Stories from the Stage

S4 E14 | FULL EPISODE

Up Close and Personal

Everyone has their own personal space...but sometimes, we have to share it. Kurt finds space at a premium, even on the Appalachian Trail; Matthew’s blindness creates a unique hands-on museum tour; and Meghann connects with a friend despite her solitary confinement. Three storytellers, three interpretations of UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL, hosted by Theresa Okokon.

AIRED: April 12, 2021 | 0:26:29
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TRANSCRIPT

KURT MULLEN: I don't know what I say, but with my body,

my hands, my face, the message is definitely, "Back off.

Leave me alone."

MATTHEW SHIFRIN: I'd come from the land

of security guards and alarm systems,

but these people who didn't even know me

were letting me touch anything.

MEGHANN PERRY: We were locked into the unit 23 hours a day.

I read books, I paced.

But it was the nighttime that was the worst.

THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Up Close and Personal."

As a kid, my siblings and I used to put up the hugest fuss

if one of us got into the other's "airspace."

Because the reality is, everybody has some concept

of what it means to have their own personal space.

Now, as we grow up, we have to figure out

how we're going to react

when we need to share space with another person.

Tonight's storytellers are bringing their memories

of moments when being up close created a story

that was unforgettable.

MULLEN: My name is Kurt Mullen,

and I live in Newburyport, Massachusetts,

which is almost all the way up in New Hampshire.

And I'm a, I'm a writer, a teacher, a storyteller,

and, I guess, a podcaster, even.

And I'm, I'm just really, really happy to be telling a story

on the stage again.

And what makes for a really good story, in your opinion?

I think it's when a storyteller is paying attention

to setting down some tension from the very beginning,

because as listeners, like, we want to really have something

to pay attention to and sort of project forward, like,

"What's going to happen here?"

Like, we need that feeling, that, what we...

You know, the edge-of-your-seat feeling.

That's the best feeling, when it's just,

like, you're completely

pulled into what's happening in the story.

Yes. Yeah, I totally agree.

And I understand, Kurt, that you also teach storytelling.

So, what is it about this art form that keeps you motivated

to share it with other people?

Um, when I started telling stories a couple of years ago,

I felt just this enthusiasm for it.

I was so glad that someone turned me on to it.

What I found when-- I used to teach writing,

and so when I, what I found was,

first of all, people are smart

and they pick up on this stuff really quickly.

So even after a few classes, you see these dramatic improvements,

and it's just...

It lights you up as a teacher, and you want more.

I'm sitting here in the dark,

alone at this little picnic table out in the Berkshires,

in western Massachusetts,

just off the Appalachian Trail.

And just behind me, my tent is all set up.

Usually on a night like this, I might be making cocktails

in my kitchen in my little house north of Boston.

A friend of mine says to me,

"You haven't lived until you've spent a night in a tent alone."

And I, I know what he's talking about.

I, you know, life isn't about being comfortable all the time.

And so I borrow his tent and I make my way out here.

And I've spent the day hiking on the Appalachian Trail,

and I've just had my first camp meal.

And I'm feeling pretty good about this,

about this camping stuff, and me as a camper with skills.

Like, I can see me doing this in the future.

And I'm under the stars and I have the dark woods

all around me, and I'm so sensitive to the sounds

of insects and animals and frogs.

And, and then I hear a footstep,

and then another one.

And when I look up over there, you know, I see this headlamp,

like, this light bobbing around in the trees, and I'm wondering,

"Who walks around in the woods in the dark?"

I start to track this image, you know, and, and it comes out

of the woods.

And, of course, it's this tall man

with long arms and long legs.

And I don't even know what the protocol is

when you're sitting in your camp alone in the dark,

and someone wants to come up to you.

But that's what he does, and he's standing over me.

And suddenly we're, like, Blair Witching each other

with our, with our headlamps.

And when I do get a clean look at his face,

it doesn't make me feel any better,

because it's this long piece of driftwood.

Unsmiling, he leaves his mouth open like a fish,

and he doesn't say his name.

He just inspects me, the table with all my stuff on it.

And I don't know what I say, but with my body, my hands, my face,

the message is definitely, "Back off.

Leave me alone."

And he gets it.

He, he turns on his heels and he swats at the air.

"Ah, forget it."

And then he trudges off.

I'm, like, "What just happened here?"

I came out to the woods for solitude, for open spaces.

You know, the idea of making chit-chat with someone new,

that, that was never it.

But right now, it just doesn't feel right.

So I hop up and I go over to where he is, 50 yards away.

He's already setting up his tent,

and I'm talking to him, I'm talking to his back.

And I say, "You know, I wasn't even thinking.

You should come over."

And he says to me...

Nothing.

So I go back to the table and I sit down.

I wish I could tell you I could just,

that I just shook it off.

When he comes over a few minutes later,

it's like my chance at feeling some relief.

I'm all too glad to push my notebook and my book

and my water bottle and my spoon and spork and say,

"Hey, take my camp stove.

"Don't, don't-- you don't have to bother fishing yours

out of your bag."

And then he says, "I don't need it.

"I didn't pack food that needs to be cooked.

"I didn't pack a stove.

"I'm packing light.

I'm going to set an age group record."

"Age group record?"

I didn't even know there was such a thing

on the Appalachian Trail.

"What age group? How old are you?"

"66."

He tells me to set this record,

from the beginning of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia

all the way to the end in Maine,

he needs to hike 12-, 14-, 16-mile days.

Then he takes out this hard orange piece of cheese

and he unwraps it, and I swear to you he eats nothing else.

And by me, I have this little metal cup with a little bourbon

I've poured into it, but ever since he sat down,

I've gotten a little self-conscious.

I haven't sipped it, you know.

I should just take the bottle out of my bag

and offer it to him.

Instead, he, out of one of his many pockets,

he takes out this packet and he rips it open

and he pours this orange powder into his water bottle,

and he takes a sip and says,

"Ah! It doesn't even have any sugar in it.

But at the end of the day, it tastes so good."

And I learn a few other things about him, because I ask.

You know, he's from Milwaukie, Oregon, which, it turns out,

is near Portland.

And in his retirement from teaching,

he takes care of his ailing father.

And to do this trip, his elderly sister has, has taken his place

as the caregiver.

One thing I can say about this guy

is, he does absolutely nothing to make me feel any better

about the rotten first impression I've made on him.

And even as I get up and wave, you know, "Have a good sleep,"

it's, it's awkward.

I get into my tent and I lie down in my, in my sleeping bag,

and it's true what they say-- alone in the dark,

you do hear a lot of things.

And so that I can get some sleep,

I start to think more positive thoughts.

And I'm thinking about him, even, more generously.

You know, I'm thinking, like, this guy, he's probably hiked

14 miles today, and he comes into camp in the dark

and all he wants is a place to eat his cheese.

And I have, like, taken over the one picnic table.

I've been a jerk.

Well, I do get some sleep, and when I wake up,

it's because I can hear him yelling.

"I've lost my wallet!

That's my whole trip!"

Well, I get out of the tent, I run over to him.

I have my headlamp on, it's still dark, and I stop.

I... he already has his backpack on.

He was, he was leaving camp.

Like, I don't know a lot about the Appalachian Trail,

but I know you shouldn't be doing...

You stick around to say goodbye, right?

I've got my headlamp and I'm walking up and down the trail...

I do want to find this wallet, and I finally make my way over

to where I first spotted him last night.

Maybe it fell out of his pocket then.

And I'm starting to look even on the sides of the trails,

and I finally see it in the beam of my light.

I see this little blue nylon wallet and I scoop it up,

and I, and I hustle it back to him.

When I hand it to him, he smiles,

and then he says, "Thank you," a couple of times,

and then he trudges off.

One step at a time, he'll make his way all the way to Maine.

Not me.

A little later today, I'll walk out of these woods

and get in my car and drive back to my house north of Boston.

I'll take a hot shower.

But true to form, I'll be thinking about this.

How this guy, he'll make his way back to Oregon

and he'll be putting together his trail stories,

like the time he got to Massachusetts in the dark

and there was just this, this guy, me,

sitting at a picnic table being rude.

But this morning, this wallet, that I even get to find it

and put a new ending on this story, I feel good.

Like, I feel really good for both of us.

SHIFRIN: I'm Matthew Shifrin.

I live outside of Boston

and I write musicals and play the accordion,

and I study at the New England Conservatory.

I am a rock climber, and I collaborate with Lego

to create text-based instructions

so that blind kids can build Lego sets on their own.

Oh, wow, tell me more about Legos

and the role that Legos plays in your life.

- As a blind person,

you hear about all these landmarks.

You hear about the Statue of Liberty,

you hear about the London Bridge, Big Ben,

but you never really get to experience them.

You can read about them on Wikipedia, but there's really

no way for you to engage with them on your own.

But when you build them out of Lego, it really helps

you understand these landmarks

and really miniaturizes the world for you.

And I understand that you also have a podcast

calledBlind Guy Travels, is that right?

So,Blind Guy Travels basically takes these experiences

that you think you know, like going on a date

or going to the movie theater,

or the kind of mundane experiences

that you've had, and then it turns them on its head.

As a blind person, these experiences,

there's a whole new level of planning that's required,

and a lot of creativity has to be used to make sure

that you can really engage with these experiences.

So it takes everything that you think you know

and approaches it from a different perspective.

I'm 13 years old and my parents, older sister, and I

are on vacation in Rome.

I speak some Italian, so I'm tasked with being

our designated translator, which basically boils down

to haggling for better prices at outdoor markets

and helping my family visit museums.

Turns out that if you're a blind person

visiting a museum in Italy, then you and your guide

get to go in for free.

So, I fall victim to this accessibility feature

because my entire family is dragging me

from museum to museum to museum, three or four of them a day.

Mom wants to see one thing, Dad wants something else,

sister wants something completely different,

and so I become their human late pass-- or, rather, free pass.

Why would a blind guy want to visit a museum anyway?

Well, it all depends on who you go with.

I usually go with my parents,

because everything in most of these museums

is behind glass cases.

And so my parents have to be the readers,

reading every single poster, placard, and sign

so that I can get some idea of what's on display.

When I was little, my parents and I, about five years old,

went to an art museum.

We came up to the front desk and asked them

whether there was any way to make the museum

more interesting to blind people.

"Oh, yeah," they said.

"Of course, you can touch whatever you like

and don't forget to put these on."

They slid something towards me across the counter.

It was a pair of cotton gloves.

I put it on and was ready to touch things.

The first sculpture that I came across

was one of the Lincoln Memorial.

The trouble was that these gloves were so incredibly thick

that this landmark of U.S. architecture turned into

some sort of stone blob.

The trouble is that, as a blind person,

when you touch something, you feel the details

of the object, and then your brain zooms out,

trying to figure out what the rest of that object is.

It's the opposite of how sighted people see,

seeing an entire object

and then being able to zoom in on the details.

And so, after the Abraham Blob Lincoln Memorial,

Mom realized that there were other sculptures

that I could touch.

As soon as I laid hands on them, security guards intervened.

"You can't touch that," they said,

and marched us back to the front desk.

We were furious.

The attendant had told us

that we could touch any sculpture, and here we were,

stuck with the barely recognizable Lincoln Memorial.

So we asked the desk attendant how this had happened,

why this was the case.

"Oh, yeah, I, sorry, I forgot to tell you," he said.

"That one sculpture that you touched,

"that was the only one that we let blind people touch.

The rest of them are off-limits."

And it wasn't just like this at that one museum.

In a museum in New York,

there was a staircase that had sculptures

of medieval creatures molded into it.

I wanted to touch them, and so Mom concocted a plan.

She distracted the security guards

at the bottom of the staircase, as I sprinted up full tilt,

touching everything that I possibly could.

I touched every single griffin, basilisk, and dragon

on that staircase.

Touching these sculptures was a daunting

and stressful process for me.

Mom had to calculate the security guards' patrol patterns

and figure out when exactly their back was turned.

Then I'd swoop in and touch things

like there was no tomorrow.

It was our little game that we played.

So I didn't really expect much when I came to the Vatican.

I came up to the front desk

and asked whether there was any way

to make the museum more interesting for blind people.

"O, s ì, s ," they said. (speaking Italian)

"Oh, yes, yes, he could touch anything."

Anything?

I couldn't believe it.

I had come from the land

of security guards and alarm systems,

but these people who didn't even know me

were letting me touch anything.

People in Rome live with antiques and artifacts

and archaeology, and it's just a part of their life.

So in their opinion,

if a blind guy touches a sculpture,

I mean, these sculptures have seen much more dangerous things

than a blind guy touching them.

And so off I went.

The first gallery that I came across

was filled with the heads of Roman historical figures.

Now, as a sighted person, a sighted person might say,

"Oh, well, if a blind person feels my face,

"then they can learn about me

"and get some semblance of what I look like.

"Al Pacino did it in A Scent of a Woman.

Should work, right?"

Well, if you lost your vision later in life,

then that very well may work.

But I never had vision.

I was blind since birth, and so for me,

your nose is just your nose.

Could be shorter or longer or rounder,

but that doesn't really tell me much else.

So when I was touching these Roman heads,

one of them had an aquiline nose

and some were missing their noses altogether.

Some were missing their ears,

and so it didn't really tell me much.

They were just stone heads.

As a sighted person, you look at a head,

and you know whose it is, because you've seen it before.

But they were all heads to me.

The next gallery featured a bunch of medieval weaponry.

"Grab a broadsword," my mom said.

They had one standing there in a rack.

I grabbed the two-handed weapon and hefted it aloft.

Tourists scattered in all directions

as Mom took a proud parental photo.

Maces, flails, spears, swords, and shields,

all weapons that I'd read about in books

or heard about in movies were mine for the touching.

I touched them all.

The next gallery had Leonardo da Vinci's inventions

depicted as scale wooden models.

Now, as a sighted person,

you can go on Google and type in "Leonardo da Vinci catapult,"

and then you'll be able to see his original sketches.

But as a blind person, these inventions, his gliders,

helicopters, bridges, they had a legendary status to me.

I'd only read about them in books.

That's all I knew about them.

But here they were, mine for the touching.

The Capitoline Wolf.

It was an incredible sculpture,

and we just recently learned about it in history class.

So I climbed up on my dad's shoulders to touch it,

and there it was.

Romulus was missing his third finger

and Remus his second toe.

Museums in countries like Italy and France and Belgium,

they are really focused on

making sure that blind people

can interact with their exhibits.

They have models of the different kinds

of art that they have, be it sculpture,

or paintings, or reliefs.

But unfortunately, they're the minority.

Most museums don't do that.

There is a museum of musical instruments in Switzerland

that I'd love to visit,

and it has various instruments in it.

And as a musician and accordionist,

I thought it would be really cool to be able to run my hands

over the curves of a shofar or touch the pipes of a flutina,

just like in Rome.

PERRY: My name's Meghann Perry.

I live in the suburbs of Boston with my 19-year-old.

I work in storytelling and theater

and also as an addiction recovery coach.

Tell me more about the role that storytelling plays

in your work as a recovery coach.

- When I discovered storytelling,

I was infatuated, and realized that

when we translate those hard stories

into this creative, um, art form,

it has a way of transcending a lot of barriers

and reaching more people, and it becomes more universal.

And so to work with people, formerly incarcerated,

people, um, you know, with substance addiction,

people who have lost loved ones, that kind of thing,

to enter into this creative process

and learn to tell their stories differently

and have that just ripple effect out into the world.

- You've been telling stories now

for so many years.

What are your thoughts about knowing when a story is done?

Who I am when I'm telling the story

or creating the story is different every time,

and so to me, a story is never done,

because it's always going to be a little bit different

every time I tell it.

It's like this really cool, ever-evolving art form.

When I got to the women's segregation unit

at Penobscot County Jail, I had no idea how long

I was going to be there, how I was going to get out,

or what was gonna happen to me.

It wasn't my first jail cell.

It wasn't even my first felony.

I'd been battling a substance addiction for 15 years by then,

and I'd been in plenty of trouble before,

and by the time I got to that jail,

I really only cared about two things in life:

getting high and trying not to die while doing it.

Everything else that I cared about in the world

had just sort of broken apart and fallen away,

and it was just me and my addiction.

But in that jail cell,

I felt like there were three of me in there.

There was the one that was like a feral cat,

just ripping and running, wanting to get out on the street

and, and go wild again,

and there was a me that was very comfortable there.

I liked the rules and the structure

and the fact that somebody else made all the decisions.

It let me just sort of breathe and rest a little bit.

And then there was the real me,

the one who loved horses and,

and beautiful forests and good fishing holes

and, and animals, and, and loved live music

and theater and art, and was kind and smart

and funny and compassionate.

That was the real me, but that was like

this tiny, little candle flame that lived deep inside me

that was about to go out at any minute.

And it was the quietest one of all.

I was put in the women's segregation unit

because I'd gotten in a fight with a woman on the big block,

and so that's what they do with people who get in fights.

And it's just a four-woman unit,

and it's really, really tiny.

There's this tiny common area and four single cells,

and everything is gray.

There's gray cement walls,

gray cement floor, gray steel table,

and stools bolted to the floor,

and steel toilets and sinks.

And it was so monotonous.

It was like a time warp.

We were locked into the unit 23 hours a day.

The time was only broken up by three meals a day on trays

and an hour at rec, if we were lucky.

I played cards.

I read books.

I paced.

But it was the nighttime that was the worst.

The nights were really long and lonely.

We were locked in our cells from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.,

alone, and the lights never went off.

It was enough to drive you crazy trying to sleep at night

with the light in your eyes.

And I remember, one night, I was laying on my bunk

and I had my arm thrown over my eyes to block the light,

and I was laying back on my little pillow

I'd made out of socks and a towel,

when I hear this voice come out of nowhere.

"Hello? Hello!"

And I'm pretty sure I'm alone.

There's just the three of me in the cell at this point,

so I think maybe this is God speaking to me.

And then the voice says,

"Who is that? Who's there?"

And I figure it's not God, because He would know my name,

I think.

So I take a leap of faith and I say,

"It's Meghan."

And the voice comes back to me, "Meghan, it's Big Henry.

"I'm talking to you through the vent.

See? Down by the toilet?"

So I get down on the floor and I look, and there's a vent.

And so I lay down and I shimmy into the space

so that my face is right next to the vent,

and Big Henry and I start talking.

I knew Big Henry from the street.

We'd use together, we'd done some deals together,

and so we started talking about the usual stuff.

You know, who's selling whose product, who got busted,

who set up who.

And then we started to talk about how we'd gotten there,

and what we wanted to do when we got out.

I dreamed of pretty simple things.

I just wanted a juicy hamburger,

a good bass fishing spot, maybe some sunlight on my face.

And then Big Henry started to talk about God.

And I wasn't really into it.

But Henry was, he was really into it.

And so for the next couple of weeks,

we talked for hours, and he talked a lot about God,

and I listened.

But after two weeks,

he got moved to another part of the jail,

and I was alone again in that cell.

Six weeks later, I got my turn in front of the judge,

and I got a really, really lucky break.

He let me out of jail to go to treatment,

and I would love to stand here and tell you that

that was the end, that I'd had some spiritual awakening

in that jail cell, or radical change of heart,

and everything was okay.

But it's way more complicated than that.

There were more treatment programs and more jail cells,

but it's been 11 years since my last jail cell.

It's been ten years since I wrapped up probation

and walked away from the criminal justice system.

And it's been nine years since I found long-term recovery.

And my life is so much better.

And Henry's doing okay, too.

And I want to thank him.

Because he brought something into that jail cell

that just kept the little flame inside of me alive.

He brought just a little bit of light and hope and goodness,

just enough to keep me going.

And now, today, that little light

is a giant bonfire.

Thanks, Henry.

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