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Sharing Our Stories



When writing in a journal or telling a friend is not enough…

How about announcing it from a stage? Here’s how to be heard in a BIG way!

This article appeared in our June 2003 issue.

Friday evening, high atop a hill in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 10 people gather in a light, airy room of the Cancer Treatment Center. They have all been diagnosed with cancer, AIDS, or HIV, and they are here to confront two of humanity’s greatest fears: death and public speaking.

“This isn’t about putting on a slick, theatrical production,” says Tanya Taylor, cofounder of the Life Monologue Project. “It’s about sharing who we are. I want everybody to set aside their concerns about writing and performing, and let Pamela and me worry about that.”

Her partner, Pamela Thompson, surveys the group like a proud new mother — nobody is breathing. “I guarantee everything you need is already inside you.” She exudes warmth, and they begin to relax.

Since April 2001, Taylor and Thompson have offered workshops to people affected by cancer and HIV/AIDS. After 9/11, they expanded the workshops to all of Santa Fe. The Life Monologue Project is offered free of charge to anybody who needs to be heard. Over the course of two weekends, participants write their stories — sometimes expressing thoughts and feelings they have been unable to voice to those closest to them — and present them in a public “anti-performance.”

“We actually ask participants not to perform but to simply share from their hearts,” says Thompson. “In America, we have done everything possible to remove ourselves from the topics of pain, illness, and death. Our fear is often so great that we speak in euphemisms or turn away from really listening to a friend. Performing the monologues is not only a release for the participants, but for the audience as well.”

The presentations take place at the historic Santa Fe Playhouse on DeVargas Street, the oldest street in America, one block west of the oldest church in America. Volunteers collect tickets. Local restaurateurs deliver donated food. Thompson and Taylor fly up and down the aisles making sure everything is just right. And everyone seems to sense the holiness of the moment as the house lights go down, and 10 people sitting on folding chairs on an empty stage one by one step into the spotlight and share their stories.

This is not a project about pain or dying. It is an age-old ceremony of bearing witness and celebrating the human spirit through stories of frustration, exhilaration, jealousy, resentment, sadness, rage, love, and hilarity. It is an unvarnished sharing of the human journey. And it is electrifying. As the participants grasp hands to take their bows, the audience explodes, clapping, cheering, weeping in a standing ovation. The mutual love is palpable, filling the theater and spilling out onto De Vargas Street as friends and strangers embrace, knowing that something deep and inexpressible has happened.

For some of the participants with cancer or AIDS, this event is a jumping-off point, a time to evaluate and reflect on where they’ve been and where they’d like to go. For others it can be a way of finding closure. For people in the more general workshops, it is a way of being heard and hearing themselves.

The following monologues are excerpted from a number of different workshops. Perhaps they will inspire you to tell your story.

Find or create a group — a small circle of friends, an existing support group. Talk about what you would like to accomplish with your monologues and establish ground rules for feedback that will be respectful and supportive rather than critical.

Why Mice Get All the Good Drugs First

The doctor told me there were no new treatments available to me now, but if “they” could keep me alive for two years, quite possibly some new, less toxic drug options would be available. These treatments could not be made available to me now. They were being used on mice and in fact, she shared excitedly, they had almost eradicated ovarian cancer in mice. I thought this was hilarious. I had the image of a tiny female mouse in a hospital gown, her belly shaved, the little mouse oncologist standing over her making a long vertical incision, performing a hysterectomy and continuing the snips here and there of more mouse tissue to send to the lab to determine if it were cancerous. Then I saw a chemo room. The room full of chairs, each with a reclining mouse, little arm outstretched, hooked up to an IV. The miniature chemo room filled to capacity with mice patients and a mouse family member or friend sitting by them gently stroking their forehead or holding the emesis pan, some providing a snack or quiet conversation. Although I could tell by the look on the doctor’s face that she questioned the appropriateness of my laughter, I was thankful for the comic relief these images brought me during the intensity of my short visit to this well-respected cancer facility. — Mary Tufft

Beyond Euphemisms: Breakthrough Vomiting

One day in particular I vomited from morning until night. I had something called breakthrough vomiting that no medication could control. I sat in the middle of my hospital room, vomiting into a pan on the floor. I remember feeling that if I threw up just once more, my skeleton would turn inside out, a little like those old cartoons where the cat eats the fish and then pulls the skeleton out of his mouth.

Now, here is the picture: I am practically doubled over in a chair with my head close to the pan. I am ashen and bald, with several pumps on my IV pole pushing anti-nausea drugs into the catheter dangling from my chest. There is vomit on one of my Birkenstocks.

And then, one of the floor nurses comes in to untangle my IV lines. I am so sick and weak, I can barely raise my head, but I manage. And from how I am doubled over, I am staring at one of the most beautiful asses I’ve ever seen — an ass as shapely and perfect as a nectarine made personally by God Herself.

The nurse finishes untangling the lines, resets the computers and walks out. I never saw her face. What touched me when I was so sick? What reached me in a way no prayer ever has? I think it was grace — oddly, the grace of a beautiful ass and right in my face. I knew from that moment I was going to be okay. — Michael Burt (July 27, 1945 - August 11, 2002)

Say anything. The exercise is just to write. Do this alone or in the group — whatever feels right. Read your piece aloud to yourself many times. Stand in the middle of a room and read. Read to your mirror reflection… keep the process fluid at this point.

Confronting Bigger Questions: Why Me?

I no longer believe that if I follow the rules and have faith nothing bad will happen to me or my family. For me, these days, faith means that as things happen in my life, whatever I need to get through it will be provided for me. When I can’t express all my fears to my family, a friend has always been there to listen. When I’ve worried about money, another work project has always turned up. When I worry about all the future “what-ifs,” I remember how past “what-ifs” have always been worked out during the day. I want to remember these things when the panic starts in at two a.m.

I’m not up as often now as I was during treatment. Sometimes the memories and fears wake me up and overwhelm me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how much time I have. No one knows how long we’ll be here. Cancer pulled me out of the false sense of security that I’m guaranteed to grow old. I don’t know what this next phase of my life will be. I want to grow old with Don, to see what Daniel does with his life and be there when he needs us. I want to be a grandma and share fun times with my grandchildren. I want all this, but know there are no guarantees for any of it.

So, sometimes, I write in my journal and pray. Sometimes I’ll turn the TV on quietly for background distraction. Sometimes I just sit it out and wait for the light of day. I have an advertisement for local artist Phyllis Kapp’s annual show at her gallery. Don't cut it out for me because he knows how much I like her work. I love the picture of her watercolor in this ad, especially the title — All My Memories Are Happy Tonight. This reminds me of all the times my faith has been there. And I wait for the sun to come up. — Judy Kiphart

From Your Heart to the Page to a Stage — Here’s How You Can Do It, Too

Find or create a group — a small circle of friends, an existing support group. Talk about what you would like to accomplish with your monologues and establish ground rules for feedback that will be respectful and supportive rather than critical.

Write whatever you feel, uncensored. If you don't know what you feel, then write "I don't know what I fell” and what that feels like. Is it frustrating? Talk about your body sensations. Say anything. The exercise is just to write. Read your piece aloud to yourself many times. Stand in the middle of a room and read. Read to your mirror reflection. Read to a piece of furniture. (Do not read into a tape recorder — you want to keep the process fluid at this point.)

Explain how you feel about reading your piece to your group, then do it. Breathe. If you get very nervous, stop, breathe, and say that you're nervous. After you've finished reading, listen to the feedback: What did people hear? Was it what you meant to say? If not, how might you say it more clearly? If your adrenaline is pumping, you may have trouble hearing or remembering, so take notes. What did people feel about what you said? Just take that in. As others read, listen and receive their work as you would like yours received.

Rewrite. Begin to think about the story you are telling. Is there a beginnings middle, and an ending? Just for yourself, say in one sentence what the story is. Have you said certain things multiple times? If so, take out the redundancies and see how it sounds. Read it aloud to yourself.

Have you said what you feel, as opposed to what you think? If not, try to.

Does what you've said embarrass you? Before you read to your group, tell them how you feel about exposing these feelings. If you would rather not have feedback at this time, say so. Then read. Rewrite many times asking yourself the above questions. If you would like to share your pieces with a larger audience, make that happen: a small gathering in a living room, recreation room, church, or other public space. Invite your friends. See what happens. Be brave. — Betsy Robinson

Asking for Love: Breaking 10 Years of Silence with HIV

I blurted out, “There’s something I have to tell you.” The next few minutes were kind of a blur, but I know that I started out by saying that I had been dealing with something for the last 10 years, fairly successfully, and that it was related to my health. My mother was next to me on the sofa, and I could feel her recoil. “Mom, I need you to not panic,” I said and she replied, “I don’t know if I can,” and I said, “I need you to try.” I told her that I had the HIV virus, that I had been on medication for the last 10 years, and had always kept it hidden on my visits, but now that was impossible because of the new drug I was on. I kept talking for several more minutes, but I can’t remember what I said. There was a brief moment of silence. “I wish I didn’t know,” said my mother. Then something happened that I had not anticipated at all. I lost it. “But I’m your son, why wouldn’t  you want to know? This hasn’t been easy for me at all, and I’ve been dealing with it myself for a long time, I’ve had a lot of friends die from this” and on and on, until she put her hand out on the sofa. I could tell that she wanted to hold my hand, rather than me hold hers. I quieted down, and with a very strange “deer-in-the-headlights” sort of look, she said, “I’m glad you told me. I’m glad I know. I want you to bring all your medication out into the open. I'm sure it wasn’t good for you to have to hide this.” Then she got up and went down the hall to my old bedroom. I let her alone for a little while. Then she called for me. She was lying on the bed, crying, and when I came in, she hugged me. “I don’t want to lose you,” she said, and I told her, “I really don't think that’s going to happen.” Then she said, “I want to die before you do,” and I said, “Don’t worry, Mom. You will.” — Ron Williams

Have you said what you feel, as opposed to what you think? If not, try to. Does what you’ve said embarrass you? Before you read to your group, tell them how you feel about exposing these feelings.

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