MObGirl: “Hi, would you like to hear a story?”
Random passerby 1: “Er, no thanks, strange blonde girl standing behind the Tate Britain, we’re about to get something to eat.”
MObGirl smiling tirelessly: “Hi, would you like to hear a story?”
Random passerby 2 shrinking towards the opposite side of the alleyway: “Actually, I was just leaving, but thanks anyway.”
MObGirl bounding up to well turned out pensioner: “Hi, would you like to hear a story?”
Random pensioner: “Can I sit down if I say yes?”
MObGirl: “Of course you can! But there’s a catch: will you tell me one in return?”
…An hour earlier, I’d been ‘planting’ a temporary potato patch, sawing stakes in half (a skill I hadn’t employed since building a wonky pull-along elephant in Year 7 woodwork class), and laying faux grass over a tarmac-ed carpark. Now I had just been ‘volunteered’ to engage random strangers – families, couples, groups of friends – in conversation. These weren’t just any stories I was offering up either: I was drawing from personal memory and experience, with the stimulus topic chosen by the stranger.
The event was Embrace the Place, run by home live art, and the intention was to create an afternoon that celebrated the neighbourhood. The storytelling was the brainchild of Encounters Arts, who “offer imaginative spaces and processes for people to explore their relationship with themselves, each other, where they live and the wider natural world”.
With the aforementioned pensioner, a gorgeous woman in her early 80s, I talked about separation – me from my sister in Australia, and she from her family in Ireland, whom she left behind in 1947 to make a new life for herself in London. I spoke of trees with a recent retiree who was out for the day with a group of similarly-aged friends, in celebration of their impending freedom. She told me of the tree she planted the day her daughter was born, now growing strong and tall in their back garden, and I described the mango tree of my childhood, whose cubby house was a place of retreat and solace (and eventually danger, after my sister fell out and broke her arm!). With a woman of my own age, I shared my experience of faith, a word that, for both of us, was inextricably linked to religion. As a Christian-turned-atheist, I fidgeted nervously in my deck chair as she shared her recent conversion from atheism to Christianity, after witnessing her mother’s spirit leave this world. Her story was touching, but difficult for me to hear (I try to stay closed to emotive appeals that might draw me back into ‘the church’ – a story for another time, perhaps).
I felt vulnerable as I revealed very personal elements of myself to people I’d met only moments before. Even my closest friends had never heard these stories. But the sunny afternoon made me loosen up, and the willingness of these strangers to share their most intimate memories created a space for me to feel confident and safe in sharing my own. It was an activity for which I would never have volunteered (in fact, I had my eye on the screen-printing stall) but one that, until that moment, I hadn’t realised I needed. I’ve been a little insular lately, and it brought me out of myself and helped me reconnect with the people around me.