Memoir Class with the Elderly
In April 2013, I walked in to my town’s Senior Center and offered to host a workshop entitled “My Memoir”. The Senior Center’s Executive Director asked me what this workshop would be like and how long might it run. I described it as not a “how to” but more of a “why to”. While there are classes that instruct on technique and structure of memoir-writing, this workshop would focus on re-visiting life’s “moments”, moments that remind us of people and places that brought us joy and wholeness, moments of challenge and resolution, and perhaps moments that still bind us to regrets that we may no longer need to attach ourselves to. My intention was to help us move on, move up, and to learn to “be” in the present… to lighten our load. I suggested that there be no limit to this workshop and that the process would reveal whether it lasted 6 sessions or 6 years. The Director smiled and thought it to be a worthwhile effort. We shook hands, set a begin date and time, and so it began.
The first class began with only 4 people, ranging in age from early seventies to early eighties, and equal measure of men and women. In this first gathering I gave examples of how one might begin the memoir process. I offered a memory of my own that took me back to meeting an Episcopal priest by the name of Father Ben Priest, almost 45 years ago. I unraveled a brief story about a person whose life became interrupted by an unthinkable series of losses; losing his mother at age 3, his father at age 7,marrying and having a child only to lose them both while still early in his life, and so on. I explained that meeting and befriending this priest offered me a glimpse into how one can experience devastating loss, and through faith, surrender, and “presence” one can choose to let go of “what was” and learn to live, in the moment, with “what is” thereby doing one’s best to not lose the moment-at-hand.
My four new senior friends sat quietly absorbing my recollection. A gentleman in his late seventies asked if he might offer a recollection of his own and then another person offered theirs, and after an hour and a half, the rest of my four new acquaintances stepped-up to share a “moment” from their past.
It was a good start to what’s become an ongoing journey. Early that same evening I shared that experience with my wife and told her that I thought I had brought some value to those four people. My wife smiled, sipped her water, and after a short pause offered; “I think that those people may have given you an opportunity to grow your family, open your heart more, and bring YOU back to your own “moments” of inspiration and release.” She was so right.
The workshop grew to six, then eight, then ten and at times, to even more people. Stories of loss, inspiration, gratitude, surrender, self-realization, and so on, flowed from week to week. For the first several months, two of my senior friends did not offer up any of their lives and chose to just attend, listen and absorb. When gently asked if they had anything in particular that they wanted to address in this workshop, they both, in turn, lowered their heads, looked away for a moment, and softly said; “I’m stuck” or “I’m afraid to revisit that part of my life”. We assured them both that it may not be time to do that and it may just be time to “be” and be with us. More than a year passed, with them eventually writing-down some memories that flowed easily, and then, remarkably, on the same day, and unannounced to one another or to the rest of our workshop, they both read a very intimate and emotionally charged part of their past. The room fell silent with every eye fixed upon these two courageous souls as they poured-out their hearts.
My Scottish friend, in his early 80’s now, began his little story by describing summers with his uncle by the ocean-side where he perfected skimming rocks across the receding tide and riding a borrowed bike past local farms. Right in the middle of that story he “accidentally” turned the page onto something quite different. He murmured softly saying something like; “This is so odd… hmmm (shuffling the hand written pages)…I’m sorry…oh well… here goes.” The page turned to something he’d just written that reflected what he’d said at the beginning of our workshop well over a year ago; “I’m stuck!”
Measuredly, he unfolded the beginnings of story that spoke of his wife’s chronic depression and their difficult financial times. No more than two pages in, he paused, let his chin rest on his chest, and said; “It’s enough for now… I ahhh… I guess I’ll leave it there for now.” Someone from our workshop thanked him, another wiped her eyes, and another placed a hand upon his.
“I guess it’s my turn” said the other long-time observer in our group. His story wasn’t written – it was spoken. Beginning with a deep sigh, he unraveled a story about being institutionalized for almost twenty years. “I thought I was in a concentration camp…” he said, “…but they tell me it was a psych ward. I was a looney I guess.” He spoke about fear and darkness but he also spoke about people who were kind to him. “It was many years ago and I’ve come out of that now. My life is good and angels have rescued me and showered me with blessings – really unbelievable blessings. This is what I meant when I said; “I was afraid to revisit that part of my life.” Alright – that’s it – I’m done.” He sat back in his chair and smiled at us.
Following the sharing, the rest of the class congratulated their classmates for their courage and expressed their gratitude for sharing those sacred moments.
Over time, we have become very comfortable with sharing with each other in a deep intimate way: we laugh, we cry, we hug, we encourage, and we listen to one another, without judgment. At times, frown lines ease, smiles blossom like the lotus, postures straighten up, and over time, strangers have become trusted friends.
Word got out that I had written a little spiritual memoir and the Senior Center invited me to tell my story at “Author Night”. Now that we had grown closer over the past year, the service seemed to have been transformed into a spiritual gathering. During Author Night I shared my story about my spiritual journey, my losses, my blessings, meeting my spiritual teacher, lessons offered and the values embraced. At the end of my presentation many of my new friends and extended family hugged me, held my hand, and a few even placed their hands to their hearts, as one would experience in a greeting in the Puttaparthi ashram. It brought tears to my eyes, immeasurable gratitude to my being and a deeper richness to my life. My wife was so correct about the value that this service brought to me.
The Memoir workshop continued, almost two years now from that first session, and I received so very much from all of my senior friends. It was truly a heart-to-heart experience and one that my life was immeasurably enriched by. This service was, and still is, one of the treasured “moments” of my life.
Sathya Sai Center of Silvermine, CT