And here is where the pieces connect.
The “Neighborhood Storyteller email group” all started earlier this year when my longtime friend, Barbara, the bride in the aforementioned wedding, started sharing my column in a weekly missive with a small group of friends, inviting a thread of commentary. I was honored by Barbara promoting the column in this way, but not surprised, because if you are lucky enough to have a friend in Barbara, you also have a champion.
Barbara will share the particulars of your life to anyone who will listen, often while you are nervously standing next to her, staring at your shoes, turning beet red. I’ve caught her embellishing the details of my life at times, but the stories always evolve in my favor, making it hard to object, since her version of the truth always makes me look smarter, braver, and more interesting than I actually am.
I was delighted that there was a group of friends all reading my column each week, but when Barbara looped me into the email thread, thinking it would be fun for me to read everyone’s comments each week, I nearly choked.
I considered writing a “reply all,” begging the group to feel no obligation to comment on, or even read my column in the first place. I worried the column would become a burden, that reading it would take up too much of their time; that they’d feel compelled to say something nice, or worse yet, that they’d freely share their criticism.
As it turns out, my fears were unwarranted. Instead of feeling like I was in the hot seat of a writing workshop critique, the feedback felt more like a gathering of friends around a coffee table, a campfire, or, in light of last week’s column, a Maypole.
Before long, the email thread became a storytelling forum, each participant spring-boarding off the topic of that week’s column, and each story that was shared seemed to scoot over to make room for the next.
Back in March, after reading the “Artist Date” column, Betsy responded by describing her own Artist Date experience that week, a trip from her home in northern New Mexico to Kearney, Nebraska, to witness 625,000 Sandhill Cranes lifting off from the Platte River at sunrise. She regaled us with the scene of watching, and hearing, the grand spectacle with a group of strangers, standing in awe.
Mary Ann, who has lived for decades on a farm north of Des Moines, Iowa, responded to the same with a memory from the early 1980s, when she made a trip to Chicago to see a photography exhibit she’d read about in the newspaper, a series of photographs that an artist had taken of the same tree each week for one year.
Our vibrant conversation thread includes weekly reflections by Karin, a talented and beloved hair stylist, whose salon serves as a social forum; a place where stories are shared, community connections are made, and laughter is often the soundtrack of the day. Those who enter Karin’s aptly named Sanctum of Transformation are transformed not only by her expertise with scissors, but by engagement in wholehearted conversation, as well.
Susan always chimes in with encouraging feedback, and sometimes even follows up by tossing a handwritten note with a story of her own into the mail. She likes to support her artist neighbor by purchasing the handmade greeting cards she creates from photographs of her far-flung adventures. “I travel through my friends,” Susan says, and every month or so I do, too, when one of the glossy cards arrives in my mailbox.
And just this morning, an update from Cookie:
“A funny wedding memory will be that when I drove all that food to Waterloo, one of those huge containers of beans fell over in my car.” She went on to humorously describe scooping up the mess and hosing down the inside of the vehicle, lamenting the fact that a faint smell still lingers.
I recalled how when I was helping her load the food into her vehicle after the wedding, I’d commented on the practicality of the easy-to-clean rubber mat lining the cargo area of her Subaru. I hope that hadn’t jinxed the effort.
“…Anyway,” Cookie wrote, ”I have not been craving Mexican food since then.”
When I sit down at my computer and don the hat of the Neighborhood Storyteller each week, I draw inspiration from these women who honor, celebrate, and cultivate the stories that comprise our lives. Knowing they are all out there is like having six friendly faces in the audience to make eye contact with.
As long as I keep writing each week, I’ll in turn get to read MaryAnn’s stories of Saturday sheep shearing, and Betsy’s recollections of travels, and hilarious misadventures. I will be able to hear news from Karin’s salon, and updates on her work with Ukrainian refugees. Susan will send encouragement with hearts and exclamation points, saving her most salient responses for pen and paper, writing the snail mail I so eagerly await.
Barbara will keep bringing people together in the spirit of telling old stories and creating new ones, all the while making those in her inner circle feel like brighter versions of themselves. And my new friend Cookie, with any luck, will find a way to get the smell of refried beans out of her car, once and for all.
Read more of our weekly Neighborhood Storyteller columns here!