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Making the listener the hero of the story

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Our three Filipino girls skip into the Tuesday storytelling group and sit in the front row with their arms linked. Their mothers work at Baycrest Health Sciences and the girls like to visit when school’s out. They feel quite at home with the bubbies and zaidies in their walkers and wheelchairs. The girls are seven, eight, and nine years old; they bring the average age of the group down by 50 years.

“Why was six afraid of seven?” I ask them. They shrug. “Because seven ate nine.” The riddle earns a small laugh.

The other people in the room are patients from the hospital, residents of the long-term care facility, personal support workers, medical staff, family members. We come from Poland, Manila, South Africa, Winnipeg, Montreal, the U.S., Jamaica, Trinidad, and Kensington Market. A motley and multicultural storytelling tribe, we gather every Tuesday to exchange life-stories and folktales.

On the day when our three girls joined us, I told a folktale about a strange village.

A man was lost in the desert. A kind woman rescued him, led him to her village, nursed him back to health, and married him. He quickly discovered that this was an unusual village. Everything was free, but on one condition. Whenever you took what you wanted or desired, the provider would ask, “For today?” and the people answered, “Yes, for today and today only.”

One day the man saw strawberries in the marketplace. Worried that his favourite fruit might not be available again, he began to load up. “For today?” asked the fruit merchant. “Yes!” said the man, as he stuffed the strawberries into his pockets, cuffs, sleeves, and hat. He ran home and put the lovely fruit out for his wife to see.

“Nice,” she said. “When’s the party?”

“There is no party,” he said, “this is all for us. What we don’t eat today, we can have tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” she murmured. “You’re a tomorrow person?”

The strawberries had already begun to rot in their baskets and boxes. She banged a frying pan on the gate and the neighbours came running angrily toward the man. He turned and fled and ran back into the surrounding desert, collapsing on the sand. When he woke up, the village had disappeared.

After the story came the debate. Which is more important: to live for today or to plan for tomorrow? The eight-year-old girl giggled. “Tomorrow,” she said, “because tomorrow we’re going to Wonderland and playing in the water park.” The older listeners mostly voted for the live-for-today perspective.

Unlike the kids, our roller-coaster days are behind us and, even if we still feel like daredevils, you can only go so fast in your wheelchair. At our age you don’t buy green bananas; who knows how many tomorrows there will be?

Near the end of the session, I turned to the girls and asked if they’d like to hear one more story. They nodded. “Can you tell a story about us?” asked the eight-year-old.

So I started to make up a story for Samantha, Isabel, and Sophia. There were once three girls named Samantha, Isabel, and Sophia. They used to walk down the sidewalk with their arms linked together, just like three princesses. One day they went to Canada’s Wonderland. They had chips, funnel cake, and hot dogs. Then they went to the waterpark and went down the slide, played in the waterfall, and splashed water on each other.

Samantha spoke up. “Dan … could you not tell about things we like? Can you make it horrible?”

Make it horrible? I knew what she meant. I had forgotten the urgent and mysterious secret of the ancient art of storytelling: the listener is the hero of the story. Dylan Thomas wrote that art is how we make this ephemeral life “dangerous, great, and bearable.” My girls wanted to hear a story about themselves that was dangerous, great, and horrible.

The elders in the room laughed. They know from horrible. They have made meaningful, memorable lives despite the chaos and violence of war, despite poverty and anti-Semitism, despite their current struggles with the frailties of old age.

I rebooted the girls’ story knowing the stakes had to be a lot higher.

Three friends went to Canada’s Wonderland. They went on the scariest ride in the park. Even though they were terrified, they linked arms as the cabin started to go up. After 10 metres they looked down and saw their parents far, far below. After another 10 metres they could see all the way to the CN Tower. After another 10 metres they started to feel really sick. All of those funnel cakes didn’t feel so good anymore. After the next 100 metres they were so high they could see Manila. They could even see their grandparents. (“No,” corrected Sophia, pointing to her best friend. “She doesn’t have a grandfather anymore.”) Then they went even higher, all the way to the clouds. Then the cabin began to fall and the girls screamed and it was horrible! When they finally landed they all agreed to go straight to the waterpark.

My listener-protagonists had linked arms in their seats as their story personae ascended to the terrifying heights. The girls agreed that the story had been satisfyingly horrible.

Martin Buber described villagers listening to the stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great chassidic rabbi and master storyteller: “Under the touch of its words, the secret melody of each person was awakened.” If the listener is the hero of every story, then the story must reflect us as we could be, not merely as we are. If my three young champions had done nothing but eat funnel cake and jump around on the splashpad, how would they ever prove themselves? If you don’t face your dragon, how will you ever discover the courage you carry inside yourself?

By the end of the session, the group decided that stories teach us to honour yesterday, keep hoping for tomorrow, and always, always savour our dangerous, great, and even sometimes horrible todays.


Dan Yashinsky is the storyteller-in-residence at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto.

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