Birmingham and its storytellers

canning tomatoes with jjajja

It doesn't even matter that we didn't make it through our bucket list this summer. It was still a beautiful season, filled with rest and reading and new experiences. The bigs got to try things like staying a week at Jjajja's house, fancy new hairdos, and watching the Karate Kid. Our family joined a local produce co-op, which has been easy on the grocery budget and fun because we never know what our basket will hold at pick-up. I tried a few things, too...creating with Miss Ruby and canning tomatoes were also pretty exciting. 

The stuff of legends is buried in all of those little summer moments, but one of the best nights of all of 2015 so far has been going with some of my favorite people to a storytelling event at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Purposed to explore the beautifully layered concept of the southern identity, this stew of an evening pulled in three main ingredients: local storytellers who were part of Arclight of Birmingham, the Frank Fleming Fantasy/Reality exhibit, and NPR's The Moth.

I've never met Frank Fleming but think he would be fluent in sarcasm. I do love his work, though.

I've never met Frank Fleming but think he would be fluent in sarcasm. I do love his work, though.

Uptown Birmingham
Uptown bham gift card

A few friends and I met at Uptown's Cantina Laredo, where two of us got to use a gift card we won in a recent social media contest. The full scope of Cantina's menu is delicious even on a regular day, but at almost-free it became positively exquisite. Then we ambled over a few streets to the museum, where we were basically shocked to see that at 30 minutes before go-time, the amphitheater was at capacity. (Whaaaat. How can this be? We thought we were the only people in Birmingham who cared about things like southernism and live storytelling performances and art. What are all you people doing here?) The five of us split up and started up and down the steps, around the perimeter, weaving in and out of people, asking in our sweetest and most precious angel voices for people to shift over or stand up and let us pass. We got separated, but everyone had a seat and that was more than we could say for the 30 or so folks stuck back in the lobby.

You might say we didn't anticipate the interest, but we were really impressed to see so many younger B'hamians out for what we thought was mostly a nerd-love type of event. 

The Moth Birmingham

The evening's host was Taylor from Arcstories, a Birmingham-based storytelling organization that coaches people into sharing their memories. We didn't even know this group existed but are intent upon attending their next events. Taylor introduced five local storytellers, who were as different as five people could be. The first story (about but not solely about soccer) was my favorite, maybe because it was the first and drew me in to this event so quickly, and maybe because I'm almost certain that guy works at the local public library, but definitely because the theme was the theme of injuries as they relate to southern culture. My favorite quote of his was "When you are born in the South, you are born into an injury instead of out of it." I liked thinking about that in relation to a lot of modern issues in southern culture, but also because where the soccer story guy landed was that the thing about injuries is that they do heal.

The next storyteller was a post-Katrina NOLA volunteer, and hearing him describe what he saw and heard and smelled jolted me right back to when The Captain and I went down to help some friends in the days after that horrible, drama-filled catastrophe.

The third storyteller talked about her family and strained relationships and tied it all up in a very entertaining story about a moment in high school when she (as an awkward, whiter than white teenage girl) gave a report on the book Black Like Me...with her face painted black.

The next storyteller was a Birmingham area rapper who shared about art and power within it. After him came a local hairdresser who went through a beautiful story of family dynamics and how he found support and love and acceptance in the most unlikely of places. Favorite quote from this guy? "Don't tread on the deniability of a good southern family."

An art professor from UAB then shared about a famously talented southern photographer (whose name escapes me, although I do remember the professor speaking had on a dapper little vest) and read one of the stories behind one of his photos. He talked about art but also the importance of the story behind the art, which IS the art, to me. 

Then came what was intended as the main event: storytellers from The Moth. This is a podcast of people telling stories, and the artistic director (Katherine Burns) just so happens to be from an Alabama town very near Birmingham. She told the stories behind the stories, giving lots of background to The Moth and its founder. Our group agreed we preferred the local storytellers best.

But first came Tricia Rose Burt, also from The Moth, who told another story about Southern families and her own personal triumphs and tragedies (brilliantly, though that Southern dialect was too thick at first and too thin as she relaxed). I loved her story, though, and identified with it significantly.

And I think that's the point of wading through your personal trash onstage. 

Stories are entertaining. They're complicated. They require so many "just right" ingredients to be good that it's hard to even really put a name on it. You're either a storyteller or you aren't. You have it or you don't.

Stories in print form are a part of my business as a librarian but they're also a big part of my heart as a reader and writer. In Scripture, the excerpts in which God speaks to me most loudly are situational, entertaining, personal, and teaching. His stories are the best.

The thing about storytelling, and most assuredly Southern storytelling, is that those tales are also generously healing. Every time a person shares their painful or disgusting or sad or awkward or completely hysterical story, they work through that mess just a little bit more. The beautiful part is, they get to help others do the very same.

The next Arcstories event, themed to include stories from the classroom, will benefit schools in the Birmingham area. The Captain and I are already in. Hope to see you there!