Years ago I used a device to help me teach about good writing, although the device in question might be insulted by the term. He was a coyote who I referred to simply as Coyote. In the storytime in which Coyote existed, I had met him in the produce department in Wegmans. After that we had frequent conversations, Coyote and I, in which Coyote always taught me a lesson. He was a kind of alter-ego, always the Trickster. One particular story came back to me as I finished recording my voice in Seeking Quan Am: A Dual Memoir of War and Vietnam.
I walked out of the studio thinking back to a time when I had rather disdained audiobooks, thinking of them as a form of cheating. Was it proper reading, after all, to listen to a recording while driving, or cooking, or waiting? Wasn’t it something fundamentally different and … I don’t know … lesser, somehow?
Over the time of recording, though, my opinion changed. As I reviewed the text again and again, listening for errors of various kinds, I heard my own story, the one I had been living with for years, differently. I could almost hear Coyote saying, “Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Tell me a story,” I demanded.
‘Demanded’ might be too strong a word because I meant it as a compliment. Coyote tells such good stories and I love losing myself in them. Like the year at Christmas when I heard The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time and I listened while I was looking deep within the tree and I thought I had actually got into Narnia somehow.
We were in a diner finishing our breakfast. (As you can see, things have progressed since I met him in the produce department at Wegman’s.) Coyote had ordered huevos rancheros, which I thought was very funny in light of the fact that he was a coyote – eggs, the southwest – I kept it to myself. He didn’t like being reminded how far he was from home.
He pulled out his pocket watch and checked it, rather more obviously than I thought strictly necessary.
“Are you in a hurry?” I asked, wondering if I should be offended.
“No,” he said, looking at me with one eye in that way that told me he was being Trickster again. “but most people are.”
“Oh, I know!” I exclaimed, glad to be on common ground. “That’s all anyone can talk about – how busy they are!”
“That’s not what I mean.” he said, snapping the cover of the watch closed. “I mean you.” Here he looked at me meaningfully. He never wanted to talk about “most people.” He wanted to talk about me. “Are you in a hurry? Do you have the time to listen to a story?”
“Well, yes!” I said, pouting just a little. “I asked you, didn’t I?”
“You asked me to tell you a story.” He tucked the pocket watch away. “But do you want to be entertained or do you want Truth?”
“Are they different?” I asked, twisting the corner of my napkin.
“They might be. Depends on how you listen.” He was coiled in that way that told me there was a story coming. It just hadn’t got here yet. I waited.
“Story-telling is one thing.” He nodded at the waitress who had stopped by with the coffee pot. “Story-listening is another.”
I put my fingers over my cup. I had had quite enough caffeine for one day and besides, Coyote was making me jumpy.
“Remember the Javanese shadow play?”
“Yes,” I said.
“It starts in the evening, when the sun goes down, in the in-between time.”
I began to relax. When Coyote said “in-between time” it was like a door opening into a different world – “War Drobe in Spare Oom.”
“The shadow play goes all night. The story ends at dawn. It is a sacred time, with offerings to the gods. People take it seriously. They have pillows for the children. They bring snacks. Do you listen like that?”
“Listen like what?” I ran my finger through the toast crumbs on my plate. I liked the idea of snacks.
He pushed the coffee cup aside and put a paw on my fingers.
“Listen,” he said, “as if your life depended upon it.”
I stopped fidgeting and looked up at him, into those eyes as old as time. The clatter of the diner faded. The waitress came and took away our dishes, but I did not notice. I forgot what day it was, what was in my schedule. I remembered Kokopelli, Spider Woman, Scheherazade. I thought of allegories, yarns, parables, firelight, moon shadows, and rain.
Somehow I must have nodded for he released my hand and settled back, as though arranging the air.
“Once upon a time …”
Mark, co-author of Seeking Quan Am, said once, “If one talks too much about the good times, people perceive a candidate for the VFW. The one that pours out all the horrors is seen as a basket case. Try to balance it out and tell the truth, people haven’t time to listen.”
Get the audiobook. Take the time to listen.
Oh my. I am drawn into the void. Void so not empty but full. Full and spilling in all directions at once. That’s why listening is hard and wonderful. Listening is like a Song Line. We choose to walk, sing, and name things back to life. They become ours and we become theirs. We pay attention, pray attention. On a good day, we make it a habit so Coyote doesn’t have to come so far north. And we don’t have to twist our napkins.