Over omelets and hash browns this morning, N. Z. and I found long overdue time to catch-up. Three hours flew by as one spoke and the other listened. Since my departure from my hometown a few years ago, I make every attempt to connect with old and new friends alike. I love these 1:1’s (one-on-ones). Recently other girl talks with T.K., P.M. and J.B. provided unlimited time to wallow in one another’s world sharing passions, professions, pasts and futures traveling well beyond 140 characters, stretching our hearts in and through the other's life.
When we consider our life stories, how often do we include the companions of our journey, those who have traveled with us through highways and back roads. Traditionally, we weave into our personal narratives our spouses, children, and sometimes relatives and of course, ancestors. Mine certainly will. But in my future memoir, stories of the characters, meant in a most loving way, will play prominent roles. Don’t worry, I’ll be kind.
Over the years, we laughed at our own idiosyncrasies, provided just the right advice at just the right time, shared shoulders, meals, wine and adventures, injuries, along with weight and love, both found and lost.
The academic in me wanted to know why others stories carry so much significance in our lives. Daniel Taylor in The Healing Power of Storytelling offers valuable insight. He tells us that:
Those long term lifers with whom we've created multilayered fairytales and memorable yarns. My 50 year old friendship with K.M. began when I was in high school and he was a handsome college student and to this day we bring two worlds together playing out our virtual ‘friend affair’, while our hair grows thinner and our hips wider. Or J.T., a forever closest friend who travels with me through my creative bursts and I through his ever-evolving family. He now nears retirement and I begin my Act V, well beyond Act III. Or M.W. who knew me as a child and continues to convey perspective and wisdom, and M.P. who stood by my side through years of single parenthood.
Other actors will certainly include the loves of my life, for I fell often; professional friends and performing communities; those who touched my spirit through their age; old roommates, childhood/teen BFFE's, and without a doubt, canine companions who taught me of love that is unconditional.
Whether in my personal history work or cherished friendships, I’m in an enviable position. Through each, I travel through time and space. My work takes me back through decades and across oceans. I relearn history that I may never have learned, have conveniently forgotten, or it wasn’t on the test. I relearn geography, traveling to places, thanks to technology, that I never knew existed. While friends share their latest bucket list trip, I share my time traveling escapades.
Our present social media mentality encourages us to grow our friend’s list. I take the minimalistic approach, spending time, time traveling with trusting friends, those I have shared past-chapters with, confidants whose layers of life overlap with my own.
Today I want to remember those who made me who I am, because as an African friend once reminded me, "I Am Who I Am, Because of Who You Are." It took an army, a lifetime, and I’m not done yet.
Let us know how we can help you time travel by capturing the stories that surround you.
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
Photo by Phil Warren.
What is it that motivates us to want to look back through carnival-like multi-directional mirrors to explore times past?
I look at the photo of my mother on the wall, and wonder what was hidden behind those storied eyes, laugh lines, and tenured silver gray locks. I yearn to hear mom's stories and dad's jokes, one more time, but now, the responsibility has been silently delegated to a new generation to tell the tales of the past.
The Healing Power of Stories: Creating Yourself through the Stories of your Life by Daniel Taylor, Ph.D. became my go-to bible as I delved deeper into the personal history industry. The jacket description contends, as therapists have known all along, that “stories have the power to make people whole again. The key to telling life stories is choosing which fairytales, myths and popular stores we embrace, picking which characters become our heroes and reshaping our world according to the ideals of our favorite stories.”
The academic in me however wanted to know why stories carry so much significance in our lives. Once again, Taylor offers valuable insight.
Let’s add a little music to our mix. Born in 1950 you would think I was a Rolling Stones fan. Not me. I grew up in the world of Broadway musicals. But today's technology gives us a chance to relive a familiar past or one we never experienced and revisit the Stones hit Ruby Tuesday - third verse, "there’s no time to lose." Enjoy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YJXfcndyvU
Let’s Get Started ... Before It’s Too Late!
Mary Patricia Voell
We’ve all witnessed the genealogy industry explode. At any moment, day or night, at the touch of a key, millions search and locate characters in their family lineage. With the ever increasing speed and data available, the ancestral jungle expands in multiple directions reaching deep the roots of the past and planting new generations.
Watching this growth, many ask me how I got into the “storytelling” personal history business. My response - - it’s a family affair.
My mother told the history of the stained glass windows in our parish church. My eldest sister is our family ‘go-to’ historian. One brother loved to visit cemeteries, another was the videographer at family gatherings, and yet another recorded the departure of my siblings from our family home by traveling through rooms asking each to imagine living there. Brother number three asks great questions, number five continues to be the campfire storyteller, and my youngest brother has the ultimate listening job, as a neighborhood bar owner. It doesn’t end there. A nephew imagined family websites long before they were free and popular, and a sister-in-law was a family-life editor for their local newspaper. We all continue to enjoy family reunions filled with updated stories and of course, plenty of young’ns enjoying the tall tales, and adding to our family storybook. So I come from a long line of family history bugs.
All families aren’t as fortunate to have the memory capturing gene, yet want and need help in organizing and chronicling their family history. Ever since I decided to delve into the world of personal histories, I realized that I didn’t want to spend time searching for long-gone ancestors, but to focus on writing the stories of those on my horizon, those whose stories were being lost with each passing moment. And most of all help others to secure the stories that are still within their reach.
Along the way I’ve found numerous traveling companions, those who have written helpful and insightful books including:
And if you’d like to add a little humor to your search, or just for fun, check out I’m My Own Grandpa sung by Ray Stevens. I love this one because he creatively tracks it on a family tree. Good luck! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYlJH81dSiw
Let’s Get Started ... before it’s too late! Let us know how we can help.
Mary Patricia Voell