Telling Stories

I had lunch with 4 writers today. 3 already published, the last aspiring to publish soon. Stories — the source from which they spring, the process for grasping them as they emerge, their meanings, and the stories feeding each of us now — filled our time together. The conversation resonated with me for two reasons.

First, I watched the Cedar Lake Seven become storytellers. When you attend a concert now, each member of the group will introduce at least one song. In that introduction, he may simply mention the song’s composer or the artist who sang the song best. That’s standard. Often, you get a little extra and you learn how the song’s meaning shifted as a group member was witnessing an encounter at work, at home, in his own quiet reflections. You get a glimpse into where God might just be working in and through a life right now. Sometimes it is hit out of the park — that’s when I tear up in the back of the room. Sometimes the intro is completely flubbed — the wrong song is introduced, the wrong composer, a microphone goes out, whatever. That’s when I mutter or laugh. The music always follows, getting the gospel juices flowing and returning the buzz to the room that the audience expected when it showed up.

This storytelling blossomed during our Hungarian tour. Had we not had some hurdles to leap over, I’m not sure we would have allowed ourselves to grow in this dimension. We’ll call our first hurdle Bruce — the best sounding bass I’ve ever heard sing in person. He left the group shortly before our tour for some personal reasons. Because we had Jim — an awesome singer in his own right — we wished Bruce well, shifted parts on a few songs, and carried on. Shortly before landing in Hungary, Jim lost his voice. Seriously. Completely gone. He tried every home remedy we or the Hungarians knew of, and none helped very much. Do you know how difficult it is to sing 4 part a cappella gospel music with no bass? Do you know how challenging it is for tenors to fake a bass line? Do you know how that shakes up a set list or the singers’ confidence?

I didn’t have to wrestle with any of those logistics — Greg did. And I didn’t have the courage to move out from the behind the board and lend my uncertain, unsteady voice to the small ensemble. I have a dim memory of thinking and even saying to the guys that we had brought more than music to Hungary. We had brought our faith lives, too. Telling our stories — what the songs meant to us, where we saw God in our lives, why we leave our wives and kids to bring gospel music to elderly adults in nursing homes — that mattered. It would matter to our audience even when told through the halting English of our translators. That’s how the guys stretched our reduced set list to a full show on that tour. That, and Greg recruited an adorable young woman to sing lead on one song. I doubt the Cedar Lake Seven will ever capture an audience’s attention the way they did when Ildi was center stage. Wow. I mean, WOW. It’s a shame you weren’t there to see it.

Back to my lunch, it resonated for another reason. I’ve written almost every day since December 26th. I’ve been trying to set down the story of what my marriage was exactly, why it met its demise, and what nutrients it holds for a new life. I’m toiling away to unearth it — it crumbles in my hands each day, sticks under my nails, and I can’t really get rid of it. Even when I think I’ve written every possible thing I could, I find traces of it at work, in my car. It’s just always there. There was a moment in the lunch when I considered turning it all over over and letting my guests work the matter. It came with the innocent, “Michael, how is your family?” With their histories (familiar through print), with their sensibilities (memoir, historical novel, poetry), and with their genuine kindness, surely they could take this detritus and turn it into something else.

I was tempted, but I didn’t do it. I’m not ready to stop digging. Or to use another metaphor, my pen is the only light which will lead me out of this fog. I’m not alone in the fog, and I’m no longer afraid of it. I have some moments of clarity. I try to share the recent ones with the guys or with the audience as they come to me. If you’re at all intrigued, you should come check out a show. The old folks don’t mind seeing some younger faces, and you’ll get far more from me and the other guys than the music.