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Victim No More – A Life Song

Barclay McMillan in Conversation with LifeSong Graduate, Bernice Logan

Edited by Andrea Prazmowski

…something about choosing to say or sing my story in different ways made it a story of beauty. You know it’s not something that needs to be stuffed under a carpet… It’s this life’s story, and it can be celebrated. It’s a victory story, and one that helped me to see the victory. Of my life. Since LifeSong I’ve been living very differently. Remarkably differently!

— Bernice, LifeSong participant

Change of life — transformation – we find over and over again in the experiences of LifeSong. The changes differ in degree and in kind, but show themselves in the context of healing — changed perception, integration, restored confidence, augmented skill, renewed energy, creativity, joy.

Bernice was thirty-six when she took part in LifeSong. She was and remains employed in social advocacy on behalf of marginalised groups of people. Divorced and re-married, she plays the guitar and enjoys singing her own and others’ songs. In the pre-course interview Bernice told me that although she was professionally engaged in speaking up for other people she felt that when she spoke for herself her voice failed to carry her intention with the power needed to make her message clear and convincing. She recalls:

I could say the words but, there wouldn’t necessarily be my emotion or all of me behind the words. I think I was feeling like I had more inside me that wanted to come out.

It becomes clear to me that agency, the power to think, make choices and act for herself, is the internal frame of reference Bernice uses to evaluate her experience of LifeSong and her life before and since.

[During LifeSong] I was in charge of what came out of me, I was in charge of how much came out of me, I was in charge of how I expressed what came out of me. I was in charge of all that… It was really all about my own experience of my experience. And that was important to me from where I was coming from and where I clearly was going… My experience of my life changed dramatically. Not so much that I was in control of life, because I don’t really believe that I’m ever in control. I believe that there is some higher power leading me along. But I felt a lot more trust in the process – and I felt more like I was an agent in the process… I’m not [now] necessarily buffeted by the forces of life; the forces of life still come along but, rather than being buffeted, I have some choice about how to respond.. There’s a sense of actually choosing to go in the flow rather than this kind of helpless, “Oh, my God, here’s the flow, what’s it going to do to me now?”

In Bernice’s emergent ability to act on her own behalf she found a way to more satisfactory and joyful relationships with others and an ability to be more completely and effectively engaged in her advocacy work:

After LifeSong I was clearer in my relationships, clearer in terms of what I was willing to accept and not accept. I found a lot of joy in myself in LifeSong and so [afterwards] I found myself, over time, choosing away from relationships that were, perhaps, joy-lacking, and choosing toward relationships that were joy-filling or joy-creating… I certainly found myself willing to let myself out. I became a more authentic me. And so I am probably more effective when I’m advocating for people at work, or advocating for myself… There’s more of me here for people now than there was before LifeSong… There’s just more of me here.

The sense of agency began to emerge early in the LifeSong process as she began to experience herself as the author of her story:

That was very, very powerful. Somehow, the act of saying and singing the story from different angles over and over and over again took me outside my story. I was more than my story – it took me out of my felt experience of myself and gave me a creative way of looking, and a way that I was engaging with myself in looking. So it wasn’t somebody else looking at my story and saying, “see you can see it from different perspectives,” it was me recreating my story from different perspectives.

Bernice’s insightful account of the specific role that several of the LifeSong writing and singing assignments played in her journey from suffering to celebration shines a useful light on how her shift from perspective to perspective helped her gain distance from the detail of her story and begin to see it in a more universal frame:

The Fairy Tale was particularly powerful. That was the first time of taking it out of my own narrative and making it into something that was slightly less about me and more of a story. I used archetypes – goddess archetypes – and as I played around with them, I was able to see how I could put myself into this archetype story but, gee whiz, by doing that I could just as easily write myself into this story or that story or that story.

The introduction of singing in the performance of the life-prayer and the life-song brought a powerfully transformative intensity into the multi-perspective process:

The Prayer was very moving. It was the first time we used our voices in LifeSong as a singing voice. I was surprised to notice how challenging it was for me to sing when it was something from my heart. I remember I cried. And that was a part of my experience of LifeSong too. I cried so much of myself out in LifeSong that there started to be room for more ways of living.

Bernice’s Ballad demonstrated the weakening of the grip her victim story had on her life as the LifeSong process facilitated a total reframe of her understanding of her earlier life.

The Ballad [the life-song] was a humungous turning point. I took the fairy tale and put it into a ballad and that ballad became my own personal little lullaby. I still sing it to myself all the time and it’s just a wonderful reminder of, “here’s where I came from, and here’s what I did, and here was my prayer for myself all along, and here I am.”

Her life concept presupposes parts, aspects of the self, that do not always cooperate but that need to be integrated for life to be fulfilled. With the reiterated re-visioning of her story came insight into the multi-faceted complexity of her inner life and, in particular, the disproportionate influence that just one of those parts, the “victim” part, had played in influencing how she saw herself in life.

[As] I found myself recreating or telling myself in different ways, I realized how many different pieces there are of me and how the victim piece was just one piece. In fact, it wasn’t even me, it was a piece of what happened to me. And it was LifeSong in large part – at least it was the final important kerchunk in that process that took me out of identifying as a victim, an abused person, and took me into seeing that I had the power to create myself, create my life… I turned myself inside out and birthed myself during that ten-week program – I birthed myself out of victim.

Although Bernice had already spoken about the influence of voice in the transformative process, I felt she had more to say. “You know,” I probed, “I’ve been facilitating these workshops for about seven years and I’m still really, really curious about what the role of the voice is in all this.” Her reply speaks to the power of the regained vocal malleability that is the essence of the physical part of LifeSong. For her, recovering the voice allowed spontaneous expression of aspects of herself previously unexpressed:

The whole experience is around voice. It’s my voice that is the most vulnerable part of me, and so freeing up my voice frees up a whole lot of the rest of vulnerable me that now has a channel to come out, or now has a way of expressing itself that wasn’t available to it before. How we express ourselves gets covered up over time, and I think one of the powers of LifeSong is that natural recovering of our real voices which is a parallel to uncovering our real selves. You know as we express [use] our real voices, there’s more room for our real – authentic – selves.

And more freedom from dread of others’ censure:

This was a new experience for me in a group. I didn’t really care what the other participants thought. In any other group experience I’ve often wondered, “what’s my impact on the rest of the group, how am I affecting them, how are they influencing me?” [In LifeSong] I didn’t care. I was so in it for myself and yet I experienced more authentic connections with people in that group than I had in the past when I had worried.

The theme of authentic relationship is demonstrated simply and elegantly in Bernice’s elaboration of her experience of collaborating with one of the other participants in the final assignment, the Opera. Her account points to the replacement of separation by the empathic experience of another’s life as essentially kin to her own. Two years after the event she spoke rapidly with great animation and pleasure obviously undiminished by the passage of time:

This was really going to be an opera of our life stories. So we took our lives and we divided them up. “OK, here’s the childhood part. OK, what was your childhood theme? OK, mine was sort of hide. OK, mine was get out and show that I’m good enough. OK, so how can we combine those and show those?” And then we went to the next phase of our lives and did the same thing. So, consciously, we were weaving in the similarities – because we had similar themes all the way through our lives. Similar themes, but different ways that we manifested the themes. For me that was another part of letting go of my story because Carol’s story was really my story.So that was freeing too: It’s not [just] my story any more; it’s her story too. I wonder how many other people’s stories it is. It takes it out of the personal. And that was great!

Two years after participating in LifeSong, Bernice still finds writing and singing songs to be a wonderful way of getting unstuck. Her account speaks very cogently of the transformative movement released when creativity is given free rein. For her, creating a work of art is much more satisfying than merely venting:

It’s a very similar thing to what we did in LifeSong. And it works, it works! Because writing the song is a creative process. It’s taking the frustration or the sad or the anger or whatever it is and transforming it. Because the song – for me, anyway – it never stays as a bitching and moaning thing. It usually becomes a little work of art that I have created out of my experience. And so, no longer am I feeling frustrated or stuck by the experience, I have found a gift in the experience or I’ve made a jewel from the experience. I think it would be the same as an artist who takes an experience and then paints it. For me, LifeSong was the gift of making songs out of that material.

And as LifeSong graduates continue to sing, the individual voices are distinct and gloriously original – each a unique manifestation of the divine image.

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