It had been a while since I had experienced “story magic.” The pandemic has precluded in-person gatherings. Our meetings over Zoom and other venues are limited, demanding a different level of attention, with little room for leisurely storytelling. It took an eerie photo of alligator eyes lit by the moonlight on a Florida waterway to light the spark of story magic.
The magic began as a simple photo on Facebook, shared by a friend from high school (we all lived in south Florida when we were growing up). Several people, seeing the photo, responded with distaste, fear, or concern. I had seen similar sights, and thought it was pretty cool. Though mine was not the prevailing sentiment on the thread, the conversation soon became focused on the two of us, the friend who posted the picture and myself, with yet another high school classmate joining in with her thoughts as well. These thoughts were not simple phrases, as is common on Facebook. We each, in turn, shared a related story.
We participate in story sharing circles every day, whether we use this phrase or not. You know, the conversations that start with “You won’t believe what happened…” followed by the surprising story. Often times, that may be the end of the conversation, or else we revert back to speaking of the weather, our kids, what’s to eat, or other topics we focus on through our days.
In years past I spent a lot of time with a group of storytellers—we had an annual conference every spring, “Sharing the Fire”. (Cancelled because of Covid for 2021, but yes, it still happens, and I hope it will return by 2022. I have not played an active role in that community for many years now.) An important part of each conference was time for story sharing circles, a time when each of us, in turn, had the chance to share story with the gathered group. Different gatherings at the end of the day focused on various themes—animal stories, stories of growing up, spiritual stories, adventure stories, or simply “whatever you want to talk about” stories. We were often entertained, sometimes enlightened, but every now and again we experienced magic. Not the magic of pulling rabbits out of hats. Rather, the magic that comes when stories take on a life of their own. Neither predictable nor something any of us could control, there was no telling when this magic might happen.
One story stirs a memory in another, who shares their story, then hands on the baton to another, whose memory has been stirred by yet another story. Each tale is related, in a strange “story thread,” of unexpected, magical connections. Only as the stories continue do the connections make themselves apparent, first in the next teller’s mind, then soon in the listeners present.
A photo of alligators directed the focus toward the Florida Everglades. Alligator encounters led to stories of airboats, a common form of travel across the harsh environment of the river of grass. The mention of airboats led to memories of airboat rides, some magical, others terrifying. The story of a nighttime airboat ride brought the story thread to the darkness, the quiet, and myriad stars visible when in this vast wilderness area.
And finally at this point, in the darkness of the Everglades, the overarching story was done. The magic ended, as all story magic must, and yet, as in the best stories, we were changed. We had, for a time, “been” in the Everglades, seen those countless stars, felt the power of the airboats gliding (roaring!) over the sharp saw grass, and later listened for the bellowing of distant (and not so distant) alligators.
We can’t control story magic. It requires willing participants who listen from the heart, and speak when it is time, never before then. Like so much of life, we really cannot plan or direct how, or when it might happen. If you’re lucky, you’ll realize when it occurs, and make the time to be part of the magic. But only if you open your ears to hear….
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are.
She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.