The need that sets us apart

When the community comes together to tell stories, the storytelling creates community

WILLIAMSVILLE — Humans are a narrative species; as far as we know, the thing that sets us apart from all others is our ability to tell stories.

Time out of mind, we have told stories to transmit knowledge, establish community standards, and communicate fundamental beliefs. And we still do. How we tell stories has evolved with technology, but our need to tell stories remains constant.

And as we recently witnessed in the village of South Newfane, hearing stories told live continues to be as spellbinding in the 21st century as it must have been in prehistoric times.

On a Saturday night a few weeks ago, a group of neighbors congregated in the South Newfane Schoolhouse for the express purpose of telling and listening to stories.

Styled after The Moth, a popular live storytelling series that can now be heard on public radio, eight storytellers told unscripted stories to a live audience, not to exceed seven minutes.

The event was months in the planning, and went ahead even after a larger venue in Brattleboro scheduled a similar program, with more widely known storytellers, for the same night. It didn't matter. The Schoolhouse was packed.

* * *

We heard eight memorable stories. The first was about a young man from Yale who met a young woman at Vassar back in the day when the opposite sex was a mysterious object of desire and the customs of the time were designed to keep them that way.

It sounded like a fairy tale: the couple met, held hands, and married. That they could get to know one another well enough under such circumstances seemed magical, but it was true: the narrator's wife of 44 years was right there.

A couple of newcomers to the village told their parallel stories of adventure - she in New York City and he in the Himalayas - before they met, married, and raised a family. Both of their stories ended with them at the start of a new adventure, taking up residence and putting down roots in our center of the universe - South Newfane.

The surprise of the evening was learning that Keith Clark, the sheriff of Windham County, knows how to tell a tale. His was about the inadvertent discovery of a harmless method for apprehending a criminal, a method so effective the bad guy wasn't just willing to give himself up, he was eager. The sheriff had us aching with laughter.

But we recovered sobriety when the next storyteller told of being carjacked and shot. This man saw the white light of death - and came back to finish his life.

Embedded in his story was the story of retelling it, so that it has become a story not just of surviving a near-death experience, but also one of living differently in the hereafter - which turns out to be right here.

As if the evening had been carefully scripted (it wasn't), the next story was another death-defying tale: A young man who survived the genocide in Rwanda couldn't tolerate any more death in the peace; when a neighbor's daughter is laid out for burial, he refuses to believe she's dead and carries the body on his back to a hospital, miles away.

Through sheer force of will, incredible determination and fierce faith, the apparently dead woman arrives at the hospital and revives.

By the time the last story of the evening was told, we knew our neighbors a little bit better, and we were all thoroughly entertained. We were enriched by the stories, and we passed the hat to enrich the fund for the schoolhouse's new floor.

* * *

Aside from this voluntary, goodwill offering, the event cost no more than the little effort of showing up and being entertained.

The two people who organized the evening did so mostly through email and word of mouth. The entertainment itself was remarkably low tech. The schoolhouse has power but no plumbing. (The original “indoor outhouse” works fine.) With more than 50 people packing the house, a microphone came in handy, and BCTV captured the event for broadcast.

What was most remarkable was not just hearing the stories told live, but hearing them together, being part of an audience, without screens or computer-generated animation or the concomitant isolation that is an unintentional byproduct of our digital connectivity. Our animation was the real-life kind, and the event took place in real time.

By the end of the evening, we knew more about our storytelling neighbors than we had before. And their stories of love, work and near death are now part of each of us - stories we hold communally, stories that bind us to one another, stories that hold us in place.

That night at the South Newfane Schoolhouse, we enjoyed a slightly more elevated kind of storytelling, the kind that used to take place more often and less formally, when our villages had vibrant general stores, and stopping in for a quart of milk was an excuse to visit with neighbors and catch up on local news.

These days, neither Williamsville nor South Newfane has a functioning store, and the single post office that serves both villages offers only a meager porch for the briefest neighborly exchange.

The South Newfane Schoolhouse is currently closed while a new floor is installed. But as soon as it reopens, there's no question that we will return, like moths to a flame, to warm ourselves in the community of live stories.

It's our own, do-it-yourself Saturday Night Live.

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