How about I take a writing class at the community college, I thought. Actually, I didn’t think that unprompted; an old friend suggested it. I’d already tried finding a writing community a dozen different ways, and nothing was a fit, so why not?
The community college offered two classes that I could ride my bike to: Write Your Life Story, which met at the Senior Center, and Prose Writing Workshop, which met at the community college’s satellite campus called the Benton Center. I’d sign up for both classes and then drop the one that wasn’t as good.
And what was I looking for? People to share writing with. People to talk about the craft of writing, and the strategies and tribulations of trying to get published. People with whom I connected.
The Prose Writing Workshop turned out to be excellent. Not much to say about it. Oh a little, but not here.
It was Write Your Life Story that baffled me. It baffles me still.
~ ~ ~
I struggled with the online registration. It was a two-step process. In the first stage, I was sent an un-memorizable e-mail address, which I immediately had forwarded to the one I regularly use. In the second stage, well, it gets fuzzy, but even by the next day there was no e-mail confirmation. Classes had almost no spots left in them. I beelined for the Benton Center.
As I rode the six blocks, I thought of my entrance to the community college. This would be hard in some ways. I was a retired professor, right? Well, yes, but not of writing. And maybe I’d talk too much in class, try to answer questions that weren’t for me, or try to tell people about resources or something.
No, that wasn’t the main problem. The problem was that the classes might be full of duffers. I didn’t need to make time for duffers. I wanted to be with awesome, driven people.
But not really; I was tired of awesome driven people who solved science puzzles with cleverness and brute force. I was looking for explorers of their own minds’ thoughts. And sharing these types of thoughts with peers would be new to me.
I arrived at double doors behind the four stately white columns. But the doors wouldn’t open. A faded note said to go around the side. Was my mistaken understanding of the front door for the past twenty-six years some sort of sign? Was this whole idea—of the old acquaintances—a bad idea?
I went most of the way around the next wall before finding a door. I locked my bike in a difficult bike rack, the kind with only low loops to lock to.
And then I entered. The room felt full of reflections as if the floor had been waxed and then polished. I was small in the large room. The shiny counter across one side felt too high. Then the fellow who came to help me took all the control. He bustled away and re-did my entire application. I got a new non-memorizable e-mail address. I felt as useless as the time in college when a cleaning person rolled her eyes at me, reached into my backpack with a paper towel, and scooped out a mass of yogurt that had spilled when my books pried the lid off.
I do it all the time for myself, my husband, and my dad. I have hundreds of passwords in a secure site that open up the hundreds of websites and accounts that I need. But there the proficient professor stood, dwarfed by a shiny counter, at the community college, while someone else had to register for me.
~ ~ ~
I hadn’t been inside the Senior Center for a decade. There was construction fencing around it, and tufts of grass coming up from churned soil. After a little cruising, I found a front door and locked my bike. A woman passed me. She was older than I was, and I wondered if she was in Write Your Life Story, too—and if so, how old the rest of them would be. I trod by a front desk, personed by an older woman, and then passed along two corridors to enter a conference room that was already full of elderly people– Eleven women and one man —and their banter. The teacher stood near the door and flipped through her supplies. Even though I was early, everyone already had a folded paper with his or her first name on it on the table in front of them. One woman had written her name onto paper swirled with dye like the endpaper of an old book.
“You can sit anywhere,” the teacher told me. “Except it’s best to leave a chair by the door for Cindy. She’s sensitive to perfumes. You’ll like her. And she always brings chocolates to share.”
I noticed that some of the participants had notebooks or stapled sets of papers. I slung my backpack to the ground and pulled out a three-ring notebook, a pen, and my prepared reading. That seemed like too much. I shoved the notebook toward the center of the table, then changed my mind. I pulled out one sheet of paper and put the notebook away.
The teacher was talking. “No one seems to have seen Angela,” she said. “I’ve been trying to figure out if she’s all right.”
“I ran into someone who said they saw a moving van art her place,” a woman offered.
“Is that right,” the teacher said, and people murmured quietly. “Well, I’m still trying to make contact. With her or a family member.”
This was worse than I expected—like a support group at an Independent Living.
“And here’s a card for Diane’s husband. I’ll pass it around,” the teacher said, which caused another set of murmurs as people made sure they knew who Diane was.
Then the teacher had people introduced themselves—to me. I was the only new classmate. Some had been taking the class since the ’90s.
She passed around the handouts. “It’s hard to come up with something fresh,” she said, and she was talking directly to me. “This is a mixture of craft and prompts. I put in some examples, too. This class isn’t for everyone, she said,” and shook her head from side to side to give me an easy way out, just in case. “But we hope you’ll like it. And Barbara, since you’re new, I brought you the packets for fall and winter terms, too. Now, who brought something to read today?” Half the people raised a hand. I felt eyes on mine, which I had raised as well.
“Let’s go counterclockwise,” the teacher said, and class began. Two of the stories were about births. They were accompanied by photos that were passed around. “I firmly believe no woman will ever forget the births they’ve gone through,” the teacher said, and the participants nodded.
“Us men neither,” the man said. “Our wives won’t let us.” Everyone laughed.
We heard about plans for a fiftieth wedding anniversary several years before—and got to see the chart showing the cabin assignments for the family members. People gasped appreciation and made appropriate comments about the beloved husband who I think had recently died. One woman told a tragicomic story that had me laughing from the moment she opened her mouth. She was a several-year leukemia survivor and had a thick notebook of stories she was putting together for her kids. She told us about the time her put-together mother threw the woman’s clothes onto the street because she hadn’t cleaned her room properly.
“These stories are really excellent,” the teacher said. “It’s important that we remember to toot our own horns from time to time.” When the teacher smiled, she got dimples, if that’s the right word, in her forehead and high in her cheeks.
~ ~ ~
During the break, I talked to the woman across the table and realized she was quite a bit younger than I was. She only returned once though. She drifted to someone she knew, so I tried to some names to faces. Had I known any of these women before? Maybe one of them looked like she could have been at our church.
A fuchsia-colored box of chocolate truffles circulated. The older woman at the end of the table took four. She set them on the poem she just finished reading. It was someone else’s work, but she liked it and wanted to share. This woman was a poet herself and gave her age as eighty-nine. I eyed the paper, waiting to see signs of grease on them. I did not yet understand that her reading this poem aloud was the best use of this paper, truffle-grease-rings or no.
People sat again; the break was over.
As the elderly man read us his hand-written essay, I looked around. These participants weren’t all that old, I decided. The elderly man was in his mid- to late eighties, I wagered. But most of the classmates were probably only an arms-length older than I was—in their later sixties and early seventies, with the few in the years beyond that. It didn’t’ matter, I told myself: Age is just one of many stats to judge these “peers” by. Judging was not what I wanted to do. I would work to suspend judgement.
Inevitably, it became my turn. Would my essay be too sensational, too literary, too personal, too everything? I swallowed and then read.
I read an essay about my life that past fall. As I mentioned that my brother Charlie had died of pancreatic cancer, the audience “ooohed.” As I told about our closeness, they shook their heads, and at an anecdote, they clapped and laughed. And when I described learning of my half-brother Bob, they raised their eyebrows. “And I met him eleven hours later,” I said, and they squirmed with the discomfort I’d shared.
“A death is so hard. And of someone so close to you,” the teacher said. “And a new brother? Oh, my.”
A brief pause was swallowed with people talking again. It was time for the next person to read. I’d been a boulder in their stream, but the waters reconnected. The class went on. I was one of them.
~ ~ ~
“Nate,” I said, “I really don’t know if I should spend the time in there.” I was talking to my son on the phone. I was walking; he was driving. “But I feel I’d be insulting them if I left.”
“From what you told me, it’s an interesting sociological experience,” he said. “I think you should keep attending.”
I didn’t respond. My husband wants my time. My projects want my time. Write Your Life Story had to be pretty darn special to take two hours every week for it, plus preparation, and on Friday afternoons, no less. And the other class, Prose Writing Workshop, was truly excellent.
“And use it as an opportunity to work on your memoir. Get practice reading out loud. And listen to them. I think you like them,” he said.
“I don’t even know them.”
“Give the class another chance.”
~ ~ ~
One woman had built a cabin in the Wallowa Mountains in eastern Oregon. She and her husband had started their family there. Our teacher was a descendant of one of the first settlers of the region near our cabin. One woman was the ex-step-mother of a sister of a colleague I used to have, who I liked. Both of her daughters had been our babysitters, and one of them au paired for us for a month in France. Another woman exposed her feelings about our involvement in the Viet Nam war in an excellent essay. Another had organized people, baked cookies, and posted packages to the troops. I heard about more births, camping trips, a bell on a chapel, comical mishaps, stories of children when they were young, and stories of people who were no longer alive.
The eighty-nine-year-old was hard of hearing and appreciated it when I’d bring a copy so she could read along. The one who was sensitive to perfumes and brought chocolates told humorous stories of being a brat and of other people being a brat to her.
Week after week, we went around the table, counterclockwise one week, clockwise the next. People sat forward in anticipation of this person’s story, began laughing as the next started, sat with solemnity for another.
Another new person joined—a woman I used to work with before she retired almost two decades before. I learned all four of us had fond memories of a guy named Ted, who had worked into his late nineties in one of my friends’ labs. One woman, I learned, drove the oldest one to class. Sometimes the oldest one still wore her nametag from her facility. They had known each other for a handful of decades. People shared new diagnoses, news of surgeries to come. People told of grandchildren’s exploits. They shared collections of postcards. They talked about the struggles of downsizing, about their fears and hopes for whether the younger people would find the “patrimony” valuable. They wrote for specific relatives, or for us, or for themselves. And they listened.
On the last day of class, I said my ambiguous goodbyes to these new friends. Ambiguous, because in the fall, I could return to the Benton Center and let the fellow help me register again. If I want. I don’t know.
As we were leaving, the teacher smiled her dimply smile. She passed around a tray of little cones with ribbony fringes. I chose a green one. An older woman put one to her lips and blew.
“We have to toot our own horns,” the teacher said.