It’s a different kind of bareness-nakedness, but also a different kind of responsibility.”

Speaking of responsibility, she hopes her militant views on cancer increase awareness. It’s why she doesn’t wear a wig or a prosthesis. “We need not hide the fact this is happening. If we hide the fact we have cancer…we’re denying who we are. We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it,” she said. “I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it. Moreover, we need to prevent it. Hiding it, to me, says the opposite. That it doesn’t exist. Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.” She said many women don’t self-examine or are afraid to. Why? “They don’t want to know.”

Duncan’s curiosity, passion, concern and whimsy have made her a timeless teller  and, when she’s gone, her life and work will endure as a never-ending story.

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