WHEN I was a child, my family often took long Sunday drives. We'd roll along across the plains of Oklahoma in our big maroon Lincoln, past the golden wheat fields. And as we drove, my father would recite poetry - especially epic sagas of the Old West: ``The Shooting of Dan McGrew'' and ``The Face Upon the Floor.''
In my mind, I could picture old Dan in that oven, in the grisly yet happy ending, and I could just see that beautiful face painted by the heartbroken vagabond on the wooden floor of the saloon.
And every Saturday, I'd sit on our striped sofa and listen to ``Let's Pretend'' on the radio. I'd often draw pictures to match the ones in my mind as I absorbed the tales of ``King Midas,'' ``Bluebeard,'' and ``Cinderella.''
I grew up with an affinity for the spoken word. After years of writing my own personal stories and some poetry, after going to numerous poetry readings, I began to attend performances of professional storytellers.
I remember that first evening of stories. David Novak, a nationally known storyteller from San Diego, stood on the stage all alone. He was dressed in a shirt and jeans - and he just told us stories.
One of his tales was about a group of men who had been in the basement for a long, long time, watching sports on TV. Suddenly the monitor didn't work, and one man actually left the dungeon, followed the cable, climbed to the roof, and checked the antenna. While there - lo and behold - he saw the blue sky, a little girl down below - the actual world - so much grander and more beautiful than the small screen he'd been staring at. And he realized he was actually part of this big picture!
I was caught up, hanging on every word. This power to entrance, to tell a story, took us to another place and time, where we could laugh and cry, remember and imagine. In a way, the experience was multimedia, with all of the visualization and most of the sensory details awakened in our own minds.
At the end of the story, Novak said this was his version of Plato's ``Allegory of the Cave.''
Now I was definitely hooked. Here the rhythm of music and literature, the drama of the theater, along with philosophy, history, real-life memories, and observations, were all woven into one and given person-to-person.
So I went back to those storytelling evenings for more. Another time I heard an Eskimo Shaman, a quiet man, who gave us all a peek into his culture and the stories that helped weave it. We sat so intently, stifling any coughs, that we were aware of every creak of the rickety seats. We knew he was talking about us, too, when he said that in his culture it is expected that when you are an old person you will have a story. And if you don't, you don't really have a place in the world. But, of course, the truth is we all have stories. The magic is just realizing that and sharing our journey.
Not long ago, I heard an Abenaki storyteller, Joseph Bruchak, telling a Seneca story, ``The Coming of Stories,'' about a boy who sat near a great rock that looked like a head. This great stone began to tell him a story. And as he listened, the boy no longer felt the cold or the uncomfortable wind.
Later when he went home, his relatives gathered around the fire and he told the story to them. Then, Bruchak continued, ``the people were no longer cold, and their dreams were good.'' In this tale, the boy returned many times to the stone. Finally, he had heard all the stories. And the great stone told the boy to continue to pass them on, and then other stories would be added. ``Where there are stories,'' the stone told the boy, ``there will be more stories.''
In my own family, my grandfather, blind from his 60s, lived by the word. He turned everything into a story or a poem: his boyhood in our little town, the day he first met my grandmother with her soft brown eyes and shy smile, the train trip they made in the 1950s to California to visit my mother, my brother, and me.
In a pre-literate world, storytellers preserved the past and carried on the news of the day. And in a pre-TV day, storytellers still had a place, sharing their visions. But TV's instant visions have changed that. In fact, in Ireland, a country once rich in storytellers, these seanachies have, for the most part, died out since TV was introduced.
YET we haven't lost the ability to see images in our minds, if we are given a chance. And in the presence of storytellers, we can be in touch with our own rich inner world. In fact, these days, storytellers are often invited to classrooms to tell tales to children - because storytelling helps us learn to visualize, and visualization is necessary in order to learn to read.
And I think it is this nestling in with a group, then being taken to another place in time through imagination, by just the sound of someone's voice, that is in many ways the essence, the comfort, of storytelling. Those nights as I listened to the storytellers, I had my own associations to the words. I shaped images in my own mind, and I know they were different for each of us in the audience.
AND, as with poetry, the pauses, the often sparse language, created spaces where my own stories could come between the cracks.
Ramon Royal Ross, a storyteller and author, said to me once that storytelling was not unlike listening to jazz. There are bars and riffs in both, he said. And it is true that the audience and the teller can all be caught up in a kind of sea or ocean of story, just bobbing along together. Close to bliss, we lose ourselves in the story.
I've heard that part of the appeal and magic of ``Jack and the Beanstalk'' is the association of the giant with our parents, who seem quite giant-like when we are little. Or the story might recall a garden we planted as children. When I hear one of the versions of Cinderella, I know I'm transported to my childhood when I dreamed of happily-ever-after and a Prince Charming, when I dreamed of growing up and being transformed. Through the stories, it is possible to feel the whole range of emotions - sadness, joy, excitement, and anger.
When I go to hear stories and lapse into silence, almost a dream state, not only my personal memories are awakened, but also something even more primal: I am one with all the people from ancient days who ever sat around the fire just outside the cave, charmed and enchanted, receiving courage from the stories of struggle and survival, the stories of how things came to be - why the earth sometimes rumbled, why mountains can spew fire.
I know that all myths, legends, and tales in a way belong to all of us: They take us deep into our own personal stories and our cultural and literary histories. These stories, whether told in an auditorium, on someone's front porch, or around a campfire, connect us to previous generations, because many of the stories come from other times and places. Yet these time-honored stories carry truths that go beyond one particular country or ethnic group.
It's as if the stories are all variations on a theme - one great story - with trials, dragons, monsters, helpers, guides, friends, with gifts of peak moments, special loves, and new awarenesses.
As we left the auditorium after a recent evening of tales, I found myself smiling at people I didn't know - and they responded in kind. We'd all been on a trip together; we'd all paid a visit to the great storytelling stone. Now it was our turn to pass the stories on.