The evening began with a story of a man and a woman meeting in a bar. I wasn’t thrilled to learn, shortly thereafter, that the evening’s stories would be a celebration of love. The raconteurs were even traveling by bus on a thirteen-city tour that was heart-shaped when plotted on a map.
I have stopped watching most romantic comedies. I have found solace in the science-fiction/fantasy/dystopian world where love is rarely a first-rate plot device. I have wondered if, perhaps, romance and relationships are not for me. I–I–was sitting in a room with an intimate crowd of 200 to listen to storytellers celebrate love? I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes.
I was reassured, however, that we would be celebrating all kinds of love.
The first storyteller regaled us with a story of growing up with a twin brother with a slight case of Down’s Syndrome. When she suffered an injury that ruined her college running career and her Olympic dreams, her brother’s love and care for others convinced her to re-imagine her future and her goals. A celebration of the love of siblings…and a story that, as a big sister, I understand.
The second storyteller spoke in an utterly unique accent–part Southern Savannah gentleman, part Eastern European gypsy, parts of dialects I’ve never encountered–all strangely, shiveringly delightful. He told of his high school experience attending a Catholic military school, a story focused on a boyhood experience that was, if not aligned with the theme of the night, certainly engrossing, humorous, and intriguing.
Intermission arrived then, and I hurried to the back of the venue to chat with my late-arriving friends–newlyweds, entirely appropriate guests for the evening. We discussed the evening thus far and our excitement for the upcoming, final speaker–the one we’d all really come to see.
The third storyteller was the one who’d begun with the brief story of the meeting in the bar. Those were his parents, and he went on to relate the story of how he and his wife met. A story of an unlikely boy and the girl he dreamed of, perfect in its crudeness and humor, and encouraging in its ultimate truth that one must seek out and hold onto whatever life one desires.
Before the final storyteller, three audience members who had signed up to tell stories were called onto the stage to tell one-minute stories relating to love–one about a boyfriend from elementary school, one about a man meeting his (very sassy) wife of 30 years for the first time, and another about a cat at a homeless shelter.
Then, finally–finally–the man we’d been waiting for. The man whose books we have devoured, whose blogs and tweets we have so studiously followed, whose worlds we have emerged ourselves in and called our own.
Neil Gaiman’s quiet, even voice; his British accent; his dark, slightly rumpled clothes; his demeanor. He’s real. He’s wonderful.
He began with a story he’d heard from a woman who’d worked at the circus. The elephants at the circus are trained, from a young age, to be chained. This prevents their escape. As a calf, an elephant is tied to a chain every night, and he cannot escape no matter how hard he pulls. As a grown elephant, he has become so used to the chain that, even though he could be free with merely a lift of his giant foot, he is still imprisoned–bound, mentally if not physically, by the chain.
Mr. Gaiman then moved, without transition, in the way of a talented storyteller, into the story of a period of his own life, when his marriage had fallen apart, when he was alone in a large house with no companion, and when he was driving down the road one night and rescued a muddy dog in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. He took the dog home, cleaned him up, and then carried him to the animal shelter to be returned to his owner. He missed the dog, but the dog could not be adopted. A few days later, the phone rang, and he heard the story of the dog’s owner, a farmer with a disability who couldn’t care for the dog and kept him on a four-feet chain, only letting him off the chain for 20 minutes a day. That day, the dog went home with Mr. Gaiman, who called him Cabal.
Then came the story of when Mr. Gaiman met a musician, with whom he spent three days exploring museums and attending shows, of talking and getting to know one another. Then, an abrupt ending and her uncertainty and his wondering whether she would ever call.
We, his fans, know how the story ends. We know that Cabal is his companion at the gazebo where he writes. We know that he and Amanda Palmer are married, happily.
Sometimes, the chains fall away. Sometimes, we are rescued.
The evening has followed me throughout the week, the memories staying hidden until quiet moments when I shake off the responsibility and the looming to-do list. I’ve found myself, at times, thinking about my own chains.
On Monday night, I sat, thinking about my students, thinking about how I need to be strict with them, about my frustrations and doubts as an instructor, wondering if it’s possible to lose one’s ability to love. The heartache makes it seem that way sometime–the heartache of feeling like I’m constantly telling people what to do or what not to do, the heartache that my grading responsibilities and schedule won’t allow me to visit my family for weeks if not months, the heartache of the relationships gone bad.
I curled up on my bed, cried a little, and asked God to remind me of how to love people. The next morning, a student came in my office, a student with whom I’d had little contact, and he told me his story. And I understood his silence, his absence, his reticence. The next afternoon, an old friend stopped by, and our friendship was restored, and I apologized for my own absence, my own silence, my own reticence.
Here, then, was the answer; here are the people I am called to love. And I’ve felt those chains, at least, loosened.
Today, my dad and I talked, and we discussed a conversation in which an old classmate had asked him how I was doing and how many kids I have. My response: “Next time, tell her I have 46. They just all happen to sit in desks in front of me.” For this is my calling, this is my family.
Thank you, Mr. Gaiman and the rest of the Unchained Tour. Thank you for reminding me that love comes in many ways, in many varieties, at many times. Thanks for the reminder that chains exist, but that they don’t have to. Thanks for the reminder to squeeze everything I can out of the life that I lead.
(Thanks, too, Mr. Gaiman, for signing my poster and getting excited about seeing the Threadless t-shirt–designed from your poem–in real life. Thanks for an evening that I won’t soon forget.)