Saturday, October 23, 2010

Forgive, yes. Forget? Maybe

The other day at the library I picked up a free seniors' magazine, not the one I write for. I read it for a specific column by a writer I know. I sought that column first, skipping the many ads for retirement residences and avoiding the illness-related articles. But as I leafed through, I happened to glance at the editorial. The editor, who looks young in her photo, gave readers seven tips on how to have a good life as an oldster. Much of the advice was sound, but one item jarred: "Judge others less harshly."

In my experience (fifteen to twenty years) working with people older than myself, I have found that seniors don't judge others harshly. They are usually willing to make allowances and to look for extenuating circumstances. They remember the the rough edges they had when they were younger, and are generally tolerant, kind, and appreciative when treated kindly.

But life experience has also taught older people to recognize what's worthwhile and what's not. As a Reiki master once said to me, "We're too old to put up with things that aren't right."

Another article urged older adults to "let go of grudges, jealousy, guilt and regret" and not to be "stuck in negativity." On the surface, this advice seems sound. Reacting negatively sucks up energy that would be better spent on something enjoyable. Mulling over this advice, though, I concluded that it is glib. It glosses over the reality and the complexity of life. Few of us can say, "Je regrette rien," like Edith Piaf in her famous song. Moi? Je regrette beaucoup.

And, can you will a feeling away? Feelings in a particular situation may fade as one moves forward in life. Feelings change when we observe something or learn something that makes us feel differently.

I believe in forgiveness, sure, but should an older adult forgive someone who ripped him or her off in a serious way (or tried to) and then accept that person into his/her life as a bosom friend? Sometimes a little wariness is a healthy thing. Sheould a senior put himself or herself in close proximity to someone who deals in put-downs and passes them off as banter? ("Oh, you're just tooooo sensitive!")

The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Sure, some people grow and become better people. Some undergo transformative experiences that change the way they act toward others. And sometimes the change doesn't last.

All of us, including older adults, must look after our own well-being, and if that means keeping at arm's length certain people who have wronged you in the past (even by eroding your self-esteem) then so be it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Poor Relation

An old friend of mine once remarked that creative writing class is the poor relation of any program, whether it be at a community centre, continuing education facility or library. This remark arose when she, as a participant in one of my classes, and I, the instructor, were informed of a room change at the last minute. We had to tote all our books and papers to another location and were expected to set up heavy tables before other members of the group arose.

Generally I enjoy teaching writing classes, but it's because of the people I meet and the stories I hear, not because of the venues in which I have to teach. True, I remember one location which seemed ideal, a pleasant board room containing a large oblong table with plenty of space for everyone. It was the ideal democratic arrangement, once I got the door open. It was always a hassle to get the key, as the program administrator was never around when I arrived to teach.

I remember one centre where I never knew from one week to another where we would be meeting. At some point I complained that a space we had been assigned had no table, just chairs scattered randomly. "You mean you need a TABLE???" demanded the person in charge. When I said, "Yes, we need one to write on," she rolled her eyes. Imagine, people actually wanted to write - in a class called "Creative Writing!

My elderly friend who made the "poor relation" remark eventually moved from her condo to a retirement residence. As a volunteer, I led a class at this residence for a number of years and met many wonderful senior citizens there. Creative Writing was held either in the Activities Room or the Craft Room, whichever happened to be free, and usually the activities director had a "round table" arrangement set up for us.

Oddly, enough, though, it was at this well-run retirement residence that my students and I had a uncomfortable experience. On the designated day, the Activities Room was occupied by bridge players, so we were assigned to the Craft Room. The activities director told us that an all-women "barbershop" singing group (perhaps a branch of the "Sweet Adelines" - I can't remember for sure) was coming to entertain in the great room of the residence. They would need to leave their coats in the Craft Room closet before our class started, but that otherwise they wouldn't bother us. "Fine," I said.

My class included about ten women and three men, polite gentlemen in their eighties. They had been educated in the etiquette of bygone days - to rise when a woman entered the room, to hold a lady's chair when being seated at the dinner table, etc. No singers were around at 2:00 when our class began, so we settled at the table and I introduced the writing topic/challenge of the day.

At 2:30, when my writers were applying pens to paper, the door opened and in trooped a group of attractive middle aged women. They looked a bit startled to see us. They took off their coats - to start with. Some were carrying gorgeous green satin blouses on hangers. The singers had a costume for performances - dark skirts or slacks and identical blouses. Some came wearing the outfits; others intended to change into them on site.

In the Craft Room there was a one-person-at-a-time washroom. A few dove in there. Others, after some hesitation, stripped off their sweaters and T shirts and changed into their satin blouses. Meanwhile, the men in my group blushed and kept their heads down, their eyes firmly fixed on their pens and paper.

The activities director had mistaken the singers' time of arrival and hadn't realized they would need to change clothes.

Nothing quite so awkward has happened since in any of my classes. I still have to set up tables, though, or bring my husband along to help me. Also, it seems that just when a class gets underway, someone has to come into the room for a stack of chairs, a cardboard box, or the like. They can never wait until my class is over.

Why is creative writing the poor relation, the class that is imposed upon or shoved into a corner? Don't think I'm not assertive. I've ordered "movers" to come back later. I've complained about locations and demanded that a more suitable place be found. On one occasion, I took it upon myself to postpone a class for a week, informing the admnistrator by email that we would be back when there was a proper place for us to meet.

I think the problem lies with a general disrespect for writers and writing. Since most people learn the rudiments of writing in school, they think it's something anyone can do well - nothing special. They read articles in newspapers and magazines which flow simply and clearly and imagine that this simplicity and clarity is easily achieved. They don't realize that it is the product of talents honed over a lifetime, and of painstaking revision.

Program administrators don't like creative writing because it isn't flashy. Fifty people singing along and clapping in time to a musical entertainment is the sort of thing administrators like, because everyone seems engaged and happy. It makes for good photographs or videos. (Never mind that it's a passive type of activity and that people may be present for want of better alternatives.) Creative writing isn't flashy. People sit around a table writing, quietly discussing, reading to each other, occasionally laughing, and working home alone. It's too solitary and introspective to appeal widely in a world where it's more popular to exercise your body than your mind.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to assert myself on behalf of our "craft and sullen art."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More from "Winter Moon"

Here is another excerpt from a story in my new collection, "Winter Moon", ISBN 978-1-926-596-92-1 (Ottawa, Baico, 2010), soon to be published. This is from the story, "Snake in the House":

The snake had come Special Delivery in a cardboard box. The courier had thrust a clipboard into Grandpa's face and ordered him to "Sign here." Grandpa, who had been roused from a nap and hadn't had his glasses on, scrawled his signature on the dotted line. The delivery man then shoved the box into his hands and departed. Grandpa had assumed that it was a parcel from a publisher containing books for Mum to review. Only after closing the door did he realized that there were air holes. He wrested the box open and out shot a snake, which slithered to the floor and vanished down the hall. He'd pu the box out with the garbage which subsquently had been collected.
"Was it a garter snake or something bigger?" asked Clea, who was fourteen.
"Bigger, and drak," said Grandpa. "Like a fan belt. Not circular, of course."
Mum blanched.