Looking for the Reference Point

Although I had spent about twenty minutes greeting people and inviting them to participate in the storytelling workshop, most everyone had other plans:

“I’ve got to brush my teeth.”
“I’m expecting a phone call.”
“I have to find my keys.”

We only had four storytellers. One of them was Judy, and she had been sleeping a lot lately, I was told. The caregivers wheeled her chair to the table. I asked, “Judy, would you like to open your eyes?”

She opened one eye. Her mouth hung wide open. I felt badly for disturbing her, but I also didn’t want her to miss out on all the fun.

“Judy?” I said. She doesn’t respond at all, so I let her be.

Mr. K. was not a regular storyteller. He watched everyone declining the invitations to the workshop. I finally approached him, saying, “Mr. K., I only have three people today. It’s going to be difficult to tell a story with only three people. Why don’t you give it a try?”

He reluctantly agreed. He probably felt sorry for me.

The other two storytellers were Gretta, who rarely missed a session, and the tall, studious-looking John, the new guy with the Polish accent.

Our storytelling prompt was a picture of a group of people dressed in yellow pants and shirts, with their hair tucked in yellow hats or turbans, and with any visible skin painted yellow, including their bare feet. They were entirely yellow, from head to toe.

Gretta, who had poor eyesight, believed they were naked, and she reacted strongly when I handed her the picture.

“Is it mine?” Gretta asked incredulously. “Are they telling me I can’t do this? Do we have to talk about this first? There’s nothing on! I don’t care for this, when they have nothing on. The only thing good about it is you can tell which rear-end person is the best looking.”

John disagreed. “Immerse yourself in the front. Ahhhh! That is where you see the beauty of the person,” John said.

I did not explain that the people were fully clothed. To do so would have ruined their unique story introduction.

All of this was just too much for Mr. K., who threw his picture down on the table. “I can’t. I can’t. I don’t. I don’t,” said Mr. K. “Lady, what is wrong with you?”

John wanted Mr. K. to stay. He spoke for the other storytellers seated around the table, saying, “But, it seems to be okay, it just so happens, because there was nothing else to wear. You must have the will to be who you want to be, ignoring all the other reasons. That is the philosophy of the table.”

Gretta, persuaded by John’s speech, said, “I can’t stay positively yellow, but I can try.” Mr. K. was not convinced and left the workshop.

John continued,

“Well, it seems to me they don’t look ashamed. They look loose, talk to people, and don’t pay much attention to their body exposure. Do you know why? I’ll tell you why. All the people who have their backs to the camera can’t be recognized. In some countries there is an exposure that can be punished. Pay attention.”

Gretta said, “You shouldn’t pay attention to that kind of problem, if you do it yourself. How can you judge? If all the people think it is normal, let’s have it normal. A normal dance. Enjoy life.”

So in the world of this story, it was perfectly acceptable and even normal dance around naked.

John said,

“I always talk to myself and ask, why did God create it, that part of the body? Why did He create it? Bad people belong to you and your eyes, but you find yourself wondering if someone is bad or good. It depends on opinion. Opinion is based on looks and thoughts. If you can judge on those things, well, then okay. I’m too old for this position. But remember that one side is polished. The other side is not polished.”

“How did the people get polished?” I asked.

John explained,

“People were created in a special unit. The exact moment they were created, there were a lot of crystals, breaking out, creating an illusion. Use your own judgment, after they have finished ripening. Red tomatoes. They used to be green. Right now, they are yellow.”


I was typing like a mad-woman, because almost everything John was saying was highly philosophical, and I was just thrilled with his ideas. I couldn’t wait to share them with Ian, a songwriter who I knew was really going to appreciate John’s intellect.

“They have all had a little bit of alcohol, I think,” Gretta said. “Some of them are in the shadows.”

I wondered if Gretta was reconsidering the idea that it was acceptable and normal for the characters in the story to enjoy life dancing naked. Surely they must be drunk to do such a thing, or at least hiding in the shadows, ashamed of their nakedness.

John’s philosophical frame of mind gave way to a more somber and practical mood with Gretta’s mention of alcohol and shadows. He seemed to combine the world of the story with the reality of the nursing home when he looked closely at the picture and said,

“What do you think people should do, when they have been assigned a place, a bed, a room, and things that don’t belong to them? Do they call this home? If they panic, they don’t know how to go to where they belong. Someone should assign them to a group. Organize them in categories. Tell them how to go home.

John’s attention turned from the picture to me. “How can I go home?” he asked.

This made me wonder, do people who are cognitively impaired have an epistemological view or an ontological view? I wasn’t sure about this, myself, so later I looked it up:

Epistemology questions what knowledge is and how it can be acquired, and the extent to which knowledge pertinent to any given subject or entity can be acquired. Much of the debate in this field has focused on the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to connected notions such as truth, belief, and justification.

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Admittedly, I had to re-familiarize myself with the difference between the two when I read Christine Brooke-Rose’s analysis of metastory (fiction within fiction) in the book Stories, Theories & Things. What is reality? How can we know reality? I allowed this book to read me, so that perhaps, I could have a better understanding of the idea John meant to convey, or perhaps, the idea John conveyed that I failed to fully understand.

Some of John’s ideas were self-explanatory, but what was not as obvious was that John’s observations were a deconstruction of the value of values (something that comes naturally to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia). John saw the idea that “a place, a bed, a room, and things that don’t belong to them” is what the displaced, yellow people in the picture should identify as “home.” He took this concept a step further, comparing reality with the illusion of knowledge when he said, “they don’t know how to go to where they belong.”

People with Alzheimer’s and dementia forget the meaning of meaning. The advantage they have in storytelling is that they invent new meaning —a convention shared with poets. It was probably not a coincidence that the story of the yellow people, for John, closely resembled the circumstances in his life and the lives of other storytellers. When John said, “Someone should assign them to a group. Organize them in categories,” he asserted himself as the stable interpreter of meaning for the characters in the story. He had a plan, and that plan was, “Tell them how to go home.”

The confident, assertive John disappeared when his attention turned from the story to reality. He asked, “How can I go home?”

As a storytelling facilitator, I have witnessed storytellers who, in moments of clarity, remember that they are in a nursing home and that their lives have changed dramatically. The transition from a delightful story to cold reality must be very difficult, because it is usually accompanied by some sort of emotional breakdown.

I tried to keep John’s mind on the story by asking, “How will the people get home?”

John permitted himself to be reeled back into the story. He responded,

“The light is steady from the east to the west. The position, they are all the same, but all the wide shoulders cause problems. They may try to follow the sun, the direction of the light, but then they come to a point where they ask if they are on the right road. Should they be there? Or should they be in a different direction?”




Gretta had fallen asleep. I was so interested in what John was saying that I was glad to have some one-on-one time with him.

“I’ve seen this before,” John said. “This picture was in the newspaper, attracting a headline, so they can push your mind into a predicament. They are very popular.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why do I think so? Because I have created for myself a world of sun, so I have a chance to solve problems.” John replied.

“Some people apart from others undertake ninety degree positions, thus if you look closely, you will find that previously there were at eighty. Go three-sixty, like a sport! Turn all the way around and see where you came from, your reference point! On that basis, you can be able to come to a conclusion that they are all not of the same kind, time, or place. I am eighty-five years old.”

Gretta woke up long enough to hear John say he was eighty-five.

She said,

“No, I am much older than that! A long, long time ago, I was born. June twenty-third is how old I am. I am tired! Someone else can take my position, because I am done with all of this now.”

She glanced over at Judy, who hadn’t stirred since the workshop started, and added, “Two people can take my position.” Then Gretta promptly went back to sleep.

John said, “The solution needs to be put on the table. Spread it out on a flat place, to find out the exact location. Look for someone who has a full face, open your hand at eighty degrees to receive the full.”

“Tell me more about receiving the full,” I asked.

“If you don’t expose yourself to the sun, being hidden somewhere in the shadows, then you can use the military. It’s to the left, between the east and the west.”

“Are any of these people in the military?” I asked.

John pointed to one of the people in the picture:

“He is going into the sun, physically going into the sun, entering in. With this kind of puzzle, you must be very careful, think logically, solve the problem, and develop a circle. The consequence is that you cannot describe the circle properly.”

“What happens if no one can describe the circle properly?” I asked.

“Do you know where they live? Half of the world is one hundred eighty degrees, opposites. Four times ninety is three hundred and sixty. I can’t find my reference point in any of the nineties. Do you have the ability to pick me up and deliver me to my reference point?”


John looked at Gretta. Her chin was heavy against her chest as she slept, each breath heaving in and out, rocking her entire upper body.

He looked at Judy with her mouth hanging open.

He looked around the room. Mr. K. was sitting alone in the sunlight by the window, his hands resting on his cane.

John asked, “What good are these people going to do, without knowing a reference point? You can’t just tell me to walk all around and look for it, three-hundred degrees, walking all the way around and never finding.”

I tried to redirect his attention to the picture, but he would have nothing to do with it anymore.

“Don’t you have any answers?” he asked. He pointed to the yellow people in the picture.

“That’s no help to me. I have no answers for them, looking, just looking.”

I did not really know how to respond, so I didn’t. We sat quietly for a moment.

“Sometimes when I talk to people,” John explained, “I ask them if they understand what I am talking about. I don’t know all these words, what I am saying. This is my idea. I haven’t solved the puzzle, yet. Do you know what I am saying? Do you understand? I understand.”

“Yes, John,” I said. “I understand.”


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