Telling Stories: Assisting Living
I recently attended a workshop entitled “the art of story listening and creating a personal mythology.” The stories told by the presenter were personal ones, and although to him they may have been contained truths representative of his life, to me they were just anecdotes. I left the workshop wondering what the term “personal mythology” could possibly mean.
Although I wasn’t inspired by the presenter’s strategies, I think I understand his motivation. He, as I am, was well past the midpoint of life, and I think that as we age, we feel more urgency to make meaning of our pasts and find meaning in the time we have left. And I do believe that stories help us make sense of life. So I decided to seek my personal mythology.
By simply combining the two terms, “personal” and “myth,” I came up with a working definition: personal mythology is a story, or cycle of stories, that expresses deep truths about one’s life and personal beliefs, truths that are impossible to articulate without the help of metaphor and narrative. It wasn’t great, but it was a start. So now my question was, can an individual find a way to make sense of his or her own life through its stories?
My reflections about how my own aging effects my life have been brought into focus by recent experience. For a year, I have been facilitating a writing workshop in an assisted living apartment complex in northern NJ. The complex houses older people who want to live independently, but need help with some of the day-to-day tasks they can no longer safely or effectively do on their own. Before this project, I have never taught a whole group of people older than myself, and all of the people in this workshop are at least a generation older than I. When I began the workshops, I didn’t think I would tell stories. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think my concerns had something to do with the fact that telling to my elders was putting things upside down. They should be imparting wisdom to me, not the other way around. I also worried that workshop participants might resent my storytelling because of the common misperception that it is an activity for children. Having reached the age where I am addressed too loudly, smiled at too brightly, and called ‘dear’ by rank strangers, I know how humiliating it can be to have people perceive you as childish or mentally deficient just because you have grey hair and wrinkles. I also think that the tendency of our society to treat “seniors” as if they are less capable than their youngers can make very old people especially sensitive to anything that hints of condescension.
However, after the first couple of workshops with no stories, I realized that the group needed the common metaphors that story would provide. The people in my workshop lived in the same building and even shared a daily meal, but they didn’t know each other well enough to converse comfortably. Also, although they are of the same generation and of similar cultures, they couldn’t easily make life-to-life connections with each other because there was no web of common experience or familiar stories to hold the group together. They are a diverse group of people who find themselves thrown together because age has deprived them of the physical ability to live independently in the community of their choice, and they are all trying to navigate strange waters.
‘Assisted Living’ is a term that softens the harshness of ‘Old Folks Home’ or ‘Senior Housing’ and, actually, the assisted living facilities I have visited bear no physical resemblance to the places in which my grandparents dreaded to end their lives. The building where I teach is not new, but it’s clean and homey. The library, where the workshop takes place, is well stocked with books and films, and it opens out to a patio garden graced by a pretty gazebo. The building staff is friendly and helpful, and the monthly calendar is filled with options for daily activities. It seems a nice place to live. But I wouldn’t want to live there.
Yet, I know, first hand, the difficulty of finding a suitable place for an older person to live. When my mother-in-law realized that she could no longer live on her own, she had been living far from her children for more than thirty years. She and her husband retired to a warmer climate when they were in their sixties and, little by little, she had seen the support system developed there: friends, family, and her husband, drop away. When she first moved back north, she lived with my husband and me, but we both work during the day and, because she had no network of friends or relatives outside our house, her days here were lonely and, occasionally, dangerous. She gave up her independence reluctantly, but assisted living was her best option.
Assisted Living facilities have become a social necessity. The mobility in our culture that allows young people to move away from families and hometowns, and encourages older people to colonize with their peers in exotic locations, has left us with monogenerational communities in which there are no old people to watch over the very young, and no middle generation to keep their eye on the frail elderly.
When I began telling stories to open the assisted living workshops, the group became more cohesive. By providing impersonal material for conversation, stories allow people to speak more openly, and of course, find common ground to tell their own stories. Stories do other things, too. They entertain, and take people out of themselves for a bit. Also, the intricate texture of even the simplest story allows each person to find an intellectually satisfying approach to the tale. Good stories never condescend to the listener; they offer ideas that match the understanding of each individual.
The first personal stories told in my workshop were stories of the past. Some of these were clearly painful for people to remember and more than once someone said, “I don’t want to think about these things.” I encouraged them to write about the stories I told, but an allusion to Cinderella’s slipper inevitably reminded someone of the ill fitting and shabby shoes she had worn as a child, the mention of a cruel king brought memories of Europe between the wars, and no one could even begin to entertain the idea of “happily ever after.” However, even with ghosts from the past gibbering around the circle as people told and retold stories of childhood and youth, we began to move past individual stories to the realization that the members of our group shared stories. We were telling a collection of stories about living through the first half of the twentieth century and there were threads connecting each person’s stories to those of others. There were stories of fear, poverty and loss, but there were also happy memories of parents now long gone, and children who are now grandparents, themselves. We were getting to know each other through our stories.
Conversation in the workshop became more comfortable and people began to talk and write about the present, about the circumstances that had brought them to the assisted living apartments, and about trying to adapt to that change. Again, the stories shared themes and motifs. But could you call them personal mythology?
We began talking about the mythology that the workshop members think of as their own – the stories of the Old Testament and the traditional midrashim that have become attached to them. These are stories that observant Jews read or hear, in a long-established order, year after year. The first five books of the Bible are read in weekly segments over the cycle of a year’s Sabbaths; and each season and holiday has its own story. The Binding of Isaac is told at the New Year, Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Miracle of the Oil near the winter solstice, The Redemption from Egypt in the spring, and Ruth at the beginning of summer. What is the effect, I wondered, of hearing these stories – stories of family trials and triumphs, of community struggles, of war and affliction, of victory over tyranny, of man’s struggle to understand the inequities of life and to reconcile them with the idea of an omniscient creator – over and over, year after year, in their own time, each on its own occasion? Does listening to these stories give us a structure for telling our own? Do they help us make sense of our own life experience? Aren’t these stories the ‘real’ personal mythology of the people who hear and tell them?
Myth is much larger than the story of any individual’s experience. It expresses the truths, dreams, desires, and fears of whole cultures through many generations. In a community that knows and retells its own mythology, there is no need to search for a personal story to bring self-awareness. The story has already been told, over and over and over again by all the generations up to our time. Furthermore, the Community of Man, has passed on its myths in the form of folktales, fairy tales, and legends, as well as in the myths of specific religions. It is telling and listening to these stories that allow us to make meaning of our own life experience, and to transcend it.
After several weeks of storytelling in the assisted living workshops, a participant said, “I keep coming back here, not because I want to write, but because I always leave feeling that something has touched my soul. It uplifts me and leaves me with something to think about.”
This is the magic of story – its ability to pluck the heartstrings in a way that brings harmony to the spirit. It frees the soul even when the body is an unremitting prison. The understanding that it brings isn’t intellectual, although we can analyze it to our benefit, and the stories that have the most power to affect us are the ones that have been in the world forever. I think we find our personal mythology in the myths of mankind. It’s why we need to continue telling and listening to them.