The Power of Story

Dear Readers,


As long as I can remember, I’ve collected people’s stories. Whether it’s a close friend or a stranger I’ll never see again, there are few experiences I treasure more than sitting up late in a darkened kitchen, or riding a bus through an endless sunrise, listening to someone tell me about their life. I’ll gobble up as many stories as they’ll give me, and ask as many questions as they’ll let me: What did you do next? How did you decide? What did the other person say? How did you find your way back again?

I think my love for stories arose in part due to my very orderly and predictable childhood. My parents were cautious and well-organized, with backup plans for their backup plans. Everything went according to the script; it was extremely rare for anything unexpected, dangerous, or exciting to happen. As an adult, I can appreciate the benefits of so much safety and orderliness, which allowed me to thrive at school and in my extracurricular pursuits. But as a child and teenager, I sometimes felt suffocated by the routine. It seemed to me that all the good stories belonged to other people—people who’d lived more dangerously and contended with higher stakes. I’ve spent most of my life seeking those people out and warming my hands on their stories, like a campfire whose flames I can admire but never quite possess.

Lucky for me, the remote off-grid community in rural Hawaii that I call home is teeming with stories. Anyone who’s visited this place even once has a story about it, and the people who live here never seem to run out. No matter how many times I hear about the afternoon a pair of neighbors blocked the water head so they could gather prawns from the streambed, only to have another neighbor stumble across the makeshift dam and “helpfully” unblock it, I never get bored. Told one after another, the stories form their own hypnotic music, casting a spell of belonging, remembering, and appreciation. I love nothing more than to be surrounded by this music, soaking it in, letting it saturate my consciousness. I hope someday to be part of it, woven into it, my own thread joining all the others and tying me to this place.



A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance—a friend of my neighbor’s—when he told me one of the best stories I’ve heard in months. One day, my acquaintance and his friend hiked out to visit my neighbor, since they lacked the truck required to make it down the steep four-wheel drive road to his house. But when they got there, after walking through the forest for a little over an hour, my neighbor wasn’t home. They sat down in his living room and played a board game to pass the time while they waited for him to appear.

Night fell, and my neighbor still hadn’t arrived. Unsure if he was coming at all, his friends decided to hike back to their car—but the only flashlights they could find were almost out of batteries, their light faint and weak. It was a new moon, and the forest was completely dark. “I know,” said one of them, “Let’s turn the flashlights on for a second, then run to the edge of where we saw the light fall.” They set out, turning their flashlights on for just long enough to see the next fifty feet of road, then running through the darkness to the edge of where the flashlight beam had fallen. The whole time, it seemed to my acquaintance that they were being followed through the dark woods by some otherworldly presence—the Night Marchers of Hawaiian legend.

This jog through the darkness seemed to last forever. The thong on somebody’s sandal tore out; a set of keys was dropped and groped for and found again. Had they taken a wrong turn? It hadn’t felt this long when they did it in the daylight. And why did it feel like they were being watched, followed, tracked?

Just when they were about to reach their car, sweaty and unnerved, a pair of headlights appeared. It was my neighbor, coming home in his truck after a long day in town.

Although this isn’t a sad story, I tear up when I think of it. There’s something about those weak and fading flashlight beams, illuminating the road for a split second, that I find deeply moving. I love the image of two friends running through the darkness together, pursued by Night Marchers, lending each other the courage and boldness neither of them would have possessed on their own. There’s an innocence and exuberance to the adventure that reminds me of my favorite children’s books. I imagine some plucky frog or talking mouse turning to his companion and saying, I know! Let’s turn on the flashlights for one second at a time! And of course, there’s the happy ending, when the travelers are safely reunited with their friend.



Many years ago, I took a trip to a remote beach with my partner at the time. Our truck flipped over when he attempted to drive up an extremely steep and tilted off-road track. After crawling out the shattered windows, we sat on the grass in a daze, not speaking. Night was falling, and there was no one around. Wanting to enjoy a day of freedom from the screen, I hadn’t brought my phone, and his had flown out of the truck and been crushed under the side view mirror. We were well and truly stranded.

It took a while for us to recover from the shock, much less formulate a plan. Should we sleep right there, beside the ruined truck, and figure out what to do in the morning? Should we hike out to the main road and flag someone down? The road was so far away, and there was no guarantee that anyone would come along at this hour, much less stop to help us.

I felt distressed by the sight of the wreck, and spooked by the thought of spending a sure-to-be-sleepless night in the grassy dunes above the beach. There was a full moon, and I thought it might feel good to walk—grounding, even. Perhaps we’d get lucky and hitch a ride home, where we could gather the tools and supplies we needed to deal with the mess. My partner didn’t have a better idea so, salvaging what we could from the truck, we set out for the road.

As we limped along the dirt trail, the tall grasses whispering all around us and the ocean below pale with moonlight, I realized this was the most present my partner and I had been in months—with each other, and with life itself. We’d both been moving at a hundred miles an hour, caught up in the stress and chaos of moving to a new place. But the accident forced us to slow down. Walking above the moonlit beach, I felt more at peace than I’d been in months. I felt grateful to be alive—not just in the sense of having survived the accident, but in the awakening of my senses to the warm air, the fragrant grass, and the soft dirt beneath my feet.

Suddenly, I felt deep appreciation for every little thing: the sweater and snacks I’d packed that morning before setting out, the fact that it wasn’t raining. I felt grateful to sit in the back of the white Prius that stopped to pick us up when we finally got to the main road, even though it was going in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go; grateful for the cheap motel where we spent the night, for the shower and little bar of soap, and the paper bag of papayas at the front desk. The “disaster” had shocked me out of my mental preoccupations and returned me to my body. The truck was broken, but my soul had been restored.



As an editor at Hierophant, I work primarily with self-help and spirituality books, where the author’s own story often supports and illustrates their message. I feel grateful to be entrusted with these stories, which are often deeply personal. We’re all running through the dark with only the occasional, precious flash of light to keep us going; we’re all doing our best to make the most of that light, and to do right by the friends with whom we share it. Reading and listening to people’s stories, I’m reminded over and over of the basic truths of life: the importance of humility, generosity, patience, and courage; the value of friendship; the kindness of strangers; the grace of the unexpected. It is a blessing to be reminded of these things.

This summer, may you all hear stories which move and inspire you—and may you all have just enough light to make it to the end of the road.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing