WHERE WILL ALL THE STORIES GO?
The following ideas are only the beginning of practical and creative possibilities to capture and catapult stories forward for future audiences.
Those in hospice care understand the depository of the heart. Some mysteries will be answered. Some will remain unanswered. Some will open old wounds. Some will heal.
The Gathering of the Tribes
Narrative Transport (N.T.) Oral History. N.T. is a theory used by psychologists suggesting that stories told through generations do more than present a picture. Telling of stories by our elders adds a dimension of respect thus an element of memory and recall. Take advantage of family gatherings of all kinds when by the touch of a button, history is recorded.
Local, state and national libraries and historical societies welcome family stories and collections. Explore The Church of Latter Day Saints, the Library of Congress, search Family Tree Magazine and Cyndi’s List for hundreds of outlets to find and place stories, and of course visit Ancestry.com to uncover all kinds of links to your lineage. Don’t disregard past newspapers, magazines, historical novels, or organizational documents that recorded in detail elements of a family history.
Written communication still rules! For centuries stories have resided in attics and basements, trunks, bibles and boxes. Uncover them. Bring them to life. These treasures tell of a time or place revealing story and context. Read through the letters, cards and Christmas letters filled with family specific information. Look at dates. Do the math. Save a younger generation’s e-mails (if they still use e-mail). Transcribe old diaries and journals. They are already hieroglyphics to the present generation. (Hint: There are websites that help decipher early script.)
Others are saved in music and song, art, poetry, and dance. Think about the traditional holiday favorite, the Nutcracker, or opera, nursery rhymes or the rap of our present day artists. Take your teens to Community Story Circles, Slams, and Moth-type events.
The Joy of Photos. Or not.
We’re horrified when we hear that a photo album was tossed because no one could identify the characters. The ever present Kodak curse (my term). Toss with great discretion. Pass onto family members, museums or historical societies. Take time to capture who and when. Look for clues.
From Analogue to Digital - Old Movies / Video / Records / Radio
Talk to experts regarding the latest digital format. Always retain the original. You never know when a new technology will appear on the scene. Don’t disregard vinyl. It was the recording technology of an era that if destroyed will be lost forever. I can’t say enough about radio – good radio that is.
Senior Living Environments / Funeral Homes / Cemeteries
Millions of the ‘greatest generation’ are left in the care of others. Consider resident histories taken at the time of admission and on-going stories told and recorded during their stay. Many offer new stories prompted by their peers or when collections of residents are compiled. After a loved one has passed have the family inquire into accessing resident and activity files.
Funeral Homes and Cemeteries websites archive stories told not only by families, but strangers who may have been touched by a loved one. At funeral services, ask someone to record the stories during the eulogy.
Private or Published
Who is your family historian? Many families have a genealogist or storywriter in-house, but don’t know that a 4th cousin twice removed living halfway across the world is tracking your family history. Reach out and compare notes. Begin your own family book. Is there a published book in which your family name was referenced with an attached story?
Where to begin in an ever evolving sea. Device d‘ jour | Zoom | Skype | The Cloud | Photo collection sites | Family Websites & E- Newsletters | Video | Insta Gram | Twitter | Facebook | Google Play.
TV, Documentaries, History Gathering Initiatives
The popularity of programs. Finding Your Roots | Who Do You Think You Are | Genealogy Roadshow | Generations Project | Family Tree | Ancestors in the Attic | Faces of America | Long Lost Family | An American Family | Stories We Tell (2012) | Story Corps
Organizations | Associations
How do you round out your professional networking? National Storytelling Network | Story Circle Network | National Memoir Writing | What groups do you belong to?
We cherish books, photos and video, but what other unique and lasting creations could tell a story? Link up with artists in your area to creatively design other keepsakes like quilts and calendars.
Memory loss is a hallmark of many present day life-robbing diseases. Gone are the details of memories that at one time were easily accessible. Neuroscientists, biologists and neurologists are pioneering research in the study of brain research, memory and storytelling. Professor Susumu Tonegawa suggests, “that even if a memory seems to be gone, it is still there. It’s a matter of how to retrieve it.”
Recently at a networking meeting, a woman mentioned that an album created for a deceased loved one was put into the casket—for safe keeping. That was a new one for me. Were her stories gone forever?
Before printing, before virtual communication, stories were kept alive orally. Across cultures, shamans, troubadours, minstrels, yarn spinners, tale spinners, orators and narrators held prominent roles in tribes and nations, passing on their skills to the next generation.
In this oral history tradition, “storytelling was never done for sheer entertainment, for the stories were a record of proud nations. Stories contained information about values, ways of life, patterns of environment, growing seasons, and religious detail,” writes Ojibway author Lenor Kesshig-Tobias in All My Relations.
Story redundancy was key to their value over time as they were repeated through decades with little variation. Embedded in the tradition were the words used and the time told. Seanchai (Irish), Shamachie (Scottish), Cantadora (Mexican), Cuentista (Tejanos/Texans of Mexican background) to name only a few, sang their history forward. But in our fast paced world, is the role of the designated storyteller lost? Who are the present day conduits of our story?
There are a multitude of vehicles to pass on stories, from the spiritual to the practical, old school and new school, the arts, analogue to digital, senior living environments, funeral homes, cemeteries, documentaries, and organizations. There is pioneering research in the area of memory. We’ve only just begun to find new and creative ways to share the human story.
Where will all the stories go?
As personal historians we have the responsibility to actively bring our history into the life of new generations. We need to teach young’ns to listen and learn about their history. Hundreds of family history projects and ideas for all ages (including teens) can be found in libraries and with simple online searches.
Old techniques have become new again as millennials who are coming of age begin to own the value of nostalgia and reminiscence.
Remember, because of our work, this time and place in our history will circulate as long as we continue to give wings to the stories. I think of the African-American spiritual Children Go Where I Send Thee (author unknown). Where will our stories go? They will go where we send them. It’s up to us.
Where will all the stories go?
On my website, I have compiled a list of practical and personal ideas for how we can “capture and release” the stories of our lives and the stories told to us. http://www.legaciesstories.com/legacies-blog I’ve included ideas for spiritual sharing, oral history recordings, practical advice on places and ways to save stories online and elsewhere—with both “old school” and “new school” methods. The options are as varied as the stories and the story tellers. Remember, we can never really know where the stories will go—but we must do our part to make sure that they continue on their journeys for generations yet to come.
When I was considering this post, I recalled an article with the same title that I had clipped and saved a couple of years ago. The article was a conversation between writer P.L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins) and Laurens van der Post, a man who, from the 1940s through 1980s, was known as a best-selling author, environmentalist, and advisor to heads of state (he was a close friend of Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher). However, after his death in 1996 his reputation was questioned when some biographers suggested he might have embellished (others say “made up”) much of his own story.
The Truth Be Told
For van der Post, the real truth may still be undiscovered, but it made me wonder, where is the truth in our stories? When do we move from nonfiction to creative nonfiction? I’m sure we all come across clients that present challenges to our fact checking. A potential client once told me that capturing the story of her sister would be most difficult because she no longer knows what is true and what isn’t. Working with the elderly, I move from those whose memories are fading or lost to those filled with more memories than we can capture. I call this continuum “From Memories Lost to Memory Filled.” Sometimes our writing expertise is called into play to fill in the blanks and embellish for historical significance and readability.
In the article, P.L. Travers asked Van der Post, “Where do the stories go?” He responded that we “can’t ask what we can do to get them back but know only that it has to be done.” This statement reinforces our mission.
Experienced personal historians have spent years developing their craft, and they realize that as we listen and capture story in all its forms, we layer our story teller’s story with our own understanding, our view, our time and place.
Even when transcribed verbatim, our own tone and texture can add a layer of perspective. Through no deliberate intention, we either intensify or diminish the lessons learned or the stories told.
Think of the words used by the story teller that can be different from those of the story writer, the chronicler in any medium: terminology that is long gone, cultural phrases, values, and viewpoints. The world lived by the narrator — a world of dust storms, world wars, global depressions—is different from the world of the writer.
Before we can fully answer the question “where do all the stories go,” we must acknowledge that stories journey through many people and places before they settle in, if they ever do. The act of capturing a story is not static. Stories move through us in time. The person who lived the stories and the person the stories are told to, each wear it, live it, own it, and then pass it on. Stories are fluid, like a river, and, as a recent client described his fishing expeditions, we “catch and release” the stories told to us.
The Value of Story in the Future
Many of us hear that today’s children are not interested in stories of their ancestors. My response is always “Give them time, but be ready when they are.” Like an internal clock, come mid-40s or early 50s, once other life demands have settled, an individual’s need for answers surfaces.
P.L. Travers suggests that our offspring don’t see the value of story, “having become disconnected to its value [like their disconnect to the earth]. Lacking the extended family, separated from the tribe, and therefore from the stories, what [do] they have to lean upon. Already the stories are becoming unavailable to those who need them most.”
There is the key. It is our job to make the stories available.
There is strength in reminiscing, the coming to terms with our earlier selves. Remember the scene in Mary Poppins when out of an “empty” carpet bag, Mary pulls out all sorts of everyday magical items? What can we find if we look back and in to our past?
My favorite example of reaching back to bring history forward is portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, based on the 1839 true story of 53 illegally purchased African slaves, being transported from Cuba to the U.S., who stage a successful mutiny. Former president John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the slaves before the U.S. Supreme Court, eventually determining the Africans to be free men. (http://www.history.com/topics/amistad-case ) In the movie, Cinque, the leader of the slave group, assures Adams that they won’t be facing the court alone. Adams agrees, saying they will have right on their side, but Cinque explains what he means: “I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.” (https://cinema-fanatic.com/2014/04/24/movie-quote-of-the-day-amistad-1997-dir-steven-spielberg/)
It is true for all of us: At this moment, we are the reason our ancestors have existed.
Next week, in part 2 of this post, I will look at how our stories are lifelines to the past and present and explore how we can grab on to them.
(End part 1)
Summer. A time for gearing down. As an experienced multi-tasker this can be as difficult as running a marathon. Throughout my life folks commented on my limitless energy. Was it my personality? My astrological sign? Diet Coke? Or just me? Bob, a lifelong farmer told me one day to ‘gear down’. I loved that. I can hear the gears of his orange Allis Chalmers tractor shift down as he worked in Wisconsin’s corn fields.
My own senior chapter began recently and along with it came an unplanned reduction in speed and activity. I won’t use the ‘r’ word (retirement), but gone is the need to multi-task and as my sister-in-law reminded me, “It, whatever it is, will still be there tomorrow.” But stopping completely is not in my genes. I hope to work at my storied craft until my 90’s maybe stopping long enough to engross myself in that which lies before me like pausing to take in Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. (Photo by Mattisson Francis Voell, 2004)
But what does multi-tasking have to do with capturing stories. It came to my attention that a growing body of research indicates that multi-tasking in fact takes a toll on at least our short term memory, and in time, our long term memory. The research suggests that even though we think we are accomplishing two or three things at once – the question is, to what end? In 2009 Ruth Pennebaker wrote, “… researchers at Stanford University published a study showing that the most persistent multi-taskers perform badly in a variety of tasks. They don’t focus as well as nonmulti-taskers. This phenomenon is now labeled the “distraction economy.” http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/multitasking-takes-toll-on-memory-study-finds | http://www.nyties.com/2009/08/30/weekinreview/30pennebaker.html | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/25/the-cost-of-multitasking_n_4661761.html.
Giving Memories Time to Surface.
The Legacies mission of capturing and preserving stories takes time. It takes time, attention and focus to help guide the interviewee beyond the episodic over told Kodak stories to explore and discover the layers of life’s experiences and emotions.
Legacies projects vary from a few months to a year or more. We have learned that this is not a venture you rush through over a few weekends or a task on your to-do list. Give your storyteller full attention by turning off technology. Offer your storyteller psychological air helping to breathe life into their tales and narratives. Go beyond the surface and ask the who, what, when, where and why questions. Whether it’s Mondays with Dad, or third Thursdays with Grandma Cora, give the care needed to uncover a life well lived. Gear down.
And as always, let us know how we can help.
Get started ... before it’s too late!
Mary Patricia Voell
And don't forget the many presentations that Legacies has to offer. If you part of a senior living environment, trust attorney or estate planning associations, business groups, funeral homes, senior centers or faith based organizations looking for a program, workshop or keynote speaker, let us know.
“Someday, no one will remember what I remember.”
Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
This past week I spoke at the statewide Alzheimer’s Conference presenting a newly created Legacies program entitled: Timelines. Storylines. Lifelines. The Healing Power of Storytelling. The pretense is that stories play significant roles in our lives. Mounting research does more than make antidotal feel-good references to its impact, but to the amazing and vital connections between memories, the brain and storytelling. There is hope on our horizon.
With a back story in theater and performance, marketing and public relations, education and development, each personal and professional chapter demanded the telling of stories. Like a sunesis my journey has merged ideas, other’s voices and expertise and my own experience, for a deeper understanding of story.
In Braiding Sweet Grass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, biology professor, mother and Potawatomi woman uses the noun ‘river’ as a verb, ‘to river.’ It moves. It is alive. In that living river I have witnessed the energy and power which stories and storytelling has on us when stories of health and healing, relationships, culture and careers, travels, trials and bucket lists unfold, as we reveal our own storied lives and truths.
“I wish I would have” is reiterated by attendees in my Legacies presentations. I wish I would have captured mom’s recipes, dad’s sports stories, Aunt Martha’s musical career or Grandpa’s battle experience. Many carry with them an unspoken gnawing guilt as they realize that they did not stop and listen long enough to absorb the stories of their loved ones, and that they are now the link, the story keepers, the preservers of a lifetime - not just their own.
At the same time there are those who are hard at work recording and preserving their legacy, the generational ‘responsibility’ as Studs Terkel suggests. And we frequently hear the pride of storytellers who share their newly found family treasures. They can’t wait to announce who their great-great-great uncle on their mother’s side was, what happened during the bar brawl in the 1850’s, or what they discovered in the dusty corners of the attic.
And as we age, giving voice to our stories acts as an unveiling of what lies beneath, providing healing and peace. My own background in interpersonal communication offers a framework to delve further into the healing powers of story, for there is healing in …
… the Telling.
In The Red Tent biblical women come together to share and pass on stories, teaching in story-form. “Anthropologists note that storytelling could have persisted in human culture because it promoted social cohesion among groups and served as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to future generations, ” Jeremy Hsu writes in Scientific American Mind / August-September 2008.
Today, a client's life is defined by the stories he’s lived and continues to share with his family who are enthralled and engrossed by his yarns.
… the Repetition.
“Daddy, tell me that story again.” There is something in the repetition, the continual telling of the story.
… the Timing.
Joseph Bruchac in The Storytelling Seasons: Reflections on Native American Storytelling Traditions teaches us that certain stories were to be told only at certain times. He quotes Lenore Kesshig-Tobias, “most traditional stories were told only at night time in the winter. Others were told only in ceremonies. The timing of the story was just as important as the telling.
… the Vocalization. The Use and Sound of Voice.
Storytelling uses a combination of nighttime talk, the language of our subconscious with images and fantasies when we express our deepest self and daytime talk of declarative sentences and explanation. (Taylor) Who is your favorite storyteller? Can you hear the sound of their voice?
… the Language.
Listening to a great yarn by a practiced storyteller is an event to be treasured. These gifted professionals choose the right word, the right inflection, the right description as they weave us in and around their tales, captivating our attention, engaging us in their TALL TALES.
… the Freeing. The Releasing. The Letting go.
"There is no greater agony than carrying around an untold story within yourself.“ (Maya Angelou) Reflecting on the past, whether it is my life or helping others travel back, can be psychologically purging, and as therapists have known all along, therapeutic. The moments of gratitude filled with genuine tears and hugs that emerge, knowing that their life did in fact mean something, is witness to the impact and healing power of both storytelling of all kinds.
… the Listening.
Joseph Bruchac in The Storytelling Seasons: Some Reflections on Native American Storytelling Traditions reminds us that “For a story is truly told only when someone listens.” “Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy story, asks Jeremy Hsu. “If you hear someone tell a story from their life you know about their values, you know what they believe in, you know what’s important to them.” If one empathically listens, listens between the lines, we are open not only to moments and memories, but to values, personalities, hopes and dreams.
… the Connectivity. The Relationship(s).
Kimberly contracted with Legacies to capture and preserve her husband’s stories. She writes: “We received the draft of "A Man of Many Stories" last evening. I love that title!!!! The first draft is, simply put....amazing! As much as a gift to Nick, it is a gift to myself as well. To read it, is to experience Nick in a different way. It helped me see him from a different perspective and as I read it I reflected on what an amazing man he is and what truly is important to him. At different times in our relationships we take the ones we love the most for granted and forget the why behind it. This draft refreshes all of that. It is a form of therapy!!!! I just wanted to say thank you through the many tears of joy as I read page by page.
… the Writing. The Art. The Music. The Dance.
Writers, musicians, dancers, artists or poets witness first-hand the interplay between the creative hemisphere of our brain and the psychophysical states of being - that the body is a physical expression of one’s mental and emotional state. The connection between our mental state and our physical states have finally become obvious and accepted.
… the Attention Paid.
In our work as caregivers we experience tremendous isolation and loneliness. At times, in an effort to be efficient, we gather our residents in group settings unable to give them the focused attention they hunger for and need. How can we give them the much deserved time as Donna, a caregiver for an area home said: “they loved the attention you gave them as they told, and you listened to and wrote their story.”
… the Laughter
When laughter is shared, it binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy. Laughter also triggers healthy physical changes in the body. Humor and laughter strengthen one's immune system, boost one's energy, diminish pain, and protect us from the damaging effects of stress. And what generates the best laughter … stories.
… the Shared Joy. The Shared Empathy.
There is a set of areas in our brain that become active when we are in pain. Most of these areas also become active when we watch someone else in pain, to literally feel their pain. Our capacity for this is why stories are so absorbing. When we see another person suffer, we might tell ourselves that it’s their issue, not ours, but neurons deep in our brain can’t tell the difference. To empathize is crucial to social interaction and communal living, and to understanding stories. Jeremy Hsu, Scientific American Mind / August-September 2008.
Celebrating our mothers today, and fathers this coming June reminds us all to take the time to capture, record and preserve their story, before it’s too late.
And, please join with me to find answers and cures for this time-robbing, story-robbing, life-robbing Dementias by participating in on-going Alzheimer’s Research. Whether dementia is part of your family history or not, individual of all ages and health are asked to join in the search for a cure at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Mary Patricia Voell
Joan was a participant in a small storytelling group of a local memory care unit. A very soft spoken woman, her dementia affected her ability to process a question and formulate her response. Her verbal skills were intact for if asked to read she could with ease. What I learned through Joan’s form of dementia was that the pressure to respond was the inhibiting factor. What I continue to learn is how dementia affects individuals in many very different ways.
As I work with clients or you work with your own loved ones, we witness those whose memories and oral communication skills are very much intact. Tom’s family wanted Legacies to capture his story. He didn’t suffer from memory loss knowing each stage of his life script verbatim. Marilyn, another Legacies client brought forward more of her narrative than her family had ever heard once we broke the stories down into manageable memories.
In both instances, I found that the stress-to-recall behavior played an integral role in framing the account of a life well lived. Whether working with individuals capable of full scale recollections or those experiencing early stages of memory loss, it is helpful to recognize the role that stress plays as we, with all good intentions solicit memories.
Like a forest regenerating itself, we find those memories deep within the ecosystem of a forest floor reaching to find new life in the overstory, the uppermost canopy of the present day.
With the expanding research on Dementia, updated information surfaces each day helping us identify early signs within our own circle. The distinction between Dementia and Alzheimer’s often causes confusion. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Dementia is a brain disorder that affects communication and performance of daily activities. Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that specifically affects parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. In other words, Dementia is the umbrella with Alzheimer’s as one of many diseases covering a wide range of symptoms.
For those who appreciate visual representations the Alzheimer’s Association provides an excellent Brain Tour at www.alz.org/braintour. The Brain Tour illustrates the disease using user-friendly terminologies and images describing the disease and its physiological effects on us. Learn about terms like: Thinking Wrinkles and Neuron Forest. It’s well worth a visit.
No matter where or when you begin - don’t get caught in the “I wish I would have” mantra. For so many, time slips away before we know it.
Let’s Get Started ... before it’s too late!
Photo by Mattisson Francis Voell. Ireland. 2004
Stories link past, present and future in a way that tells us where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.
THE PAST – Pre-Me
Today, technology enables us to explore past generations, like exploring the darkness of the ocean depths, we shine light onto the narratives of our own ancestral characters, exposing our blood line. Scientific advancements like the Genome Project www.genome.gov unlock a tentacled self-awareness, exposing a subconscious healing as we gain an understanding of what, and more importantly, ‘who’ made us who we are.
THE PRESENT – Living Our Story.
I’ve always found the depths of yesterday, the dynamics of today, and the far reaches of tomorrow intriguing. At a friend’s funeral recently, the homilist reminded us that we carry within our nature the reverberations of all who have been companions on our journey. That their character, the good, bad and the ugly, is absorbed into our impressionable psyche, our umbuntu – that “I am who I am because of who you are.”
THE FUTURE – Post-Me
How can we think out into a future, yet unknown to imagine a time when we become the ancestors? We’ve learned that various cultures plan seven generations into the future, yet our present society limits our long term thinking to only three to five years. Can we retrain our minds to think On Beyond Z as Dr. Seuss writes, “There’s no limit to the things you might know, it depends on far beyond zebra you go.”
And what is it that we want to pass on? What within our narrative demonstrates our values? In The Last Lecture, Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch describes his frugal middle class childhood and reminds us that the stuff of life isn’t of any importance and what we truly cherish are the lessons. At 80, Bill, the father of a Legacies client made it his mission to write down his values, knowing that his children were busy living their lives and didn’t have the interest, time or peripheral vision to capture the nuances of living. Bill’s wife Fannie also looked back to imagine forward and penned for posterity how her very full life impacted her family, at least seven generations forward.
Stephen Covey and others before him asked us to “begin with the end in mind.” Covey asks us to write our own obituary before we become “one who has come before”. And finally, a recent favorite from Donald Hall in Essays After 80 "someday, no one will remember, what I remember."
Helping others to write their stories engages many lifetimes. What an honor.
Let’s Get Started ... Before It’s Too Late!
Mary Patricia Voell