Peer Mentoring via the Internet:
Over the last decade, E-mail has allowed storytellers to exchange stories and thoughts with each other across the country and around the world. We can now collaborate on developing ideas for working with specific topics and audiences, while planning story programs that help explore these themes. The following articles combine three different storytellers' experiences in this peer mentoring process and some of the wonderful ideas that were generated. AC
Susan, a nurse supervising local home health care workers, called me and asked if I thought storytelling would work well for their upcoming employee retreat day. "That's a great idea!" I told her. "What are some of the topics that you would want included in the stories for your group?"
The nurse replied, "This day is set aside for employees to think about taking care of themselves while they are taking care of others. This means keeping a balance in their lives, managing stress levels and above all - remembering to have fun. This staff is constantly challenged to try to help folks who have few resources. I want to engage them in some humorous and relaxing ways to explore these subjects and I thought storytelling was a good way to do that."
I heartily supported this idea and we agreed on a date and time frame. As I began to plan which stories to tell at the retreat, what immediately came to mind was not as many "humorous" stories, but more "touching" stories. I decided I needed to have some outside input to loosen up my approach for this event and E-mailed other tellers that I know in the Healing Story Alliance, and also sent an appeal to the STORYTELL
listserv run by Texas Women's University. I described the retreat's purpose, promised to share a compilation of any ideas offered with all contributors and thanked everyone in advance for any help that they could offer.
The response that flooded in from other tellers was wonderful! One of the first to reply to my request was Nancy Duncan from Nebraska. "One idea which comes to me is the story "Aga-boogabay" by Ruth Stotter, from Joining In, An Anthology Of Participation Stories & How To Tell Them, compiled by Teresa Miller, (Yellow Moon Press, Cambridge, MA. '91). It's written for kids, but you could reframe it for caregivers. Essentially, a person finds a magic cap on the sidewalk, puts it on and they suddenly shout, 'AGA BOOGABEY, XNAY SNAZNAY!' And they get this creepy, tingling feeling all through them, and they want to do something wild, something weird, something they've never done before...."
Nancy described some of the wild escapades that occur to the characters as they each find the cap and added, "Always, you are asking the audience 'What do you think happened? Yes, she did do that, and...' - for however many times you want to do this (have all sorts of crazy things happening), until finally the most senior member of the family (or of the hospital, or whatever), is found by the rest of the family (or care center) doing something nutty, and they all yell 'Take off the cap!' I think this would be fun because you could have planned a whole bunch of things related to care giving - and could also use the ones they offer up. You could also pre-question some home health care folks and ask them what they'd really like to do in a care center or their client's homes, but would never get to do it."
Elisa Pearmain of Massachusetts sent a list of short tales from her book, Doorways to the Soul, and added "One thing that I have noticed when doing programs with lots of these short stories is that they need to be balanced with a few longer stories, or a good commentary and audience participation. Listeners long to really sink in to a tale and short tales seem sometimes to end abruptly which can feel a little awkward to the listener."
Gail Rosen from Maryland was another teller who generously offered some story ideas and added, "Something else I thought might be useful is the book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Bus Lives by Wayne Muller, (Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub., 2000). I found some of the concepts useful for my workshop on Nurturing the Nurturers."
Seattle storyteller, Pat Peterson, wrote me, "How about a 'shaped' version of Bessie and the Headly Kow (Koo). Instead of Bessie working for others doing housework - she could be a caregiver. I fool with folktales all the time. Women do love Bessie as she is 'of an age - and attitude."
Cristy West of Washington DC encouraged me to include a story she has heard me tell: "'Bundles of Worries, Bundles of Blessings' would be a natural here. Strive for an abundantly playful process - with lots of audience participation involved. And I advise not limiting yourself by the parameters they have given you. Stay away from moralizing stories! Think outside the box."
Ofra Kipnis from Israel wrote, "Remember, stressed spelled backwards is desserts!"
I also received ideas for stories from Laura Simms (New York), Kimberley King (Oregon), Melanie Ray (Canada), Colin McNaughton (Michigan), Tim Sheppard (England), and Susan Rowland (Australia). Talk about an international think tank! Even when suggestions for stories didn't seem to fit my style, this particular event or the time constraints, these ideas still helped me to further define the themes and content that I did want this event to contain. And some tellers wrote that they couldn't think of any stories to suggest, but asked me to please share what I ended up telling. This reinforced for me that we all have times when our mind comes up blank and brainstorming with other tellers is helpful to others as well as to me. Thank goodness for E-mail and generous storytellers!
So, after all these wonderful suggestions - what did I end up telling? Here is the program I designed - thanks to all the wonderful input I received:
1. "The Trouble Tree," which was shared with me in the past by Kathy Murphy, a Northwestern teller who works with elders in care centers. The story: a man hangs his troubles on a tree each evening before he enters his front door because he doesn't want to bring troubles home from work. When he goes to pick them up again in the morning - there are never as many troubles as he had left the night before. Kathy found this story in A Fourth Helping of Chicken Soup from the Chicken Soup series. I invited my audience to put their troubles aside for the next hour as they listened to stories...
As Nancy Duncan suggested, I called back the nurse to learn more details about her hopes for the story program and what challenges she and the staff faced in their work. Susan preferred that I focus only on stories rather than interspersing activities in-between, and it was most important to include humor. After further discussion about what was going on in her employees' lives, I learned that their office was moving to new quarters that may be even more cramped than they were now.
2. It Could Always Be Worse: I retold the Jewish tale (also known as The Noisy House) by placing the story in an office inhabited by our hero, Sam, whose heart lies with his small farm in the woods and not in the ambience offered by his office. As the stress of the sounds of the fax, phone, beepers, copy machine, and computers grows to a crescendo, he asks the wise man down the hall for advice and Sam is told that he should bring his chicken into work with him to nest in his cubicle... followed by the dog, goat, pig, etc. I engaged the audience in making the sounds of the office machines, and later the animals, as they were introduced into the office during the story and we had lots of noisy fun accompanied by the head nods of those who could relate to Sam's predicament. I even included Cristy West's suggestion and had the administration commend Sam's approach for "thinking outside the box!" or in this case - cubicle.
I called Gail Rosen and talked with her about Wayne Muller's book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives and she shared the following two short pieces from Muller's book. Remembering Elisa Pearmain's thoughts on interspersing long and short stories - I used these tiny stories in between the longer tales. Here are the bones of the tales...
3. There is a story of a South American tribal people who went on a great journey, marching day after day. Suddenly they stopped, made camp and rested for a day. When asked why, they said they had to stop and wait for their souls to catch up to them.
5. "Bessie and the Hedley Kow": (from Tatterhood And Other Tales, by Ethel Johnston Phelps, The Feminist Press, New York, 1978), a story about Bessie finding a pot of gold and as she drags it home, the treasure repeatedly transforms into something less valuable. Bessie keeps rolling with the punches and finds the value in each incarnation of her diminishing wealth - even when it becomes a rock. When the Hedley Kow, a local magical trickster, finally reveals that the treasure was his enchanting self all along, she is equally delighted and invites him in to dinner, where they become the best of friends. Ever after, Bessie always has enough food, wood and good company. As Pat Peterson had suggested, I adapted the story to include that Bessie also helped out the sick and infirm by doing their cleaning, shopping and tending.
6. "A-Ga-Booga-Way-Ex-Nay-Sneeze-Nay": At Nancy Duncan's suggestion, I rewrote the circumstances of the story so that the cap was found in the candy vending machine when the care worker was really trying to get some chocolate (and used the "desserts" line that Ofra offered). The care worker who found the cap suddenly decided to take the client out to roll down the hill in a wheelchair, liberate the pets at the pet store and follow up with ice cream. The next worker to find the cap also found the client's house empty, so he opened the windows, threw out all the old newspapers, bottles, etc. and repainted all the rooms in bright colored beach scenes. The supervisor who came to investigate and found the cap, went back to the office and ordered all the desks replaced by massage tables and... you get the idea! The caregivers group laughed throughout the tale and several called out that these new policies needed to be implemented right away!
7. I closed with an adapted version of "Bundles of Troubles, Bundles of Blessings," the Jewish tale of trading one's own troubles for someone else's (from A Piece Of The Wind And Other Stories To Tell by Ruthilde Kronberg and Patricia McKissack, Harper, 1990).
Everyone seemed to enjoy the program. I was so grateful for all of the suggestions that helped me shape this collection of stories, creating an experience in which caregivers could de-stress and share a time of rest, enjoyment and possibly a bit of inspiration!
Allison Cox has graduate degrees in Counseling Psychology and Public Health. She has worked as a mental health therapist, social worker, and in health education/promotion and for the past 18 years, storytelling has accompanied her along these many paths. Allison brings a multicultural approach to her work at the local Health Department, where her storytelling projects have focused on all ages, from birth to elders. She was the chair for the Storytelling for Prevention Conference in Fife, WA, 1998 and is a board member of the Healing Story Alliance. She has performed across Canada and the US, offering concerts & workshops on storytelling as a healing art or just for the love of story.