These members of Portland Silvercrest Residence participated in the storytelling group: (left to right) Richard Bell, Rowena Lasky, Annemarie Wright, Ruby Van Amburg, Janet Conger and Chris Hovey, with volunteer Lucie Tillson (in back).
Think of some of your best memories. How does it make you feel to remember them? How does it feel when you get to share them?
Everyone has a story – probably many more than just one. Yet, a person can go through life and never really feel understood or listened to, even among their family and closest friends.
In fact, we all desire to “be known,” to share our experiences and feel heard, and to have our life events given context and meaning. We want to understand who we believe ourselves to be.
A local Life History Program attempts to close that gap by offering storytelling workshops at a number of locations in the Portland area, include the Hollywood and Lake Oswego senior centers. Workshops start again in January.
Participants say they go home feeling lighter, knowing they’ve been prompted to ignite memories, expand horizons, connect the dots and practice compassionate listening.
The two-hour workshops, sponsored by VIEWS, are led by trained peer volunteers, once a week for eight weeks. They meet in senior centers, multi-cultural centers, and other locations.
“It’s not professional counseling, it’s not psychotherapy, it’s peer support,” says Peter Walsh, VIEWS program manager. “But in the midst of it, therapeutic things occur. People may come to a realization or change their perspective on something in their life.”
Lucie Tillson is one of about 12 volunteer facilitators trained to lead groups of seniors in conversations about their own life and times.
But joining a group and sharing life stories is a significant endeavor. How much — or how little — a person wants to share is his or her own choice.
She says one participant commented, “I wonder how many of us heard our ‘voice’ for the first time.”
Walsh says facilitators teach the group members how to share and be more open.
“People might be uncomfortable in a group, and fairly quiet in the first couple sessions,” he says. “Then they begin to feel this is a safe place, and they can share something. They get the support of their peers.”
Tillson and other leaders prepare a list of questions. Each week covers a period of a person’s life, from childhood to the current time. Participants spend the week writing their thoughts and bringing them to share with the group.
“There are a lot of laughs and a few tears,” says Tillson, an empathetic volunteer who emphasizes the confidentiality of the workshops.
Some questions are simple, others are designed to spark some memory or promote more insight.
For example, one set of questions about early childhood asks, “With whom did you share your secrets? Where did you go for comfort?”
Walsh says the goal is to get participants expressing themselves. “We don’t have a goal here,” he says. “It’s about the peers themselves coming to realizations. The facilitators don’t dig into a question —‘Why did you do that?’ or ‘What were you feeling?’ — it’s what the person wants to share.”
Even for herself, Tillson realizes she knew very little about her parents’ younger lives. She was successful in eliciting some information from her father but none from her mother.
“It is part of the generation to not want to talk about the past,” she says, “but it is changing.”
Tillson says she feels honored to be a part of the storytelling community, and getting to know people because it gives her a sense of purpose.
“It helps people put their life in order and make sense of it,” she says. “They like to pass on things to children and family. By reliving memories, you get a sense of your place in the universe. These workshops reduce isolation and promote community.”
One of the benefits is to hear from others who have had similar experiences and how they accomplished what was required under all kinds of circumstances.
“These workshops can be comforting, intimate and respectful,” Tillson says. “People can feel they’ve been heard with no judgment. You can talk freely without someone telling you what you need to do.”