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Radiant Moments with Diane Wolkstein September 26, 2013

Posted by jayocallahan in Uncategorized.

Diane Wolkstein radiated a fire that burned through the surface of reality and let you see the magic underneath.

In 1979 I was telling stories at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. It was Saturday night, late; I had finished telling a ghost story and walked down the long hill from the cemetery onto the Main Street in Jonesborough. It was cold; there was a light rain and a fog so heavy I couldn’t even see the courthouse a few yards away. I just wanted to go to bed and Diane stepped through the fog said, “Welcome to London.” Everything changed. My tiredness was gone; I felt I was in London with Diane. She changed things.

I had met Diane a couple of years before that when she was in Boston touring her new book, The Magic Orange Tree, a book of folktales Diane went to Haiti to collect. Priscilla Moulton, a librarian who made things happen, organized the tour and had a welcoming supper for about six of us at the Longwood Towers, an old fashioned hotel in Brookline. It was hushed. The waiters looked like they had served Louis the XIV. I felt awkward because I knocked my water over. That was soon forgotten because Diane began to tell us about the most exciting storyteller she had seen in Haiti. Diane was in a sugar cane area just outside Port-au-Prince where a Haitian woman in her fifties who was tall, muscular, proud began to tell the story of Owl. As Diane talked and sang the story her fire spread from our table and we were transported to Haiti. She changed things.

It was just about a month after that that Elizabeth Dunham, a mime and storyteller, was telling the story of Owl at Storytellers in Concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I loved the way Elizabeth was dancing and singing on the stage and couldn’t wait to tell the story myself. Diane’s radiance was spreading.

In 1980 I was telling stories at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The most special day for me was a chance to tell stories at the Athletes’ Village. I got to the gate and the guards said, “No, we changed our mind. You can’t tell in the village.” I was furious and took out my wallet and said, “Look, I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserves, and I’m scheduled to tell. Let me tell.” He relented. I was escorted in to a small library and told stories to about six athletes. At the end one of the athletes grabbed me and said, “You have got to tell to everybody.” He pulled me down the corridor into the vast dining room where maybe nine hundred athletes were eating. I was not allowed to be there. A guard came forward, put his hand up to stop me, but the athlete pulled me by and he commanded, “Tell!” I found myself raising my arms and what came out of my mouth was, “This is the story of Owl.” Suddenly I was doing the mime, I was dancing and singing,

Dong ga da, Dong ga da, Dong ga da, Dong.

            Dong ga da, Dong. Eh-ee-oh.


The British wrestlers in front of me put down their knives and forks, turned around and listened. Slowly a silence spread over the dining room. And I’ll never forget looking way down at a table far away seeing a young Japanese athlete transfixed. When I finished there was a storm of applause. Diane’s radiance had spread through this Olympic dining room.

A few years later I took a train from Boston down to New York to Diane Wolkstein’s birthday party. It was held at her house in Patchen Place in Greenwich Village. There were four of us there: Laura Simms, Gioia Timpanelli, Diane and myself. I felt like a lump of clay with three goddesses. Diane cooked an amazing supper, set us all at ease and Gioia Timpanelli leaned forward and said, “Let’s talk about the love,” and the magic began. For hours we were eating and resting and laughing and talking about love. It felt as if we were in Italy.

Another time my wife, Linda and I invited Diane to go to Verdi’s opera, Nabucco at the Metropolitan Opera. The three of us dressed up, went to a restaurant and then off to hear Verdi. Afterwards we stood on the sidewalk with cabs rushing by, people hurrying along, it was eleven o’clock at night. We talked and laughed and Diane had to go one way, we the other. Diane smiled, hugged us, waved goodbye and she had done the impossible; She had turned New York into New York.

The last time I saw Diane was last year at the 40th anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Diane and I got to share a stage for an hour. I was nervous because I was telling a story I don’t tell often called Muddy River High School. I wanted Diane to enjoy it. Diane began and captured the audience with her cool fire and we were all lost in Inanna. Then it was my turn. I began telling the story and people were generous with their laughter, but did Diane like the story? At the end the two of us bowed and as we left the stage Diane said, “That was perfect.” We were in London once again.



1. kelly Wilhelm - September 26, 2013

Thank you, Jay, that was a lovely tribute to Diane.

2. Kate Hannon - September 26, 2013

Mesmerizing story. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful gift on an afternoon when I needed to hear it.

3. Kate Hannon - September 26, 2013

P.S. She came alive in my living room and I felt as if I had known her.

4. Daryll Bellingham - September 26, 2013

That was beautiful Jay. Thank you, brought tears to my eyes remembering Diane’s special nature and energy.

5. marnigillard - September 27, 2013

Jay, I have been thinking so much of you of late. Lots to share and wondering how you are – these posts are beautiful! Thanks so much for these tales of you and Diane and friendship at its richest. A treat – though we have lost her, such memories bring her back to us.

6. Linda - September 30, 2013

Jay, love what you are doing with social media. Great job!

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