The premise of The Hearth, a storytelling series in Ashland, Oregon that was started by Mark Yaconelli, is that when people listen to each other, share their stories and confess their sins, the world becomes a little more empathetic, everyone becomes a little kinder, and anything (harmony between Jews and Muslims, an end to bullying) is possible.
My husband and I attend The Hearth as often as we can. We love it. We love Mark Yaconelli and his mission of peace and empathy. We love the wine and treats at intermission (all the money raised goes to a charity; all the people pouring are volunteers). Hearing people tell their stories (though some are duds) is more cathartic and riveting than any movie I’ve seen in a long time.
I wrote a 3,000-word article about The Hearth for the Jefferson Monthly in July. Here’s a shortened version of that article:
I was too shy to say hello to David Ingham but I knew with the certainty that comes from being five-years-old that one day I would marry him. David lived in the house across the street with his parents and his sisters, Eleanor and Melissa. Mr. Ingham walked to the bus station every morning at the same time my brother Zach and I raced down Gibbs Street to Mason Rice Elementary School.
Mr. Ingham’s left hand was missing. Where his hand should have been there was a white stump, smooth and round like a man’s baldhead. He walked with a cane as long as Pinocchio’s nose in his good hand, swinging it in front of him from side to side. Mr. Ingham wore dark sunglasses. I knew if he took them off I would be able to see all the way into his brain.
A chemist like my father, Mr. Ingham blew up his hand and his eyes in an accident in his lab. My father told us that it was a coincidence that Mrs. Ingham, too, was blind. She had a degenerative eye disease. I didn’t understand exactly what that meant. But even though she couldn’t see me with her eyes, Mrs. Ingham knew what I had done the day I committed an unspeakable crime …
So began a story I told on June 16, 2011 at “The Hearth,” a quarterly gathering organized by 45-year-old Mark Yaconelli, an internationally known storyteller who travels from California to Zimbabwe to help communities heal through sharing real-life stories. Mine was one of six stories told that night on the theme, “tales from childhood.”
Becky Sherman began the evening by recounting how, even though she looks like your typical electric-car driving, Dansko-wearing Ashland mom of two, she actually grew up north of the Arctic Circle and learned to pilot a plane, drive a pick-up, and shoot a .44 Magnum revolver by the time she was twelve.
Skip Andrew shared the defining moment of his childhood in Iowa: one morning not long after his father returned from World War II, his little sister’s nightdress caught on fire, burning her body so badly the doctor dropped his black bag in horror as he came through the door. His father had told him his job was to protect his little sister but Skip had been fast asleep upstairs when it happened.
At The Hearth, Mark Yaconelli introduces the storytellers and adds stories of his own to the mix. He talks wryly about learning to accept his young son’s love of nature and taking his time, reminisces about trying to outwrestle his brother-in-law (and failing), and recounts how he fell in love with the young college co-ed who would later become his wife the first time she walked into the room, only to discover that she already had a boyfriend named Dale.
“I hope none of you is named Dale,” Yaconelli says, scanning the crowd at a recent storytelling event. “I hate the name Dale.” Energetic, enthusiastic, and committed to helping people get along, Yaconelli sees these evenings where the community comes together to tell stories and he shares his as well as something bigger than storytelling: for him, The Hearth is a way to bring people in southern Oregon closer to each other.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give is to ask someone to tell their story and then really listen to them,” Yaconelli explains to me. “There is something that happens between the listener and the teller that’s mysterious and wonderful and alive.
One day after school there was a knock on the door.
“Our cat just had kittens,” Eleanor Ingham said to my father. “Would Jenny like to come see them?”
It was winter in New England and bitterly cold outside. I put on my parka and followed Eleanor out the door.
Their driveway was as long and steep as Mount Kilimanjaro and I had to take two steps to Eleanor’s one to keep up.
But I was breathing hard because I was excited to see the kittens not because of the climb.
From a Couple Dozen People to a Packed Crowd at The Hearth
At first The Hearth had only a couple dozen people in a bar in Ashland on Valentine’s Day 2010. For the following year the get-togethers were held at the Community Center on Winburn Way. Now between 150 and 180 listeners cram into a donated space at the First Congregational Church at 717 Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland. Though most of the advertising is done through an email list and word-of-mouth, the most recent gatherings have been standing-room only.
Admission to The Hearth is a $5 donation that is then donated to a designated charity. At intermission volunteers sell refreshments, donating these profits to charity as well. Charities that have benefited from The Hearth include the Medford-based Maslow Project that helps homeless teens in Southern Oregon; Rogue Valley Farm to School, a non-profit which connects local farmers with schools to provide healthier lunch programs; and The Afghan Child Project, a non-profit that seeks to improve the lives of Afghan children and their families. Each evening raises between $700 and $900.
Yaconelli provides a sign-up sheet inviting others in the community to share their stories next time. For the most part the people who volunteer are not professional storytellers. Some have never been on stage before. Tellers only rehearse once, in a small gathering with Yaconelli a week before the event. They do not use notes. These storytellers are just ordinary folks brave enough to stand up and tell something true about their lives. But they all have one thing in common: a willingness to be open and vulnerable and speak from the heart.
Some Say The Hearth is the Best Thing in the Rogue Valley
“I just think it’s the best thing that’s going on in the Valley right now,” confides Mark DiRienzo, as if he’s telling me a secret.
“It’s like a quarterly grounding opportunity to check in with the big picture stuff and realize everyone has a story and their story deeply impacts the audience and everyone can relate,” contines DiRienzo, a father of two and a real estate developer who is a regular at these events. “It’s usually funny and moving and some are totally crushing. There are suicide stories. And yet the person standing before you in that vulnerable state is able to make the audience laugh.”
DiRienzo, though he’s not ready to get up and tell a story himself (yet), says going to The Hearth has made him a more sensitive and compassionate person, less quick to judge others and more aware that everyone has a story.
“The next day you walk down the street and you see someone and think, even if they may have been a jerk, everyone has a story, and you’ve got to give people a chance.”
Yaconelli believes that storytelling can be transcendent: “What happens on a good night, with a good story is that your imagination gets awakened to possibilities,” he tells me. “Someone talks about Mexico and you think, ‘I could travel there.’ Listening helps you release the unhealed wounds that oppress your life and keep you trapped. You realize, ‘I could be more than my wounds.’”
At The Hearth Storytelling Isn’t Just For Kids
But isn’t storytelling for kids? When I try to explain to people who have never attended a gathering what The Hearth is, they usually look confused.
Why would grown-ups want to go to a storytelling event?
That’s a difficulty Yaconelli runs into as well.
“I usually say it’s storytelling but not storytelling,” Yaconelli explains. “It’s confession. People confessing their lives. It’s a place where people are sharing experiences. There’s no pretending or posturing. This is the kind of conversation we have in intimate circles, it’s like sitting around a fireplace sharing our stories, that’s why we call it The Hearth.”
But Yaconelli also points out that adults shouldn’t undervalue the importance of storytelling for its own sake.
“Storytelling is one of the primary practices in all religious traditions. It’s about trying to cultivate wisdom, that’s really what’s happening,” Yaconelli explains. “What do you know? What have you experienced? There is wisdom in the room, whether it’s humorous or joyful. There’s a wisdom that’s growing each time we get together.”
Last Autumn Randy Ellison shared how it took three months in therapy before he realized why he had planned his suicide down to the last detail when he was in his late twenties, and why he was using drugs and alcohol to keep the walls of the fortress he had built around his life intact. It wasn’t because of his Norwegian Lutheran mother’s early death. It wasn’t because he didn’t love his wife and daughters. It was because of what Randy survived as a teenager: ongoing molestation by the pastor who led the youth group at the church his mother insisted he attend every Sunday.
Sometimes the people who tell stories share something with the community that they’ve never revealed publicly about themselves before. Sean Gallagher, a baseball coach, drew a standing ovation after he admitted he had been passing for Italian his whole life. His father was Irish and his mom Puerto Rican.
While many of the stories are funny, they are just as often filled with heartache. When Selene Aitken was ten years old living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, her teacher told the class to get out a ruler and a pen. Page by page the children were directed to cross out every reference in their history books to the just ousted rulers, General Juan Perón and his wife Eva.
Since the people who tell stories are not professionals, there are times when they start to wander off topic, do bizarre performances that can be off-putting to the audience, or talk too long. (Yaconelli hates to interrupt people, even when the audience is getting restless. He freely admits this is one of his shortcomings.) Though the audience is friendly, it’s also very attuned to the storyteller and you can feel when someone isn’t being honest, or has something to hide.
Though the event isn’t slated for kids and adult themes in some stories may make parents uncomfortable, my 8-year-old son has attended two Hearths (I take him home at intermission because the evenings run long) and loved them.
DiRienzo brought his sons, ages 10 and 13, to the last gathering and plans to bring them again.
The kittens were so small they could not yet open their eyes.
“Can I hold one?” I asked Eleanor.
“Not now Jenny. Come back in a couple of weeks and they’ll be ready to cuddle.”
Those 14 days passed more slowly than any time in my life. When the kittens were finally old enough, I went to see them after school almost every day.
I loved those kittens. I loved them so much I wanted to eat them. I loved them so much I wanted to squeeze the life out of them. I loved them with the ferocity of a lonely little girl, the youngest of four, who was being raised by nannies. Who barely saw her mother because she was often out of the country or busy at work. Whose father never came home before six o’clock at night.
But there was one kitten I loved most. His fur was so gray it was almost blue. He was curious and mischievous and beautiful.
What I did was premeditated.
It was not an innocent crime.
The Hearth is Modeled After The Moth
The Moth is a storytelling event recorded at performances in major cities around the country, where people tell “true stories, told live, without notes.” There is a free weekly podcast you can download from iTunes and listen to on your smart phone or computer. The live events are the ‘real’ Moth, and the podcasts a way for people outside New York, Detroit, Chicago or Los Angeles to share the experience.
Moth founder George Dawes Green named the program for the summer evenings he spent in his childhood Georgia, sitting on the porch with friends telling stories while the moths gathered fluttering around the porch light. There is drama, suspense, often both pathos and humor, and usually a sharp conclusion to each story.
Unlike for The Hearth, people audition for The Moth. Only a fraction of those who try out make it to the stage. Often they are entertainers, writers or actors who know how to tell a story; a few big-name stars have also volunteered to tell stories from their lives. But what is most surprising is how many regular people, computer programmers and grad students, ex-cons and high-school dropouts, know how to tell a story as well or better than any pro. Their stories often have a rawness and honesty that the well-wrought and delivered stories of the pros do not, underscoring just how much storytelling is a basic human activity. There is something a neighbor can give us when they share their story that a professional actor, comedian, writer, monologist or performance artist cannot: The pro presents us with crafted product and slickness, while a neighbor gives us simply her story and herself.
Conversely, there are big stars who perform at The Moth whose stories are often touching because they share personal parts of their lives that are not part of their public persona. Old-school rapper DMC (of Run-DMC) confessed feeling empty and depressed during the height of his stardom, on the brink of suicide without anyone suspecting it. Listening to a touchy-feely white girl singer-songwriter saved his life.
My husband plays some of the stories from The Moth podcasts to our children, who are 13, 11, 8, and 2. Though they love to listen to them, there is something special about being able to sit with people from your local community and hear one of your neighbors, friends, or fellow pre-school parents tell you a story, really tell you a story, like around the campfire.
My husband explains it like this: “It gives you a feeling of bonding, of community that is very different from the lonely consumer downloading something to listen to in the isolation of your headphones. We have so much entertainment available for us to consume, but where would you go to hear someone tell you a story? Many of us remember that experience from around a campfire, or as the founder of The Moth recalls, from the front porch; but how many kids today have that experience?”
I hid my favorite kitten in the pocket of my coat and left the Ingham’s as fast as I could.
“Going already?” I heard Mrs. Ingham call.
I ran down their long driveway with my hand on my parka pocket so the kitten wouldn’t be too jostled, burst through our front door, and up the stairs.
I put the kitten gingerly in the closet and tore down the stairs two at a time to get him something to eat.
I grew up in the 1970s. Those were the days when the milkman delivered milk in glass bottles to our mudroom and people ate margarine not butter. We had a stack of empty margarine tubs on a shelf in the pantry. I was just climbing onto the pantry counter when my father came into the room.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting a container,” I said, my heart pounding so loudly I was sure he could hear it.
“To play pretend.”
That explanation miraculously seemed to satisfy him. I pulled with all my weight to open the refrigerator door to get out the glass milk jug, filled the empty plastic margarine container, and slowly carried the milk upstairs.
I was still trying to coax the kitten to drink when there was a knock on the door. I went out to the landing, peeking through the baluster. I wasn’t tall enough to look over the railing.
It was Eleanor.
“Nicky,” she said to my dad. “I’m sorry to bother you but one of our kittens is missing. Jenny was there this afternoon. Could I talk to her?”
“The Hearth is a counter-cultural event,” Yaconelli writes me in a follow-up email. “When you ask people to share experiences from their life, experiences that matter, they tell stories that are in deep contrast to the stories of the media culture. Listen to the stories that people value and you learn that what matters most is relationships with others, forgiveness, humor, knowing that we are all vulnerable human beings in need of friendship and compassion, curiosity, imagination, and adventure (rather than security and predictability).
“…Each life is a work of art,” Yaconelli goes on. “What is happening at the Hearth is that we are telling and listening to the truth, and it turns out that at the level of the heart, we are all very similar.
“Here’s how radical this kind of sharing can be: Imagine taking a random group of Afghans, Iraqis, or Muslims from all the countries that scare us and have them tell stories about their childhood, about meals that they love, about falling in love, about loneliness and grief and other human experiences and then have a group of U.S. citizens share similar stories from their own life. I’m telling you within a weekend you would have peace because once you know someone’s story, they become a part of you.”
Crying tears of shame and remorse and longing, already missing the gray-blue kitten that could never be mine, I went into the closet and brought him out.
I carried him slowly down the stairs and handed him back to Eleanor.
Eleanor told my dad the kitten was still too little to survive without his mother.
I was only five years old and already a criminal, but I knew exactly what Eleanor meant.
Find out about upcoming Hearth events at their website. Will I see you at the next one?
Last updated: July 1, 2018