I’m sitting next to Frank at our weekly gourd band practice. Frank is a journalist. He writes a local history column for the paper in his Kentucky town. He has a love for old railroad songs, for quirky folk customs, for community music.
During a pause in our attempts to draw tunes out of our crazy assortment of gourds, Frank asks me about a local storytelling event I’d attended the week before.
“You would like it,” I say. “You’re a good storyteller.”
He shakes his head. “I’m not a storyteller.”
This from a man who tells stories for a living. But I understand: he’s thinking of stories as things people make up, fictions, fairy tales.
“Not fictional stories,” I say. “True stories, personal stories. About real things that really happened. To us.”
Our local storytelling event is new. We follow the basic Moth guidelines of brevity and first person, but we are not a Moth event, and we allow notes, even reading, if that’s what the storyteller needs in order to get up in front of the group. It can be daunting to get up, and we want people to do it. So we try to make it easier. We bring adult beverages and share them. Some of us want those beverages before we get up. No judgment.
Some of the stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Others have no real structure, they’re just loops of emotion and a search for understanding. No narrative thread, just connecting dots, one thing happens and then another.
We come for the connection, though nobody has actually said as much, at least not to me, perhaps because to do so might break the spell, might make the whole thing seem forced, like a 12-step meeting. But I do believe it’s what we seek when we show up each month.
And we find it, somehow, just by telling our stories. And it makes us cry. Every time.
I don’t tell Frank about the crying.
After a few more attempts to bring our gourds into tunefulness, we set them aside and sing a cappella. We’re not pros, but we know how to listen, which is what matters most when you’re making music with other people. We sing the same song again and again, working out harmonies on the fly, leaning in to hear the voice next to us, the voice across the circle, finding our note, or not finding it, going a little sharp or flat. Or a whole lot sharp or flat. Nobody is chastened for getting it wrong, and by the ninth or tenth time through, we have something, and then we just keep going, because it’s magical and we don’t want to stop.
Sometimes I feel bereft. The world is on fire, and I don’t know how to fix what’s broken. But I am suffused with these stories. These songs. These people.