Old Friend from Far Away

by | May 11, 2008 | Musings | 0 comments

Driving home at twilight after teaching a life stories class for a group of retirees in Petaluma, I thought for the first time since I began the class more than three years ago that I might not have it in me to continue.

The class has slowly been shrinking: one woman’s memory deteriorated over the years. First she couldn’t remember whether she’d read one of her stories before; later, while attempting to comment on other people’s writing, she couldn’t remember what she’d said at the beginning of sentences she was trying to finish. She was transferred to a retirement community with an Alzheimer’s unit. Another participant, who’d written about youthful hitchhiking escapades, his daughters’ dog’s brush with death, life as a New York City principal and much more, stopped writing. He said he had nothing left to say. Another woman whose prose reads like poetry and whose stories of her reunion with her husband after World War II, ingenuity during the Great Depression and beach combing up and down the Pacific and Atlantic shores with her grandchildren wants to keep writing, but she can hold a pencil now in her trembling hand only with great difficulty and typing at her ancient portable electric machine is laborious. Then there are those who fall while reaching for a bar of soap in the shower or while merely getting up from breakfast with friends in the dining room. They are whisked away in ambulances; some return, others don’t. Most recently, a softspoken, kindly gentleman from Chicago, where I was born and raised, who had a knack for writing about how everything from an electric can opener to an old trolley car works, passed away in his sleep two days after his 95th birthday. Losing him winded me; I had grown to love him. And even though I know in each class it could be the last time I see some of the people there, it’s still not easy to see an empty chair where a friend once sat shuffling papers, adjusting a hearing aid or clearing a throat while preparing to read.

I was feeling despondent about all of this. Then, a package: I’d forgotten I’d ordered Natalie Goldberg’s “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.” I took it to class and read the introduction, just the introduction. Then, I provided writing materials to those who didn’t bring their own and told them we were going to write for 10 minutes without stopping (something we have done a fair amount of in the past but have not done as much recently). I told my friend with the shaking hand that it was OK to write very slowly, even one sentence could be meaningful. I told my friend who thought he had no more stories to just give it a try and see what happens. And we began.

Well, the stories and essays people wrote and then read to the group, one by one, were more powerful and honest than any we’d written together in a long time. A man who was attending the class for the first time wrote a thoughtful essay about honesty and gave very insightful feedback to other participants, including me.

I’ve never met Natalie Goldberg, but I feel that she is one powerful teacher. Merely by reading some of her words to the class, I was able to infuse it with new meaning. It was her presence, I believe, that came through to help us. What a gift she has!

Just wanted to share that.

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