Writing classes nourished my soul

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2013

I didn’t know what to expect when Barbara Garwood convinced me a while back to facilitate an Art for the Soul creative writing class at Trinity Living Center. After we tossed around some ideas, it seemed storytelling might be the way to go, so I typed participants’ stories on my laptop, trying to be as faithful as possible to their own words. I had the help during some sessions of the wonderful Lizzle Davis, a Catawba College student.
I went in hoping the venture would be meaningful for all involved. What I was not prepared for was how my time there with Frances, Joe, Mabel, Jeff, Marie, Wendy, Ruth, Alice and Josie would be the highlight of my week. We not only told stories but shared ideas and opinions and just generally reflected on things important – homes being destroyed—and not so important – sneaking off at night to meet a boyfriend in the cemetery.
Tuesday mornings, we would form our friendly circle in a room with windows that allowed others to peek in. Inevitably, a staff member would come up to me afterwards and say, “You all sure were laughing a lot in there. What in the world were you talking about?”
Well, what didn’t we talk about?
Some things I can’t get into because when we were in the room, there was an unstated but understood cone of safety. People were astoundingly honest. It was sometimes evident that pain from many years past was still close to the surface. But in greater measure, so was joy.
We talked about memories of childhood, including treasured toys, favorite meals, heroes.
We looked at intriguing photos of people we didn’t know and came up with stories about what we imagined was going on, which proved to be a verbal Rorschach test.
I loved the distinctive voices of the participants, who used language in wonderful and colorful ways. “I came out shakin’ a tailfeather,” Frances announced.
Then there was Ruth, who talked about how she “frolicked up” a cream-colored dress to wear on a train trip — a dress that ended up black with soot by the time she got to her destination.
Quietly attentive and sweet-natured Joe spoke when he really had something to say. For that reason, he reminded me of my own gentle father.
Joe talked about how he had grown up in a family of sharecroppers in Georgia, so poor that they only wore shoes during the colder months of the year. In 1939 the family piled into the back of a pickup truck (his mother was pregnant with him at the time) to travel to Kannapolis to find work in the mills.
Joe also put an image in my mind I won’t forget. As a young man in the Coast Guard, he remembers standing on the bow of a ship and watching polar bears leaping from one floating piece of ice to another.
As we spoke of childhood memories, he talked of shooting a bluebird with his air rifle when he was a boy. Full of remorse, he solemnly buried it in his yard. “It was a pretty bird,” he said. “It taught me a lesson: Don’t play with guns.”
Mabel fondly recalled an older woman who loved to spoil her. She’d buy Mabel a Cheerwine and a Moonpie and wouldn’t let her share them with anyone. The experience gave her a template of generosity to last a lifetime: “Ever since, I’m always a’givin’ a little something to somebody,” Mabel said. “I just love to give.”
Josie remembered hard times after her mother died. “My dad married that old woman who was so mean to us,” she said. “I know what the term ‘wicked stepmother’ meant,” Josie said. She wasn’t about to continue the cycle herself. “The Lord helped me forget the hate I had for her. I married a man with a child, and I loved the child like he was mine,” she said.
Josie also shared some enlightening thoughts on marriage: “Run like a chicken,” she advised. “Don’t get married. Know when to zig and zag. I’m proud of my four children, but if I had to go it again, I’d say no way.”
Wendy, who grew up in England during World War II, had some of the most dramatic stories, including surviving a bomb attack and joining the Royal Air Force as a very young woman. She also talked about how her “very resourceful” mother, who owned a small sweet shop, convinced a candy factory to let her sweep sugar off the floor. She’d then take that sugar to another factory that would make candy bars for her to sell.
The Art for the Soul truly lives up to its name. Telling our stories validates and gives meaning to our lives. It draws us closer to one another. It is magical, and it is nourishing. And I suspect that for those whose short-term memories aren’t so strong anymore, revisiting old memories with people who care about hearing them is a powerful thing. I am grateful for having had the privilege to be part of it – and I am looking forward to hearing more stories.