Uncle Erv and I walked to the end of the driveway. I’d dug a chest-freezer-sized stone we call Big Pink and a dozen of her friends from the fence line to form a raised wildflower garden. In retirement, he taught a college course on geology. He scratched the surface with his fingernail, speculating on their mineral makeup and origin.
“I just love rocks,” he quipped. “I figure I’ll always have cheap entertainment.”
And so it goes for those of us addicted to sunrises, sunsets, and storytelling.
The Moth is a non-profit organization founded in 1997 by George Dawes Green. He wanted to create an environment reminiscent of his front porch in Georgia. Moths would flutter in the heavy night air ‘round a single fly-stained bulb, and neighbors would gather to tell stories. The website defines The Moth as a group dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.
I find that description a bit humble.
I’ve come to realize that storytelling rides my chromosomes like chicken legs, snoring, and getting up early.
But first, I was a listener.
A high point of summer was a hundred-fifty-mile sojourn to southern Illinois with my grandma to visit Aunt Mary and Uncle Kelsey. We’d load a Coleman cooler wide as the vinyl seat in the back of her shit-brown ’74 Plymouth Valiant with enough powdered sugar donuts, whole milk, and iced tea to get Christopher Columbus to The New World.
The week on the farm would be swimming in the creek and playing baseball with my shirttail cousins. Early mornings after breakfast we’d cake ourselves with yellow powdered sulfur from a gallon glass jar to repel the chiggers. We’d pick blackberries ‘til noon, and butcher chickens after lunch.
I’d ask Grandma and Aunt Mary, “Are you gonna sit outside tonight?” Some nights a neighbor would stop by. They’d gather the rusty back porch farm chairs - legs brazed, arms taped like a candy cane - in a circle. Us kids would climb trees, swing, and catch fireflies, while parents, grands, and neighbors drank near-beer, spat watermelon seeds, and told stories.
Uncle Kelsey had a half-dozen Milking Shorthorns and an old Jersey cross named Big Red. He’d drink one beer on the back porch, then sterilize his buckets and strainer. When the bottle hit the crate, he had a dog, always named Butch, that’d let themselves out the screen door, jump the fence, and have the cows waiting to be milked when Kelsey got to the barn. His International L-180 wandered the county blacktop like Otis the Drunk. There was a hole in the seat he covered with a feed sack and one in the floor he spit Mail Pouch tobacco bullets through.
Prone to embellishment, but firmly rooted, their tales were straight out of the Woody Guthrie and Fred Eaglesmith songbook: summertime sermons of family values, faith, and grit.
It’s been forty-some years from the four-acre alfalfa field north of Greenville, Illinois. At every transition, graduation, and relocation there’s an opportunity to reinvent, redefine, and progress. For better or worse, every aspect of our persona affects how we are perceived. We choose how we walk, talk, and dress.
And we tell stories.
The stories we tell, and the ones we choose not to, speak as much to our makeup as our handshake and hairstyle.
After his stroke, my dad was cared for by a Certified Nursing Assistant. Stephanie was crisp, compassionate, and professional. She spoke the diction of a local news anchor. I slept vigil in the recliner by his bedside the night after Father Dave stopped by. She was in the eleventh hour of her fourth straight shift when she let a flattened vowel, and a soft y’all, slip. I asked her about home. Reluctant at first, then sensing my respect, she told of leaving Louisiana at nineteen with a special-needs son on her hip and an eighteen-year-old husband by her side. She knew there was a better way of life, to the north.
I’ve long held the notion that animals evolve in the likeness of their people. Jim Kassube had a cow with a sore foot. He called, “Thelma Lou,” and she bawled from behind a tree. We walked up to her standing in the pasture. We put a halter on her head and wrapped it around the nearest Box Elder, but she would have stood stock with Jim rubbing her ears. I picked up her right front foot and opened a painful abscess.
Afterward, Jim hobbled back to the house; I asked if I needed to pick up his foot.
“Oh,” he said, “you didn’t hear, I got hurt at work.”
At which point he proceeded to drop his drawers in the middle of the driveway. He was missing a pot roast-sized chunk of quadriceps from his thigh.
“Oh, my God, Dr. Stork,” he shook his head, “I am so lucky. A piece of grinder wheel flew off my machine. It happened ten minutes before the end of my shift and the little gal who works second is barely five feet tall. It would have killed her for sure.”
Jim Kassube has a high school education and a million dollars’ worth of antique John Deere tractors sitting in the weeds. He does not know the meaning of martyr.
Tom Carpenter had a Ford G.T. He’d written a check for it as-is, and probably didn’t know where the dipstick was. He’d take it to car shows and stand beside guys who’d restored theirs from the ground up. I’d just pulled a calf at the Strasburg farm. We were deep in the middle of the ‘08-’12 downturn, and the heifer calf was D.O.A. Tom roared into the drive, got out of his Hot Wheels car like a sixty-five-year-old Ken Doll, and bellowed, “Damn it, I gotta pay forty-thousand dollars in income tax this year from that land I sold to the power company.”
“Too often we listen to reply, not to understand.” - Steven Covey
(It comes as no surprise that I only made it through the first three-and-a-half “Habits of Highly Effective People.” I did come away with one pearl.)
Dr. Martin Seligman is widely considered the father of positive psychology. He explains that connections between people are accomplished by establishing deep and meaningful relationships through effective and positive communication. Connections reduce the number of social stressors and renders us more resilient in the face of adversity.
In challenging times, our connections can help assuage our need to be cared for, understood, and validated.
Central tenets of every Moth event are respect and support. I can think of no environment that better nurtures connections than…The Moth.
Nestor Gomez migrated to the United States from Guatemala. In order to learn English and defeat his stutter, he began to tell stories at The Moth. Today he champions immigration reform, leads his own troupe of storytellers, and is the process of publishing three books. Nestor has won more StorySLAMs than Brett Favre has interceptions.
Haywood Simmons, Jr. played defensive end for the Wisconsin Badgers and the Dallas Cowboys. His upbringing was not always warm and supportive. He tells stories just above a whisper, but his messages should be shouted from the rooftops. In storytelling and in life Haywood is all about supporting at-risk kids.
Patty calls herself a Trophy Wife. Her stories are delivered with Robin Williams’ frantic lack of apparent organization and ninja humor - a poorly concealed attempt to hide the anguish of having lost her husband (and partner in the award business) young and suddenly.
Charles ‘The Voice’ Payne has taught impoverished kids in southern New Mexico. He manages depression and anxiety by telling self-effacing stories of his own anatomical peculiarities, struggles with race, and about those who have supported him. Many of his stories conclude with, “I’ll be there for you.” I have no doubt.
Research also shows that having someone to share with in times of triumph magnifies the positive effect of the victory, a term called capitalization. Under-trained and physically broken first-time-storyteller Tom Barry carried us through every harrowing inch of his first Ironman. The crowd barked and fist-bumped as he crossed the finish line.
Though eloquent, poetic, and profound, Clemmons, Buddha, and Montaigne don’t have a gram more common sense than my dad. Dad’s diction was that of the working man, “Son, I ain’t never learned a thing with my mouth open.”
In the past year I’ve told a few stories, but more importantly I’ve heard nearly two hundred. There are those of us who love to tell stories; there are at least as many who have a story to tell. Some have literally been pushed on stage by friends and daughters. Those are the stories they have to tell, and more importantly, the ones we really need to hear.
It is when I’m in the darkness of the footlights, out front of the microphone, that I’ve been enlightened, grown, and come to understand.