Stories have been told since there were words to tell them. Some tell the history of a people, others to entertain and others are simple fabrications to mislead. Poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist and professor of English Reynolds Price, wrote in his book, “A Palpable God.”
“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.”
I know a story teller, the first professional story teller I have ever met, and she has, I am sure, listened to the small accounts of someone’s day and the incommunicable constructs of those who cannot utter much of anything, and she has changed their lives, both through listening and through her own magical story telling.
Michale Gabriel was the guest speaker at this month’s meeting of the Women’s Club of Costa Rica. In some ways it is remarkable that this woman who has told her stories in many cities in the United States and in countries in many parts of the world has settled here where she was not known. On the other hand it is not strange, because the whole point of her story telling is to make peace between peoples and to heal those who are in pain by telling a story.
There are the stories of the Bible, the myths that have been passed through the ages, and the fables that have been written down. There is nothing quite as powerful as watching a story unfold, not just with words, but actions and voices and expressions and pacing and pauses at just the right time, drawing the listener into it. And then the listener remembers the message that all good stories want to bring. This is the way Michale tells stories.
She re-enacted some of her stories and told us of some of her experiences telling stories. One in particular struck me because her story (actually, stories) gave a voice to someone without one. Alex is a little boy who, as a result of being hit by a car while riding his bicycle was paralyzed from the neck down and needed a tracheotomy in order to breath. In order to speak, Alex had to utter his words as he breathed out. Alex had no desire to even try except in short responses to questions.
Michale was asked to visit him in the hospital. During her second story, the well known “Three Bears,” she noticed that Alex’s mouth was forming a word and she waited, and instead of “porridge” (‘this porridge is too hot”) he breathed out “soup!” From then on Michale waited for Alex to contribute his words. One day Alex told her that he wanted to tell her a story “out of his head” This scene was repeated each time she visited him. With her encouragement, “Alex, you have many stories; you are a story teller!” Alex found his voice.
There were many things I learned listening to Michale tell stories, including her own . One of the most important is that too often when someone is telling a story, perhaps about an experience that has special meaning to them, they are often interrupted by the listener with “Oh, that reminds me of….” The kindest gift you can give to another who is sharing her story is to listen and not interrupt… and only hope that your listeners will offer the same gift.
Another of her stories struck me: the story of a little girl named Emma who lived in a mining town and whose family was so poor she did not have a coat to wear to school when fall came. The women in her mother’s quilting bee collected scraps of clothing to make warm quilts. When they realized Emma’s plight, they made her a colorful coat of some of the scraps. She proudly went to school in her new coat, only to be laughed at by the other children for wearing a “rag coat.” She left school in tears but a few days later returned in her coat and when they began to jeer at her again, Emma said, “These are not rags,” and went on to point to each piece of fabric and explain how it was connected to one of the children, either as a baby blanket or something they once wore. “When I wear this coat I am surrounded by all my friends,” she said, or words to that effect. And she was.
Using stories, not as a weapon or a threat, but as a peace offering, seems a great way to disarm someone or ‘someones’ and turn them into friends. I think Michale’s choice of Costa Rica was just right.
For more information about Michale Gabriel and storytelling, go to www.storybydesign.net