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It all started Nov. 7, one of the final days of Philadelphia’s annual First Person Arts Festival. Drawn by the speaker, hilarious author A.J. Jacobs, I turned out to see him discuss his latest adventure (outsourcing his life to Bangalore, India). Jacobs eventually summoned audience members to tell true stories. Before I knew it, a George Washington impersonator sat next to a young woman who fantasized about her faculty advisor, an older woman who recently wet the bed and a boy with a serious crush on Miss Piggy.

Though I sat alone, I oddly felt a sense of belonging and connection with the hundreds around me and the imagined world outside. That night I fell in love with the art of storytelling.

With its history and diversity, Philadelphia is, hands down, the best place to be to hear a great story. As a social art form, it’s unique in its ability to attract a wide variety of both participants and actors. But most importantly, it teaches us to do something we often forget to do — sit back, and listen to what someone else has to say.

On one level, it’s simply a fun way to learn about what has come before. At the Betsy Ross house, the woman herself sits just where she would have 1776. She’s working hard, actually sewing covers for chairs that will be used in one of the entryways. Betsy explains why she proposed five-pointed stars, demonstrating their convenience to me just as she did to the nation’s founders, by cutting a folded piece of paper with a single snip.

She is really Meredith Rich, a costumed “history maker” employed by Historic Philadelphia. Her stories are all factual renditions of lesser known nuggets of Philly’s history, from the nation’s first bank robbery to the Underground Railroad, to Rich’s favorite tales of Ona and the Lenape Indians. She finds storytelling most rewarding when she converts the apathetic to the intrigued.

This sentiment is echoed by Ralph Archbold, “Ben Franklin” for the past 36 years. He emphasizes that history is not merely a series of dates, but rather a series of stories. As one who saw history as a collection of facts, his modest point struck me: If told right, history highlights not what is unique about the past, but rather how people across time, space, race, place, are undeniably similar.

Storytellers like Linda Goss prove the ability of stories to move us on a deeper level, connect us to a shared history and invoke a sense of humanity. Goss is a Philadelphia storytelling legend and the official storyteller of Philadelphia; at 6th and Carpenter you’ll find a mural dedicated to her called “The Travelling Storyteller.”

Goss told me about a trip she once made to a housing development for a storytelling session. Approaching a young boy, she said, “I hope I’m in the right projects —” to which he replied, “these are not our projects. These are our homes.” It was here I realized that a relatively minor event, conveyed by someone who appreciates its depth, can, for a single moment, make sense of the entire world.

As Jacobs said, “You can read lots of statistics on, say, the horror in Darfur. But if you hear a Darfur story from one great storyteller, it can be just as powerful, or even more powerful, and stir you to action.”

And while my stories likely aren’t as affecting — yet — I decided to be adventurous and try telling my own story. Bob’n’Barbara’s every second Tuesday is “Binge ‘n Yarn” night, where patrons share their lewdest and funniest personal stories over a few beers. It was here last week where I shared my own first story, hands shaking. The story would destroy me in print, but I will say it went over well. And I think I’ve found myself a new hobby and another thing to love about this crazy effing city.

If you’re interested in attending a storytelling event, make sure to stop by Tellabration 2009, at Church of St. Marten’s-in-the-Field’s, this Saturday, or head to L’Etage the fourth Tuesday of every month. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

Heidi khaled is a third-year graduate student from Huntington Beach, Calif. Her e-mail address is

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