Box full o’ hope and heartache

The large, plastic box sat in the middle of the room. Behind it, a long table with microphones. In front, a half-circle of chairs, gradually filling up. To the side, another table filled with cookies. After a series of introductions, the stories began. A prose poem of balloons and glass bottles, an apocalyptic fantasy, a cowboy tale of Western legends, a vignette of love lost and inspiration rediscovered.

This was the Northern Nevada visitation of StoryBox International, the brainchild of Kevin Cordi of Ohio State University, to gather and share community stories through the medium of a traveling box. The StoryBox began in Brazil and has since traveled through many communities around the world, proliferating new boxes to gather local stories. Wishelle Banks, Reno producer-writer, poet and American Indian third-generation storyteller, was chosen as the Story Keeper to gather local storytellers or “Ambassadors,” who would select and read stories in the box as well as sharing (and recording) their own narratives and poetry. The theme for the day: “The Greatest Gift.”

I was there due to a random email invitation, sent by a friend of a friend. Knowing nothing at all about the StoryBox project, I was curious, and thought it might be a nice antidote for me and the kids to check out of the pre-Christmas craziness for a couple of hours. As we stepped into the sun-filled hall at McKinley Arts Center, we didn’t know exactly what to expect, except that stories would be involved.

The Story Ambassadors that day included collections manager and Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal historian Ben Aleck, Paiute language specialist Ralph Burns (both from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum and Visitors’ Center), Paiute-Shoshone and Hopi traditional drummer and singer Christina Thomas, rancher and songwriter Dennis Golden, and a fourth-generation Nevadan, writer and storyteller Tana Lynn. At one point, Wishelle invited the audience to share their stories. A group of girls who came with Lynn read pieces they had written that day. My daughter talked about an event at school.

Our Story Ambassadors covered a lot of diverse territory, but the tales they told shared a wistful tone, I thought. Whether reminiscing about days gone by or reflecting on lost love, the narratives tapped into that space in the heart our desert skies carve out in some of us. Listening to the stories, I thought about how something about Nevada draws out or creates a restless spirit. Maybe it is the drama of the sky that reminds us of the heaviness of being earth-bound. Whatever it is, the original tales of our Story Ambassadors had a quality that distinguished them from stories of other places—a distinctly high-mountain desert feel, linkages to the ancient past, the not-so-distant and not-so-romantic past, as well.

On the StoryBox International website is a charming legend that begins, “A long time ago, all the stories ever known had been told so many times that people knew them all very well. So well, in fact, that people were sure they would never forget them, so people didn’t make time to listen to them any more!” Kevin Cordi notes that stories unite us all as humans, and yet our fast-paced, consumer-focused lives have crowded out the time it takes to craft and share stories with each other.

It was immensely satisfying and moving to witness this international effort to restore the essential act of storytelling to our human existence, and very cool to know that the project is now infused with a shot of Northern Nevada, a whiff of sage on the wind to shake things up a bit.