Residents share their lives two pages at a time

Rachel McMaste
Special to the Kansan
The participants in the Schowalter Villa Life Stories Writing Workshop work on an exercise during a group gathering.

HESSTON — The passing years and a lifetime of experiences can make a person reflective. With the right prompts and themes, those reflections can carry more meaning and energy than one might expect.

That was the experience of six participants from Schowalter Villa Independent Living this fall who participated in a Life Stories Writing Workshop led by chaplain Jill Schmidt Weaver.

For six weeks, the participants reflected on a lifetime of memories and bonded with one another as they shared their life stories a little bit at a time.

“Life Stories is a method of writing your memoir two pages at a time,” Weaver said. “It’s part of a larger organization — Guided Autobiography Writing — that was developed by a gerontology expert who did a lot of studies on older adults and what makes life meaningful.”

According to the Guided Autobiography website, “Guided Autobiography helps individuals organize their life stories. Guided by a trained instructor, participants are led through themes and priming questions that evoke memories of events once known but filed away and seemingly forgotten. Writing and sharing life stories with others is an ideal way to find new meaning in life as the uncertainties of the past, and the contradictions, paradoxes and events of life are put into perspective. Participants feel stronger and have a growing appreciation of their lives.”

For the participants, that kind of guided self-reflection and recalling of memories was both challenging and rewarding.

“I had been wanting to do some story writing to just get some of my memories down on paper, so when this class was offered it caught my attention,” said participant Judie Willems. “I looked forward to the opportunity to reflect on what mattered to me. That was the design of the class, but I was surprised at myself at some of the things that came up through the process. Taking time to focus on those things and those memories was so beneficial for me.”

Weaver, who completed a training course over the summer, first heard about the concept several years earlier when an off-campus instructor offered the workshop to the wider community. When that instructor was unavailable to lead another course, Weaver decided to gain instructor certification herself.

“There’s a lot of value for anyone at any age to stop and reflect on their life experiences and how they’ve been impacted emotionally, spiritually, socially,” Weaver said. “That reflection is one of the benefits of this class. Sometimes there are painful memories that a person can connect with, and as you revisit them, some healing happens because you’re at a different stage of life; you have a different understanding. As a chaplain, that’s a big motivator for me to offer these classes — to help people with healing or resolution or inner strength.”

“About a year ago, I sensed God was calling me to write of the ways He has worked in my life,” said participant Larry Rowe. “When I heard of Jill offering the class, I realized this was an opportunity to start answering God’s call. I signed up immediately. It offered me the structure and accountability to begin the endeavor. Writing was rewarding as I allowed my memories to flow from my heart and mind to a printed page.”

Many of the exercises were to spark memories and feelings around such topics as family, faith, money and more, but others were more abstract and encouraged reflection on personality.

“I appreciated the exercises and writing skills that Jill shared with the class,” Rowe said. “They were helpful in putting together a story. My favorite topic to write about was Major Branching Points as I looked back over my life to see how God has worked through the good and difficult times. I could see how, according to Romans 8:28, he has worked all things for the good.”

“One time, Jill had us consider that if we were a fabric, what kind of fabric would we be,” Willems said. “I thought that was a really interesting way to work through life. For myself, I chose gauze. It seems like a strange choice, but it’s movable, filtering, transparent, absorbent — things that I have always tried to be as I’ve moved through life as well.”

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of the class was the connection that occurred within the group. Each week, participants made themselves vulnerable to share their lives so they could learn and spark their creativity through one another. But they also bonded and experienced community together.

“It was especially nice to be a part of this during Covid and have an opportunity to be face to face with others (with masks and distance, of course) and talk about things that mattered,” Willems said. “That was really special.”

Rowe agreed that the unique relationships that were formed were an important part of the class.

“We formed a bond of listening, support, encouragement, questions and confidentiality that knit us together even though the class lasted for only six weeks,” he said. “I am sure that if and when we ever gather again, the warmth of our relationship will be strong.”

Another benefit for some, is the opportunity to have memories and stories recorded that can be passed down through the generations and continue to live on.

“I am preparing three-ring notebooks with my stories as Christmas gifts for our five children,” Rowe said.