Tag Archives: stories

What is your Christmas Story?

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.
– E.B. White –

Christmas! It’s here again. I am quite convinced that 365 days a year speed up the older you get, and here we are in another Jingle Bell Season.

I wonder what Christmas means to you? Amidst all the festive fuss that this time brings, what is the Christmas story that is read at your table of life? For many people, this is a season of festive joy and hope. Happy memories arrive at the door alongside family members and friends to celebrate and remember the birth of the Christ child.

There are others who have a friendly relationship with Christmas, even though they may be of a different faith or none at all. For many, it is a story of connectedness and togetherness, of eccentric family members and ancestral storytelling – if Christmas was an emoji, for many people it would be a happy one. But that is not everyone’s story…

The Christmas story for other people is not as joyful. Christmas, for some, is a trauma stalker, an uninvited guest that rushes in to remind them of loss, violence, grief, betrayal, or loneliness. Maybe that is your Christmas story? At your table of life, Christmas is not decked with holly but shrouded in black. You stare at it and tell yourself that this is not a ’normal’ Christmas story, and in a way that makes you feel even sadder.

I find it helpful to reflect on the ‘original’ Christmas story. A story that holds a context of political uncertainty and dominance; a tyrant empire that places burdens on people that many cannot carry. It is the story of a poor couple that birth a child in squalor conditions, a story of terror and having to flee for their lives… refugees… displaced… outcasts. The original Christmas story was a far cry from Melbourne’s Myer windows.

In a strange way, this story brings me comfort. What is a ‘normal’ Christmas anyway? What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ Christmas? So much of what we say and do is a social construct of behaviour and expectations that are then branded as ‘normal’. And all those who don’t fit that caricature are reminded in a thousand different ways how they don’t ‘fit’.

So, dear reader, if you celebrate Christmas with gusto – Enjoy! Merry Christmas!

I especially want to acknowledge all those who are reading this who don’t have a ’normal’ modern Christmas story. Your place and space and story are as valid as anyone else’s. ‘Normal’ can be a bully … and sometimes our Christmas story is a sad emoji.

The stories of our life are multi-tiered. Like a rich tapestry, there are shades of light and dark. Remember, you are not the sum of your Christmas story – your life has many, many stories: Stories of resistance, of skills, hopes, and dreams for the future. Christmas will come and go. Right now it may dominate the world you live in, but it is not the world.  So as you acknowledge your Christmas story, also acknowledge the many other stories around your table of life … for they are a fascinating company.

“As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realise we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”  (Susan Wittig Albert)

Life Atlas Therapy and the Reclaiming of Precious Memories (Part 2)

“There are, of course, many forms of memory, some of which are constructive, some of which are destructive and some of which are redemptive.”
-Fr. Michael Lapsley (The Healing of Memories: An Interview)

Dear Reader – if you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of this BLOG post in order to understand the context for Part 2.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method that was developed in collaboration with a team of people who were prepared to explore with me how this approach re-engages a person with their life stories in a ‘way that makes us stronger’ (Aunty Barb Wingard, Kaurna Elder). I am indebted to their generosity in sharing so many of their life stories. There were many ‘Aha’ moments along the way. One of them was the discovery and reclaiming of precious memories.

Over 90% of these collaborating cartographers of Life Atlas participants began to have memories that they had totally forgotten. Comments included:

“I had totally forgotten that.”
“I just need to sit here for a moment, it feels like waves of recollection are coming to me.”
“Working on this timeline … I think my subconscious thought it’s time to ‘burp’ this memory up.”
“This dream brought back so many forgotten moments … they are filling the gaps.”
“This memory came back – I suddenly don’t feel so ‘lost’ anymore.”

The memories and/or dreams surfaced shortly after a Life Atlas therapy session. Trauma has many diverse effects on an individual’s (or community’s) life. It can become the dominant narrative that, like a schoolyard bully, shoves the many multi-tiered, mosaic stories of someone’s life into the corner and demands silence. Trauma is also a thief. It steals the key to the filing cabinet of meaningful memories, leaving a person feeling ‘lost’ or ‘confused’.

As Fr. Michael Lapsley points out (above quote), there are many forms of memory. Whereas precious memories that align with our preferred narrative are often ‘hijacked’ by trauma, traumatic memories can often become ‘timeless’ memories. “These memories are apart from the storylines of people’s lives which are constituted of experiences linked in sequence across time according to specific themes. Being located on the outside of the dimension of time, these traumatic memories have no beginning and no end … These traumatic memories are re-lived as present experience and the outcome is re-traumatisation.” (David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative response to traumatic experience, 2006, p. 78). In Reclaiming Heimat, Jacqueline Vansant focuses on nine memoirs by seven Austrian reéimigrés. She observes how traumatic memories seem to have ‘a life of their own, dictating themselves’ (2001, p.70). This escalates the power of trauma memories.

Life Atlas Therapy can assist an individual (or community) to reclaim the key to the filing cabinet that holds the memories that speak to their preferred sense of self and identity. One client had a specific memory that showed her she was not a ‘shadow child’, but that she was happy and skilled at resisting the trauma that visited her childhood home. Another client was extremely surprised at the positive memories that began to emerge of her brother and their childhood relationship. The trauma that visited the family after a horrific accident and that negatively affected her relationship with her brother had her convinced that it had ‘always been like that’. The precious memories that returned to her of ‘funny, silly’ childhood moments dramatically changed her perspective and the story about her brother (and herself).

The research and discussion surrounding memory and how they shape our sense of self is extensive. This short post is simply to have the reader consider that Life Atlas can be useful in reclaiming precious memories that the individual (or community) gives shape to and invests with meaning as the expert story-teller of their own lives. These precious memories serve as a witness to the person’s preferred story, their skills of resisting trauma and connect them to the hopes and dreams they hold for the future.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
-John Banville –

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.

Life Atlas Therapy … and why You may find it Helpful (Part 1)

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

(C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination)

The many ideas and methodologies that comprise Narrative Therapy have me regularly intrigued. I witness their effects as I work with individuals and groups. Perhaps one of the most noticeable reactions from clients comes as they consider how their life narrative has taken shape by the greater social and historical context in which they exist. What they realise in this exercise is not only that they (clients) are not the ‘problem’, but that the ‘problem’ is carried and propagated in the imagined social construct of their culture and history.

I was curious about how this recognition of one’s own experiences can be traced back to one’s location within a system of power relationships – “the personal is political” (attributed to Carol Hanisch, 1970). It was this curiosity that contributed to the development of Life Atlas Therapy.

Life Atlas Therapy draws on a timeline concept. Instead of a linear trajectory that maps the positive and negative influences on a client’s life, it maps out a person’s life stories within ‘countries’ of culture and history. This approach considers problem-laden stories within a ‘country’ in which that ‘problem’ originated. For example, ‘Jay’ (not their real name) wanted to discuss a part of their story that they drew in black. They called it ‘Disaster Cove’ – a place where they felt they had been hijacked by trauma and grief and which continued to have a negative influence on their life.

‘Disaster Cove’ was richly described. We use this conversation to externalise ‘Disaster Cove’ with the help of a metaphor. It now becomes a ‘country’ with politics, culture, folklore, themes, and song. Narrative questions included:

  1. What colour is this place?
  2. Does it remind you of any actual country?
  3. What government is in place?
  4. What parts would you avoid visiting?
  5. What parts would you recommend for sightseeing?
  6. Tell me a story that made this place meaningful to you.
  7. Who was someone that impacted your life in this place?
  8. Etc, etc, etc.

A rich description of Disaster Cove assisted Jay in understanding why Trauma and Grief had such a dominant voice in their life. We also discussed the ‘sparkling moments’ (White, Re-authoring Lives, 1995) that began to emerge out of Disaster Cove. Jay identified unique outcome stories, strengths, hopes, dreams, and skills of resistance that they teamed up with in this place. In Jay’s words, “It seems like Disaster Cove is not all black … it has a starry sky.” The ‘starry sky’ had been rendered invisible by Trauma and Grief, but now Jay began to uncover alternative landscapes on their Disaster Cove narrative.

Disaster Cove was a ‘country’ that had emerged out of their social and historical context. For example, Jay discovered that it was the ‘stiff upper lip’ cultural norm of this place that allowed trauma such a loud ‘inner’ voice in their life. “I remember being reprimanded for my tears in a public place … it shut me down.” Later on, Jay would remember stories of ‘angry crying’ – a skill of resistance against a social norm that sought to silence them. Jay was beginning to write their Disaster Cove narrative from a whole new perspective.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method I have developed (and am developing in different contexts) that assists individuals and communities to re-engage with their life stories and histories to bring about rich, double story development. In the words of Kaurna Elder, Aunty Barb Wingard, it is a method that helps us remember stories in a way that makes us stronger and connects us to our hopes and dreams.

One of the astounding findings in this research and practice has been the re-emergence of precious stories and memories that been hidden by trauma… a topic for the next post (TBC).

The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem.

– Michael White and David Epston –

 

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.

 

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Disenchantment (Part 4)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is Part 4 – following the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

The questions that started to arise brought with them red-hot anger. Hindsight is helpful. I now realise I was disappointed and disenchanted. When there is a head-on collision of values that have been denied, a deconstruction of idealism that had to do with identity and belonging, and a deep disappointment of personal and community expectations, anger is often the prevalent emotion and lead member of the ‘rescue team’. Ironically, with this anger, I faced the dilemma that the emotion of anger is shamed in religious spaces where being ‘nice’ is a virtue. The niceness culture in some parts of religious institutionalism is as caustic as rat poison mixed with icing sugar. It breeds shallow relationships that are held in place by the fear of judgment.

My inner torment was amplified by the fact that critical and robust dialogue was often interpreted as negative, and everyone was terrified about being ‘negative’. I had very few safe places or people with whom to process my questions, doubts, and thought processes. Pentecostals, in general, hold to a triumphant happiness theology. The rhetoric from pulpits is one of ‘victory’, ‘triumphs’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘better’, and ‘greater’. It is a victory over negativity, poverty, sickness, anxiety, and depression. The result is that anyone who is unable to live in that suspended, Eden-like utopia is considered with caution. When I began to raise some of the doubts I was wrestling with, I recall being asked by one church leader whether I had adopted a ‘new kind of spirituality’. It was a question that silenced me for a few more months. Institutions of any kind tend to guard the structure of certainty over people. It can become a dangerous place for anyone who has begun to fall down the rabbit hole of questions, and who has started deconstructing embedded dogma.

At the end of 2010, I resigned from a prominent role as Associate Pastor. I was terrified. It was a massive step made far more complex as my husband would continue to serve as Senior Minister for the next six years. My decision to step away from the high-profile role was complicated. Perhaps I can simply say that I fell out of love with certainty addiction. The black and white absolutism required of leaders in conservative religious institutions was something I could no longer hold on to with any form of integrity.

My self-assured stance on life and the world had been shaken and found desperately wanting. Perhaps, with a bit of fierce intentionality and some open conversations, my continued dislocation from the community would have been salvageable. However, in the words of Frodo Baggins, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back?” There is no going back once you wake up in the matrix – and, more importantly, once you begin to engage with people who have been shunned by some of these very institutions that I have been part of and helped to build.

The last blow to what was left of my extravagantly structured system of certainty came via a very familiar medium: stories. It started with conversations and friendships amidst LGBTIQA+ people of faith several years prior to my resignation. Since then, I have listened to many people who have had to navigate exile from their homes or faith communities based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. I am indebted to them. They opened their hearts to me, and through their vulnerability, they opened my eyes to a dominant, patriarchal system of ideas that cloaks itself as orthodoxy and truth amongst religious institutions. The stories were hard to hear. The cruelty and brutality so many faced in the name of God was unfathomable. I realised that I had supported, enabled, and helped build a ministry within a wider religious structure that was responsible for causing much trauma. My own blind privilege had not even considered those who were suffering. It is so easy to de-humanise another when you are removed from their pain, ignorant of their plight, and assured of your own ‘truth’!

My eyes were also opened to the effect that ex-gay practices had on people. It is a deeply embedded ideology that is built on the assumption that there is something intrinsically ‘broken’ about anyone who identifies as anything else other than heteronormative. This ideology (and the practices/rhetoric that it enables) is as common as oxygen in conservative religious settings. It is driven by the idea that a person can be healed from their ‘brokenness’ and live a ‘normal’ (aka straight) life. However, some conservative religious communities have now conceded that this ‘healing’ is unlikely (No Shit, Sherlock!!) The latest form of ex-gay torture is to require LGBTIQA+ people to remain celibate. The toll of this torment and quackery is hard to put into words – anguish, disillusionment, mental health issues, and suicides. The day will come when the modern, conservative church has to face the reality of what this ill-informed dogma has done to people.

For me, there came a day when I was asked to talk about the trauma I had observed in the last several years amongst LGBTIQA+ people of faith. I could no longer remain a silent, horrified witness. So, I agreed to be interviewed on Melbourne’s JOY FM (April, 2015) – and all hell was unleashed.

The hysteria that unfurled was spectacular. The interview even managed to raise an extreme right activist out of retirement in order to write one more newsletter to his faithful followers – an e-mail that mysteriously made its way to many of our church parishioners. He demanded that my husband should keep his wife ‘under control’ – a violent rhetoric that seemed to find support from many others based on the e-mails and letters we both received. After several unpleasant confrontations and conversations, I became hesitant to darken the doors of the church. Until that day I had a lot of sympathy for people who found their lives dominated by anxiety, but this was the season when my sympathy became empathy. I had never known the crippling effect of anxiety until I became the focal point of the angry religious faithful. My earnest prayer became, ‘Lord, save me from Your followers.’

Once you break any sacred tribal rules of conduct and belonging, you often find yourself at the blunt end of a tribe’s most devastating weapon – shame. Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

Shame is the most powerful and degrading tool that a tribe has
at its disposal. Shame is the nuclear option. Shame is how they
keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have
abandoned the collective. Violence may be fast and brutal, but
shame is slow … but still brutal.

The interview created the final rift. Friends I had known for years stopped speaking to me. The pain was overwhelming. I let go of the trapeze bar and found myself free-falling into a liminal space … (to be continued)

 

Dismantling Our Ivory Towers One Human Story At A Time

“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)

Ivory Tower by Hideyoshi on DeviantArt

For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”

Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …

Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.

One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfillment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass.” The figure Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Litany of Loreto) references her as, “Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, house of gold…”

Over time the Ivory Tower became a symbolic space of retreat and solitude. It was a feud between poets that drew the ‘living in an ivory tower’ expression into a negative notion and by the 1930’s it had become a politically charged. It became a pathological place. Today, anyone living in an ivory tower is held with certain contempt and distrust. Ivory Tower Dwellers are thought to have an attitude of superiority, divorced from reality and the rawness that is known as life.

Ivory towers do become strongholds. They become a place of privilege and entitlement. They delude Tower Dwellers into thinking this is the real world, the true world – I guess in a sense Ivory Towers are the set of the Truman show. They keep those who dwell in them from reality – a huge moat of wealth, power, fear, superstition and dogmatism bolstering the separation. So what would cause anyone who has fallen under the spell of the enchanted Ivory Tower to wake up to the delusion? Normally freedom comes with one human story at a time.

You see, that disgruntled parishioner all those years ago woke me up from the slumber of certainty. It wasn’t her hostile words, but her life story that caught my attention. Suddenly some of the ideas that I had fashioned and formed so carefully in that tower, surrounded by people who thought exactly like me, was found wanting in the light of her story. A little splinter entered my heart that day, a splinter of grace and providence. It would take many more of such encounters to free me from the illusion held in Ivory Towers.

The Ivory Tower begins to crumble like a Jenga tower when we recognise our human connectedness. Herman Melville wrote, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The way we connect is by recognising the fear that keeps us removed from others, by learning to listen: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention …” (Rachel Naomi Remen). Listening to each other breaks down barriers.

So, friend, perhaps we need to face the hard truth that in some ways we all live in ivory towers of our own making? Perhaps some have taken shelter in Ivory Tower organisations that provided a sense of safety and security – but it is time to step out again? Ivory Tower Dwellers stagnate, and fear and paranoia creeps in, feeding our sense of elitism or ‘specialness’. We adopt cult-like thinking and mannerisms. Stepping out of our towers can be terrifying. And then we look up … to a world that is so much bigger and beautiful than we ever thought possible. The Ivory Tower is recognised for the childish notion it is. Our life and our story becomes connected to the many colourful stories of people around us. And after a while, we look back and realise that we have been forever changed one human story at time.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
– Madeleine L’Engle –

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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