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