by Laura Simms.
In a tale from the Caucusus, a girl’s demand brings balance into the world. She requests that the Rose of Paradise be brought to her by her father. Her dangerous confrontation is with a Div and his Div sister, monster- like creatures that guard and covet the Rose, stolen and kept in their own world. She escapes the monster several times and tricks him. He lives at the end and returns to his garden without the Rose. The Rose remains in our world because of the girl. We discover that he cannot enter the door of a house. There is no explanation. Perhaps such things are beyond explanation. In another tale, a peasant story from Romania, a devil cannot enter houses where stories are being told. In the house where there is no storytelling, he enters and destroys everything.
Since June 2002,1 have conducted a storytelling project for adolescents from four orphanages (called Placement Centers) in Romania. The project is named “Coming Home.” This summer,17 youth accompanied me and my staff to the village of Malini in Moldavia (the northern part of the country). They heard and studied stories as they discovered and strengthened their own inner worth and wealth of confidence and imagination. As the days passed, their hearts opened to trust themselves and the staff. On return to their institutions, some of them were able to become storytellers who engaged younger children.
In November, I returned for the third time. This trip, I brought together all the kids in the city of Lasi to have a storytelling work-shop refresher and see how they were doing. I am writing about a part of those four days, and particularly about one girl named Petronella. She is a beautiful, wide-eyed girl of 11 who looks and dresses like a boy because “boys are stronger.” She was the one I almost did not take along because her mode of communication was aggression. Her weapons were kicks, punches and a sharp tongue. She alienated all but one teenager, a survivor of extreme sexual abuse.
During the project, to all of our surprise, Petronella became my assistant and ally in Malini. She held the camera and the recording equipment. She took long walks with me when I needed to reflect and plan. She also became the keeper of the wish circle: Each evening before bed the kids made a circle and gave each other good wishes. I had done it the first day, and they loved it. It became a ceremony every day. The therapist I work with agreed that it was brilliant for the kids to recognize they had something worthwhile within to offer one another. Having a therapist, Daniella, with me all the time increased my learning about the effects of storytelling in every way.
Petronella arrived first in lasi with her Institution mates. They were the youngest of my storytellers and coinci- dentally from the city of Dorohoi where my grandmother was born. I spent time with each group in order to interview them about their pasts and their future dreams. I had never asked them about their history when we were together before on purpose. My intention was to garner trust and to get to know them without bias.
I discovered that Petronella was abandoned at birth and had grown up in institutions. In the summer, she had no future plan. These kids rarely dream about their futures in any realistic way. They are told daily that they are different, and that they are worthless. This time she answered, “I will be a policewoman and a teacher for children.” After I inquired further, she added, “I will travel from Institution to Institution. If anyone is cruel to children, I will have them punished.”
“And what will you do for the children?” I continued. She smiled, “I will caress them with stories and embraces.”
I was about to move on to the next person when she said, “I cannot sleep at night.” I returned my full attention to Petronella. So did the other kids. Trust is vital in their lives, and I was moved that she was willing to speak to me about her private life. I said, “I think about you all the time. Sometimes I say good night to you before I go to sleep in hopes you can hear me.” She blushed and said, “Can I say good night to you?” “Of course. But what keeps you from sleep?”
“I am afraid of monsters. There are monsters outside, and I am afraid if I fall asleep, they will appear in my room.” The other girls from Dorohoi nodded in agreement.
The favorite fairytale of the summer was “The Giant Who Had No Heart.” It is a Norwegian tale (easily found). It was the first tale they heard, and also one very close to their experience. We had changed the ending to put the heart back in the giant at the end of the story. I had had to repeat it endless times, and all the kids revealed that they had shared this story with others after our time in Malini.
Daniella is not only my therapist on staff, but has become the best of possible translators. Her Romanian translation is almost simulcast. She can hear what I am saying and translate it beautifully. She held Petronella with her eyes as we continued. “I wonder if what we need is a story that you can all tell yourselves before going to bed?” The smiles and enthusiasm was palpable. We were going to invent a story, and this was what delighted them all summer. To be engaged in the creative process and acknowledged for their abilities was nourishing. Daniella had told me over and over that this conjuring up of metaphoric language that described, empowered and transformed their inner negative stories was vital to healing.
I began, and they constructed. I only interrupted to help further and form the story so it would be satisfying. Since they have a moderate experience with storytelling, and moderate experience with trusting what is coming from within themselves, my facilitation is helpful and not intrusive. I don’t plant ideas, giving them the idea that what I think is better or true; I just help shape what they are suggesting, and ask questions. Their ability to continue with a single story and work with developing plot ideas and subplots, satisfying and interesting events and images, aids them in developing complex thinking skills.
A summary of the story they invented follows. There are a lot of details that I am leaving out, since each child was given the task of elaborate descriptions of everything.
“There were once four girls who were living in a Magic House. Monsters wanted to get into the house. But the girls knew how to keep them away.” (They had heard the three stories-about the devil, about the Rose of Paradise, and the giant tale which gave them some inner instructions about the development of a good story.)
They described the house, adorning it with all the paintings, colors, and details of the gorgeous peasant houses in Malini. As they added hints and hues, one after another, I could see their eyes getting brighter. What was inside was waking up and being utilized. They were focusing their attention on our activity and their own imaginative capacities. A group process was taking place naturally, with everyone listening to the other. No one interrupting or rejecting an idea. Each girl in the group had a special way in which the monsters were held in abeyance. Their powerful idea was accepted by all of us. We were building a house in the mind that could stave off bad dreams. The monsters in our tales were never killed, because they always reappear. The activity is not only about protection, but also about containment. As they described the powers of the house, they also described their monsters. Giving language and form to what haunts from within and speaking it out loud gives them some control over what can become overwhelming. Our simple activity is abundant with meaning and benefit.
At the end, they composed a little song about keeping monsters away and discussed nightmares and daydreams. It was non-intrusive. They were cheering up even though we were on the really touchy topic of monsters within. The best thing I can offer them in relating to monsters without is to give them the power within to trust their own minds and perceptions. We are in a laboratory of capacity-building that is very experiential. At the end, I retold their story so they could hear it and make any changes they wanted. They liked it. Petronella offered the idea that if they are afraid at night, they can tell this story to themselves.Each time I have seen them, Daniella has reminded me that they were shocked to see me. “They did not believe that you would return. No one keeps their word to these children•“ The story they tell themselves, as a means of protection from expectation and disappointment, is that no one will return. In all honesty, I cannot tell them I will always return or be there. So, I am always saying I will try my best to come back and will never forget about them. I ask them to also never forget about me. In their personal story, they have abandoned themselves. Just as Petronella has become an outer idea of a boy, many of them have become empty shells with no emotional affect. Daniella and I work at helping them to feel safe enough with us to enjoy themselves in a realistic and refreshing way. We added a tiny ending to the house story in which a woman who lives far away returns to the house in their dreams because she loved them too much to stay away. They were quite happy adding this part. When I retold it again, I was careful to keep the woman’s return in the dream so that they were able to keep the connection with Daniella and me as internal muscle and not add to any disappointment.
I then asked each of the girls (after the interviews and the story making), “What story did you like the best in Malini and what character did you think of most?” All of them favored the Giant Tale. Petronella blurted out, “I like the monster best.”
“I thought you did not like the monster?” I asked.
“I respect the monster, because he knows well how to hide his heart.”
Again, all the others nodded. Interest was sparked into attention again. Daniella, in English, said to me, “They all are specialists at hiding their hearts. They love this story because at the end the heart is returned to the gi- ant. But they also understand his hiding it somewhere.” For me, I was moved. Having researched and thought a long time about the Giant tale, I was aware that the heart in the egg in the duck in the well in the tower in the middle of a lake, in the middle of that story, was resonant with the feminine, the queen who was not present at the start of the tale.
My response to Petronella was deep respect for the intelligence of her answer. I told her that. Her ability to put words to that deep truth for herself was an indication for me of how far she had moved since the summer. Perhaps it was the help of stories, and also the fact that someone outside of herself did return and trust her. Daniella was very pleased for her. “Trust is a huge issue for these kids,” she told me later. “Petronella has enough inner strength now to trust her own thinking, even if it is now in the language of story.” Over and over during the three days we spent, I recognized her ability to reflect on things and try out ideas, and intimacy with us.
The next day was our start of the three-day workshop. The first day was spent with games and conversation, meals together and a lot of rest. It was cold outside, and we were confined to the indoors. An arts therapist works with us and an actor. They made pictures, played games, and within a few hours, the closeness we had all felt was ensured again. It was easy to see that several of the kids had problems since the summer, and these were on their faces and demeanor. We did not pry, unless they brought it up. We made the same conditions for work as we did in Malini. “Everyone is important for the process. But no one has to participate. If you feel sad or don’t want to join in, just let an adult know and you can stay in the room with us without having to do anything.” I had learned from Daniella how vital it is to be able to give them a choice. Often, they dislocate themselves or disassociate to get away. Here they are given permission, but assured they are important. In the summer, several times they ran away or broke loose from the group, disrupting things. Now, they let us know, and most times just stayed within the group. They did not have to disassociate to have a feeling. They did not have to break away to feel in control.
The only single storytelling exercise that I presented the first day (which began after lunch and ended after dinner) was a character development exercise that I wanted to repeat every day to give them access to working with emotions.
Here is a list of how that exercise unfolded:
1. Each child chose a character from a story they remembered and liked during the summer workshop. When we went around, they said the name, and I repeated the name of the character. Acknowledgement helps them to trust and enjoy their choice. Almost each exercise that I include (I trust my intuition and the signals the kids give that often inform what I am about to do, regardless of my plan) is discussed with Daniella beforehand. I value her insight. In this exercise, each participant is learning to express an emotion (or a complex of emotions) very physically and emotionally in action without words at first. The inner goal of the play is to find a way to give expression to the emotion and return to neutral. Moving in and out of emotion without getting stuck. A deep exploration of the different hues and context of the feeling, and the ability to move back to themselves.
2. They broke into pairs and discussed the character with a partner: what they did in the story, how they imagined the character looked, their power and their main activity. Working in pairs intensifies their focus and strengthens a sense of intimacy. They are giving words to the character and the feeling. Projecting onto the character their own experience.
3. Separating again, in the circle, they put on the imagined mask of the character. They closed their eyes and made a face. It was easier for some than others, but it was also the first toe dip into this world. They practiced holding the extreme caricature of the mask, and the most extreme emotion, and then returning to neutral. We did this several times with lots of giggles. We adults did not help them or criticize. We let it unfold and only helped to keep the focus of the group together by reminding them that if they did not want to do it, it was okay, but to help everyone else by just remaining in the circle. No one left.
4. Then each child chose a place in the room that the character might like to be in.
5. They then turned their bodies into a shape that expressed the emotion. They did it very slightly. They were invited to exaggerate. But there was no pressure. I would repeat the exercise in different stories over the next two days, so there was no demand or no success or failure. Just doing it and playing with it as best they each could.
6. If they wanted, they could add a sound to the character. I did a few examples, and they loved watching and laughing. The actual doing was very shy, but I did not make any demand. They were able to witness their own hesitation. They were safe to not do it and not feel that they had failed in any way
7. The next and last part of the exercise is to move throughout the room as the character in a mask of body and face. They moved as their character and interacted nonverbally with one another. I had the job of calling out “freeze,” at which they stopped and turned back into themselves. Putting on and taking off the character. I was more involved with the play of it, and hoping that for a moment they were able to pull up the emotion and then resume repose, than I was concerned with how they did it.
We ended with just talking about the characters in an informal way. I congratulated them for wholeheartedly trying something that was really hard. I told them how proud I was of them that they had tried it out.
My eyes often turned to Petronella, who had chosen the Giant in the story. It was hard for her to distinguish between her own persona and the monster, since she often walked shoulders drawn up to her ears in a caricature of male bravado. But she was trying, and I honored her participation.
This game, which I now offer to adults studying storytelling skills with me, was a great discovery. It was stunning to watch them tackle the idea of feeling something intense and then resuming some natural repose. It allowed them a chance to feel their own center, even in an emotionally stressful or strong situation. These are practices for real life as well as for storytelling. In fact, in truth, learning storytelling is secondary to their learning about their own emotional containment and capacity for surviving with feeling. To hide the heart is to not lose the heart. To know how and when to take it out of hiding and feel is a reward. In their situations, it is necessary sometimes to hide the heart. But it is a tragedy to lose the heart and abandon it or not remember where it is or that it is there for the taking when it is needed.
Many storytellers whom I observe do not know the difference between themselves and the characters or story they are telling. There is a kind of absent narrator. The teller swims in the emotion of the story without providing ground or guidance to the audience. Half the learning of the listening is the empowerment of the audience to experience strong emotion and still be present and available for clear thinking. In times of extreme stress and confusion that we are living in, where fear is being fed through media all the time, there is little to support the basic ground of awareness of mind. The mind is often lost in reaction and terror entranced with itself.
The storyteller’s great facility is to be oneself and let the story unfold; not to be a favorite character or mediating a favorite opinion or meaning. The storyteller is simply oneself, and the play of the story arises and dissolves back into him or her. This frees the listener to gain that strength of knowing the difference between what they are thinking and what is actually happening.
The kids played at this game two more times during the weekend and grew to enjoy the delight of taking on emotions and character and then dropping it. The actor designed games to help them practice it in other ways. Having enjoyed the repetition of this game, drawn our characters, interacted and attempted to tell the story with some voices, the kids were deeply engaged. The two days passed thick with time and enjoyment and trust.
At the end, we resumed our wishing circle. After the months apart and time to let the stories they had heard and made sink down within them, having told stories to other kids, they were ready to extend their wishes to each other for fortunate and meaningful futures. Petronella took on her role with a big smile. She gave the instructions as she had each evening. I watched her as she spoke with shoulders down. It is true that when I took them to the train station, her shoulders went back up. But, I knew she had the knowledge of where her heart was hidden.
After wishes, we had a surprise birthday party. One of my staff members is a professor at the university of the arts. She is a great puppeteer interested in storytelling, who is studying the roots of Romanian theater and ancient ritual. Her studio was our party place. Most of the kids have never had a birthday party. We ordered a chocolate cake with inscription. There were materials for making hats and puppets, music, and gifts for each person. We basically ended our time with a feast and celebration.
I asked Petronella as the party was winding down about how she felt. She whispered into my ear, “No monsters can get in this room.” We hugged. “Do you think you will remember the story about the Magic House?” I asked. She answered honestly, which made me laugh out loud, “I might.”
I returned in February for a different project. I had hoped to get to Dorohoi, but the roads were closed. Winters are harsh in northern Romania. The kids had moved to what is called “transitional housing.” They live in block apartments in old Communist-era buildings. The European Union deemed their orphanage unlivable. Which it was. Petronella was now living with four other girls.No single adult lives with them. The non- caring and changing staff continues as if the house itself could provide them with what they need. They are glad to be in new housing. I phoned.
Her voice was shaky. She was shocked to hear from me. I spoke to her in Romanian to tell her that I
think about her, that I could not come until spring and that I loved her. I could hear the distance and the
struggle to come forth and say something. She whispered, “I love you.” I told her that I told myself the Magic House story at night and that I still sometimes remembered to say good night to her before I went to sleep (which is true). She said, “I forgot. I will try to remember.” I had Daniella speak to her because my language is so limited. Please tell Petronella that I hope she never forgets where she keeps her heart. Petronella said to tell me that she knows where it is.
This article first appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.
Laura Simms is a renowned storyteller, author and the director of GAINDEH: An International storytelling Initiative for youth and cultures in crisis. Her most recent books are The Robe of Love (Codhill Press, 2003) and The Book of Hope (six bilingual stories in support of schools in Afghanistan, Chocolate Sauce Publications, 2003). Laura is completing a new book on storytelling and multicultural
awareness called Becoming the World for Mercy Corps, Inc., and working under an Open Society
Grant in Romania with Gypsy Mothers.