by Michael McRay In September 2012, I moved to Northern Ireland to pursue my Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin’s Belfast campus. When I walked out of the Belfast International Airport, a curly-haired, lightly bearded Irishman named Pádraig Ó Tuama stood in the rain, waiting to give me a lift into town. Having reached out to Pádraig via the recommendation of mutual friend David Dark, I was most grateful to have a friendly face there to meet me upon arrival to that strange and beautiful island. Before dropping me off at my new residence in North Belfast, Pádraig invited me to attend Ten×9, a monthly storytelling event he and his partner Paul Doran had started some time before. After the first night, I was hooked. When I left Belfast, I asked them if I could bring Tenx9 to Nashville, and in September of last year, the first night of storytelling sounded in Cafe Coco.
Ten×9 Nashville, then, is a monthly community storytelling night where nine people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. Ten minute stories by nine people—thus, “ten by nine.” This storytelling event is all about us, our stories, our lived moments. Each month has a theme, particular enough to structure a night of storytelling but broad enough that anyone should be able to find a life story that relates. For more on the “what” of Tenx9, visit our website. Here, I will focus on the “why.”
Pádraig introduced me to this beautiful Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” For me, this captures Ten×9’s purpose: it is an attempt for us to live in each other’s shelter—through food and drink, presence and narrative. As we often say, we are strange people telling our strange stories to strangers. In an age where we live so dependent on and addicted to our screens and social cyber networks, Tenx9, for many, has been a way to live liberated from those prisons and experience communion and true human connectedness, even if only for a few hours. Standing on stage with a microphone, storytellers invite listeners to enter into pieces of their lives and feel—to penetrate into the undiscovered continents of each other.
In some ways, Tenx9 is like a flash mob. For brief moments each month, the human communion of storytelling appears and captivates. And then, just as quickly, it vanishes, as if it never was. But you leave knowing that it did exist, and that such connection is possible, even in this age of such tragic impersonality amidst such extreme connectivity. Rachel Naomi Remen has said that stories are the flesh we put on the bones of the facts of our lives. At Tenx9, our lives’ dry bones spring to life, enfleshed by the art of narrative.
Make no mistake, Tenx9 is not designed to provide a night of professional storytelling. It will always be a place for the nervous and unsure, a place for new storytellers to “give it a go.” We welcome a range of humans onto the stage—some polished tellers, others most certainly not—but all embodying the messiness of human stories. In just six sessions, we have heard tales of childhood imagination as well as childhood abuse; longing for the love of a father as well as the long love of a 57 year marriage; first kisses leading to awkwardness as well as first drinks leading to addiction; breaking out of the prison of shame as well as the breaking of hearts at losing a loved child. Indeed, to paraphrase my brother’s line, the stories told at Tenx9 illuminate the holy damned mess of the world’s suffering and beauty.
I have also brought Tenx9 to a more isolated area in Nashville: Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. Behind the walls of the men’s prison, incarcerated storytellers bring a fascinating diversity of life experiences into spoken narration each month, as the audience sits on the wooden pews of the prison chapel communing through coffee, cookies, and attentiveness. After the first night of storytelling, one of my incarcerated friends came up and hugged me tight, saying, “That’s the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell a story about myself in public.” I told him, “And that’s why Tenx9 exists.”
Our next event is March 24 at 7:30pm at Café Coco. Our theme is “Things My Parents Never Told Me.”
Michael McRay, in addition to organizing and hosting Tenx9 Nashville, teaches at Lipscomb University as an adjunct in reconciliation, restorative justice, and international conflict. He also volunteers as a prison chaplain and mediator, and is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street”: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine.