Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the category “In Healing”

Reimagining Beauty – P is for Peaceful

Blogging A to Z

If you are new to this blog, welcome!

For my Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, I am writing about how storytellers, writers, parents, teachers (in other words, just about anyone) can reimagine beauty to be more inclusive. That way, people with disabilities, varying body types and racial backgrounds, etc. (in other words, anyone) can feel and be recognized by the world as the beauties they truly are.

Reimagining Beauty – P is for Peaceful

Calm.
Stillness.
Restful bliss.
Yoga teachers.
A gothic cathedral.
My son’s physical therapist.
A spring fed country lake at the edge of a forest in late summer.

Serenity is the secret, golden key to life. It also happens to be the main ingredient in some people. You know them when you meet them. They glide through the world like swans on a spring fed country lake. At the edge of a forest. In late summer (or any season really). It is a privilege to be in the presence of peaceful beauty.

One of the stories I tell with The Storycrafters is about a character with a peaceful nature. He spreads loveliness and warmth to all he meets. Along the way, he attracts the natural world to do his will. Because he has a peaceful nature, he is considered beautiful. We don’t mention his appearance. We simply describe his bearing and the beautiful things that happen because of it.

I know a musician who also happens to be a gardner. Her calm, peaceful interior mirrors her contemplative flower garden. Her mood is steady and people love to be around her. I don’t have to say more about what she looks like. I’ve already told you that she is beautiful.

Peaceful souls cultivate relaxation in others. They are an oasis of calm in the middle of a harried existence. Being in the presence of peacefulness, like being in a gothic cathedral or in pristine nature, is beauty that borders on the reverential.

Who provides solace? Who are the ones who carry peace in their hearts? What characters in your stories are the steady rocks that others flock to for assurance, for stress relief, for assistance, for their calming voice? Their looks and age and background don’t matter at all. Their power is in their gentleness, their beauty is in their peacefulness. Tell about them.

So what do you think? Is peace a great and beautiful thing? Are there peaceful people that you know who are beautiful because of that quality? How about in stories?

Reimagining Beauty – D is for Determination

Blogging A to Z

Reimagining Beauty – D is for Determination

I admit it, reimagining beauty as determination may seem a bit counterintuitive at first. It might conjure an image of someone’s nose on a grindstone (seriously, I mean, ouch!). The idea of a stony-faced, focused, sweaty person who might even be grunting as she or he labors toward a goal is not exactly attractive. And yet, what athlete who was in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics didn’t have moments of just that?

Determination produces a person who conceives goals and then has the “stick-to-it-iveness” to achieve them.

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time we fall.”

Often attributed to Confucius, this phrase embodies and emboldens determination. Achieving such glory is a beautiful indeed. Yet wanting it is only part of the equation. The path to glory is rife with challenges; those who stumble or crumble and then rise out of the ashes to try again are determined people. Pounding through in spite of the obstacles – climbing, trying a new path, pushing, whatever it takes – determination is the fuel that helps us manifest our hopes and dreams.

Not only is it an admirable quality, but determination is beautiful when seen. There is a moment when a person turns his head, sets her mouth firmly, then trains the eyes in the direction of a goal. The moment of resolve, that instant of physical and mental commitment is an incandescent, bell-ringing moment of inner and outer beauty, in full sync.

Determination is the cornerstone of achievement. Hardworking artists striving to ‘make it’ and students attempting to get high grades to get into college are determined. They are determined in the service of long term goals.

But determination is a hallmark of those living with challenges, like people with disabilities, people with illness, and those facing hardship. People who live life to its fullest despite illness and disability are determined. Those who strive against the tide and in face of hardship, are beautiful indeed.

Writers and storytellers have the opportunity to share all the qualities that make people beautiful. Determination is surely one of them. Tell about such people, write about them, help the world know the beauty of their wonderful, beautiful efforts. If we are determined, we can reimagine beauty.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge

Blogging A to Z

Hey, I’m doing something neat next month! A group of bloggers (nearly 1500 as I write this post) will blog every day in April, except Sundays. Starting on April 1 with the letter A and going forward to the end of the month with the letter Z at the end of April 30, bloggers will write daily posts on the same letter. Over the month it will be like savoring alphabet soup, one noodle at a time. People say it is great fun, so I’m raring to go.

You can read more about it here.

Many bloggers who do this challenge orient their blogs to a theme. And today is the big Theme Reveal.

My theme is Reimagining Beauty.

One of the most beautiful children I have ever seen is a little girl. She was born with a genetic syndrome that among other things, alters the way she looks. It got me to thinking about the images of beauty that she will encounter in her life. Will she feel excluded? My recent blog posts have touched on this and other related issues, and there are more to come.

But when the A to Z Challenge came my way, I thought that it would be great opportunity to really dig down into this issue. So I decided to focus on how anyone – storytellers, writers, people in everyday conversation, parents – anyone has the power to describe beauty inclusively, regardless of cultural background, body type, age, abilities, or what their physical appearance has or “lacks” in terms of media driven imagery. Because that stuff is not what matters or makes one beautiful. At least that’s my take on it.

Storytellers know that words have great power to change mood and mind. My blog series on Reimagining Beauty will focus on the words we can choose to redefine and reimagine beauty in ways that are inclusive of anyone.

It will be one fun roller-coaster ride through the month of April.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

Be the Superhero

In my last post, I wrote about how the power of visual images can marginalize children with disabilities. Here is a case in point.

Anthony Smith is a young fan of superhero comics. Born deaf as a result of a genetic syndrome, he refused to wear his hearing aid because the superheroes in comics didn’t wear hearing aids.

Children notice many things about the images that come, and that don’t come their way.

However, storymakers can be as powerful as superheroes. According to the Huffington Post and Wikipedia, when Anthony’s mom wrote a letter asking for help, the folks at Marvel Comics acted like their characters and came to the rescue. They created a new character who wears a hearing aid. His name is Blue Ear.

Upon seeing the character, great delight came to Anthony. Great delight came to his parents too because Anthony started using his hearing aid.

Anthony is a lucky boy. He has caring parents who took action. Their letter landed into editor Bill Rosemann’s activist hands. Then, a corporation approved a brand new idea and made it happen quickly. Wow.

Wonderful as all this is, it is unlikely that publishers can or will modify the entire literary canon to reflect the extraordinary diversity of children in the world. Though we too can write letters to educate publishers and wait for changes to happen over time, we can also do something right now.

If there are children in your universe who don’t see themselves in visual depictions of characters in books and other media, remember that you – parent, teacher, therapist, child care worker of any kind – have the power to be a superhero storymaker. You can tell stories that describe characters in ways that are inclusive of children with disabilities. Take it another step too, for stories can be inclusive of children from any cultural heritage, of any shape and size, and on and on.

By telling stories, you can be as marvelous for the children around you as Marvel Comics was for Anthony Smith.

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Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Conquering the Ugliness in Beauty

Social media is buzzing about how distorted images of women create unnatural, unattainable representations of ‘beauty.’ And this reminds me of an important, related issue.

A friend recently told me that as a kid, he hated reading certain stories because they were about characters he could never be like or look like. My friend has a disability. Whenever he read about beautiful people in books, he felt awful about himself.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

A mom I know struggles with teaching her kids about beauty, wishing for more stories that reflect her kids’ Asian heritage. And then there is my friend whose daughter has a rare, genetic syndrome. In addition to having a unique appearance, the child uses a wheelchair. There aren’t many beloved story characters who conquer kingdoms in assisted devices or who have asymmetrical body shapes. Finding stories that don’t marginalize such children can be more challenging than conquering storybook kingdoms.

My friends are not alone. Many parents wrestle with this. We comb bookshelves to find stories with illustrations that depict beauty in ways we feel are appropriate for our children. But many of those images are picture book perfect or culturally biased; they don’t reflect our reality. So images in books can become subliminal, insidious reminders of how we “should” look. Most of us fail.

Because pictures send a thousand messages, some parents carefully screen the images their kids see. They don’t want their children receiving messages that might cause them to undervalue their own unique beauty, heritage, or gifts. They don’t want their kids to feel like they don’t measure up. They don’t want to teach them to aspire to impossible ideals.

There can be great ugliness in beauty.

Rigorous screening of media is one way to offer images of beauty to kids. But you can also do something else to give children stories and images that reflect them and which can build self-esteem.

Tell them stories.

When stories are told, words are chosen by the storyteller. Pictures are imagined by the storyteller and the listener(s). Thus, beauty is in the imagination of the beholder.

You can make up a story, adapt a traditional one, or retell one from a book. In so doing, you can define beauty in all the ways that make sense to you. A beautiful character can be from any culture, can have any disability, can mirror any child. Listeners can imagine themselves riding wheelchairs to glory.

Best of all, the potent images from a child’s imagination can stay with a child for life.

Beauty does not equate to blond hair, white skin, two straight arms, a certain weight range or a particular ability. Beauty is not just appearance alone. Beauty can be described in all the ways that humans perceive it. Most importantly, when you tell a story, your beautiful characters can have the beautiful traits that your child possesses.

Inspire children to find themselves beautiful. Inspire “typical” children to see beauty in those who have disabilities. Tell them stories.

The little girl I mentioned earlier, the one with the genetic syndrome, is one of the most beautiful children I have ever met. Not because she looks like everyone else, but because she looks like herself. Her heart popping smile is riveting, her glance has the power to light up the dark. I fall over myself when she smiles at me because her infectious, gorgeous glance kisses my heart. She radiates pure joy. What is more beautiful than that?

Every person deserves the chance to feel beautiful. Reclaim beauty for yourself and for the children around you. Beauty does not have to call up the beast of failed hopes; when stories are told personally, when beauty is described consciously, then stories become more beautiful. And that is when they can bring joy, possibility, and peace to parents and children.

Beauty does not have to be ugly.

Copyright 2014 The Storycrafters All rights reserved

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In an upcoming post – soon I hope – will outline ways to describe beauty in inclusive ways in the stories you tell. Follow for more on this and other stuff.

Heroism Through Stories

Have you heard about Antoinette Tuff? She is the bookkeeper who single handedly talked down a gunman in a Georgia school. Living up to the spirit of her name, she was alone with him for an hour. Yet calmly and compassionately, she talked to him, drew him out, made a personal connection to him and his life. Although Ms. Tuff claims that the credit for her success lies solely with God, there may be an additional, worldly contribution to her success as well.

“I just started telling him stories,” she said.

Storytellers have always claimed that the power of storytelling can be momentous. Therapists and others who use stories in healing work have seen it first hand. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and related self-help groups are predicated on the telling of stories to heal self and others. Antoinette Tuff told her own stories as a way to make a connection with the gunman, and in so doing, she probably saved many lives.

Honor this woman. Listen to her tell the story of this event. She is heroic in every sense of the word.

And tell your stories too – you never know, a story you tell may save a life.

You Never Know

Yesterday we performed in an elementary school for several classes of kindergartners. They were a lively bunch. In fact, they were livelier than usual for several reasons.

First, they were visiting the cafeteria at the wrong time of day. Second, they were attending a storytelling assembly. But the third and most prominent reason for their excitement was that it was Pajama Day. Almost all of the children were dressed in pajamas.

If our assembly occurred later in the day, their excitement would have dwindled and the children would have forgotten about their ‘evening wear.’ But there was not enough time that morning to properly determine who was wearing what superhero pajama top before they were led away, single file, to the cafeteria.

They streamed in like a hive of busy, buzzing bees. After settling down on the floor, they were very attentive. They sang when invited to do so, they moved when asked. It was an interactive performance with a responsive audience.

As we were telling our first story, though, we noticed one child. It was hard not to notice him. He stood out because he suddenly stood up. But even after his teacher gathered him in and sat him down next to her, it was hard not to notice him. He called out during our stories. Sometimes he guessed what was coming next in response to our prompts. But mostly, his words came at random moments. He seemed to have a hard time controlling his desire to talk along with us.

Over all the years that we have been doing our work, we have seen students like him. He is not like Jakey, a child whom we wrote about last month. Jakey’s exuberant ‘outbursts’ were completely connected to the narrative and in sync with our invitations for audience commentary. This child was different. He was not always in tune with the social niceties of audience behavior, his comments weren’t always invited or on point. Lovingly, his teacher quietly redirected him when she could.

To the observer, it might seem like the child’s frequent interruptions displayed a lack of interest in what we were doing or betrayed his desire to sabotage the show.

Does this sound irritating?

When we started our work years ago, it might well have irritated us. But over the years we have seen how difficult it is to read individuals in an audience.

For instance, when we performed for the first time in England, one carefully coiffed lady sitting front and center drew our gaze. She appeared to be annoyed with us. She scowled continuously, as if her most recent cup of tea was served with curdled milk. Throughout the show her pinched face suggested displeasure. Like two toddlers trying to get the loving attention of a surly aunt, Barry and I both felt like we had to get her to smile. But that scowl was etched on her face for the duration.

When the show was over, we expected her to hightail it to the nearest exit. Instead, she hurried over to us. We cringed in preparation for an attack. Instead, she shook our hands until our forearms were vibrating, and said, “Brilliant. That was just brilliant!”

Who’d have thunk?

That was the first of our many lessons about how challenging it can be to read the minds of an audience member through body language alone. Sometimes what appears to be a downright rude expression is merely a concentrated effort to take in all that is offered in a live performance. It is hard to know.

That was why, in the school cafeteria, we didn’t take the child’s interruptions personally. We didn’t know his story and were in no position to make an accurate judgment. Instead, we acknowledged his comments when they made narrative sense, and focused in on the rest of the audience when they did not.

After the show was over, the teacher approached us. She said the boy was very connected to our storytelling and it had touched him in ways that she didn’t usually see.

We said, “Does he have any challenges?” Her nod and widened eyes spoke about just how many issues there were.

“He hardly connects with anything. Even if he doesn’t say what he should, the fact that he says anything shows that he is connecting. I am so delighted and I want his parents to know.”

Although she was complimenting us, we understood that it wasn’t due to our skills alone, but rather the live connection that we were making with him. By shifting our performance on the fly to accommodate some of his comments, by looking into his eyes and responding to his gaze, we gave him the raw materials of connection.

So you never know. The rude one out there may be the one who is most heartily listening. The one who interrupts may be connecting in the only way she knows how. Even if it is not ‘appropriate’ in one set of standards, it may hugely appropriate for the person in question.

You never know.

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Why is Storytelling Therapeutic?

One of our great privileges is to work with psychiatric patients on an inpatient, locked unit of a hospital. Clients are committed for a jumble of reasons – psychosis, depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, anxiety, aggression – and like a cook’s palette of herbs and spices, any and all of those issues can be mixed and matched, creating complex challenges for patients and clinicians alike.

So what do we do with such an eclectic group? We sit around a table, tell a few stories, and talk about them.

Recently, the activities director on the unit asked us for a brief, written summary that explains why storytelling is therapeutic. These are the words we shared with her.

Storytelling is a seed for growth and a balm for healing. Within every story are characters who mirror human struggle, strain with human emotion, and take human action. Because humanity in spoken stories touches the minds and hearts of listeners, live storytelling opens doorways to their inner worlds. During storytelling sessions on the unit, conversations with patients erupt about many things: emotions; difficulties; communication skills; problem-solving; coping, and; society’s perception about troubled souls, to name a few.

The sessions are effective because storytelling is done live. To accommodate the enormous variety of clinical issues, different tales are told each time. We vary telling style and story content in response to what we observe in listeners. Sometimes we stretch story moments or swap images; sometimes we tenderize the narrative or skip parts. Like word tailors, we adapt the text to measure, striving to make the best fit for the patients.

Best of all, stories contain healing images that can be taken home and remembered as beacons of light in life’s storms. To quote one middle-aged patient after hearing a story about a broken pot that was valued because it was broken: “I will never forget that story for the rest of my life.”

For these reasons and more, storytelling matters to those who hurt and hunger for inner peace.

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