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The Writing Workshop on Aging

 

I started a writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I didn’t plan to do this. I just went to a meeting on aging because it looked interesting. I had the idea that this could lead to visiting people at the hospital, or reading to patients at nursing homes, and could count on my application for graduate school. My ideal would be to walk dogs at the animal shelter, but I don’t think they’d count that as social work. I could be wrong.

So I sat in the meeting and listened. Stories flooded the room: of women at sea after the death of a spouse of fifty years; women manipulated by insurance companies while signing papers at the hospital; women looking for help for their parents; women wondering how to help their friends. The meeting was very low on men.

I took notes and listened and felt the chaos roll over me.

The decision at the end of the first meeting was to have a second meeting, and a third, and a fourth if necessary, until some ideas could start to coalesce.

I went home, exhausted, and fell asleep, and then went on with my life, writing for the blog, going to class, writing my research paper, studying math for the GRE (because not only did I forget every bit of math learned in high school, but I have even lost my short term math memory and I forget it all over again each day.)

I don’t remember looking over my notes from the meeting. I just thought about one of my synagogue friends, recovering from back surgery, and I thought about my great aunt Ellen and the interviews I did with her a few years back to try and catch some of her magic on paper, and I thought about the short memoir my grandfather started before he died, giving us a glimpse into his childhood. Bits and pieces of the stories people had told me over the past few years of Friday nights at synagogue started to bubble up. I wrote a few notes to myself about people whose stories I’d want to read, but told myself it was just a passing idea, and I’d never have to follow through and actually talk to people.

I’ve learned so much from keeping a blog and writing memoir. It forces me to really deepen into my life, to settle into the crevices of it, and not just feel like I’m a character in my own imagination. I feel like I am taking good care of myself by writing about my life, instead of letting the moments disappear into the ether. I especially like that I have a chronicle of my dogs’ lives. I don’t worry that I will forget important things about them, the way I did with previous dogs. It felt so painful to forget things about Dina and Delilah, as if I was disrespecting them, and the value of their lives to me.

Delilah the Doberman

Delilah the Doberman

Dina, pensive.

Dina, pensive.

Butterfly and Cricket

Butterfly and Cricket

I found myself writing notes for an idea of a Friday night service where people read their own stories to the congregation. And I thought about how I could make that happen, or at least help people to write some of their own stories down.

I wrote a proposal, feeling very self-conscious and a bit like I was walking into a black hole from which I would never be able to return. I would be shunned from my synagogue. They’d hate me for thinking I was so special that I could teach anyone how to write; they’d resent me for thinking I had anything to offer. I could barely breathe.

I sent the proposal to the woman who runs the aging meetings, and she loved it! And then she sent it to the social worker helping the congregation, and she loved it too. And when I read it to the group in person at the next meeting, face turning purple, hands shaking, I got applause, and six people signed up to take a writing class with me on the spot.

I think I could be good at this, but I’m still terrified. Every step forward feels like jumping from one cliff to another. I’m thinking about how to help people who have trouble seeing, or trouble with arthritis so that writing or typing is difficult. I’m thinking about how to help people who are not natural writers, but would be great interviewees. I’m thinking so much that I have little pieces of paper floating around my room like confetti. Butterfly is loving that.

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

Butterfly, full of joy!

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

165 responses »

  1. That’s a great project! So many of these people have great stories to leave behind, and even if they’re not earth shattering they’re stories about people. Helping them express themselves and make sure their stories are told is wonderful! Best of luck!

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  2. What a beautiful project!!!! You’ll do amazing! A project like this is about heart. You’ve got it made.

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  3. This is wonderful… you are a risk-taker. After people hear how good this is others will flock to join! Of course, Cricket & Butterfly will have significant input.

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  4. Confetti is always a wonderful way to start! And as far as convincing people to come to the workshop, it doesn’t matter. God will make sure those who are supposed to be there are. Numbers are irrelevant – but do not stop studying math. 😀

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  5. Sounds like a wonderful teaching (and learning) opportunity, Rachel! You’ll have a great time, I’m sure. Above all, have fun!

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  6. What a great project – I hope it goes wonderfully! I’m sure it will.

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  7. I love this! Good for you. A good friend has taught writing to seniors for years and finds it so rewarding. Are you aware of the book I Never Told Anybody?

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  8. What a wonderful thing to do! I am so impressed, I have no words to express how I feel about this. Just keep doing what you do and it will be fine.

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  9. I have no doubt you will be great in this role of helping people write or talk about their life I would sign up if I could I would help you with you math in return Good luck on your new venture

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  10. Congrats, I think with your sensitivity you will be brilliant! They are lucky to have you. Above all, make it fun!

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  11. Rachel, this is so wonderful!! You will succeed. The women at synagogue are totally with you–you will succeed. Oh, could you try to bring Butterfly? I imagine Butterfly being petted and the words just flowing with story after story…..oh, lovely!

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  12. Rachel – I recently read Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work. You would like it, but the premise is put yourself out there. I’ve put a link to a pin I found on PInterest that summarizes the book (which is still worth reading).

    Yes, it’s scary, and yes, it would be nice if you had more people there for your time and effort. I agree with the earlier comments though that for the people attending, this is important and will make a difference to them.

    You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t even have to be polished. You just need to be one step ahead of them.

    And remember – everything is a learning curve, including this. The first time will be weird and awkward, but it will teach you what to do differently with the next class and if you decide to put out a small e-book on this topic.

    Head up. Shoulders back. Inhale. Exhale. Relax your face!! Yes, stop scowling and put on a nice smile even if you have to fake it.

    Now go get ’em.

    Nancy

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    • Thank you! I will smile as much as I can, even if my face hurts!

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      • I think it’s good that you offered to do this. When I was trying to get my grandma’s stories from her, all she’d keep saying was that my other grandparents were much more interesting. I barely got anything from her which was too bad. She WAS interesting, but she didn’t see it that way.

      • I was too young to get my grandmother’s stories – and I feel the loss acutely. It’s taken me a long time to build up the confidence to ask people for their stories. I always worried I was being intrusive. And while some people may respond that way, most people feel honored that someone is interested in their life.

  13. Rachel this is a wonderful idea. You brought tears to my eyes. There are fascinating stories to tell out there, this will give voice to personal history. Even more I think sometimes our senior generation feels unheard.

    You should definitely take Butterfly with you.

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  14. What a great way to give something to your community. Congratulations for having the courage to take a leap of faith in your self and in others. Ive been searching for years for a way to give something back that is meaningful and while I could not teach a class on writing there must be something I can and should do. Your post inspires me to be open and believe that if I offer something in good faith it will bring value to those I offer it to. Good luck and keep us posted (pun intended) on your success.

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  15. How great is that??!! I am so excited for you! What a meaningful thing to do, what a great idea. I am not surprised it was so well received. Butterfly and Cricket could only enhance the program 🙂

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  16. I wish I could go! You will be great!

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  17. In her dotage, Kyla taught us that seniors can learn and apply what they’ve learned. They have a lot to offer. Those seniors of yours have a lot of experiences that shouldn’t be lost.

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  18. Wonderful gift for all involved! Enjoy!!!

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  19. You will be great; you have so much to offer those folks! And I LOVE these line, by the way–so crystal pure: It forces me to really deepen into my life, to settle into the crevices of it, and not just feel like I’m a character in my own imagination.

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    • Thank you! I really do feel like the blog, and writing memoir, has done something powerful for me, made me more solid, less ephemeral. I wasn’t ready for it earlier in my life, though. If I can do a little bit of that for/with someone else, I’d be thrilled

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      • My husband’s 94 year old dad is in his last days; I so wish we had helped him write his memoirs! (Think of the changes these folks have lived through…) I think this kind of course is a blessing to the people involved and a huge gift to their families.

      • I have a ninety year old man in the workshop and he is absolutely fascinating! If I can help him to get down even a fraction of the stories he’s lived, I’ll be thrilled.

  20. Fantastic work 🙂 admirable 🙂

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  21. You might think six is a small number but remember that 5-7 are the optimum numbers for group work 🙂 enough people for interaction but small enough to work well.

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  22. Excellent idea – but isn’t that generally the case that the best idea are not those that are planned for and considered but rather those that are spontaneous, mainly because they respond to a present need. I think this will work really well and I look forward to hearing all about it when time permits. Good for you, Rachel, Good for you!!

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    • Thank you! I totally agree that the best ideas are organic rather than preconceived, but waiting for a good idea to appear is terrifying. I can sympathize with people who want to preempt the process and come up with answers before the questions are even asked. Tolerating the void is a very hard thing to do.

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  23. You write beautifully and I am sure that those six people are going to enjoy your teaching and find something new and special in how they write. Good luck.

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  24. Awesome project, it sounds really exciting!

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  25. Yeah, wonderful idea! I’m sure you and your students will love it. Have fun!

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  26. What a fantastic idea and I’m so sure that all those who join you will benefit from the experience. I love how you fell upon this idea and found a way to combine your passions and talents! Mazel tov!

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  27. What a great way to contribute to your community! Love it.

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  28. My church has a group like that, and it is called “Reminiscent Writing”. It is an enriching project for those who write and for those who listen, as well. Good for you to be brave about sharing your love of writing!

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  29. What a wonderful idea! I hope you will let us know how it goes!

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  30. A wonderful idea! All the best with the project. People to be listened to, and realise that their stories are important.

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  31. Sorry, left a word out and can’t work out how to edit – ‘people need to be listened to…’

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  32. Inspiring post! Thank you 🙂 youre going to do great !!!

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  33. Thank you for liking my post on A Very British Haiku.
    Your writing is refreshingly sincere.
    Please take a look at “Dead Rabbis and Potato Crisps,” (wp.me/p5aAN0-1vv) if you have a chance. I’m the only Jew in East Northamptonshire, and nobody round here understands why, “locust and paprika” is funny.

    Best wishes

    Rupert

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  34. As one with more than little personal experience with “aging”, I can say it is vastly over rated, although still better than the alternative.

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      • I certainly agree with Maxwell the Dog, ie the alternative, at least to this point in my life! Rachel – that was a lovely post. A workshop I attended once suggested we all write a page in a journal every morning upon waking, before doing anything else, about whatever first popped into our minds. The first time I did this I just stared at the paper and could think of nothing to write, so eventually I decided the best place to begin was at the beginning ie my earliest memory. This led me on a wonderful journey of forgotten childhood memories.

  35. Lovely post, and a brilliant idea.

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  36. Kudos for putting yourself out there. I know it can feel like your leaping the Grand Canyon, but what is the saying? Shoot for the moon, you may hit stars on the way (or something to that effect). And don’t worry, I’m a lot like you on the math thing. Can’t recall a darn formula I ever learned! Best wishes with the class; Im sure you’ll wow them. 🙂

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  37. Bravo!!! Good for you for facing your fears and putting yourself out there. You DO have a lot to offer others. You should very proud of yourself. I think you’ll do great, Rachel. Knock ’em dead!

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  38. This sounds wonderful. Have a good time as you share your life, love, and compassion with others.

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  39. What a great idea and a way to preserve some of the everyday things of the past that are often lost in the future.

    People worry so much about getting old without thinking about how much worse the alternative is – dying young.

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  40. Blogging is definitely a personal narrative tool that allows people to share their stories. Great idea, Rachel! I have thought similarly about a book that sets out topics people can use to tell their stories; somewhat like the topical diaries you can find at Barnes & Noble. In any form, our lives are STORIED, and telling our stories in narrative form helps people to center and perspectivise their life experience. Hillman’s HEALING FICTION is a worthy reading on this subject. Enjoy the congregation members’ epic (and episodic) tales…

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  41. What a fantastic opportunity for them and for you; to share your gift and your stories with your community. They are going to see how lucky they are real quick 😀

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  42. I’ve just tweeted this and six other of your great posts 🙂

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  43. I think your project is wonderful. I commend you for overcoming your fears to get up there and make the presentation. To give people a voice is a powerful, healing thing for all involved.

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  44. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving! What a great adventure, and what wonderful gifts you and your “students” can exchange. Keep us posted, please?

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  45. Any new thing is scary – you’re amazing, and it’s just wonderful that you’re doing this! I wish I’d been able to have my parents write their stories – so many things gone that can never be found again.

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    • A few years back, I wanted to practice my interviewing skills and got my Mom to sit for me. I have a box full of tapes and notebooks of Mommy! But now, I actually got her to agree to come to the workshop, so she can write her own story!

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      • that’s wonderful! I wish I had done this with my mom, so many stories lost, so many questions unanswered. Max and I used to visit the nursing home and I would just listen to the inmates (because it seemed like that’s what they were at times – prisoners in a place for the elderly) – and think that someone should write their stories down. If only we had enough time!

      • I used to think of doing that, just going to a nursing home and taking notes for hours. I just never had the nerve. Maybe someday!

      • They would love you. I remember my Dad talking for hours to a friend of mine – all stories I’d heard hundreds of time, but to Paul they were all new. Poppa adored him – a rapt audience who would listen for as long as Poppa talked.

  46. hugs for putting aside your fears in deciding to share your talent with others…no small feat…but one in which you can take great pride…

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  47. it’s a wonderful idea

    Reply

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