Patchwork of Memories Retreat


                                                                                                     Thursday, November 10, 2005

                                                                  The King's House Retreat Center, Belleville, IL

Don't you just love it when new challenges come your way? A fellow storyteller recommended me to Betty, who represented Unity Hospice in the Metro-St. Louis area. She was looking for someone to lead an all-day retreat for the staff on storytelling. She attended such a retreat in the Chicago area and was anxious to spearhead one in Southern Illinois. We met a few times at a local coffee house and became instant friends. One of the things that she wanted was storytelling that built community within her staff. After one meeting we came up with the following agenda for the day:

                                                                    Schedule for Hospice Retreat Day

I was thinking: When the attendees come in, I can give them the outline for boxes that I can punch out using the Ellison Machine at the Collinsville Library. While they are waiting, they can fold them into a box and decorate with stickers and markers.

8:30-9:00   Registration and “box decorating”

9:00-10:30 Introduction, housekeeping, etc.

                   Marilyn keynotes and tells “Sunday Visits

Marilyn talks about storytelling and ways it relates to hospice care and workers. Define terms I may use throughout the day. Marilyn talks about storytelling genres emphasizing folktales. Tell a short folktale – The Peddler of Swaffam. Go over the steps to telling a folktale and the different structures. I will use some of the ideas in “Telling the 398.2’s” and model the group work they will do after the break.

10:30-10:45 Break 

10:45-12:15 Groups work to present a folktale either as a storyboard, storymap,  music, poetry, reader’s theatre, mime, or skit. Each group will present as much as they finish in allotted time. Besides being short, the stories that I choose for these folktales must have special meaning for this hospice retreat.  

Names will be drawn to partner up after lunch. Each duo receives a card with several story prompts on it that will lead to telling each other a story (vignette) from his/her past.

There will also be a question posed to ask each other – “Do I have permission to talk about your story?”

12:15 - 12:45   Lunch  

12:45 – 1:15     After lunch, Marilyn will either model a listening exercise or have the group pair up to do it together.

1:15 – 2:00   Partners walk the grounds and share personal stories (vignettes)

2:00 – 2:30   Marilyn will facilitate a discussion on active listening, on something new and surprising that you learned about the partner, and on how telling each other stories solidifies friendship by finding the universality in our stories.

2:30 – 2:45  Short Break

2:45 – 3:30  Story Concert for the attendees and Q and A

Of course things changed as the day proceeded to unfold. It was a glorious fall day - sunshine with a little nip in the air. When I got to the room, the chairs and tables were set up in a box. With some help, I rearranged the chairs and tables to a more comfortable position. The room was...just enough. There were 40 participants from nurses to marketing. They had no idea what the theme of the retreat would be. We called it "Patchwork of Memories" to keep the words "story" or "storytelling" out of it. This was their first retreat that they had ever planned for the staff. I felt privileged that they trusted in me enough to come up with a memorable retreat.

When I talked to Betty, I told her that I came to storytelling through folktales. Folktales allow the teller to understand story structure. They are short, full of characters ripe for interpreting, and often have many layers of meaning. So, I suggested a mini-workshop on telling folktales. She thought it would be fun.

The first thing I did was find stories that had a metaphor that I could work with throughout the day. That metaphor was "digging for treasure." As they came in and took their places, there was paper that folded into a box. There were markers and stickers to dress up the box - inside and out.

After a short intro I told "Sunday Visits." It's a story about my grandma and her treasure box that she shared with me. At the end of the story, the treasure box morphs into a memory box. Then, I told them about folktales and told "The Peddler of Swaffam. It was the perfect story to complement the first,  to set the metaphor, and to use as an example of an easy tale to tell. I had the story map already drawn on a stand-up easel and told them about "the bones of the story" and how to use it to make a story map.

The day started a little before 9:00 and by the time I ended, it was only at 9:30! We took a break and I started to angst about the extra time - one whole hour! Then, the muse walked in. We didn't have introductions since everyone knew each other, but...I didn't know them. So, when they came back in, I had them say their names, how they were connected to Unity, and one thing no one else knew about them. (the last part came from Betty). It really opened the event up. Their remarks were interesting and funny. It gave me a feel about who they were, too.

I found six short folktales (with the help of my cyber-buds on Storytell and the Healing Arts SIG). They were not only short, but also spoke to the Hospice workers on many levels. It was my original thought that the tables would be set up with the chairs around the tables. That wasn't quite the configuration and it was too much of a hassle to rearrange. And, when I first wrote the agenda, I was going to have several different ways to do the bones - creative dramatics, poetry, story path, story scenes, etc. Thank goodness, I nixed that idea. Keep It Simple Silly! So, I settled on only doing the story maps. Good choice. It gave them something to hold onto - a visual that proved to be a big help with a group totally unaware of storytelling.

To expedite the story process I had already...selected the 6 stories and wrote down the bones. I had four copies of the bones for each story. That was enough for each pair to have the bones of a story. I had thought that they would read the story in their groups and then work, as a group to flesh it back up. That was not going to happen. So, I handed out the bones to the pairs and I read the six stories. Now, if I'd have known that ahead of time, I would have told the stories - not read them. I felt it dragging a bit having to read.

Then I had big paper and markers on the tables for them to draw pictures of the bones that I gave them. They did it without too much trouble. My daughter, Chrissie gave me passes (eventually for everyone) to the Funny Bone where she works. As questions, comments, etc. came out I started giving out the passes. It was a lot of fun.

Then I talked more about fleshing their stories up. What elements like dialog, adjectives, characterization, setting, images, repetition, and participation could be added to flesh it back up.

Then I made the mistake of telling them to tell the story to their partners. They kind of looked at me with a blank stare. Oh-oh, regroup. So, I had them do a virtual story exercise. I told them to close their eyes and I walked them through the story - "Where is your story taking place? What time period is it? See the main character (human or animal) - how tall, what color hair, etc? What does his/her voice sound like. Look at another character. What are the characters saying to each other?"

Then, I asked for volunteer to tell me about their story from the story paths they had drawn. I was so impressed! Many of them caught on right away. They were going places in those stories that I never dreamed of. Afterwards one attendee was disappointed that she had not "made the story her own." She was stuck on the way I had read the story. I told her that that was fine. Sometimes the story is what it is for us. We don't have to do much with it because it already speaks to us.

Many took a break on and off during this exercise. When we gathered again, I told them to tell the story to their partners. I ask them to try to tell it without the map, but most used it anyway. Then, they changed partners and told it again. I asked them to pay particular attention to what happened in the second telling.

Now, I was ready for them to come up and tell the story or, if they wanted...about the story. They were still glued to the story maps, but there was a change. They relied on it less and less and I could see the stories beginning to take wing. Hoo-hah! I finally asked someone to try to tell without the aid of the paper. I think I had one taker. Then, I asked them what they learned from the second telling to the partner. They agreed that they were freer to tell the story. It came easier. New things occured to them.

I think, all in all, about a third of them either told me about their story path or told the story. They came up with some creative, funny, interesting stories. You could feel the energy of the group as they told the stories.

Here are the stories they told:

As we approached the lunch break, I had them pick a partner - preferably someone they did not know well for an exercise to do after lunch.

I still had 15 minutes to spare. One lady said she really wanted me tell "The Piasa." So, I told that to fill the time. Story to the rescue!!

After a delicious repast of soup and sandwiches we met in the chapel. Using the story prompts, Betty and I modeled what it meant to be a poor listener and what it meant to be an active listener. Betty started to tell me about something and I did some obnoxious thing like - gave her no eye contact, acted bored, interrupted with my story. Then she told again, and I was an active listener - nodding my head, asking to clarify, being non-judgmental, etc. It got the point across to the attendees.

Then, I gave each pair a 3x5 card with three story prompts on it. Things like... Tell me about: your first bicycle; a favorite Halloween outfit; the time you were scared. Then, they were to walk for almost an hour, enjoy the beautiful grounds, and discuss the memories they had from the card. Some felt they had to rigidly follow what was on the card. I assured them that they could use those prompts or find a topic that they could both share in. They could also find a quiet place to talk...they didn't have to go for the walk.

In the mean time, I had to come up with some leading questions for when they returned. We were to discuss what they had learned in this exercise. So, I asked things like - what did you discover was the same in your stories, what was different? Did you learn something about your partner that really surprised you? etc. These were good choices for questions and they led to a lot of discussion. The staff coordinator also wanted me to tell them how they could use these new tools at work and at home.

We were now coming to the eleventh hour. I ended with a mini-concert of stories. Again, I picked those stories that I felt would get to the heart of the hospice workers. Here are the stories I told:

It was a magical moment. They all went with me - some with tears, some with laughter.

After some questions, it was time to go. Three-thirty seemed to get there very quickly. The staff coordinator asked the group, if they thought that, if they had told them that this was about storytelling, would they have thought it was going to be boring. They nodded in agreement. But now they knew what storytelling was - how it builds community, passes on traditions, and speaks to us on many levels. Some stayed around to ask more questions and I received a lot of comments about how useful the retreat day was for them. One even said she wanted to pursue storytelling.

Don't you just love it when new challenges come your way?

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