I know I will be reflecting on the gains from my rich experiences at the Storytelling for Health Conference for a long time to come. There was a great variety of themes and topics to choose from, and I enjoyed the refreshing mixture of performances, workshops, exhibitions and papers.
I came to the Conference with a desire to develop greater awareness and understanding in my storytelling work, and in particular, after contributing to Dying Matters Week for the first time, to be able to offer more useful support to people at the end of life.
I was very sad not to be able to go to everything, and I know that I missed many incredibly worthwhile experiences, simply through the exigencies of the timetable, so I am only able to give a picture of a small proportion of all that was on offer.
I went to presentations on Patient stories, Stories in mental health and Stories at the end of life. I made a presentation myself in Stories with children, about my work as a storyteller at Ysbyty Gwynedd.
Two highlights for me were ‘Stolen’, by Daniel Morden and the Devil’s Violin, and the presentation of Re-Live’s work by Karin Diamond and Alison O’Connor.
I’m in awe of Daniel’s courageous and full-throttle approach to living with cancer. I couldn’t go to hear him speak about his personal journey this time. However, I did go to ‘Stolen’, and was struck by the skill with which he wove together traditional motifs to create a sustained and sustaining metaphor of the journey through life-changing illness. I will never forget the man whose body had been turned to glass and then filled with wasps. Only by drinking the Water of Death could he vanquish the wasps, and then be revived by the Water of Life.
I knew of Karin and Alison’s work by reputation, and it was inspiring to see, on film, testimony from the very many people who have been enabled to share their own stories by working with Re-Live. In fact, I was so moved by their work, that I have applied to attend their forthcoming training course.
I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere, the care and attention to detail shown by Prue and Emily and their team, the inspiring keynote speeches - especially from Eluned Morgan - and the chance to talk about things which are important to us with friends old and new.
I was impressed in particular by Prue’s energy: she coordinated the conference; created a playful atmosphere, with prizes for travelling far or inspiring people and stickers for learning and using Welsh; took care of people who were touched too deeply by the subject; chaired three sessions and introduced a multitude of keynote speakers; made all the housekeeping announcements so that everyone knew where they were supposed to be … and when. She even gave a paper to fill the gap when a speaker was unable to attend. It’s clear that her own work in this field is of great value. Thank you Prue, for being the perfect host!
My thanks go, also, to two generations of one family: to Steve Killick, who chaired with great sensitivity the session in which I presented, making it possible for a large group to really share their responses and to hear each other speak, and to his daughter Ciara, who volunteered throughout the weekend, and supported the chair of the first session I attended by carrying out, with great speed and courtesy, the unenviable task of racing with the microphone to members of the audience who wanted to make a comment from the floor. Da iawn ti!
Finally, I would like to thank the two young students who waited outside the main sessions, brightly clad and brandishing colourful umbrellas, to escort or direct delegates to the different venues. To me, they epitomized the sense of fun underpinning this remarkable conference.
I met old friends and new. I talked about death, life, despair, hope … and stories. I shared laughter, tears, good food and good conversation. And all this in glorious sunshine, by the seaside, in what Dylan Thomas, the city’s famous son, called ‘an ugly, lovely town …. by the side of a long and splendid-curving shore’. Who could ask for anything more?
On Friday night, I can’t sleep. My mind swirls from thought to thought, idea to idea, impression to impression. My dinner was a large glass of red wine in the Waterfront Museum just before the performance of STOLEN and a coffee and two Welsh cakes bought in the leisure centre opposite in the interval. My room in the Town House annex of Morgan’s Hotel has regency sash windows and a space-age bathroom with a shower designed for double occupancy. I’m staying here alone. As I walked from the station, Swansea shocked me with its deprivation then surprised me with its pockets of beauty and friendliness. It’s colder than I expected and then warmer too.
A recurring image in Daniel Morden’s performance is the missing woman and the red thread that will bring her home. I’m missing from my everyday life but no one’s looking for me. I am here following the red thread of memory back through my life and intention forwards through the power of story.
Re-Live opened their presentation with images of Romanian orphanages and the red thread led me back thirty years to the time when Europe changed for ever. Those events are now history and for my younger friends and relatives, I’m a story-keeper of what it was like to cross the border into Eastern Europe.
The politicians speaking on Friday morning took me back twenty years to when I first began to work in Arts for Health – their same emphatic endorsement of the power of this work, the same articulated need for us to convince the powers-that-be, the purse-string-holders. The red thread here is hard to see in the giant weave of political narratives, a stories with no progression that will be told for decades to come.
More interesting for me were the veterans discovering their voices, a fairy tale of the wizard king with eagles and parrots, the drama of a medical error told from ten different angles where you could hear a pin drop, the talk over coffee and lunch with people from distant countries, the rendition of Shenandoah by Live Music Now’s soprano so three of us stopped dead in our tracks, eyes filling with tears. Dan Yashinsky made us laugh and then my heart stopped again seeing the tiny white feather float from his parka onto the dying man’s hospital bed, the red thread of loss tugging at its strings.
Most of the sessions I attended were in the Reading Room, once Swansea’s Reference Library, an architectural masterpiece, turning us into tiny creatures, talking and telling beneath the petals of a vast glass flower, surrounded by shelves of uniform books that turned out to be empty covers. The red thread takes me back to childhood where libraries and reading were where I lost and found myself. What stories should we include in those empty books?
Lying awake, following the red threads of this amazing – in both senses of the word - conference, I’m haunted by the gaze of the young mining trainee looking straight to camera in a giant blown-up photograph in the museum. He could be alive now, an elderly man. He might be one of the daytime drinkers in the dispiriting Kings Arms Tavern next to the Volcano Theatre? Or the man moving slowly on sticks who smiled at me in the Quadrant Shopping Centre where I went looking for the heart of the city? Perhaps he was able to go to evening classes for the workers and became a city elder making use of the spectacular Reference Library and advocating arts for health. Or perhaps he changed himself into an eagle to retrieve a lost daughter?
In the ravelled ball of the red thread of story, it’s all true.
I was welcomed on my arrival at the Waterfront Museum by beautiful harp music. It drew me into a most enjoyable and meaningful conference where I sat captivated in the audience, and where I also shared my story as a designer-researcher and patient. As a designer-researcher, who is interested in patient narrative, I hoped to learn from the experts. As a patient, I left feeling even more empowered and valued.