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By: Patricia Ann Chaffee

Carolyn Strearns

Kevin Brooks & Laura PackerKevin Brooks & Laura PackerThe National Storytelling Network defines Storytelling as “an ancient art form and a valuable form of human expression…Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination. Storytelling, as a part of many art forms is often interactive, uses words as well as gestures, movement, expressions. It presents a story and engages the audience.”

“It’s that connection you get with people. You go on a journey together,” says award-winning storyteller Carolyn Stearns. “People come up to me afterwards and tell me how much a story has touched them. It’s like magic!” Carolyn’s performances are unique every time. She incorporates voice changes, physical action, theatrics, and engages her audience, working with hundreds of stories including traditional folk tales and historical folklore that are her favorite. She serves on the board of directors of the Connecticut Storytelling Center.

“I think storytelling is very healing. When you share these stories of loss, you have someone invested in carrying it forward. The more you tell it, the easier it is to tell. It breaks down barriers and inhibitions, and opens you up to discuss feelings. In listening to stories as well… we feel alive. It is the human condition to think we need to struggle alone. But in listening to others, we get perspective.”

Peg Donovan agrees. She is the preschool manager at the Connecticut Storytelling Center and has been telling stories for 15 years. “When people hear a story they connect with it on a certain level. The actual telling of stories can be cathartic. I lose myself in the telling of a story. I’m transported.”

Laura Packer has been performing storytelling for over 20 years. She frequented a weekly storytelling venue in Boston where Hugh Morgan Hill, better known as, Brother Blue, a legendary Cambridge storyteller, inspired her and other artists. After attending a couple of years, she met storyteller Kevin Brooks and a friendship blossomed and eventually more. Although their storytelling was different, their craft was at the heart of their relationship. They were both very involved in the story telling community and storytelling was a big part of their relationship. They were part of each other’s creative process. In 2009 when Brother Blue passed away, Kevin and Laura stepped up, leading the way to continue honoring what Brother Blue had created.

In late January, 2014 Kevin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two months later he was gone. Life insurance couldn’t heal a broken heart, but did allowed Laura some time, and she had 10 months before she had to think about working again.

She wrote letters to him every day and was journaling through her grief. She talked to him on paper, asking questions and talking about story ideas. Kevin is still a part of her life now as he was then and has input for her on her journey. She wrote a blog at truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com, and found it “life-saving,” during the most difficult of times.

“Blogging saved my life,” says Laura. “Being able to write and knowing there was an audience to share this with. I don’t know if I would have survived if I hadn’t had that outlet. And now I had two stories to tell. One about our relationship and dying, and a second about the week of his death, which was, without a doubt, the holiest thing I have ever been a part of. Kevin’s exit from this world, “Holy Cow!” It was horrible, yet sacred and holy.”

She calls it a transformative experience and although she wouldn’t wish it on anyone, she recognizes the opportunity to do something special with it. “When you lose someone you die too, you’re broken open in a million pieces. If we are lucky it can be a transformative experience. We become something other than what we were before. How can I not make art from this? It is my obligation to take this experience and transform it so it is meaningful to others. I don’t think he would want anything but that.”

It is inevitable that this would affect what she performs. She has two stories to tell that may evolve into a longer performance piece. She points out that our North American culture lends itself to separating who we are with work, family, friends, etc. We are divided in some way and yet we are whole beings. “Doing the work I do (writing, storytelling, performing) allows me to just be who I am with more consistency,” says Laura.

“The way our culture deals with grief is isolated. We are allowed to be sad for a while and then we are supposed to be fine. Blogging allowed me to talk about what I was feeling. Writing gave me a venue to think it out loud; writing was a way to connect with people. I needed to take care of myself. Writing let me do both. I could take care of myself, express what I was feeling and give other people a way to deal with what they were feeling. I felt not so alone.”

“Grief is a basic part of the human experience. As long as humans have loved, we have grieved and sought ways to understand loss…We all are storytellers and listeners. We all can remember those who have gone before us. We all can listen to each other as we mourn and celebrate the lives we have loved. None of us need to walk this path alone.”

Storytelling is experiential, and allows us to connect very deeply with others but in different settings. When an audience hears a story it allows them to draw upon their own experiences. So when she tells a story it allows people to look at their own loss and have feelings about it but in a safe environment. Storytelling develops empathy and there is a connectedness that happens between the storyteller and the audience. “In the oral storytelling setting, it is a way to have a conversation and hear a difficult story without it being frightening.”

Laura speaks of the Jewish faith tradition where remembering is a big part of grieving. In some way it is to say that in remembering, our loved ones are not gone. To speak their name, they are not gone. Our stories keep them alive. Letting other people hear and be influenced by those stories keeps them alive.

“Storytelling is art,” says Laura. “It is about the connection between the listener and the teller. It is live and intimate. Everyone has access to it. We can’t all draw, we can’t all dance, we can’t all sing. But we can all craft a story; we can all craft a narrative. And if we can craft a narrative we can connect with other people. And that’s why storytelling matters.”

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