A few years ago I signed up for OKCupid account and was stumped by the question of what my perfect Friday night looked like. Would I go out for a fancy dinner? Would I go to the movies and see an artsy film? Would I go dancing in a nightclub?
None of this sounded appealing to me. Instead, the perfect Friday night I dreamed of had me sitting around a fire listening to and telling stories. I love stories. I love telling them and I love hearing them. I sometimes remember people by their stories, not their names. Like the child-who-fell-out-the-window-and-bounced-off-a-mosquito-screen-and-survived or the guy-who-spilled-soda-all-over-his-girlfriend-on-their-first-date.*
Witches don’t have a monopoly on storytelling; it is part of the Christian tradition in which I was raised. Jesus was a great storyteller. The Hebrew scriptures are full of storytellers, and we did tell stories in my Christian community. We went through familiar bible stories and sought to understand their relevance for our lives today. Sometimes it got old, as in how-to-face-the-Goliaths-in-your-life sermons, but we also found new and exciting angles, background information, and applications for our own lives. And I saw the beauty of the Bible as literature when one of my professors, Ray Lubeck, introduced me to narrative theology.
But my favorite were always the conversion stories. And I don’t mean the “testimonies” shared in church, where we’d hear about how Jesus saved someone from drug addiction or provided someone with a parking spot at the mall. I mean the stories that happened outside of church, after the sermon, the testimonies and bible studies. I lived for those times, when people poured out their hearts and got real and talked about their struggles. I remember stories told at campouts or in living rooms, long after we’d all said our goodnights and then stayed up anyways, talking.
I don’t know why most of our best stories were told outside of church and late at night. Maybe we felt like we shouldn’t talk about the hard stuff at church, or maybe we felt guilty for indulging the self with our personal stories. But those were my favorite parts and I wished we could replace Sunday sermons with that kind of storytelling. I longed for more stories and I didn’t know where to find them.
Nowadays I live in a Pagan community and we don’t wait until dark to tell stories. I’ve grown used to having storytellers around and it wasn’t until last weekend that I realized how much storytelling played a role in my coming home to Paganism. We were gathered in our ritual room listening to a friend. He talked of his time working in theater, his marriage, his adventures as a bed salesman (I’ll leave those to your imagination), and most excitingly, he told stories of Witchcamp.
Witchcamp is an annual Reclaiming retreat in the Redwoods of Northern California. If you haven’t heard that I am going this year, consider yourself lucky. I have been talking about little else. In fact, I got so excited about it I accidentally came out to my family, ranting about it IN ALL CAPS on Facebook. The point is, last weekend I realized how excited I was for all of the rituals, the people I would meet, the magickal workings, the time in nature, the drumming and music, but maybe even more so, the storytelling around the fire.
I first realized the importance stories have in the Pagan community in a class I took last year. We had been discussing magickal tools when our teacher surprised us by telling us to “grab a blankie, come closer, and snuggle up”. Once she felt we were settled and properly expectant, she pulled out a children’s story book and held it up so we could all see the cover. East of the Sun and West of the Moon. A candle flickered on the altar and hundreds of fairy lights illuminated the room as we ooo-ed and aaah-ed. Slowly, theatrically, she opened the cover and let the book sink into her lap. Far away to the north, where the land is covered in thick, dark forests and the wind blows bitterly cold… A dozen adults, sitting in a half circle, eyes closed, listening. It was another moment of coming home, a moment in which the art of storytelling, the need for it, the spiritual practice, was woven into my story.
* both are real people, the former is alive and well today, the latter has been married to said girlfriend for 14 years.