I was so proud of myself. I went a million miles out of my comfort zone to set up the writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I wrote a heartfelt proposal and sent it out for people to read. I presented the proposal in person in front of 20 or 30 people, and got an extraordinarily positive reaction, and six people signed up for my theoretical workshop on the spot. I sent emails and coordinated, and negotiated, and scheduled, and got furiously to work planning my first workshop session, and five people showed up – only two from the original list. But five people was good, and people talked and wrote and stayed for an hour longer than I expected. The next time there were four people, and the time after that only two, plus me.
After three sessions, I took February off from the writing workshop – because so many people were snow birds escaping the winter in New York, and because I wanted to be a snow hermit and hide in my apartment. The anxiety I felt before each class was debilitating, even though the classes themselves were a lot of fun. I could barely move on a Wednesday after a Tuesday workshop. Three naps instead of one, and a long list of self-recriminations about things I should have said, and shouldn’t have said. I spent the extra time reading for, and planning, new lessons for the rest of the sessions. I drafted and revised and cut and pasted until the writing prompts and the writing samples came together in perfect symmetry to get to the heart of a subject within an hour and a half. I talked up the workshop at the next Engaging with Aging meeting, and to whoever asked at other events.
And when we came back from break, there were three students, then two, then just one, my mom, my loyal mom. People asked for my forgiveness for missing classes, for forgetting, and overscheduling, and having bridge at exactly that time and day. Intellectually, I knew they weren’t rejecting me, or saying anything about the quality of my work or what I had to offer. I knew that I’d done a good job, planning lessons and prompts and being supportive and gentle and only pushing a tiny bit when I knew someone was ready to go a step further. But how can you be a teacher without students?
These are good, solid, interesting people, with stories to tell and a lot of strength and survival skills and knowledge to share. And yet, the idea of waking up in the morning and choosing to go to a class where you will have to write about yourself, as if you matter, as if someone else should care what you think, no, that they can’t do.
One woman told me that what her sixteen-year-old grandson wanted for his birthday was for her to write down something about how she and grandpa got together and stayed together all those years. And I thought, wow, what a lovely and loving thing for a sixteen-year-old boy to ask for, and she thought, Oy, can’t I just give him money?
I ended the writing workshop in April, a month earlier than expected, and people kept asking me if I would start it again in the fall, maybe on a different day, at a different time, for a wider audience. I was tempted to try again, but also gun shy. I didn’t want a repeat of that experience of sitting in a big empty room, staring at the clock, hoping someone, anyone, would show up. Maybe if I could have brought Butterfly with me, to sit on my lap and calm me down while I stared up at the clock, but she sheds, which means she’s not hypoallergenic and therefore I’d be treifing up the library at the synagogue for people with dog allergies. And Cricket, the non-shedding dog, would be barking and growling, and scaring the nursery school kids into cowering under their tiny tables in the classroom next door.
I went to the next Engaging with Aging meeting, after the end of the workshop, because I’d gone to all of the previous meetings. I sat and listened as the discussion wandered and flailed. They needed some way to disseminate information, to share the advice they’d gathered from each other, and from the social worker at the Jewish Community Center. But how?
I didn’t mean to speak up. Words just started coming out of my mouth. Why not write up personal stories, about how you’ve dealt with a particular aspect of aging, what you learned, what you struggled with, where you went for help, and put it in the newsletter, or on the website. Maybe telling stories in order to help someone else is going to make it easier for people to open up. Within minutes, I had volunteered to interview, edit, and encourage people to get their stories down on paper. I’ve never been a journalist. I’ve done very few interviews. How did this happen?
So, this is what I’m doing next. I am not at all comfortable out here on this cliff, but it’s an opportunity to do something new, and something satisfying, that might actually help people. Wouldn’t that be great?