Families, she told me, are like the 33 Chilean miners recently rescued from half a mile underground. To survive, they organized themselves. They designated parts of the mine for sleeping, eating and other purposes. They picked a leader. They sang and told stories. Families do the same. They create space and tunnels and make decisions. A spiritual leader arises to hold the sacred space. “It’s really the only way to stay sane,” she added, “especially when you’re stuck in the dark.” In her mind, “soul” and “story” are nearly the same, I realized, and she defined “sanity” as something akin to preserving and perpetuating our stories–our souls.
I’d driven to Denver and I was sitting in her kitchen, eating honey cake that morning, because I wanted to know why people came to her sessions on family folklore. I thought she’d know. She was a professional storyteller who’d made a specialty of family folklore for more than twenty-five years. I also thought I knew the answer. I expected her to talk about a need for roots, a place in history, a search for identity . . ..
We touched on those things but, deep down, she seemed to think story existed on an even more primal level. Quoting Bary Lopez, she said, “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory.” She continued, “We need stories to stay human, like those miners trapped with no obvious help. Stories are heartbeat, everything.”
Cherie Karo Schwartz descends from a Rabbi, known as a lawgiver, mystic, and storyteller. He said a malech or angel sat on his shoulder and whispered stories to him. Her grandmother, her bubbe, used to say, “Sit down, let me tell you a story and make you a part of the family.”
When I asked if people came to her sessions because they felt they’d lost their family stories, she shook her head. “We’re human beings; we have stories.” Nevertheless, she provides a page of questions to get people started. Asking good questions applies to a lot of things, she believed. “When children come home from school, don’t ask what they learned, ask whether they asked good questions . . .”
I left hoping I’d asked one or two.