Yesterday I heard Dave Isay promoting his new book, Listening is an act of love. The StoryCorps® oral history project began in 2003 in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Since then over 30,000 stories have been told and recorded, and the stories broadcast weekly on NPR have become one of my favorite features of WUNC‘s programming. The stories selected for broadcast are as eclectic as one could imagine: an American citizen of Japanese descent describing life in American concentration camps, a pastor whose simple act of charity changes the life of a man and a community struggling with poverty, a prominent doctor honoring his unschooled-but-wise father, an old woman recounting how she first fell in love. But what makes the stories remarkable are not just the circumstances and not just the actors—real people in this case—but the way in which the story seems to draw life from both the telling and by the listening of the interviewer in the booth.
In 2005, StoryCorps came to WUNC’s new facilities at the American Tobacco campus and my wife Amy and I had a chance to record our own stories in their mobile studio. We went in consciously unprepared, willing to let the spirit move us when the record light came on. I told the story of the first time I took her to my old school in New York City, The St. Thomas Choir School. I remembered my anticipation of her reaction to entering one of the most impressive Gothic churches in Gotham City, St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. As impressive as the façade is, she was more impressed that 35 minutes before the service, the pews were nearly full. We did our best to get seats close to the choir, and then we waited.
What happened when the choir did began to sing surprised us both. I started crying, openly. My overwhelming impression was that the voices of these boys, in this church, at that moment, had been transformed into the actual voices of angels. It was so real. And then my urge to cry doubled, as I recalled my own experience as a boy singing services in the 1970s. I used to laugh and joke about how the “little old ladies” would start to cry when we’d sing, and especially so when we sang especially well. In fact our choirmaster would encourage us by saying “sing this right and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.” What I didn’t realize as a boy, but what flooded through me as a man, was that this brief encounter with the divine was as good as it ever would be for many who belong to the church. For those who are late in life, these voices were the call and the comfort of God. And I was a part of that, once.
And when I told that story in the StoryCorp booth, I realized that I was now another part of that, the listening part, but also the telling part. And this truth welled up in me, anew.
My greatest hope for the Miraverse is to make music an act of love, not only for those who are playing, but for those who are listening—those for whom the music becomes a voice of God. And to make the recordings of Manifold Recording mementos as real and as powerful as any experience that exists only in memory.
I wonder how many others have a story to tell, and how many will join me to make that story an act of love, by listening.