Opening Up To Story

By Deborah Freedman.

Images are powerful medicine. There are internal images that develop out of thought, experience and imagination, and grow into stories of information, narrative and fairytale, touching the mind, the heart and the soul. There are two words that seem appropriate to our awakening as listeners – integration and transformation. The format I propose is to integrate our stories, informative, narrative and fairytale, woven into a series of tales of infinite wonder, so that our audiences, especially our adult audiences, can be offered the opportunity to open all three realms and take in what they can. Exposure to all three assumes a trust that a transformation can take place, each in their own time and way. My ten years of travelling with the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Maine has developed my area of awareness – death and dying. And so I offer stories focusing upon that experience. By integrating these three modes of story – informative, narrative and fairytale – in conjunction with displaying of the Memorial Quilt, I have witnessed the transformation of homophobia and fear of AIDS into compassion and respect.

I would always begin by allowing my audience to spend time with the quilt.

Informative: Intense drama was occurring in San Francisco by 1985. AIDS was taking the lives of so many gay men. Going to funerals was as common as going to the supermarket. Terror was in everyone’s eyes. At an annual memorial candlelight march in the memory of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, who had been murdered, people carried cardboard sign with the names of those they loved who had died from AIDS. At the end of the march they covered the brick wall of the Federal building. Cleve Jones was moved to action along with friend Michael Smith. Quilts were the image – people began to make quilt panels, 3×6 with a name, and these were stitched together, creating beauty from grief, creating a memorial so no one felt alone. Word spread through AIDS resource organizations throughout the country. Individuals stitched their love into every panel and then sent it to San Francisco. A worldwide community quilt was created as a call to political action. It transformed fear into love.

Narrative: Lennie’s panel was made by his mom on Vinalhave Island. She sent out squares to people to loved him. In the center was a large portrait of Lennie made out of fabric. There was a sketch of his home, a portrait of his dog done in petit point, Grateful Dead symbols and yellow roses. There were all on small pieces of cloth. On one of the squares was this poem written by a friend:

He passed in his youth – on this tidal wave of social disease
Which results from the lovelessness of
The world in which we live.
And though his own life was filled by
Service to others – to those he loved
We must accept that he found his adversary
Too overwhelming.
Yet let us not mourn too long the
Dying of his body
Though we shall all so deeply miss his Presence.
Rather let us celebrate the
Freedom of his spirit
For Lennie is not gone, nor will he
Ever be so.
As Christ himself was resurrected
So does every member of our family live forever
Lennie loves us too much to
Simply disappear
Death does not exist
And the sonship is Eternal.
We love you Lennie
And know you are always with us
We love you Lennie
And know that you are happy
We love you Lennie
We know that you are free.

The Lennie stories continued. We found ourselves in Farmington for several days at Mt. Blue High School. A local minister planned a potluck supper for us and helped us set up the Quilt at the school. He never left. Four days he remained with the Quilt, canceling other work. On the last day he came over to me, hugged the breath out of me and said, “It feels like the depths of the ocean surging inside me. I don’t know anyone who has died from AIDS, yet that is how this Quilt is affecting me.” He walked around some more, came to Lennie’s panel, read the poem and said, “That’s it!” He walked over to me and asked permission to write down the poem. He then went over to Lennie’s panel, sat cross-legged like a little boy and began to write out the poem.

We traveled many months with Lennie’s panel. One trip was up to the College of the Atlantic, where we stayed for several days. We had set up a easel with a pad for messages. One day we walked in and there was a letter to Lennie.

Dear Lennie, Imagine my surprise coming into the library to study and seeing a picture of you on a Quilt panel. It made me dance back to my days on Vinalhaven. You were the best babysitter me and my four brothers and sisters ever had. You let us stay up as late as we wanted and when we got too rowdy, you let us run around outside. Later in life I admired your beauty and your ability to see beauty in others. I miss you Lennie and love you. (unsigned)

Fairy Tale: Once upon a time a long, long time ago in a place far, far away there lived a wild rabbit. It was brown, soft, round and peaceful with a quickly beating heart. A leaf would blow in the wind. He would stop what he was doing, his heart beating a little faster.

One warm summer day our rabbit was munching some grass, when a shadow passed over him. He froze. His heart beat a little faster. He wished himself as green as the grass. The wind heard his wish. It blew the grasses, covering him from sight. The shadow moved on…
What would we do without the wind?

At the edge of the meadow where our rabbit was eating, a squirrel was climbing a tree, a spider was weaving a web and a leaf was unfurling. A small bird sat perched on top of a tree. A cricket began chirping its song. The bird stopped to listen. A shadow passed over him He froze. His heart beat a little faster. He wished himself as blue as the sky. The wind heard his wish. It blew and sent a cloud to cover him. The shadow moved on…
What would we do without the wind?

Deep inside the wood was a clearing. There was a small cabin, neat, simple and clean. A woman was outside. She had built a fire that had been burning for hours. She was stirring a pot and singing, when a shadow passed over her. She froze. Her heart beat a little faster. She wished herself as brown as a tree. The wind heard her wish. It blew and sent the smells and smoke to cover her. The shadow moved on
What would we do without the wind?

At the other end of the wood was a beach with salted water lapping at its shore. A man was walking along enjoying the sand between his toes. The sun at his back warmed him. His pant legs were rolled up so the waves could lick his legs. His hands were in his pockets and he was whistling. A black shadow passed over him. He froze. His heart beat a little faster. He wished himself as white as the waves in the sea. The wind heard his wish. It blew and the fog rolled in covering the man…and….the shadow.
What would we do without the wind?
Now, on a very blustery day… You can hear the wind.

When these three stories are blended, they are heard as one. The informative piece is usually geared for most listeners comfort level, perhaps it is why they came, and listeners drawn into a tighter focus with the narrative and deep sighs often emanate after the fairy tale.

After the telling I ask a simple question – “What did you hear?” People have responded:

“There are so many levels at which to find peace”

“You’ve given me so much to think about…”

And people are eager to share their own stories – regarding remembering those we have loved who have died, as well as deaths from AIDS.

The fairytale has been framed in the context of viewing the quilt and can act as a transforming bridge between literal and metaphoric meaning. Many say that the shadow represents death and the wind is the breath of life. Some listeners see the tale as death transforming back into life, that some part of us stays alive and whistling, riding the winds. Even though we fear death because we want to continue, we are transformed into some part of the natural world through death – and in turn, the natural world changes with each death somehow. Audiences have shared that this fairytale offers them a measure of peace.

In the end, the disease disappeared and their hearts were open to stories.

This article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 6, Winter 2001

Deborah Freedman lives in Portland, Maine where she creates fairy tales for others and gives workshops to adults on the creation of spontaneous tales for the children in their lives.
She can be reached at [email protected]
(207) 871-9439

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