In May 1983, funded by a university grant, “Have myth, will travel,” I wove together a program of workshops, seminars, and courses, for faculty, students, and staff. When it came time to leading a workshop for faculty, I found myself unusually nervous. Faculty can be very critical and those who signed up let me know it was mostly out of curiosity rather than an interest in stories. Usually when I lead a group I don’t do the activities—it’s easier to focus on what the participants do—but the faculty asked that I join them and I agreed.
During the third session, all was going well until I asked the group to sculpt a character on a journey and to write the story of the journey. After forming a turtle like figure, I began to write but couldn’t get past the problem: Turtle can’t keep up with her companions.
I was uncomfortably aware that the theme of the story was mirroring how I felt. I’m the one who’s supposed to know how to deal with this kind of situation, yet I was unable to write much. I waited until everyone had shared their story, hoping we could move on to the next activity, but they wanted to hear my story. I reluctantly read what I’d written and, awkwardly admitted I was stuck.
I waited for the participants, my colleagues, to make fun or criticize. Instead, seeing how distressed I was, one colleague sculpted an imaginary animal and moved it next to mine. “Hello my friend. My name is Heretohelpyou and I’m with a whole group.” While she was talking the others sculpted characters. “Together we have the wisdom of a lion, the swiftness of a panther, the strength of an elephant, and the agility of a monkey. Looks to me like you could use a bit of help.”
Embarrassed, as Turtle, I lied. “That’s okay. I’ll manage.”
My colleague wasn’t fazed. “Well, even if you don’t need help, I do.”
“You? You need help?”
“Sure. As I said, my name is Heretohelpyou. If you don’t let me help, I’m out of business—down the tubes so to speak. Give me a break and let me do my job.”
In spite of being self-conscious, I laughed. Not happy about the unwanted tears blurring my eyes, and with no idea what to do next, I said the first thing that came to mind. “Well, I am a bit hungry. You wouldn’t have some food, would you?”
“Food?” the group echoed in chorus. All at once they shouted the kind of food they had. “Hamburgers, hot dogs, turkey, pasta salad, ice cream sundaes . . .”
Timidly I asked, “Should we have a picnic? I mean if you’re hungry too?”
“Great idea,” said Heretohelpyou. She gave orders and pretty soon my colleagues had sculpted food, benches, tables, trees—everything we needed in which to have it. I was about to offer some food when Heretohelpyou said, “Well Turtle, we have enough—we don’t need any more, but we’ve heard you’re a pretty good storyteller so would you please tell us a story?”
In spite of being unable to finish what I’d been writing, I started talking and the rest of the story popped out.
READ The Story
There was once a turtle who lived with her family on a tiny bog in the middle of a lake. One day there was a ferocious storm. Turtle’s family and friends started to run but Turtle couldn’t keep up with them. A fierce bolt of lightning scared her so much she pulled herself into her shell and waited for the storm to pass. When Turtle felt safe enough to stick her head out, she saw that the bog had split into fragments. Looking around, she couldn’t see any bog pieces. She called out but no one answered her. Her friends and family were gone. She was all alone.
(This is where I got stuck during the storymaking session.)
Turtle tottered down to the edge of the bog and started swimming, trying to find a piece of land bigger than the bog. She swam for longer than she’d ever swum before. Too tired to think, she floated, inside her shell, not caring what happened.
Suddenly she bumped into something. A strange creature picked Turtle up and dropped her on ground covered with grass. “Hi,” crooned the creature. “I’m Heretohelp you. Who are you?”
“Turtle.” She was too tired and too depressed to say any more.
The creature was not fazed. “You look like you could use some help.”
“I’m fine,” said Turtle automatically, knowing she was absolutely not fine.”
“Oh,” murmured Heretohelpyou sadly, “you just lied and put me out of business.”
Turtle felt ashamed. The creature had helped her without being asked. The least she could do was tell the truth. So, as the two rested next to each other, Turtle told her what had happened. She even told her how bad she really felt, expecting the creature to laugh at her or tell her she was being foolish.
“Oh, Turtle, I’m so sorry you’ve had such a horrid time. I can imagine how scared and lonely you felt. But, my name isn’t Heretohelpyou for no reason. If you let me help you, you’ll feel a whole lot better.” Turtle decided to ask for help.
Immediately, Heretohelpyou sang a loud song of invitation, the most beautiful song Turtle had ever heard. Soon there were lots of creatures of all sizes and shapes and colors moving in their own way toward the two of them. What was even more miraculous, each of them was carrying food that smelled delicious. Turtle couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. The creatures set the food down and invited Turtle to eat. “Only if you join me,” she said.
So the creatures and Heretohelpyou feasted until no one could eat any more. As the sun set, one of the creatures invited Turtle to stay with her family. Turtle said, “No, thank you,” trying to be polite and hide her yearning.
Heretohelpyou looked at Turtle and shook her head. “Turtle, my dear, it’s time to say what you want. No more lying. Tell me, if you have the courage. Tell me what you want.”
Turtle hadn’t thought she was lying, but she surely wasn’t telling the truth. She tried to speak but no words came out. Heretohelpyou waited. The creatures waited. No one was in a hurry. The silence became unbearable and without thinking or worrying or caring what they thought, Turtle practically screamed, “I want to stay here. I want to live with all of you.”
“Hooray,” they shouted.
Heretohelpyou grinned. “Well done, my friend. Welcome.”
After, as Turtle, I told the creatures how much I enjoyed their company. They immediately invited me to join them, an offer I readily accepted. “Doesn’t matter that you’re slow,” said Heretohelpyou. “Just gives us more time to enjoy where we’re going. Right?” She looked at the others. They all agreed.
At the end, as usual, we spent a few minutes reflecting on the session. I waited for them to comment on my inability to finish the story I’d been writing. Instead, they talked about how impressed they were that I could admit I was stuck and let the group help, that it had been great fun and the most meaningful experience they’d had to date.
I realized I had created an environment where members of the group felt comfortable sharing their wisdom, which allowed me to learn from them as well as them from me.
How would you react if you were the leader of a group and you suddenly found you didn’t know what to do?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.