Yesterday I went to a performance by the storyteller Anne Rutherford and was transported from reality to heaven and hell and all over the world – the poetry of baseball games, the humor of Irish wakes and the wisdom of lovelorn peacocks. She told stories and sang songs around the theme of “The One That Got Away.” She had two musicians and sometimes played the mandolin herself. Anne has won first place twice at the Liar’s Contest at the Northwest Folklife Festival and I thought it would be a great way to spend April Fool’s day, in the presence of a woman who can spin a great yarn. If we are all fools because of it, we are wise fools indeed.
On the way home, my husband commented that it was pretty amazing how she could bring so many different types of stories together in a coherent fashion. “She’s buoyant.”
It was odd to me that he used that word, because I had been meditating on the buoyancy of storytellers since Friday.
Friday I had joined several members of the Portland Storyteller’s Guild to film storytelling promos at MetroEast Community Media. MetroEast is launching a story program May called Welcome to the Conversation, East Side Stories. They’re giving small HD video cameras to people to record stories from their communities. Serra Schiflett, producer and educator, wanted Guild members to record story promts, pointers and very short stories to help guide and coach the participants.
Sarah Hauser, the board president of the Guild, called Ken ahead of time and said she wanted to be there, but probably wouldn’t be in any shape to be recorded. The day before, she found out her assistant choir director had been shot multiple times on the way home from choir practice. He was still alive, but in intensive care. It was a senseless, violent act on a dear friend, who was also a husband and father of a baby girl.
We had all shared our sympathies with her and there was no pressure on her to perform. However, as the taping progressed, Sarah, the consummate storyteller, gave great feedback and positive encouragement, got into the spirit and was filmed for two excellent storytelling promos. I had to marvel at her ability to be buoyant after having such a shocking thing happen. For her to be so starkly reminded of the thin line between life and death, between health and sickness, and to still be so encouraging about our little stories was remarkable.
Ken told a story about being named after an uncle who died when the uncle was three, an
unexpected accident. Sarah absorbed it, as we all did, with the reverence it deserved. Ken talked about how stories keep a person who has died alive, keeps them with us, and gives them a legacy.
Sarah, and most members of the Guild, and most storytellers I know have, I think, have a kind of buoyancy that gives them the ability to get on with life after a tragedy. Over of life time of listening and telling, stories form a very stable raft on which to sail through rough waters. They train the soul to believe in itself. With stories you know there will be endings, but also new beginnings. Even the fiercest monsters and darkest forests are somehow part of a story that will have meaning, even if the meaning is not a huge comfort.
Sarah has always been very encouraging to me. I used to feel very special about that, until I realized she was that way with every storyteller. Then I felt even more special. Sarah gives the shakiest of tellers a well thought out and encouraging critique. Her interest in story is genuine and her enthusiasm for new tellers is sincere. Her insight has made several of my tales deeper and a bit more direct.
I shared a ride home with Ken. I told him a story about a recent conversation with a 7 year old girl concerning death, the soul and heaven. I had told her a story which triggered her fears about death and blood. She is in a safe foster home now, but in her young life she’d already seen brutal events. Her eyes widened with fear and she stressed out about how she and I were going to die one day. I immediately assured her she was safe and that when we did die, our souls would go to heaven, where they would be happy.
She asked me what heaven looked like, if there were houses in heaven. I said I didn’t know; I wouldn’t know until I got there. My ignorance amused her, and she launched into a fantastic story about visiting her grandfather with wings who lived in heaven in a blue house with many heavenly bunny rabbits. She has a room is in the attic of that house and she has even more bunnies than her grandfather because they like her so much. Her grandmother has a pink house next door. She has a sister in heaven who married God.
Her whole demeanor changed, the balm of story worked its magic. Her eyes brightened as she developed rich detail and many plots and subplots, none of them completely resolved, so I’m sure there will be sequels. She drew pictures, stapled them together and produced her first story book.
Ken and I talked about the significance of her imagery and many interpretations and beliefs about the spirit world and the soul. He shared how a particular folk story’s meaning had changed over the years and gotten him more in touch with the life, death, and rebirth of the many aspects of himself.
I felt pretty blessed by his insights and the whole story project. I know that stories have been a raft for me on the roiling waters of my life. Story helps me in my struggles with depression and chronic health conditions. I am able to see metaphorical values in life. I have the words and images to describe what is unfathomable. I know I am not riding these waves alone because I’ve heard the stories of others who have kept afloat in much worse storms.
I saw Sarah again at Anne’s performance. She was handing out programs and greeting people. She told me she and the entire congregation of her church are still a bit shell-shocked. I could see a look of weariness and hurt in her eyes, but there was also a spark of excitement. We were going to hear Anne’s stories soon and for the next hour we would be transported into a magic place where, somehow, it would all make sense. Anne told a wonderful story about Michael and Lucifer, ending with the cold, loneliness that the evil, egotistical Lucifer must feel. We felt that in our bones.
And in our hearts, we felt light and warm, reassured once again that life has meaning and, perhaps it will not end but begin again, maybe with bunnies in heaven.