The Power of Life Story Sharing--
To Build Relations, Bridge
Differences, Link Lives,
Convey Values, Transcend Time and Space
Dolly Haik-Adams Berthelot copyright 2000
Adaption of speech Dr. Dolly gave in
2000 to Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Plattsburgh,
recent summer day, my friend Dorothy Latta and I crossed
over Lake Champlain from Plattsburgh, NY, to putz
around Grand Isle, VT. We were heading to North
Hero for house tours and a little antiquing. A sign
scrawled "Barn Sale" forced my Mazda off
the highway, down a few smaller roads. The barn
was full of old goodies, from 1980s magazines to
plates and plastic Santas. Dorothy paused at a collection
of Strawberry china, cups and saucers, cream and
sugar pitchers. "My gramma Latta had a lot
of that strawberry pattern all over her kitchen,"
said Dorothy. She was obviously transported to another
time and place, reunited with a special person from
her North Carolina past. Remembering does that,
brings people back to us. Dorothy's words connected
me with that grandmother and more closely to Dorothy.
Sharing does that, binds people together.
the owner was telling us her story. Well, it
was facts about that barn and the house next door,
but it was her story all right. Mrs. LaMotte explained
that the barn and house were 150 years old, built
before the Civil War, before Lincoln was president,
as she likes to tell her grandkids. She inherited
the barn, the saltbox house, and acres of rolling
hills and forest. A relative had surprised her in
his will. Mrs. LaMotte and her husband had "always"
lived just down the road (like several of their
kin) and "naturally" helped the former
owners for years, as they became elderly and infirm.
The LaMottes didn't expect to be left anything.
"Oh, maybe a tractor," she said. But instead,
they were bequeathed that property, complete with
a giant virgin red oak in the woods behind the field.
LaMotte and her husband recently had the house renovated,
clad in vinyl from top to bottom. She chose the
cheerful turquoise roof and shutters and the salmon
colored exterior, colors more common in Florida
than in North Country. They added rails along the
back porch, to protect the grandkids, mostly. They
"didn't want the kids to fall or to get a head
stuck through the slats." Grandma figured her
fists were about the right size, so she put them
together and used them as a measuring device, far
more personal than a tape measure. Her husband came
behind her and hammered.
150 years from now, I hope that family will know
that in the late l990's, " olden times,"
those slats were lovingly added by grandpa and spaced
by grandma's hands. They will know only if someone
passes on the story. Grandma is certainly doing
her part, telling anyone who will listen.
listened willingly, eagerly, appreciating the delight
and the old-fashioned community spirit reflected
in the stranger's stories. "If I'm baking and
run out of eggs, I don't think of running to the
store," Mrs. LaMotte says, "I just go
borrow a half dozen from one of the neighbors. They
are all kin folk. Next time, they'll come get something
LaMottes plan to create a local museum in the barn,
reflecting older farm life, preserving history,
bringing their family, their community, their unique
time and place on this earth to life. This woman
seems to know, instinctively, that life stories
are worth saving, worth sharing.
moments we lingered to listen connected us with
that life, that community. We took a little
time to hear her stories, and we learned something
about another way of living.
a passion for building and nurturing community,
I filtered her words through that interest. Someone
else might have filtered it through their love of
Vermont history or Franco American culture or even
farm technologies. Selective perception is a communication
basic. The listener is never just a "receiver."
One of my favorite Chinese proverbs says this well:
"We see the world, not as it is, but as we
are." We hear everything from the perspective
of who we are, what we want and need. Yet we need
need to hear other people's experiences, reflect
on our own life experiences, and share our life
stories with others, present and future.
told us, "The unexamined life is not worth
living." 2500 years later, that is no less
true. The past is always present, whether we recognize
it or not. By remembering our experiences, retracing
our steps, recalling special people, places, and
events, we come to better understand ourselves and
the people who have impacted and shaped our lives.
Such scrutiny may uncover connections between this
behavior or that, may reveal patterns. Mine Your
Memories™ uncovers gems within, treasures that
are ours for the taking. Rummage through your past
to discover wisdom you didn't know was there. Through
life review and story gathering, you will find both
amusement and therapeutic benefit. You will find
yourself, seen fresh. We are our stories…
stories we connect more deeply with other human
beings, people who seem much like us, and
people who seem different from us. People of different
ages, ethnic background or heritage, different socio-economic
status, different backgrounds, different lifestyles.
in Diversity/human relations work like a CommUNITY
Dialogues™ process helps people use their own
experiences, their stories, to build bridges of
humanity. Strong bridges. Bridges sturdy enough
to hold real relationships. Stories link people nearby and across time and space.
Remote native tribes in Africa and New Guinea
have something in common with the
LaMottes living in that little family compound on
Grand Isle, Vermont . Unlike
most of us, people who spend their lives in extremely
small, tight communities just naturally share their
lives with the same people, day by day, year by
year, through all the births, illnesses, milestones,
celebrations, shames, family turmoil, trials, tribulations,
and triumphs. Together they celebrate milestones,
deal with calamities, and mourn deaths.
Persons living in such close, consistent communities
have a pretty good handle on each other's stories.
And yet some such cultures make an extra effort
to preserve the stories, to pass them on. The tribal
storyteller in Ghana is a revered position, recognized
as important. In some cultures it is routine to
share the night's dreams each morning with breakfast.
in North Hero, Vt., a woman spontaneously talks
with strangers at a barn sale, tells her grandchildren
about the house built before Lincoln was born, about
the unexpected reward of her good deeds, about her
hands as measuring tools, about a museum that will
share the stories more widely. Values are preserved
and passed on as stories are preserved and passed
contrast, too many Americans have ignored their
ancestors and family history and not bothered
to examine their own life stories, much less share
them with others. They too rarely share much of
their past lives with friends, or pass them on to
their progeny. And yet we desperately need to do
all that. Why? We must share life stories in order
to learn about ourselves. In order to learn about
other people. In order to understand the times,
cultures, events, and people, the roots, genealogy,
family history that made us who we are and the times,
cultures, events, and people who have made others
what they are.
often today we get more stories from television,
movies, and books than from other human beings.
We know the fabricated characters on TV better than
we may know our real friends and neighbors or even
family members. TV and now the Internet have nurtured
in us a flickering attention span. The image will
shift or blink momentarily. Keep the action going! Teachers
know how difficult it is to keep a bunch of kids
enthralled these days. People have lost the ability
to listen, to have patience enough to take in and
process a long string of words. Is TV boring you?
The remote control makes escape ever so easy. Click.
Turn it off. Click. Turn that channel. Click. Jump
to another. Unfortunately, we ourselves are too
often mere fragmented images to one another. Mobility,
transience, and the complexity of modern lives conspire
to compartmentalize us into pieces rarely seen whole.
use me as an example. My family and friends
in my hometown of Bogalusa, LA know mainly the Dolly
Adams me--perhaps an arty, creative child and determined
youth or maybe just Mac and Elaine's oldest daughter
of many. Click. Southeastern La. College Undergraduate,
Hammond, La. Classmates and others may recall a
student newspaper editor or a daily newspaper writer
and editor. Click. Some folks from Oak Ridge, TN.
may recall a memorable teacher of English, journalism, or black
studies and student newspaper adviser during
the turbulent late sixties. To in-laws I am primarily
Ron's wife; to Destin's teachers, simply his Mom.
Fragments. In Turkey Ron and I were friendly Americans,
enthusiastic young explorers of a foreign culture.
Fast forward 25 years and we are not so young transplanted
Southerners exploring North Country.
threads connect all the pieces, tie the child in Bogalusa to the freelance
writer in Turkey and Europe to the professor at
Loyola U. to the communication consultant and workshop
leader, art lover, and mad antiques collector, community
activist in Pensacola, FL. The woman who was mostly
Destin's mother to his teachers and peers, is linked
to the young woman traveling the world, the graduate
student and Bicentennial book publisher in Knoxville,
the older woman writing life stories in view of
(alternatively) Bayou Texar and Lake Champlain. As
that woman, all of that woman, and the one to come,
I benefit from tracing those threads, understanding
how they weave together in the rich tapestry of my
a complex, mobile society like ours, life's tapestry
gets shredded. The continuity of our lives is
ripped by transience and fragmentation. Community
is fragile, torn, scattered. Our need to examine
and to share our stories is vital--for our own mental
health, for our relationships and our cohesiveness
in community, and for the good of a future that
can learn from our past. Sharing the stories orally
or interpersonally has immediate value. Writing
the stories extends the value. See Why
Share Life Stories? and 55
that day in rural Vermont, my friend and I ran late
and missed the home tours to which we'd been headed.
And we bought no antiques. But we took home some
unexpected gifts--new memories, human connections,
rich experience. It's worth ambling down some old
roads to find lost treasures. It's worth sharing
those treasures with other people. You are worth
it. And they are too.
services are fully guaranteed to your satisfaction.
Your Memories™ is an affiliate of Berthelot
Consulting, Pensacola, FL.
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