From “Once Upon a Time” to “Now I Know”: Healing Story at the Adirondack Arts & Healing Retreat

by Fran Yardley.

A number of years ago, a beloved storyteller named Nancy Duncan taught me a valuable technique for eliciting stories and poems from others. She said to start with the phrase “Once upon a time…” and explore what that brings up. Then move to “Then one day…” and do the same thing. Finally, end up with “Now I know…” and examine what arises. Through the years, this format has proven to be incredibly effective for me.

Once upon a time, I believed storytelling was about entertaining people. I found a story I loved and learned it. Coming from a theater background and not knowing anything different, at the very beginning and, thankfully,  only for a very short time, I memorized it. Then I stood up in front of people, told the story, and received applause.

From that “Once upon a time…”, there have been many “Then one days” leading me to this moment when healing story is the primaru focus of my storytelling career. My fast- forward button zips me from the years of standing in front of 350 third to fifth graders in elementary school cafetoriums and relishing their applause to this present day.

A group of women sit comfortably around a room, listening intently. Mary tells of her three car accidents and her breast cancer, and how each has progressively compromised her ability to function. Yet she marches into life each day with a wide-eyed joy and a twinkle of gratitude that she is still here to tell her story. Is this storytelling? Is it healing?

“The funny thing about cancer is it just stops you in your tracks when you first hear the diagnosis. You slowly begin to realize that your cells have turned against you, and if you can’t trust your cells, what can you trust? About the same time, I realized I was reluctant to talk about my cancer. If I talked about it, said the name out loud, then I guess it must be true. The idea of breast cancer was just too big to wrap my brain around. This led to isolation and fear and despair.” — Mary

Thirty women arrive at the conference center over a period of a few hours. After they register, they come into a central room. As staff, we welcome them and encourage them to join us at tables strewn with colored pens, sparkles, stickers, magazines with appealing pictures, and scissors to be used to design a name tag for the weekend. Cynthia is tentative. This is her first time at the retreat. Her hair is very short and the whites of her eyes have turned yellow from the damage to her liver and kidneys. But she gamely picks up a purple marker and chooses a magazine to look through. Other women around the table are talking. “Ooh, look at these butterflies! Perfect!” “Could you pass the blue marker? It’s my favorite color.” “Wow, my mom used to read this magazine.”

Across the table, Madeline has been working quietly. But someone mentions a particular chemotherapy drug and both Cynthia and Madeline snap their heads up. Their eyes meet. They begin to talk about their experiences with that drug and then about others, what kind of cancer they have, where they go for treatment. Is this storytelling? Is it healing?

The Adirondack Arts & Healing Retreat, held twice yearly at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, New York, has introduced me to Mary, Cynthia, Madeline, and a host of other extraordinary women. Here, we endeavor to provide a unique opportunity for women struggling with cancer and other chronic illnesses to tell their stories in a variety of contexts, and in the telling, develop a sense of connection, meaning, and empowerment.

As the years go by and I watch women return again and again with strong spirits and a lift in their steps, I have to ask myself, “How does this happen?”It obviously has a positive effect on women dealing with serious challenges, but what is happening and why?

Once I figured out that storytelling wasn’t just for entertaining, I felt I had graduated to a new level.I understand more about the power of stories to heal, but as I ponder what happens at our retreat that is so healing, I question my long- held idyllic image of what “healing” story is. I used to think a healing story was one that contained archetypal characters, rich images, a plot with an arc, and a satisfying resolution, a story that could induce a trance in the listeners. With this story, the listeners can then reflect and take from it the images that speak to them. From this experience, they gain perspective and see that they are not alone in their problems.

It was with this belief that I naively headed into my first year at the retreat back in 1999. Then reality struck—at a retreat that lasts 48 hours, includes many art forms, and is attended by 30 women, there simply isn’t time for luxuriously long, trance-like stories. In addition to the storytelling workshop, we also offer songwriting, dream work, building a communal sculpture, yoga, and massage, not to mention the chance to walk in the healing Adirondack woods and canoe out to the middle of a loon-inhabited lake.

In the best of worlds, I would have at least a full day for just my storytelling workshop so I could tell those mesmerizing stories and carry imaginations to a magical place. There would be ample time for each participant to retell and evolve from being the main character/victim of her story to becoming the Storyteller with a new sense of power. There would be an equal length of time for the songwriting workshop so women could fully express themselves and dive into the rhythm of a song and put voice to the words that come from their hearts. In the dream workshop, every woman would be able to see her dream come to life in Dream Theater in order to observe it, mold it, and gain new awareness.

In the best of worlds, when we gather as a whole group on Friday night and Sunday morning, there would be time for each woman to say all she needs to say. She would not only have the validation of knowing that her story has been heard and held by others who empathetically understand, but also the feeling of power and ability to be a positive influence as she listens deeply and validates the stories of others.

We do not have this luxury, and yet it still works. In the space of 48 hours, these women do experience that moment of power when they realize they do not have to stay in the role of the victim. They are able, over and over, to express the words that come from their hearts. They gain new awareness. They see and experience firsthand the benefits of both listening deeply and being heard with compassion. They form friendships that last years and years. They continue to connect with each other between retreats. Some have gone home and, buoyed by the rediscovery of their own strength and potential for wholeness, have drastically changed their lives. Others have gone home to surgery, more chemotherapy, or to die, but they go knowing they are not alone.

“The storytelling workshop was my first experience of talking about my journey with people who were interested, who understood,  and who listened. I talked about thoughts and feelings that were buried deep in my psyche. I was surprised by their existence in me, and I felt a sense of relief after verbalizing them.” —workshop participant

So what is it that works? There are several threads that are essential to the basic fabric of our retreat. We, as staff, know we are not the ones who do the healing. This comes from deep inside each woman. Our job is simply to provide the opportunity to heal and to create the container to hold their stories. From the first meeting, these women know they are gathering in a safe place. They know whatever they say will be held in confidence and they will be listened to with respect. There is no judgment. There is a fundamental belief in the innate wisdom and power of each of these women. They know the entire staff believes this. It is our mission to help them get in touch with their true selves that have been temporarily lost or perhaps, sadly, never realized prior to this.

“The second year I was privileged to be considered someone’s angel. I was somehow a sign to her that she would be okay. Now I had no insight into this or any profound wisdom about it. All I know is just by being there, I had somehow brought hope and meaning to a woman who needed rescuing from a long dark voyage. Now, how magical is that?” 一 workshop participant

In addition, retreat participants are in the rare position of talking to other women who have gone through similar experiences. They all speak a language where no translators are necessary. This is simply not something they are able to find in their regular lives. They are ravenous for this kind of connection and conversation. As they tell their stories throughout the weekend, they become the narrators of their lives. They get out of their own insular worlds. They share. They connect, listen, support. They gain as much benefit from the listening as from the being listened to. Hearing someone else admit their vulnerability is a relief: “Ahh, am not the only one feeling this or experiencing that—If she isn’t perfect, I don’t need to keep trying to be—I thought I was the only one carrying this burden…guess not.”

We use every precious moment and a multitude of contexts to offer opportunities for them to tell their stories. By using diverse art forms, they put their experiences, words, feelings into a poem, a song, a “traditional” tale. These mediums provide a safe container in which to dump whatever needs dumping.

If there is “an elephant in the room” that someone has not been able to talk about due to lack of place, time, person, or supportive environment, the framework of an art form can make that expression less scary.  The creation of a prayer flag or the verse of a song or the beginning of a folk tale can aid in revealing the “elephant”.  It gets named, acknowledged in a place of safety.  It is the difference between hearing a scary sound in the middle of the night when you are alone and hearing that same sound the next morning in the sunlight with friends around you.  As these women tap into their innermost thoughts and feeling through their creativity, they discover they are no longer in the dark.  They are creating in community, and this process of creation brings healing.

“You can almost see the positive energy vibrate in the air when we come together as a group of women.  Blessings are shared, encouragement is given, prayers are offered, hands are held, and laughter rings out amid the tears, as our stories are heard.” – workshop participant

The whole weekend is really a giant story.  The story evolves in the songs, traditional and original tales, poems and dream work.  It happens as they walk to meals, paddle a canoe, and collect dried leaves and sticks for their ritual bundles.  It happens over conversations at dinner, guided meditations, ventures into the woods, creating the communal sculpture, helping someone up the hill, building a fire, taking a group photo.  They come away with a story brewing, a song ringing in their heads, a stunning poem reverberating in their hearts and come away with a common story.  They come away knowing they are no longer alone.

Now I Know

Once upon a time, I thought I would die.
I thought I’d never get cancer. I thought I was stupid, alone.
Once upon a time I thought I’d be famous.
I thought I’d never be able to deal with cancer.
I thought life was a happy time all the time.
Once upon a time, I thought I was unimportant, unloved.
Once upon a time, I thought I was wise, I was strong.
I thought I wasn’t strong.
I thought I could make everything all right.
I thought doctors could make everything all right.
I thought I was in control.
I thought it was going to be over when the treatments were over.
(Not till the fat lady sings…) (Did she??)
I thought I’d already had my quota of problems. (There’s a quota?)
Once upon a time, I thought what did I do?
What went wrong?
Why? Why me?
Why not me?

Then one day, I got cancer.  My son got cancer.
One day I found out they didn’t know what to do.
One day I thought the pain would last forever.
Then one day, it was up to me.
I realized I had tremendous strength from within.
I found out who my real friends, family, support were.
One day I lost all hope.
One day, people loved me.  I began to heal.
Then one day, I found faith.  Faith got stronger.
One day the fat lady died.
Then one day, reality set in.  I had no control.
Emotions ran wild.  I thought I’d never stop crying.
One day, I understood why some people throw in the towel.
Now I know that I am loved.
I am strong. I can persevere. I know I will
survive another day. I know I am somebody.
Death is not so frightening.
I know care starts with me. I know I love myself. There is a god.
It’s okay to be happy. It’s okay to change.
Now I know where my real support comes from.
I know why. I can accept help.
I know change is growth and that one day at a time is enough.
I know I can move on. I will move on.

Now I know it can happen to anybody. I am a better person because of it. Good can come out of this.
I know I am Woman.
Now I know it takes other people time too. I know the present moment is the most important one.
Now I know to forgive yesterday, to live for today, to hope for tomorrow.
I know you can’t see the stars until it is dark. Now I know.
—The Storytelling Workshop, 2005

So it is that we exist not in the “best of worlds, ” but in our retreat world. In the designated storytelling, song writing and dream work workshops, we have only two and one-half hours, and yet it still works. Participants get to listen to a good, albeit not lusciously long, story. There is time for reflection and discussion. Then there may only be three to five minutes to tell their personal stoiy to a partner. But there is time for them to retell it with themselves not as the main character/victim but as the narrator. In this way, they achieve a sense of power and ability to change whatever they want or need to. They learn to tell the difference between the facts of their stories and the truth. In the other workshops, there may only be an hour in which to write a song or to create a play from a dream. And yet they do it! With power and grit and spare time for tears and laughter, they share and they listen and they come away afterwards with new friends and, even more important, a new perspective and awareness of their own selves.

“The first year I was there I felt I had been rescued from a long dark voyage in which I did not know how lost I had been. I no longer knew my body. I had been coping with huge decisions about my health and home front. I was in a completely new area of the country with precious few friends. The word flux comes to mind. The retreat allowed me the space and security to look within and realize that I had lost myself in this huge transition. Being with women who have stories of this nature helped me get some perspective and clarity of who I am. The gifts that each of these women brought to the week-end were magical.”
—workshop participant

Back in the circle of women, Mary is encouraged to tell her story again, but this time from the third person. She enters the realm of Story, where anything can happen and she is in control. She is asked to look at whatever shows up in her imagination, and if there are any magical elements, she can add those if she wishes. After telling again to a partner, she shares with the whole group.

“This time, I saw a butterfly on my shoulder. It was there through my whole story. At the beginning, I made some choices and the butterfly kept whispering ‘It’s not right, it’s not righ.”  Then later, I made a better choice and the butterfly whispered ‘It’s almost right, it’s almost right.” And then, with a decision I made just a few years ago, the butterfly whispered ‘It’s finally right.  It’s finally right.” I feel like my whole life has been a process of metamorphosis and now I have finally turned into the butterfly.’ —Mary

Once upon a time, I had a suspicion that storytelling wasn’t just about entertaining. It was as much about the listening as the telling, and it was about healing.

Then one day, there was the retreat. The women arrived. The stories came. They rushed out in a tumble, a flurry of desperate need to be heard. The stories interwove, swirled, coalesced, transformed into butterflies. But, I asked myself, how does that happen?

“You provide the place, love, open hearts, empathy, and positive encouragement for us to examine our innermost selves who are different due to cancer or chronic illness. It is the most wonderful and lovely thing anyone has ever done for me. “ —workshop participant

Now I know that I don’t really know how the healing happens. It is a mystery. And that is okay. I don’t have to know. We are on a tightrope, trusting our stories to come together and create magic. All we have to do is show up, create the safe space, sit back and listen as the brilliance pours out of each and every one.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.

A storyteller committed to exploring the diverse ways in which storytelling can be used for healing, Fran Yardley specializes in giving participants confidence and joy in their own telling. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the Healing Story Alliance; co- founder and leader for nine years of the Adirondack Arts and Healing Retreat for women with cancer and chronic illness held at Great Camp Sagamore in Northern New York; facilitator for five years of the Saranac Lake Bereavement Group; and a well-respected workshop leader. She holds a BA in Theatre, has been manager of a historic Adirondack resort, a Christmas tree grower, and French teacher. She can be seen regularly on stage at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake, NY. Currently, Fran is serving on the Start-up Committee for the formation of Creative Healing Concepts, an organization committed to offering creative experiences that promote healing and growth. She has four recordings of stories. It has been said of her: “She moves her audience…with an ease of narrative…as compelling as it is refreshing.” To learn more visit her website: www.creativehealingconnections.org.

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