Tall tales welcome in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Len Rowell well remembers the good ol’ days, when families or friends used to sit down and tell stories at the dinner table or around the proverbial potbellied stove at the local general store.

But the weaving of yarns, Rowell lamented, is fast fading from a society increasingly spoon-fed entertainment through televisions, computer monitors and even cell phones. Storytelling, especially for the younger generation, is now done in impersonal staccato through texts and tweets.

“I think face-to-face conversation is an important part of our human life,” Rowell said. “To me, (storytelling) touches the whole meaning of what it means to be a person.”

With that in mind, Rowell and some of his friends will be making the Middlebury gazebo their “general store” each Monday night in June, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Anyone with a tale to tell — or who just wants to listen — is encouraged to come on by to get some nourishment for the soul.

The program is called “StoryMatters,” which laid down roots during the late summer of 2010 in conjunction with a “Vermont Story Festival” staged by the Vermont Folklife Center, Ilsley Library and Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.

Rowell and Ilsley Library Director David Clark agreed to lead a storytelling group during the event, which drew dozens of people interested in recounting or simply listening to tales.

“It was encouraging,” Rowell recalled.

So encouraging that the story sessions evolved into semi-regular gatherings at the library. Organizers started an e-mail list that grew to more that 50 people. The storytelling groups started convening at the Ilsley the last Tuesday of every month. Organizers picked a central theme around which the stories would revolve.

“Usually, we would have 10 or 12 people who would come,” Rowell said.

It’s a group that has included some local authors, poets and educators, including John Elder, Gary Margolis, Abi Sessions and Bette Moffett.

And the gatherings fit perfectly within the library’s mission of promoting interest in stories and literacy, noted Clark. The library has for years been a place where adults have read or recounted stories to kids. The tradition continues — this time for adults.

“Storytelling is what we do here,” Clark said during an interview at the library. “And we are glad to be of help.”

With a lot of momentum behind the sessions, Rowell and his colleagues decided to give them a more visible and nature-friendly profile at the Middlebury gazebo in hopes of gathering even more participants.

“Our goal is to promote storytelling in any setting,” Rowell said.

Each of the weekly June sessions will feature a host. All will be free flowing, open to any story a participant might want to tell.

Organizers continue to be amazed by what they have heard. Previous sessions have pulled touching, personal accounts from some folks, and some hilarious anecdotes from others.

Some people have shown up at past gatherings and said up-front, “I have no story to tell,” Rowell recalled. But the recounting becomes contagious, and even the meekest let down their guard as the evening goes on.

“They always end up telling a story,” he said of the shy ones.

And no one is likely to challenge the veracity of even the tallest tales told. It’s all about having fun and sharing one’s humanity. As Rowell says, “All stories are true, and some of them actually happened.”

When it comes down to it, Rowell said, human beings are made of all kinds of stories, many of them are just waiting to be unleashed.

“Stories help shape who we are,” Rowell said.

StoryMatters will convene at the Middlebury gazebo on June 4, 11, 18 and 25. Once the June sessions have concluded, organizers plan to take July and August off and resume the monthly sessions at the Ilsley Library in September.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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