Digging in the treasure box of memories

“I can’t tell a story,” he said. “My memory’s gone. I’m just here to listen”

The man sat on his motorized wheelchair, in a workshop on telling stories. I remember his jaunty cap and the fringe of grey hair around his ears and the back of his neck. We were at the Tulsey Town Storytelling Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was giving the group some tips on crafting a compelling tale from the flotsam and jetsam of their lives.

We did some exercises to stir their creative juices. I wanted them to leave with one good story they could wow their friends with, some gem mined from the ore of their lives. We worked at chipping away extraneous detail until only the shining core remained.

They all tried and most were eager to share their polished stones. The man in the wheelchair listened. His eyes were lively. But he couldn’t handle any of the exercises. They were tapping into the labyrinth of his short-term memory. That part of his brain was a jumble. Words dropped in and rolled off into dead ends or got lost around corners.

He dug a gem from the treasure box of his life (Photo courtesy of Sam at Photos8.com, whose work is brilliant)

Still, he laughed and nodded and sighed. I could see he was enjoying himself but was disappointed he couldn’t participate. At the end of the workshop, I learned how wrong my definition of participation had been.

He looked at me with a mischievous grin. “I love listening to stories, but I didn’t think I could ever be a storyteller. Now I know I can.” Others had stopped to talk so he ignored my startled expression and rolled away.

A story swap ended the day. That’s where anyone with a short story to tell can sign up for the chance to share a tale with the kind of receptive audience that flocks to storytelling festivals.

Our man in the wheelchair motored to the front. When all eyes were on him, he said, “Until today I believed I could never be a storyteller. My short-term memory is gone. I thought I had to learn stories in order to tell them. Now I know I can dig in the treasure box of my memories.”

That man dug a gem out of the treasure box of his memories. His short story had us holding our sides with laughter. The storytellers in the audience were wide-eyed with admiration. Here was a natural spinner of tales, a weaver of words, a teller who held us spellbound.

He also had an audience. I don’t know if he found other audiences after that day. I hope so. He was a gifted storyteller.

I thought of him yesterday when I ran across the report of a study carried about by University of Missouri Researchers. Patients with mild to moderate dementia increased their social interaction and were happier, an effect that lasted for weeks after the storytelling sessions. They were using the TimeSlips Creative Storytelling program, designed to tap into the imagination of Alzheimer’s patients. TimeSlips discovered that people with mid to late stages of memory loss may no longer be able to string together a story with beginning, middle and end. But they still have a treasure box of memories, full of shining stones.

We all have a treasure box. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to share our shining stones.

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