Monday, September 15, 2014

Bread and Roses Festival, Lawrence, MA – Community Comes Together

Monday, September 1 – Labor Day. My car was loaded with tent, chairs, and banners, but with hazy expectations for the workshop. Months ago I had a vision that gave Stories in the Streets the nod to present Your Story, Our Story: If you lived it, you can tell it at Lawrence’s Bread &Roses Heritage Festival, the biggest Labor Day celebration of its kind in the region. Now I had three volunteer storytellers on board but still no clear directions on when and where to set up. I worried that both my vision and volunteers could disappear into the melee.

Some tellers used our story prompts.
This one: Pets
Two weeks later, I am still smiling.  As I had hoped, story predominated. Just a little prodding was needed to get our first storyteller to give her account of the attention she and her husband lavish on their “grand-dog,” “Can you believe it? I’m eighty-three and don’t have a single grandchild.  Now, that’s what I would really like.”
The sound of story spread from the tent and more people trickled in.  An eager-faced 15 year old skipped in. She recognized me from a fairytale residency I had done at her school.  She declined any coaching – “No, you already told me what to do.” – then gave an account of social ostracism from her elementary years. (“Worst four years of my life.”) However, her timing, verbal asides and facial expressions made us laugh; her lifted shoulders and head showed us her present-day confidence.  We all felt she just needed us to listen.
Here were our oldest and youngest “street tellers”, both born and residing in Lawrence.
The aim of the Bread & Roses Heritage Festival is to celebrate the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence. It serves as a current day reflection on the Lawrence Strikes of 1912, termed the Bread and Roses strike. The strike succeeded in raising wages and conditions because of the unification of more than a dozen ethnic groups.
The spirit of solidarity was in the Stories in the Streets tent. Terese made real this summer’s prevalent image of Market Basket protestors holding signs and chanting in front of empty store parking lots. We reveled with a father who managed to bond with his teenage son on a European trip gone wrong. We lamented with a young, single mother who suffered from epilepsy. She was arrested at her daughter’s preschool because the local police could think of a number of incriminating reasons for her banging on the wall that did not include a medical condition.
Auntie Kim's gravy store went
along with the Holidays theme.
People traveled to the festival and some came specifically to tell at our tent. We met Auntie Kim from New Hampshire and Ruth Canonico from Chelmsford, both storytellers who shared.  Others meandered over from the neighboring tent of the Lawrence History Center delighted that they could listen AND tell.

Story sharing helps community come together. We hear what makes people passionate and frustrated and delighted, and so find the common threads that unite us all.

What Happens When Storyellers Set up Shop?

The snowball effect.

(I met Anna Eyre this summer when she worked with Raising A Reader in Lawrence.  She is a keen observer and longtime wordsmith and became attracted to storytelling.  Anna volunteered to help facilitate the Stories in the Streets workshop tent at Bread & Roses Heritage Festival.  I welcome her comments.)

Even though the heat soared well into the nineties and was thick with humidity, under the shade of Stories in the Street’s canopy, story fluttered.  Beginning with a woman’s exclamation that the place so many have been following in this historic show of customer and employee support is, as she said, “my Market Basket,” story took to the wind and began to bring people in. Rather than standing around the fire, we gathered around a small stool and modest microphone to hear an Abenaki tale of the sweetness of hard work, the tale of a friend who could perhaps become a lover, a
father’s journey with his son, and others.  Soon a man stood to tell us of the untapped potential that resides in cities like Lawrence and how he, after speaking with new friends at another festival similar to Bread & Roses, had been contacted by a high school student.  He went on to tell of how he became a mentor and friend to the student who he then helped get into and go to college. 

The Bread & Roses Heritage Festival brings community members together to celebrate the ways in which our individual stories can be heard and snowball into a force that catalyzes positive change.  The story of how the Market Basket dispute affected one of the storytellers brought the larger dispute close to home and made us understand how a group of caring people can change labor and stand strong until what they believe in becomes a reality.  The story of how one of our storytellers unwittingly became a mentor inspired us to take social justice into our own hands and find a way to make a difference in the life of a person whose potential might otherwise have gone untapped.

We all have a story to tell and when we begin to tell them, others want to tell their stories as well.  Story is magnetic.  By the end of the day, the canopy that had housed three story tellers to start, housed more than fifteen.  One story reminded a person of another story and so on.  When we hear one another’s stories, we hear how we are related to one another no matter how different we may appear to be.  The Bread & Roses festival celebrates our ability to unite and what better way to unite than through individual story?

Anna Elena Eyre

Reflections on an Evening of Storytellers Sharing Stories with One Another

Somewhere behind me a mysterious woman is approaching.  I know this because the storyteller is pointing there and in her eyes I can almost see the reflection of the strange woman dressed all in black.  I sneak a look behind my shoulder and see the hallway to the kitchen, but when I look back at the storyteller I see the dusty street of a small town in Virginia.  There, the sun is setting and I can see the dust glint particles of light as Anna (which happens to be my name too) sits on her stoop and watches the woman slowly approach.  My heart beats a little faster and the room becomes quieter.  All of us are with Anna on the stoop, waiting for the storyteller’s next word to lead us further into this mystery.

The storyteller jumps and we all do too! And although we are all there to tell stories to one another, we have forgotten our own stories and are living the one being told by Susan Lenoe.  We all imagine the specifics of what this woman looks like differently, but we are all imagining the same woman.  We are able to do this because the storyteller is so enchanted by the story that she has moved us into a collective imagining.

The ability of the storyteller to live the story, allows the listeners to live the story as well.  Other forms of storytelling including movies, TV, and videogames do not allow us to live the story in the same way because they do not allow us to imagine or visualize.  A book may allow us to imagine the characters and setting, but we most often do not read books in groups.  More importantly, the characters in a movie or book can’t respond to our response.  Great storytellers work with and respond  to the audience to breathe a story to life. The story is happening all around us and we—the listeners— are a part of the story as much as the storyteller is.  There’s a tremendous power in the ability of people to imagine the same thing but imagine it differently and share in the experience.  When we listen to a story we all share in the experience of the characters and find different aspects of their experience that ring true with our own.  Our responses subtly show these truths and a storyteller who is sensitive to these cues is able to draw these truths out even more. 

All of our experience is rooted in story.  I often wonder, would we remember an event if we did not tell the story of how it happened?  Even when we do remember an event, another person might remember it differently, or the memory of an event might change over time.  Without story, would we know how the event happened or if it happened at all?  Story both grounds us in our own experience and allows us to imagine and live the experiences of others. 

 No other art form allows us to understand one another more than storytelling. That night, listening to Susan’s story, I was Anna in Virginia facing a past I didn’t know could haunt me—we all were.