|TELLING IT TO THE WALLS : STORYTELLING AS A HEALING ART
By Naomi Baltuck, © 1994
I am not a therapist; I am a storyteller. But over the years, I have learned to use storytelling to knock down a few walls of my own.
I was already interested in the healing aspect of stories when my mother died, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock. She was good-humored, gentle, strong, and pleasantly quirky, and had gifted her children with an unorthodox upbringing. When I was eight, she was widowed with seven children at home, one developmentally disabled. Even the oldest kid wore second-hand clothes passed down from our "rich relatives." Yet, each summer Mom would go into hock to give us summertime travel, gypsy-style, in a VW bus. After my father died, we would travel for two months each summer, from campground to campground, occasionally parking our battered tent-trailer in the backyard of a distant cousin. Mom took us to the 49 states she could drive to. Traveling over 1200 miles of gravel on the Alaskan Highway, we had nine flat tires. By the end of that summer, every kid could change a flat. We stopped at every scenic viewpoint, historical monument, and national park along the way, living on peanut butter and high spirits.
Somehow my mother managed to instill in her children something as valuable than anything our rich relatives possessed. She sent us into the world with the sturdy foundation built of strong and loving family ties, and a basic belief that things always turn out for the best.
Throughout her ordeal, she never lost her sense of family or humor. Late one night I sat on one side of her bed, sharing her pillow, and my brother Lew held her hand on the other side of her bed. She smiled and said, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could have eight interlocking beds?"
It just got worse, and then it was over. One moment she was there and the next, though I still held her hand, she was gone. There was no heavenly music, no cosmic vibration, no ghostly chill. She was just gone.
In the months that followed, I found myself haunted by other ghosts. What else could we have done? Were there things we should have said? Why did she have to suffer so? I had hoped to take her to Europe, to give her grandchildren, to see her hold my babies in her arms and give them her blessing. And no matter what my mother had always told me, I could no longer believe that things always work out for the best. I searched for some way to deal with the loss and disillusionment.
Then I remembered: I am a storyteller. Somewhere there was a story that I could learn, tell, and that would heal me. I pored over books like Goddesses in Every Woman, Close Companions: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, Womanself. In one of those books I felt certain that I would find a story, the story. But I never did. There just wasn't a story that could carry me beyond the last tortured months of my mother's life.
Someone once told me, "I'd like to tell personal stories, but it's all too depressing." Not all of the stories we tell must end happily ever after. Sometimes it is enough that they shed light upon a truth, point us to a better path, or help us to accept what we cannot change.
Traditional tales can be as effective as personal stories in the healing process, while providing a more comfortable distance. A storyteller once told me that a selkie story she had told a hundred times--about the seal child who comes to the childless couple, grows up, and returns to the sea--had taken on deeper meaning for her, when her own daughter began preparing to leave home to go out into the world.
Each teller must find her own comfort level. If you censor the pain from a story, you can strip it of its power. Still, I choose to leave listeners with a bright spot to focus on, hope for the future, a triumph of spirit that will never die, an appreciation for the blessings they have had.
Once, after sharing a story about my mother, a woman from the audience slipped a note into my hand. She had recently lost her mother. She wrote, "My grief was relieved, my private anguish was touched here, in this very public place...somehow my pain is lessened after sharing in yours. I feel instructed now; I will go home and look for a story to tell myself." As I read the note, I thought of my mother. Things don't always work out for the best, as she used to say. Few people would choose loss and pain, even to obtain wisdom or compassion. But it helps to think that one might use one's experience to lighten another's load.
Healing is an ongoing process. However time might soften feelings of sadness and loss, there is a place in our hearts that will always bear the scars. Momentous or seemingly insignificant events can reopen old wounds. We can't wave a magic story wand that will let anyone live painlessly ever after. As the old story goes, no one can find a cooking pot in the village that has not been used to feed the grieving. It is up to each of us to look for the bright spots. Everyone has stories to draw upon. By shaping them into learning experiences, into celebrations of the human spirit, we become the victors instead of the victims of our past.
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