Sally as storyteller and citizen of the world: “It is exactly who I am”

Sally Craig was probably destined to live one day in Takoma Park. Half a century ago her husband Peter had an unsung but history-making role in the famous political fight that saved the town, and her four grandchildren and their parents reside on Flower Avenue.

Seekers Church in Old Takoma is also a place where Sally feels comfortable and where a few years ago she found another new part of life she was probably destined for, a California-based, California-style storytelling movement called InterPlay.

So, in the summer of 2010, after Peter’s death, Sally sold their big house in northwest Washington, moved into a sweetly restored bungalow-on-stilts on Jefferson Avenue and got more seriously involved with InterPlay.

“I had gone to an InterPlay performance at Seekers, and it is exactly who I am. You tell a story in three sentences, or you tell it through dance or gestures, any movement.  You can babble. You’re trying to connect. You’re in the moment,” Sally said the other day in her livingroom.

She is often beaming and speaks in the clear, blissful tones of a yoga teacher, which is what she is when she is not being a storyteller, a spiritualist or a world traveler.

Sally had already been trained in the artful legerdemain of telling stories in the 1980’s at the Washington Storytellers Theater, and, after additional InterPlay classes, she was invited to tour India earlier this year with an InterPlay ensemble – seven Americans, three Australians and five Indians.

In Mumbai they stayed in a marble-floored Catholic retreat without heat (“I had no idea India nights got down into the 30’s”), but had a remarkable visit to a hospice. “These were people, teeth all brown, in the last stages of throat and neck cancer from chewing betel nuts.  I expected them to be huddled in blankets on a floor, but each had a bed with a balcony and a view of the sea. It was strange and wonderful,” she said.

The tour continued in remote villages of the Gujarat region from whence come the load-bearing laborers of Mumbai and Delhi who were pictured with sharp accuracy in “Slumdog Millionaire.” They are itinerants who must leave their families for weeks or months.  The villages are rife with alcoholism, various other abuses and broken hearts.

“These guys come back for a while and drink their brains out, and then they go off again,” Sally said. “But we had the good fortune to connect with several couples. We went into their homes, and again I was surprised. The rooms are large because they live with their farm animals, and the floors are dirt. But everything is immaculate.  We danced and talked and got them to open up and tell family stories. It doesn’t change their circumstances, but maybe it changes something between husband and wife.”

Storytelling as therapy or as a conversation across borders has not been a career for Sally, but it has been a recurring theme.  In the 1990’s, under the auspices of the George Soros Foundation, she traveled frequently to the former Soviet Union and dealt there with the travails of an empire in decline.

She went to Chernobyl in 1991, five years after the nuclear meltdown.  She found a scared and dispirited population trying to cope with the fateful aftereffects of radiation poisoning. Thyroid cancers had become common.  “They couldn’t he healed medically, but storytelling is a form of healing.  I told my story, and they told their stories. It was sad and joyful,” she said.

Sally calls herself “a citizen of the world,” a sensibility that started while growing up on Long Island.  Her father worked for the United Nations and brought home guests from all over.  President Kennedy’s debut speech about the Peace Corps inspired her, and immediately after college she volunteered and left for Africa. She stayed five years and became the associate Peace Corps director for Tunisia.

Later there were excursions to Sri Lanka and much of Latin America.

At the same time she and Peter raised their family in Cleveland Park.  Back in 1960, using political connections, Peter had stopped a freeway that the U. S. Department of Transportation wanted to run through his side of town.  The freeway route, however, was then moved and aimed at the heart of Takoma Park, and the legendary Sammie Abbott, arrested 34 times in the cause against the freeway, enlisted Peter, an attorney, to file a lawsuit that ten years later led John Sirica, the chief federal judge and later a Watergate legend, to halt the bulldozers once and for all.

It was not Sally’s fight, however. She was in Africa much of that time. But she could tell a story about it.  “You can tell stories about anything to anyone,” she said.