“Here comes an interesting person.”
I’m sitting with my legs folded under me on the maroon couch at Elaine Blanchard’s house in Memphis, cradling a mug of ginger tea between my hands. There are four women scattered on sofas and armchairs in the room. A fifth is about to enter through the screen door.
“This used to be a gathering for clergy women,” Elaine explains, folding her knees under her, “but now it’s expanded to interesting women.” She stands up to greet the newest guest and offer us carrots with tzatziki and glasses of bubbly, her movement fluid and confident.
Elaine Blanchard is a fabled storyteller in the Memphis area. She has written and performed in two one-woman performances: “For Goodness Sake,” a story about oppression and redemption, and “Skin and Bones,” about body image and eating disorder.
In addition to her solo work, Elaine facilitates a creative writing and performance program, Prison Stories, at Shelby County’s jail for women. Each class of twelve meets for four months during which participants share their life stories. Elaine writes a script based on the stories shared, which is then used by professional actors to create a performance for the entire community to attend.
This past summer, Elaine met for twelve weeks with a group of clients from Friends For Life, a service agency for people living with HIV and AIDS in Memphis. Elaine provided them the opportunity to tell their stories and wrote a script, “Positive Stories,” which was then performed by professional actors.
It is always wonderful to connect with a person who devotes their energy to understanding the art of storytelling, and who pays that love forward by listening and sharing the gift that words and narrative can be. Elaine is a light in the world. Her energy and warmth––a soft yellow glow––is contagious. I strive to pay that goodness forward, to be the best listener and storyteller that I can be.
She is hope incarnate.
When everyone is settled with beverages in snacks, Elaine regains her seat on the couch and settles into a story.
“Well I just got back from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough with my students from Memphis College of Art. Have you heard of it, Devi?”
I nod over my tea. The storytelling festival is an event that I read about in my Intro to Folklore & Mythology course freshman year in college (and dreamed about, because that’s what you do when you are a Folklore & Mythology student). It feels wonderful to be sitting here, just one degree of separation away from the national stage of storytelling itself. I don’t know if I’ll be back in the states in time for the festival next October, but goodness knows I would love to be a part of it in the years to come.
Elaine recounts a story she heard at the event: a mother at an internment camp in the Holocaust saved 55 children left to die in the woods by sneaking them soup under her coat.
The conversation turns to church matters next (this did, after all, used to be a gathering of clergy women) and somehow we end up back at stories of water and climate change.
“It’s odd that you’re doing this here,” one woman chimes, “––in the middle of the country, I mean. Things are slow to happen in Memphis. People are slow to care. We have the buffer of the coasts.”
If/when I have a place of my own, I want to invite people over regularly to tell stories as Elaine does, to chat over food and drink.
In my sophomore year, the Harvard College Women’s Center Mentorship Program matched me with Roxie Myhrum, Artist Director at the Puppet Showplace Theater. Roxie introduced me to many pockets of art and performance in the Boston area. One of my favorite events that we would attend was SOOP (Stories of Our People) in Jamaica Plain.
Before SOOP disbanded––the organizer, Aimee Rose, needed to focus on her acting career, which is perfectly understandable––Roxie and I would take the Orange Line out to gather along with forty or more strangers in the apartment that Aimee shared with a few other artists. The ticket to enter was an item of food: a loaf of bread or a vegetable or a bottle of wine or a block of cheese. Three or four people would be on duty to chop up the vegetables and get two big pots of soup started straight away. In the meantime we munched on the bread and cheese and wine and met the other folks in the room. While the soup was cooking, its smell permeating the house (sometimes aromatic with sage, other times deep and hearty), a few hours of storytelling would ensue.
Folks sang. There was interpretative dance about mother’s coming to visit from Wyoming, stories of visiting an ex the weekend before. A smattering of classic fairy tales. The occasional puppet.
My favorite spot to watch was perched on the countertop in the back of the room where I could see both the performer and the audience’s reaction. I had just finished taking a class called “Race, Gender, and Performance” with Robin Bernstein and seeing the performativity of everyday life juxtaposed with storytelling on stage set my mind working for days. I loved this new framework of viewing the world through performance, and community through storytelling. The stories we tell make us, in a very human way, who we are.
You know those moments when everything feels suspended, perfect, just for a glimpse of a second? Jill Dolan calls it “utopia in performance.” I remember being held there. The room held me. The community did. It happened once, in December, in the middle of a new friend’s dance piece.
Two months after I started coming, SOOP came to an end.
“Devi, you’ll love this,” Myah starts.
I’m in downtown Memphis, digging through my backpack to find soap and conditioner.
“So I went down to Mississippi to visit my nephew for his birthday,” she continues. “His one wish was to have s’mores for dessert. We made a campfire out back, and everyone sat around the fire. He pointed to his aunt and said in the cutest little voice: ‘Auntie, tell me a story.’”
Myah’s eyes light up. “And she did! It was the best rendition of the Three Little Bears I ever did hear. Of course it was my turn next. I didn’t know what to talk about, but The Twelve Dancing Princesses was always my favorite story so I did my best to remember the whole thing. It was probably the worst telling of all time, but he loved it! And I did too. It made me think of you.”
After telling stories, Myah’s family sang “The Wheels on the Bus” and feasted on marshmallows. Stories like this make my heart grow three sizes too big.
Community comes out of food and storytelling––of being together and fully present to share our lives with one another. If that isn’t a radical act, an act of love, then I don’t know what is.