ON HISTORIC land alongside a well-trodden passage between two lakes in the northern forest dwells a storyteller. She has practiced her craft before audiences from school kids to prisoners for many years, sharing tales of her own creating as well as traditional stories from around the world.
There came a time following the illness and death of her husband that she came to see storytelling as a way to help people heal. She discovered and drew inspiration from the account of a woman who decades earlier had come to the wilderness of one of the lakes seeking a cure for tuberculosis. As part of her own exploration, she developed a story of that woman’s sojourn in “the healing woods.”
And so this storyteller, Fran Yardley of Bartlett Carry, between Middle and Upper Saranac Lakes, was drawn to the Healing Story Group, an offshoot of the National Story Telling Network.
“When I went to their first meeting I thought, ‘This is where I belong,’” she remembers. “I could tell what these people were doing was what I wanted.”
“I used to think being a storyteller meant I got up on a stage or I got up in front of a lot of kids and told stories. It was entertainment.” But she thought stories could be more than that. They had the potential to draw people out. And that meant listening as much as talking.
“We talk about ‘listening the best story out of someone’ by the kinds of appreciation you can give. It’s very satisfying to be able to do that. I think I like it better than telling, sometimes.”
She worked with a mentor and participated in workshops and was ready when Adirondack artist Naj Wikoff approached her with an idea. Naj had women friends who were dying of cancer, and he thought that creative arts could help meet a need that chronically ill women felt to share their experience.
“It took me thirty seconds to say yes,” Fran says.
That was the beginning of Creative Healing Connections, a nonprofit organization that offers retreats in which women participate in storytelling, songwriting, sculpting, and other creative activities. Guides help the women as they try to express feelings they have trouble voicing elsewhere.
It started in 1999 with an Adirondack Arts and Healing Retreat at Great Camp Sagamore for women with cancer and chronic illness. For the past six years the group has also offered a retreat for women veterans, many of whom struggle with post-traumatic stress or the effects of sexual abuse in the military. This takes place at the Wiawaka Holiday House on Lake George.
Fran leads storytelling workshops and served twelve years as the organization’s director. Guiding workshops like this is not like a storytelling performance, she says. She’ll break the ice with a story of her own, maybe asking others to add their own thoughts to the tale. Very soon the participants become the storytellers.
“Healing story is as much about the listening as it is about the telling,” Fran says. “I first learned this when I started a bereavement group ten or fifteen years ago. I thought, ‘I’m going to tell them stories and they’ll be great stories, then we’ll talk about them.’ I went in that first time and I didn’t even get the first story out because they were so starving to be able to tell their own stories. What our retreats are all about is to get people to a place where they’re willing to open up and tell the stories that they need to tell. They have to feel safe.”
Rose Ann Hickey, who has attended ten Arts and Healing retreats, was surprised at first to find herself opening up about her feelings. She credits the willingness of others to risk feeling vulnerable. “I thought, ‘If she can say that, it gives me the freedom to say something I’d been carrying,’” she recalls.
The experience can transform some of the women. Judith Coopy, who has attended two of the veterans’ retreats, recalls a young woman who “arrived all dark and gloomy. When she left she was dancing.” But not everyone responds. Judith also remembers one young woman who remained quiet and withdrawn and left on the first night.
Judith served in the Navy from 1959 through 1964 but felt a connection with the younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in her group. She plans to attend her third retreat this summer.
“I learned that I am not alone,” she says. “There are many who have the same or similar experiences. They affected each of us in different ways. Now I am able to maintain that connection to the past by helping others in the present.”
She now volunteers with a group in Albany reaching out to women veterans, some of whom are homeless.
“The veterans come and sometimes they say things they haven’t dared to say anywhere else,” Fran says. “In the first veterans retreat was a young woman, she was thirty-two. She’d been in Iraq and she said, ‘The enemy is within the walls.’ She was talking about military sexual abuse. It’s just completely bottled up inside of them. That’s not healthy.”
Martha Reben, the TB patient whose story helped lead Fran in this direction, wrote a book called The Healing Woods, published in 1952. Like her, Fran believes that being in Adirondack nature is an important part of getting better.
The Adirondack settings are key elements of the retreats, offering complete separation from daily life. To reach Great Camp Sagamore, participants first make their way to Raquette Lake in the central Adirondacks, then drive four miles down a dirt road to arrive at a gated entrance across a bridge.
“I had a woman tell me, ‘Every year when I get out and open the gate and cross the bridge I know I’m leaving the world behind and I’m coming to this amazing spot.’” Fran remembers. “There is a sense of a special haven. The fact that it is in the woods is a huge part of that.”
The Women Veterans Reintegration Retreat will be Aug. 4-6 at Wiawaka Holiday House on Lake George.
The Arts and Healing Retreat for Women Living with Cancer or Chronic Illness will be Sept. 12-14 at Great Camp Sagamore.
The Alfred Z. Solomon Retreat for caregivers was held March 29 at Valcour Conference Center in Peru, NY.
More information and registration forms are available at Creativehealingconnections.org.