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Luskin: Local Stories

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Humans are a narrative species; one fundamental thing that sets us apart from all others is our ability to tell stories. So it’s not really surprising that when word went out there’d be live storytelling in South Newfane on a recent Saturday night, the Old Schoolhouse was packed.

Styled after the popular Moth Radio Hour, eight locals told short, unscripted stories to their neighbors. And the stories were memorable: One was about an improbable courtship that resulted in a marriage still going strong after forty-four years; two were stories of people returning from the brink of death.

We heard how a globetrotting husband and a city-slicker wife met and came to settle here, in this quiet, little backwater that’s the center of our world. The county sheriff told a tale about apprehending a malfactor who was only to willing to give himself up. The sheriff had us aching with laughter. With more than fifty people packing the one-room school, a microphone came in handy, but the event was otherwise remarkably low-tech – and a restful change from our digital lives. We were part of a live audience, participating in real time.

By the end of the evening, we knew more about our storytelling neighbors than we had before. These stories are now part of each of us – stories we hold communally, stories that bind us to each other, stories that hold us in place. And place matters to us, especially since Irene tried to wash our twin villages of Williamsville and South Newfane off the map. By the beginning of this century, both villages had already lost the amenities of a general store, a post office, a church and gas pumps.

Little more than a decade ago, we were not only able to pick up milk and the mail on our daily rounds, but we were simultaneously able to catch up with each other’s news. Now, there’s a seasonal church in one village, and one post office that serves both zip codes in the other; it has a meager porch, too narrow a place to congregate and share the stories of our daily lives. What we do have is the Old Schoolhouse. The historic building is so humble there’s no plumbing – though the “indoor outhouse” works just fine.

We also still have the enduring human impulse to tell stories - to transmit knowledge, establish community standards, communicate fundamental beliefs and create a shared narrative. Unquestionably, our methods for storytelling have evolved with technology, but our need to tell stories remains constant. And where I live, the impulse to tell and hear stories is one way to keep our community strong. Given the success of our first storytelling night, plans are already afoot to repeat it. With the Do-it-Yourself spirit that is so strong in Vermont, we’re creating our own local, community-based, Saturday Night Live.