I believe in the power of story. Story can bridge differences and break our isolation. Sharing memories strengthens our individuality while simultaneously connecting us to our collective humanity. I believe in the powerful simplicity of simply listening to one another. Listening can honor and heal and give the voiceless reason to speak. I believe this because of a man named Craig.
Sitting in the dayroom of the Red Cross Adult Care Center, a note-pad in my hand, I faced 15 seniors. I had spent time listening to elders share their stories with me one on one. I was trying something new. A small group would be asked the same question and everyone would be given time to share their individual story. I would turn their memories into a collective poem as a way of honoring the tellers.
“What food carried you to a specific memory?” I asked. Edna told of learning to make biscuits with her grandmother. Sam talked about ice cold watermelon on a summer day, and the juice dripping down his face and hands. I noticed that others around the table were nodding their heads. Sam’s story had released their watermelon memories. Craig was next. I had seen Craig on previous visits to the center. He always sat alone in the corner. He didn’t talk because a stroke had affected his speech. Craig looked down and mumbled, “Ma’s chicken broth.” Not soup, but chicken broth – that warm, nurturing medicine given to the sick. “Craig did you choose this because it reminds you of a time when you felt nurtured and loved,” I asked. He nodded his head.
I returned to the center with “Soul Food” a collective memory poem, which had the name and story of every person who had participated. When I read their poem, some smiled, others clapped when they heard their name. When he heard his name, Craig worked his body so he was sitting up straight, a satisfied grin made its way across his face.
After I read, I asked a new question. “What song takes you to a specific place?” The answers were flying out so quickly, I hardly had time to write. John’s story of dancing at the Pavilion brought delighted whoops as Mary confessed kissing a boy on the same dance floor. Craig tried to say his song. Dysphasia made it impossible. “Can you sing it Craig?” I asked. He quietly started to hum. Emma recognized the tune and started to sing. Soon everyone around the table was singing Craig’s song. Craig hummed louder, tears streaming down his face. Common ground was stronger than paralyzed tongues and slurred words. Story had transformed coexisting individuals into a community.
The abundance of memories within us, are valuable resources that can be used to create links and ties within communities. We are all cups overflowing with life’s waters and all around us are hundreds of opportunities to fill and be filled by the wisdom and grace of the human experience.
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