By Lorna Czarnota.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I have used story in my own therapy. I truthfully had a story moment that I think changed my life. Someone asked if I would share my experience. I’d love to hear of others’ experiences in how story may have helped them at a personal level.
First, let me preface by saying that my life-changing experience didn’t have to do with abuse, or death, or anything one might consider catastrophic; but, it did have to do very much with life, being illuminated, feeling whole. And, it changed the way I look at story. This healing is ongoing because throughout my life I have wanted to be accepted, to be liked. When I am not accepted, I may risk lacking honesty and perhaps being overly hurt. But these things are hardly even problems for me anymore, thanks to a story experience. Here’s what happened:
About four years ago (yes, only four), I was telling stories at a major exposition. This particular event lasted ten days and I was hired by someone to tell “teddy bear” stories for the full ten days. I had no set schedule. Every time the children came along, I engaged them in make-believe and story. Of course, I told Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Three days later, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Goldi and I were not going to make it through the rest of the contract! One of us had to go. Or maybe not. See, but I had been telling the story the way I remembered it from my own childhood: “And that children, is what happens when you go into someone’s house uninvited.” Oh puhleez. I knew that wasn’t all that the story said and the blank stares from the kids told me they knew it, too. So I took Goldi to my hotel room that night and we had a chat.
“Okay,” I said, “so you wanna get tough, huh?” She just stared at me with those baby blues. I got rough with the girl. I tore that story apart piece by piece and looked at everything. I restructured the story, as follows:
- I made a list of all the characters, colors, numbers, things, places etc. in the story.
- Then I assigned each item a symbol, meaning, or purpose. (It helps if you have knowledge of symbolism in story and myth. On a personal level, you could find your own meaning for things. You might also invest in a book of symbols. I’ve even used books that list the meanings of dreams. Overall, it is important to choose the symbols meaningful to you. I didn’t have any of these books with me when I did this.
- I picked the symbols that were most meaningful and inserted them into the story, as follows:
“Once upon a time, a little girl who was pure of heart but feeling quite alone went for a walk in an unknown place, the forest. She walked and walked until she came to a place that made her feel secure, a house. She knocked but nobody answered so she got curious and opened the door. She was hungry, hungry for knowledge, for life, for something.
Inside, she came to the heart of the house, the kitchen, and there was so much to take in. She tried the dad’s knowledge. She didn’t understand it, it was too much. She tried the mom’s knowledge. That was too bland. But the child’s knowledge tasted good and she ate it all.
The little girl, feeling more satisfied, went to the comfortable place, the living room. She tried the dad’s comfort. Too hard. The mom’s, too wishy washy. The child’s was very nice but it didn’t hold her and she fell crashing to the ground.
Feeling exhausted, but still wanting to explore the little girl continued to look about the place. She saw some stairs and she ascended them, up and up. At the top she found three beds. That was all. So she tried each one. The dad’s too hard, the mom’s still too soft. But the child’s was just right and she fell asleep. (The whole bear scene is inserted here but as somewhat of a dream since I am asleep in the story.)
When the little girl opened her eyes, she found herself staring face to face with the dad, with the mom, with the child. She didn’t waste any time, the little girl jumped out the window and continued her journey. She was surely glad those people woke her up or she’d still be sleeping. The End.”
I decided to use first person telling. I think that was key in my epiphany. The next day, I did just that. I began “Let me tell you about something that happened to me when I was a little girl.” The kids listened and I enjoyed the story. It only took one session before a little girl in the front row looked up at the end of the tale and said “Y-y-you’re Goldilocks.” I said “Yes. Yes, I am.” And that’s when it hit me. I was.
I had just finished getting my Masters in Special Education and was going through a very troubling decision making time. Should I become a full-time teacher and get the security I had always wanted or go with my heart and take on storytelling full-time? I knew I could not remain divided between the two. It wouldn’t work for me. I had to commit fully to one or the other. But, how could I tell my dad that I wanted to do this “crazy” thing (storytelling) when he had just helped with my college bills? I did all this very late in life and could not believe that I was having this problem with my dad at age 43.
“It’s silly,” I said. “Why do I have to explain anything to him?”
The whole answer to every insecure, uncomfortable moment just flooded over me like a huge wave. All my life, I had been looking for what was “Just Right for Me.” I tried my mom’s life, my dad’s life, I even tried to remain in a child’s life. Wow. I was Goldilocks. Thank goodness the bears woke me up!
I just sat there and didn’t move for a long time. I was stunned.
How did this change my life? I told my dad that although I would probably teach in some way, I was going to be a full-time storyteller. I didn’t tell him because I had to, I did it because I respect him. Then, I did what my heart begged me to do. I committed 100% of myself to story and storytelling. I also pledged to work with the power of story in some way. And, I stopped worrying so much about what others thought of me. I woke up, jumped out the window and continued my journey. That’s not to say the journey is over. I still have insecurities. But I don’t let those insecurities dictate what to do anymore. I found a strength and courage in that simple childhood story. It gave me the resolve to listen more deeply to the stories and what they say. I find so much hidden beneath the layers.
As to this (or any story) becoming healing for the listener, following are some personal guidelines:
- I wouldn’t tell any story that healed me until I felt healed. My audience isn’t my sounding board.
- If I ever met someone who was experiencing what I had experienced at the time this story hit me over the head, I’d say “Can I tell you a story?” and let them find the answer on their own. I might share my own experience with the story as I did with the list, depending on the situation.
- If I felt the story had value to others, I’d tell the story but let it take its own way with the listeners.
- I structure things differently with the kids at the shelter and in my CROSSROADS programs than with regular general audiences. For the regular audience, the same story might look like the original fairy tale or like this: “Once upon a time a little girl with golden hair. One day she went for a walk in the forest. It was dark and unfamiliar. She walked until she came to a little house that sat all alone but somehow made her feel at ease. The little girl knocked on the door but nobody answered, so she opened the door and went right in. She was so hungry. She came to the kitchen, and so on.”
I add little hints of the symbolism here and there as needed without giving it all. The listeners need to explore a little for themselves when they hear a story. It’s kind of like when parents try to tell their kids things. The kids don’t want to hear it all. They want to learn a lot on their own. Besides, you know that what we learn on our own is more significant to us than what we are handed by others.
This article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 5, Summer 2001
Lorna MacDonald Czarnota, Buffalo NY