"Shut up! Can't you see I'm conversating with the elders here? Show some respect, you (expletive deleted)!"
The local girl was in her mid-30s (at least that's what she told us) and she spit the words at her 20-something male companion, who was giggling at some unspoken joke. I was standing outside the Little Village restaurant in Honolulu's Chinatown last Friday night, conversating with a lively bunch of professional storytellers and artists, when the disheveled couple approached. We shifted our group to one side so they could pass, but the local girl made a beeline for the center of our cluster to warn us about the proliferation of illegal drugs in the neighborhood. "They put the crystal meth in the air conditioning of all these clubs, that's why the kids go crazy. Like him." She threw her boy toy a disdainful glare and that's when he started giggling.
She gestured toward our group but was looking directly at me when she made that "elders" crack. At least she didn't call me Auntie. The other tellers, all over 50 like me, and most over 60, laughed and pretended to take offense, but I could see they were comfortable with the designation. Not me.
Yes, I know that at 55, I qualify for a number of senior programs, including Kaunoa Leisure classes and AARP membership. But I'm not ready to accept the title of Elder. Middler, maybe. As in middle-aged. Although I suppose it's unrealistically optimistic to think I'm only at the halfway point of my time on this earth. Still, statistics say I'm closer to middle age than old age.
The next night, we storytellers returned to McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Park for the second and final night of the 24th annual Talk Story Festival. The night's theme was Family Tales and the young woman's phrase kept returning to mind. Conversating with the elders. As much as I bristled at being called an elder, I loved the word she unintentionally coined. Conversating sounds so much more alive than conversing. I think it's a better description than the original word, like when my 3-year-old son renamed the refrigerator "the refoodgerator."
I listened to story after story, skillfully told by folks older and younger than me. Most were folk tales from around the world, some were personal anecdotes. All of them imparted a moral or a message in a clever or poignant or other memorable manner. It reminded me that I practice an ancient and noble profession. Whether historian, teacher or sociopolitical commentator, the storyteller was revered by all cultures. I felt a newfound pride in being part of this tradition.
The next day, I looked up the word "elder" and found numerous definitions, the first being a person of greater age. But the word also means an influential member of a tribe or community, often a chief or ruler. Or storyteller, I thought. Then it occurred to me that the Chinatown conversator might have been drawn to us that night by instinct, sensing that we were storytellers and hoping to hear advice or at least a cautionary tale. Maybe that's what she meant when she called us elders. Yeah, sure. More likely we just looked old to her.
In any case, the title didn't seem so bad anymore. I guess I'm OK with it, although I still feel unqualified. Is there such a thing as a young elder? A yelder, that's what I am. One who aspires to becoming a true elder someday, after many more years of telling stories and sharing mana'o.
Toward that end, I've scheduled more spoken word performances for myself, having made the decision to devote more time to that particular passion several months ago. This Friday, I'll be telling spooky stories under the moonlight at the Bailey House Museum. A benefit for the museum and the Maui Historical Society, the 6:30 p.m. show will mostly feature my pidgin-speaking alter ego Tita.
But next month, Tita will have only a small part in my show at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater. "Kathy Collins: Sharing Mana'o and More" will be my first one-woman show in nearly four years. I'll be telling my own stories and sharing a few lessons learned, as I did in my "Death Comedy Jam," but this time we'll cover much more territory than widowhood. I have a couple of surprises planned as well, but above all, I hope to make you laugh a lot.
Tickets for "Sharing Mana'o and More" are already on sale at the MACC box office and on its website. If they hadn't already been printed, I'd rename the show "Conversating With a Yelder."
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.