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Laughter, Tears, Healing, and the Art of Storytelling

By March 18, 2013June 30th, 2016Moments

Everyone has a story to share. In fact, most people have libraries to share.

Stories are the result of Living in the Moments that Matter to each of us.

Classic LifeCare brought the magic of storytelling to a group of Calgarians by funding a pilot program at Wellspring Calgary in the Fall of 2012.  Wellspring is an organization dedicated to providing support, resources and programs for anyone living with cancer and the people who care about them.

The Storytelling Program facilitators – a music therapist, an artist, and a professional storyteller – gathered at Wellspring on March 8 to discuss the experience and talk about the future.

Anna Carnell, Wellspring’s Program Manager, and Britney Didier, Classic LifeCare’s Regional Leader – Alberta, who together created the concept of the storytelling program, participated in the discussion. The sunny Wellspring sitting room where the discussion took place was abuzz with memories from the program and brainstorming for its continuation.

“When I initially came to Wellspring looking for a way to offer some support, I approached Anna not knowing what that support would look like,” said Didier. “We put our heads together and came up with this Storytelling Program. I feel honored to have been a part of this. It was so great to take the experience back to our employees and clients.”

Classic LifeCare had just rebranded with a new name and the tagline “Living in the Moments that Matter.” Storytelling – or sharing the moments that matter – seemed like a fitting initiative to support in the community.

The pilot project brought together Jeff Stockton, professional storyteller, Kathie MacDuff, artist, Jennifer Buchanan, music therapist, and Cynthia Jones, art therapist.

Stockton, a former classroom teacher for 12 years, had participated in storytelling events previously at Wellspring and was introduced to the organization when a friend of his was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Like the bards, minstrels and troubadours of ages past, Stockton combines storytelling with the playing of a stringed instrument – his harp.

“It’s hard for people at first to get their head around the idea of both storytelling and the harp. They understand being a musician and they understand storytelling. But throughout history, the combination of the two is very powerful.”

For Stockton, the moments of laughter during his session at Wellspring stand out.

“The exercise of bringing these stories out opens up an incredible place of risk for adults in a circle of strangers. This is not a private monologue; it’s a dialogue with the world.  It’s not easy to navigate your emotions in front of a group when you’ve never done it, you’re in a heightened emotional state, you’re unsure. And that is a great risk for most people.”

He said the moments of laughter would let everyone know it was going to be OK.

“It can’t feel like work. There has to be a sense of play. If it’s not joyful, I don’t know if there’s much point in doing it.”

Buchanan said individual moments from her session don’t stand out as much as overall impressions.

“The word ‘unfolding’ comes up,” she said. “Exuberance, happiness, tears, emotion. One person participating in my session simply locked up. It was too much, too extreme – as music is.”

Buchanan, who has always been musical but didn’t want to teach or entertain, became a music therapist because she liked the concept of science and music and therapy coming together. She wanted to work with people in a deeper, intentional way.

When she was just 14 years old, her grandmother had her sing at her grandfather’s bedside.

“My granddad was a somewhat miserable man, a very rough, grumpy man. And he cried. That moment made me think that a behavioral change could represent an emotional and a physical change too.”

MacDuff said Jones reflected on a shared favorite moment from the program where one of the participants had an epiphany.

“It was the most incredible moment to witness,” said MacDuff. “She told her story and actually sang a little in front of the group. It gave me goose bumps.”

Jones said the woman shared a story she had never told anyone before. Through her work in each session, she spoke her story, sang it, and turned it into a book.

“She didn’t even know why her story was important to her or that she needed to tell it until it unfolded by going through this process.”

Jones, who observed the complete process of the Storytelling Program from its inception to the final gathering, knew she wanted to be an artist because, unlike most people, never stopped creating. She became interested in why people made art, why they stopped making art, and what art stirred in them.

Now a full-time art therapist, she said the Storytelling Program was moving and inspiring. She wrote a report about the program, including recommendations to make it better in the future.

MacDuff, a former print journalist, editor, and newspaper owner, has been teaching art for 15 years. She has been teaching out of her own studio for eight years and at Wellspring for the past four. Her Storytelling Program session involved altered books.

“I love working with people, period. But at Wellspring, I have been amazed at the ability of people to leave their masks behind and share and express and tell their stories. They know they are supported and listened to.”

Not one of the stories shared during the program was about cancer, which was not a great surprise for these facilitators.

“It’s not about the illness,” said Jones. “These people are so much more than their illness.”

Wellspring surveyed the participants of the program once it finished and they overwhelmingly praised the experience.

“It’s not for us to dictate the purpose of a program or to rate its success,” said Carnell. “It’s up to the participants to decide. In this case, the response has been fantastic.”

Feedback during the program was equally positive when Buchanan, during the final gathering of all three groups, asked the participants to write down responses to the question, “What doors has storytelling opened for you?”

Some of the answers included:

“Storytelling has brought to life, animated, excellent memories I haven’t known how to bring into the light and celebrate and to have shared and brought joy to others as well as myself.”

“Storytelling has opened windows into my heart, windows into the hearts of others, windows into the heart of the world.”

“Music has opened my mind, my heart, my soul. To tell my story and think that my family can understand me better has given me hope.”

“Storytelling has opened a world of challenges, creativity, as well as fantasy.”

Buchanan took the answers and improvised them into a song – reportedly a moving experience for all in attendance.

Buchanan, MacDuff, Jones and Stockton agreed the Storytelling Program, if it continues in the fall, could benefit from a few tweaks.

“We could look at all of us coming together at the beginning and then again at the end so there is more continuity between the sessions,” suggested Jones. “Maybe we could rotate the schedule rather than offer each session in blocks.”

Carnell said Wellspring welcomes the Storytelling Program back for Fall of 2013.

For more information about Wellspring, visit http://www.wellspringcalgary.com/

PHOTO: (left to right) Cynthia Jones, Jennifer Buchanan, Kathie MacDuff, Britney Didier, Anna Carnell, and Jeff Stockton