Wednesday, October 5, 2011

of spitfires and the written word

my friend nell, in her early 80s, and is a spitfire. widowed a few years ago — after having lived some 60 years with the love of her life — she's challenging herself to try new things. she's been to Russia, traveled the Seine and the Rhine rivers by boat, taken her turn at singing on the small stage, been in a mission trip.

and she is writing. i am teaching her how in a writer's group at my church, which is not altogether unlike other writing groups i have been part of in my career, except for the fact that most of the people in the group (including nell) proclaim quite loudly that they are NOT writers. i ignore them so we write anyway. and since we are a church class, we write about faith and doubt and just trying to be good Christians in a world that too often seems weary of the whole idea.

we've been on hiatus for the past year, and i have felt refreshed to see the regulars like nell take their seats on Sunday mornings along with a few new faces. among us are several professional writers like myself who nurture the newbies. nell is no newbie, but she is always reminding us that she is (this, having written poems and stories enough to fill a notebook.) our running joke is that the pros show up to class with no paper or pencil, while the newbies sit ever ready, a crisp clean sheet of white in front of them as we begin. (ever the school marm, i bring a box of no. 2s in case the muse should strike.)

in past years, our amoebic group produced books of meditations for the season —Advent or Lent — and have shared them with the congregation. few of the readers can know the work — and sometimes the boxes of Kleenex — it takes to complete each piece.

we've looked at Advent for what will be our fifth year now, and though we are all expectant and excited about Christmas, the work of the class includes coming up with something new to say that hasn't been said for a two thousand years already. so as we look look once again at Mary and Joseph, at Gabriel and the shepherds, each week we ask ourselves questions like: what would we do if an angel came to visit us and told us we would be the mother of God?

well. i for one would emphatically say that menopause means it's not possible, thank God, even by the power of the Holy Spirit. and if she insisted that nothing is impossible when the HS is involved, i would whine that i bet we put our heads together and come up with something else. (one year, melanie pondered not just the angel's words in her heart, but just how many 13-year-olds had to be asked before one of them said yes.)

on Sunday, the prompt was this: think about the path you imagined yourself traveling, but how God had a different idea.

Nell, it turns out, wanted to be a doctor. with an acumen for science and having had pneumonia half a dozen times in as many years, little Nell was sure of her path. though she didn't know any female doctors at the time, she was hopeful she would find the way toward her dream. and then she fell in love with the man she would care for years later as he faced Alzheimer's. and her course her new path was set. 

as she read — and later talked — about how women of her generation acquiesced to their men, i looked around the room at the other women present. melanie, who turned 40 this year, will run the Chicago marathon on Sunday and just completed a triatholon in the pouring rain. She is the mother of three girls under 8 and the wife of our priest and has never asked for permission to do anything. beth chose career over family years ago, and has discovered because of our writing exercise that she is really just fine with that choice, which was a surprise to discover.

nell is happy with her life, but she has always felt something was missing. and though she knows she'll never be a doctor now, she has used her resources to establish a scholarship for some young person who might well be. beth has never had to ask permission from anyone to accomplish what she has as a reporter and editor. and now she is moving forward on a new path, discerning what her role as a Christian might be.

it likely never occurred to melanie that she should ask anyone's permission. she just does it. what might her girls grow up to be like with a mother who takes charge of herself like that?

how different are these generations of women, and how rich it is that they share their stories and learn from each other. as i have learned from each of them.

i have always felt i was on the writing path. and though that path has meandered from newspaper photographer to feature writer to freelancer to teacher to volunteer editor to author, now all the tendrils seem to be gathered into one. and some days it feels as if that's God's doing.

there have been many times when i didn't think i was getting anywhere. but when it felt like i was trudging through the mud of it, my husband would do something really wonderful for me. like the Christmas, years ago, when he gave me a bright white filing cabinet — a place to keep my words in some sort of order. you'd have thought he'd built me an entire office from the way this small gift made me feel. and for a birthday some years later, he gave me a glitzy new IMac. then threw me a book party when i finally wrote that book. even tried to sell one of my books to a barber giving him a hair cut.

when he first started reading my stories and made comment, i would cry because i thought he was criticizing me. only later did i understand he was trying to make me a better writer. trying hard to toughen me up.

in truth, my own dream of being playwright or novelist or essayist has not been waylaid by God sending me off in a different direction so much as by my own sense of inadequacy — and maybe not listening to the voice whispering in my head.  sure there was that occasional editor who wouldn't return my calls, the project that fell flat, that great enemy of the written word —time (too much or too little.) but in the end, i'm the biggest unnudgeable boulder on this road of mine.

but i still have that filing cabinet. and writing friends who help lure the story out of me, even when i fight hard to keep it in. and the memory of my father's voice, telling me this is what i should be. and a class like the one that meets each Sunday morning, when i get to listen to the stories of other people's lives and in the process learn so much more about my own.