By THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT
Helen, my mother-in-law, died at age 94. One of my delightful memories of her was her chortles when she recounted the evening gathering of folks for dinner at her retirement home. Someone might share an interesting memory or event of the day. But most often each person would share an update on chronic ailments involving any number of body parts.
“We’re starting the Organ Recital,” Helen would laugh.
You might be chuckling, too, assuming that these recitals are limited to the aging, but I observe them among all groups. Something in us wants to tell our stories. It is absolutely fascinating to me how the discussion starter dramatically changes the tone of an experience.
I’ve sat through my share of Organ Recitals, haven’t you? Sometimes it’s a healthy sharing of concerns in the forefront of our daily living. Of course, it works best if everyone gets to participate—and the listening is genuinely supportive rather than prone to advice.
But consider this, if you’d rather change the program in your group.
Tired of all that focus on organs? I’ve found that a single question tossed up in the group, like the opening coin toss at the start of a game, can have considerable effect. It can be as simple as asking about how the plants are doing in someone’s apartment, or a remark about flowers viewed through the window, what birds have been observed around the grounds—or who visited recently. This is the stuff that connects and binds us and dispels fear and isolation.
A close friend recently told me, “I got a circle of folks in my parents’ assisted-living home to start talking about Finnish saunas the other day. We had an old Finn in the circle and, before we knew it, we were rip roaring along about saunas, beloved trips, the woods, wood gathering, starting fires—on and on. We danced verbally around a crackling fire and formed community by sharing stories.”
Just yesterday a Home Depot employee came to our house to inspect some work. We ended up telling each other stories. He told me he was the only person of color in the school when, as a teenager, his family moved to Pittsburgh. One student constantly picked on him, and he finally confronted the bully, telling him to meet on the football field at lunchtime to settle this matter.
The bully was a member of the football team, and the captain of the team attempted to keep the “rumble” from happening. Students “from the other side of the tracks” gathered behind the one person of color while the football team supported the bully. A truce was reached without a fight when the bully, forced by my new acquaintance and his football buddies, got on his knees and apologized.
I was suddenly shaking hands and congratulating a man for his courage, a man I had only met 20 minutes earlier. We knew each other through that story. A bridge was built while standing on it.
Something deep in us wants to sit around the literal or verbal campfire or dinner table and tell stories or listen to others. We become members of the long train of story-telling families. We know ourselves and each other by our stories.
As I was finishing this column, I discovered a kindred soul in singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer in a new ReadTheSpirit magazine interview. Talking about the power of personal stories, Carrie says:
“I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.
“Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.”
While Organ Recitals have their place, perhaps there are ideas in this column that will help you change the program in your circle.
We all can start singing a wider range of tunes.