Last year, I quit my job. I had been changing for months, as had the company. Those shifts made me unable to give what I should to a job that was no longer mine, nor to a great group of people who cared for me. Early in the morning of September 19, I gave my notice of resignation. It was scary, but necessary. It was freeing in the most exhilarating way, but also incredibly terrifying. What would I do? Where would I go? What did I want to be when I grew up?
I showered and tidied the house, trying to clean slate the whole of everything; of me and of my surroundings. I wanted to clear my head of the rough month I had just barely dragged myself through and the many months of political job shift. My brain felt defogged for the first time in months, and in that moment of clarity, my brain went straight to…. my sister?
My sister? Why was I thinking about my sister? There was static in my brain for a moment as it remembered how to think at all about something other than work and heartbreak warfare. And then, like a lightening bolt, it struck me: my sister was down off the mountain and in my town. I called her immediately.
“ARE YOU IN WINSTON?!”
She laughed and told me she was, that she was about to call me. She had been willingly taken by a traveling hoard of raconteurs on something called The Unchained Tour.
“Want to come? I can put you ON THE LIST!”
Not a girl to turn down a visit with her sister (or a VIP experience), I took up her offer. And not a girl to go anywhere uninformed, I looked up the tour.
It took me about 10 seconds to start squealing like a 14-year-old fangirl when I saw George Dawes Green’s name on the roster. THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE, IS LIKE, MY JAAAAAM!, I imagined myself saying to him. Nice. Poised. Eloquent. Rachel.
I didn’t know any of the other names until I got to Neil Gaiman, someone I admired for his stories adapted to screen, but also someone whose work I had never had the chance to read. I figured it wouldn’t matter, as the tour was a not-so-rag-tag rag tag group of storytellers, orally giving the audience a snippet of their lives and pieces of themselves along the way. My body started revving up in the anxious-excited way it does before something new and unexpected, so I decided to head over to the venue and bide my jitters and time ’til the performance.
Showing up to a full parking lot only aided to the anxcitement in my bones, but seeing my baby sis quelled the nerves. She was hard at work, but looked like she had been having the time of her life doing it. I left her to do her cd burning as I went to the auditorium to find an end seat. I always pick the end seats.
What ensued deserves pages and pages of descriptions, but I almost can’t bring myself to write it. The storytellers opened a vein and bled on the stage. They gave us the dark and the light, the heartwarming and the heartbreaking. They made us laugh ’til we cried or just cried. There were stories of love, sexuality, writing, fighting, life in general, and storytelling itself. The whole audience was just as engaged as I was. You could almost feel the room move together like a giant organism. I could have sworn I felt a calm heartbeat all around me. Trying to write about it is like trying to take a photo of a Pacific sunset: it will be beautiful, but no one will understand how it felt. You weren’t there, man!
When I was done, I hung around and watched the people clamor to meet the storytellers, Neil in particular. It was moving in a way, how much they admired Neil, though I couldn’t help but wonder if if ever got daunting for him to deal with. I hung out at a table alone as my sister ran back and forth from the merch table. The documentary crew came over to film me, but my answer seemed lackluster for the director who soon moved on. Her assistant looked like a kid, then made a release form from a napkin and a marker, perfectly appropriate for the age I imagined him to be. I signed the hell out of it. That kid had moxie.
The room started to buzz less, and I barely had time to relish in it before I realized my sister bringing George around a group of people to meet me. I immediately broke into a sweat and threatened myself silently: DON’T YOU DARE TELL HIM THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE IS YOUR JAM, RACHEL! DON’T YOU DO IT!
I took the man in I had earlier seen on stage. He was lithe and handsome, dressed in a green velvet suit. I reached out my hand to shake his as I heard my sister introduce us, though she sounded trapped in a bubble.
“It’s nice to meet, you,” I said. Yes! I CAN DO THIS! “I’m just trying not to throw up on your shoes.” Oh, god dammit.
I thought he would laugh, but instead he asked me to repeat what I’d said. Ever the honest one, I did as he asked. His face was one I will never forget, somewhere between disgust and laughter. I think I awkwardly sat back down and tried to make some kind of intelligible conversation, but it wasn’t long before he slunk away from me. Strike one, Rachel. Strike one.
Sis eventually saved me from myself by introducing me to Neil. At that point, I was dripping in shame, so I had no more pride left. It worked to my advantage, as I managed to get out a couple of meaningful sentences that didn’t involve the words “vomit” or “jam.” He introduced me to his daughter before the two of them went off to gather their things.
That was about as far as I thought the night would go. I would say hello, shake some hands, have some family time, and go home. But then the crew started asking me where they should eat when they couldn’t quite remember the name of the place they had initially intended to go. I managed to sputter out a couple of suggestions before they started to leave. It was that awkward quick exit some people make out of a conversation that leaves you not exactly knowing what you’re supposed to do. I finally just turned around, and George was standing right behind me with my sister.
“You’re coming with us, right?!” he asked, smiling all the while.
“Good! Let’s go!”
He cut right, and I just stared at my sister in awe. She did the signature giggle-shrug both her and my dad possess. We geared up – for some reason there was a lot of gear that night – and started walking around downtown with the crew. It was magical, not because some of them were renowned authors, but because the night was cool and the lighting was perfect. This group of amazingly talented people had first taken in my sister and now me with open arms, and they were wandering in my pretty little Southern city beside us. The crew and cast of the tour were seamlessly moving around one another, joking and laughing in the way a family would. It was clear the strangers and friends and strangers who had become friends had all become a fucked up little family, too… in the best way possible.
We wandered around in a noisy, rambunctious pack until we picked a table at the local microbrewery. It was mostly abandoned by that hour on a weeknight, so our party of 15+ was easily accommodated. My sister and I headed straight for the middle of the table so we could sit side by side, and George headed straight to the seat beside me. What ensued was an unbelievable late dinner full of Double IPAs and conversation with some of the coolest people I’ve ever met whose names I can’t remember.
I got to know the people who made up the team of storytellers, even those behind the scenes. They were all so high off the energy of one another, and relished bringing new people into the fold; a rare quality to find in one person, yet alone a group of them. I got to know Neil’s daughter, a fabulous young woman who just radiated happiness. I got to whisper with my sister about how surreal and stellar the night was. And to top it off, I got to share my own story, and the entire table listened. They all drank their libations and ate their pub food, but every one of them was staring at me and hearing every word I had to say. I hadn’t realized how much I needed someone to just pay attention.
After my story, George pulled my shoulder in a signal for me to turn around. He leaned on his elbow on the table, breathed out, and looked me square in the eye.
“Tell me about your writing,” he said.
I almost screamed in his face out of sheer disbelief. Luckily, the Double IPA packs a lot of alcohol, so I had enough liquid courage to play off the freak-out and come up with some sort of savvy reply about majoring in journalism and where I wanted to see this very blog end up. Even though I’m sure in the present that my savvy response of past was probably more bumbling than brilliant, he encouraged me with genuine kindness the entire time. He saved my life with that compassion; all of them did. I had been in a pit, and they had just thrown me my long-awaited rope.
The merrymaking was coming to a close as the bar was. As we signed off on our tabs, George jumped from table to table, telling everyone not to leave, for we had to race the buses! And oh, it would be no ordinary race: whoever’s bus reached the finish line last would win. That was the moment when I started to question whether or not I was living or dreaming, but the realization it was the former was almost overwhelming it was so exciting.
We practically ran back to the venue to prep the buses for race time. George was running like a sprite from each one, assigning roles and reinforcing rules. I watched as he got the two repurposed school buses in prime race position. Before I knew it, he had raised his arms and dropped them in a signal for the buses to start moving. Those of us watching started a chorus of laughter almost immediately; while required to actually move, the buses had no other speed requirements. George had already reached us across the parking lot at the finish line before they had barely moved four feet. I watched his face as he reveled in the idea he had thought of only minutes before come to life before his very eyes.
I turned to one of the storytellers. He, in fact, had been the MC of the show.
“I loved your stories the most, I think. I just quit my job, today, you know?”
He looked at me with kind eyes and smiled.
“Thank you! I heard. What are you going to do now?”
I thought I knew the answer, but I really didn’t. I had to steep in his question for a minute before I could respond.
“To do this. To focus on my writing, and really do something I love. I’m tired of doing things I hate just because I’m supposed to.”
“It’s just… crazy. Today I quit my job, and 12 hours later, here I am with all of you.”
“It’s so cool how that works. It’s definitely fate,” he said.
I nodded and smiled, but had to turn. My eyes were filled with grateful tears. I looked around: at the cast, the crew, my sister, the slow moving buses. All of it was moving beyond measure, and it really was fate. It was fate that I should meet such an inspiring group of strangers. It was fate that I should have people listen to, support, and believe in my dreams. It was fate that I met them that day at that time because it all led me to where I am now, which is on the path to making those dreams come true.
Those buses finally crossed the finish line to the cheers of many. I will cross my own finish line the same way, and I hope when I get there, George and Neil and my darling sister and every single one of those traveling artists know how much of my finish I owe to that night and to them.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.