Nora Crist had no way of knowing that the summer of 2006 would be her last opportunity to work alongside her grandfather, former state senator James Clark Jr., on his prized 540-acre farm.
Now owned and operated by her mother, Martha Anne Clark, the rolling acreage at Clarksville Pike and Centennial Lane in Ellicott City had long been the place where Crist, then a rising college sophomore, felt most at peace.
That fateful season at Clark's Farm over nine years ago – which culminated in the August death of the elder statesman and longtime farmer at 87 – looms large in Crist's decision to make her living from the land and forms the basis for a personal story she will share next week at a public event devoted to the art of storytelling.
Called "Something's Happening Here," the evening will be held Feb. 26 at the Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit education center and land trust in Woodstock that was founded by citizens in 1990.
Twelve Howard County residents will draw from the pages of their life stories to strike up a personal rapport with the audience in five minutes in an event that will focus on the unifying power of storytelling. It will be preceded by a workshop that is also open to the public.
Organizers say the presenters were chosen as "ideal storytellers" who represent a cross-section of the county. In addition to Crist, the other presentersare Dave Bittner, Frank Eastham, Cathy Hudson, Ann Jones, Ian Kennedy, Shehlla Khan, Arlette Cestoni Shane, Holly Stone, Beverly White-Seals, Al Williams and James Zoller.
Calling storytelling more a tradition in Baltimore and Washington than in Howard, Marianne Alexander said the conversancy hopes to change that perception by holding an annual event that will create "a mosaic that reflects the county's diversity and beliefs."
"This is storytelling that falls into the inspirational, entertaining category and is not about oral histories – which are a close cousin, but are viewed as more of a historical record," said Alexander, a past president of the conservancy who volunteers on the nonprofit's program committee.
The county's Department of Recreation and Parks and the Columbia Association "bought into the idea" and are each sending five representatives to the storytelling workshop, she said.
"Anything we can do to get people better acquainted with the thinking and values of residents will strengthen our community by allowing us to come away with a much clearer understanding," Alexander said of the event's premise.
Leigh Tillman, a certified mediator and storytelling trainer who will facilitate both events, said there's a buzz across the country around storytelling.
"Sharing our truths in a larger context helps us tell a greater story," said Tillman, who was born and raised in Howard County, but now lives in Maine. "When people talk about their lives with emotion and authority that loosens up stories in all of us that tug us back to our own humanness."
Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, will share his insights from an anxiety-filled episode in his family's life that he believes illustrates the true meaning of community.
While he's still refining his story to avoid using the "it takes a village" cliché, Kennedy said he will recount the events of six weeks ago – which resulted in a happy ending – when his daughter and her first-grade classmate couldn't be located one afternoon.
The heart of his family's community of Stevens Forest is centered around the schools, pool and playground, he said, and that's where he and his wife felt panic set in when the girls weren't where they were supposed to be.
"Community is a collection of people who share a geographical location, and it's not something you choose necessarily," he said. "But if successfully built, it's a place where everyone comes together and works on shared goals."
Kennedy's story will examine how members of his neighborhood joined forces — including a few residents who set aside past differences of opinion — to locate the girls, who had innocently gone exploring.
"Understanding why we experience the same place differently allows us to drill down and open pathways for empathy and connections in order to achieve an enlightened society," he said. "You would expect to see this in a place that really values community, and we are a place that does. The intellectual, principled underpinnings that Columbia was built on have bled into the entire county."
Beverly White-Seals, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Howard County, said she will tell "a very Howard County-specific story that highlights the uniqueness of the Columbia experiment and some of the challenges the community faces today."
"People will be amazed at the diversity of the stories they hear and how each person's background feeds into their uniqueness as a storyteller," she said.
"Anytime you can learn about the humanity of another person it strengthens you and it strengthens the community. It gives you a tolerance for people's faiths and beliefs."
Crist, who is 28 and still calls her grandfather "Papa," said she watched him begin to slow down and decline in the months before his death, and observing that "allowed me to realize that the farm was where I wanted to be."
She came to that realization on her own and that's an important distinction, she noted.
"I didn't see returning there as my responsibility and I was never made to feel that this was something I should do," said Crist, who is a seventh-generation farmer. "But I discovered it was an opportunity that I wanted to be a part of."
After his death she witnessed what she says she already knew — that the people of Howard County greatly admired her grandfather — yet it was still "impressive and humbling" to have them pay their respects to the Clark family, she said.
"I didn't fully know him because I was young when he died, and I have learned more about him as I've become an adult," she said.
Crist has also learned the difference between telling her story and telling a story, she said, explaining the former focuses on where you started in life and how you got to where you are, and the latter is more of an anecdote with a moral.
"I often tell my story to customers at our produce stand, but learning how to tell a story that paints a picture for an audience has been an interesting learning curve," she said.
Tillman noted that attendees might be familiar with someone's role in the community, but their story may not be one they necessarily would expect to hear.
Nonetheless, she said, all 12 participants share one trait.
"There's an authenticity about people living here in Howard County and that's what our storytellers have in common," Tillman said.
"A good storyteller helps evoke emotion and, for the audience, having someone invite you in is intoxicating."
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