I moved to Santa Fe in 2001 with many unfinished writing projects, including 90 pages of a book, Dancing With Wonder. Since I was no longer teaching, no longer having to meet with students, no longer dealing with committees, I had all the time I needed to finish writing about my work with stories in the US and abroad.
I tried. I wrote and rewrote. Good thing I was writing on a computer so at least I wasn’t wasting paper. Despite countless hours of writing, I hated what I wrote and could not get to an acceptable page 91. Desperate, I even took a nonfiction workshop, something I’d never done before. None of what the instructor said proved useful
I called my friend Claudia, a poet and storytelling colleague, told her what was happening and asked for a suggestion. What she said was: “You wrote the first 90 pages when you were still a professor, even though you used stories in your books and essays. Now you’re no longer a professor, you’re a storyteller. Throw out the 90 pages and start over—as a storyteller.”
Dumbfounded, I asked, “How do I start?”
She sighed. “With the women of Kazakhstan of course.” I threw out the 90 pages feeling weirdly relieved, and began anew—with the experience of working with the Kazakh women.
A few years before, I’d led an all-day session with women from Kazakhstan, using two translators from the US State Department. The women, who didn’t know each other, were invited to the US by the American Friends Service because they had developed creative solutions to combat violence in their country.
I began with a story from India, how Ant, the smallest creature, outwitted Elephant, the largest creature, using nonviolent means to get him to treat others well. The story resonated with the group, but one woman demanded to know, “What good are stories when you’re being beaten by your husband? For no reason. Because he can.”
I gasped. “No good. The beatings have to stop. But, afterward, telling your story might help in healing the trauma.”
“Okay,” snarled the woman, “I tell you my story.” As she talked about her experience, the other women nodded, clearly relating to her experience. After she finished, she challenged me: “I tell you my story. So what?”
I knew I had to respond in a powerful way. I asked the women to paint a small image of healing on 4x4” paper that I handed out and to then give it to her with a blessing. When they finished, one by one, they offered her their images and blessings. I had to have my blessing translated, spoken out loud, which worried me. What if I said the wrong thing? Thankfully, she nodded thoughtfully as my words were translated. Together, for the rest of the day, we explored the power of stories to create community, support healing, and deal with difficult circumstances.
Later, after dinner at my house, one of the translators asked her how she was feeling, having told her story. “At first,” she said, “I was furious, but I tell my story. Then I think; What good is telling? What good are pictures and blessings?” She paused, smiling, “But then, I begin to feel better.”
‘How are you feeling now?” asked the translator.
“Is still feeling better,” she said, through the translator.
Remembering the session helped to unlock whatever had been locked inside me. Words flowed. Stories poured out. Page 91 came and went, almost unnoticed as I finished the book. Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories was published in 2005.
Have you experienced a time when something seemed impossible, until something or someone helped you move past the blocked place? What was that like for you?
17 Years Later
In 2022, a Frenchwoman working with Ukrainian refugee children in Poland emailed me to ask if I could send her a copy of Dancing With Wonder. She thought it would be useful in her work. I sent her a PDF, along with suggestions—how she might use storymaking with young people who have experienced multiple horrors and are now exiles in a country whose language they do not speak.
Words unlocked by a friend’s advice, and by my working with a group of women from Kazakhstan, are now helping young refugees tell their stories, deal with their traumas, and I hope, support them in their healing.
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.