by Amy Phariss
On a Thursday morning, in a room painted sea-foam green and filled with folding chairs, I sit and listen in rapt attention as a woman describes the love between a disabled teenage girl and her athlete-turned-soldier husband. Her voice trembles slightly as she tilts her head toward the floor, the memory of that tender high-school love taking her back in time, decades into her past. Just before her story, another woman spoke of traveling across the desert plains of the U.S., following an Olympic torch, a dream and the sound of a call she’d not at first recognized whispering her name. I sit for an hour and listen as men and women recall, recount and remember distinct moments in their lives, from sweet notes of encouragement sent with Milky Way bars, to the sometimes hard truths of growing up the
child of immigrants to a tale of time travel that began, “Some of you won’t believe this story. Sometimes, I don’t believe it myself.”
As an ongoing program at the Moore County Senior Enrichment Center, Jonathan Scott, local writer and storyteller, leads groups of seniors in the art of story telling with his workshop: The Time of My Life: Personal Storytelling. From the glimmer of a memory to a five-minute oral history, Scott works with seniors to shape, craft and finally present stories of their lives, bits of their own personal history that so often go unsaid and unheard. Working with experienced writers, novice writers and people who may hesitate to call themselves writers at all, Scott helps participants unearth their own tales, finding hidden treasures in the sometimes smallest details of lives lived over decades, across generations and full of love, loss, humor, wit, charm and grace.
Above all, there is grace.
There is the love of a grandmother rubbing her granddaughter’s hand to get her to sleep each night.
There is the hot shame of hearing a mother’s accented English attempting to order apple pie.
There is hope for a young girl named Pearl and the invisible hurdle she overcame with the help of a teacher who said, “Yes, I think we can do that.”
There is the determination of a woman called Freedom following a man called Eagle and a handful of Apache men thrown into the mix.
There is the curiosity of a window through which one woman slipped into another time, a time of Victorian houses, patches of cabbage and a winged heart.
There is a thread between them all, the stories and the voices and the eyes darting from ceiling to floor. There is a thread between their hands, their heads and their hearts, the soul of a storyteller, no matter his age, no matter his skill, no matter his words. There is a thread of humanity, a shared connection that transcends accents, places of birth, gender, race or any other line drawn in cultural sand. There is humanity in hearing each other’s stories instead of only each other’s opinions, in knowing the background, the history, the slow unfolding of a life in the way it felt to snuggle up to the grandmother, to speak up for the immigrant mother, to listen to Pearl’s words and transcribe them in pen and to run from a handful of Apache men wondering what you’re doing on their land.
Scott guides participants through the conception of ideas to the final oral telling of the stories of people’s lives. Keeping the rules and regulations brief, Scott chooses instead to focus on the stories themselves rather than a list of parameters. Phyllis Olsen, who shared several stories from her teaching career, describes the process: “The stories had to be true and personal, with an emphasis on how we felt when the episodes occurred. The stories could be sad, happy, frightening, outrageous, life-changing, and more.” If participants get stuck finding an appropriate tale or wondering if a story is too personal, Scott reminds them the stories needn’t necessarily be dramatic in nature to be meaningful. Some participants wonder if they even have any story to tell at all, and Scott reminds them, “Everyone has a story.” There is poignancy in everyday moments, in humor and the in-between moments we often take for granted. According to Scott, “It’s about sharing the small things in life, the things that have become important to the storyteller.”
More than simply a writing class, The Time of My Life asks participants to use their writing skills and their speaking skills, which is no small feat. Scott notes that there is a difference in telling a story in front of strangers rather than to people we know, who know us and the context of our lives. When we tell our history to a stranger, the details become sharper, clearer, more necessary to convey who we are, what we’ve been through and why it matters. Donna Bloom, who shared a story of a cross-country trip in support of an Olympic dream, describes this process in saying, “We were initially asked to identify three ideas that we would first write about and then present as a story to the class. Writing the story was easy, but the thought of sharing my story with a live audience was daunting!” Class members begin thinking of stories, then work to shape them into narratives through the use of emotion, sensory detail and a natural flow from beginning to end. Bloom describes the difference between writing and telling her story in saying, “A writer must resonate with his story. A storyteller must resonate with both his story and his audience. The class enabled me to experience both.”
The art of storytelling doesn’t come naturally to every participant, and more than a few participants were nervous with thoughts of standing before a room of people, many of them strangers, and sharing their memories. Olson says, however, “We were truly excited at the success of each person. We became each other’s cheerleaders.” Several of the storytellers struggled with shyness or nerves, but Lori Fischler says, “As a usually very shy person, I found myself letting go of my inhibitions due to the encouraging and extremely warm response of both the other students and of Jonathan, the facilitator.” Several of the participants were surprised by their own transformations through the process of writing and telling their stories, both through the writing and at the actual event. As Fischler says, “I still cannot believe that I was able to do this in an intelligent and comfortable manner in front of a group of strangers.”
In the room with the pale green walls, I listen to the group standing before me, using their own voices to share their experiences, turning everyday moments from mundane or ordinary to heartrending. There is vulnerability in a person’s voice conveyed when the room is quiet, the words sometimes tumbling from a quivering lip, which differs from reading words on a page. There is a shared sense of humanity when we sit in a room with others, sharing the space and the stories equally, and there is a connection born from having experienced someone else’s history in real time. As Scott says, “I’ve come to believe that there is therapeutic value when a person tells a true story in front of a supportive audience. I also think there is therapeutic value for those who listen to the story, so telling a personal story can be a gift to others.”
The storytelling event itself bears witness to Scott’s theory. When I arrived at the event, there was an air of hospitality and friendliness. People greeted each other with waves and smiles. A low hum of conversation buzzed through the air. As the storytelling ended, the room was noticeably changed. The waves were replaced by hugs. People lingered, perhaps a moment longer, none of us ready to leave the room, or the stories, behind. Our voices were all just a tiny bit quieter, hushed almost, as we talked about our favorite stories, the details that stuck with us, the words still hanging in the air. I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s famous words, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” As I walk up the stairs and out of the Senior Enrichment Center, the brisk fall air whipping across my cheeks, I think of the shared beauty of the storytelling experience – one person no longer bears the story alone, and that the rest of us get to carry pieces of it with us as we go.