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Monday, November 23, 2015

‘Tis the Season To Tell Stories

I heard about a StoryCorps project—The Great Thanksgiving Listen—on NPR several weeks ago, then recently posted the link to it on Facebook.

Here’s the project’s description from the website*:

“This Thanksgiving weekend, StoryCorps will work with teachers and high school students across the country to preserve the voices and stories of an entire generation of Americans over a single holiday weekend.

“Open to everyone, The Great Thanksgiving Listen is a national assignment to engage people of all ages in the act of listening. The pilot project is specially designed for students ages 13 and over and as part of a social studies, history, civics, government, journalism, or political science class, or as an extracurricular activity.”

It’s a great idea, of course, getting young people to listen to the stories of the old people in their lives, and especially to record them.  And what better time to do that than the one day a year our extended family is gathered around the Thanksgiving Day table.

Or not.

This great project assumes many things, including that our significant elders are still alive and functioning, which is more likely the case if you are 15 years old.

But what if you’re well into adulthood yourself, with parents, grands, aunts and uncles no longer living?  How will their stories—many of which we may already know—get “listened to,” then passed down through the generations?

You know the answer: It’s up to you to write them down, to do the good hard work of capturing the stories of these past generations. A legacy project, I call it.  And you can make it easier by using yourself as the starting point, describing those elders as you personally experienced them.

For instance, you might do a writing exercise about your favorite Aunt Mildred, beginning with those summers you spent with her and Uncle Hughie in Door County.

Or the Thanksgiving your Grandpa Teddy dropped the turkey while bringing it to the table where 15 of your relatives sat waiting.

Or maybe your 10th birthday party when your crazy grandmother showed up with the most amazing present you’d ever received?  (You remember that one, don’t you?)

You may no longer be a teenager surrounded by an idyllic extended family on this holiday, but you still have lots of memories of those people—idyllic or not—who once made up your family, and inevitably made up your self. 

There’s much we can learn about those dearly departed, and especially their influence on us, when we get their stories down. I hope many of you take the time to do that.


*For more information on the StoryCorps project, including some more writing ideas, click here:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

What Surprises Us Most About Aging

In late September, I sent out emails with the following request.  I also posted it on both this blog and my Facebook page:

Seeking Contributors 
I plan to do a blogpost w/ the title: "What surprises me most about aging," and am seeking contributions in the form of a list or a full paragraph. I will use first names only when posting, or "pen names," including Anonymous, and will edit for space and clarity those I publish. If you're game, please email me your list/paragraph at 


Now, I'm not sure what prompted this request; perhaps I'd been thinking lately about what surprised me most about aging, and wanted to hear what others had to say. I was pleased to receive the following responses, each of which opens a slightly different lens into what might be new--and timeless--about aging in the 21st century.

From Jerry
1. Time moves so fast. Days are much shorter. Seasons are much shorter. Years, too. A day when I was a kid was a week. When I was 21, it was three-four days. Now it's a very few hours.

2. Life is so short, just as the wise folks said. It seemed long going forward, but looking back, it's zoom. Yet I can remember everything.

3. Didn't expect to be so healthy at 71. When I started writing obits in the news business in the early 70s, most obit folks died in their 60's.

From Terri
Many aspects of aging for women are known, discussed, and were thus expected: flapping upper arms, thinning hair, slowing movement, forgetfulness. But what came as a surprise to me was how hard it would be to lose dear friends. Being warned would not have helped, though I can't be sure. I just know that I sorely miss many who have preceded me and somehow I didn't see it coming. Denial or thoughtlessness or our culture's reluctance to talk about death — maybe a combination of these caused a lack of anticipation.

As a religious, I've experienced sisters dying all my life. Other adults have died all along my life. But in both cases they were older than I. Having contemporaries die is different!

From Sharon
I just turned 60.  I expected it to feel oppressive and limiting, like the weight of a huge medieval door closing on me.  After all, I have spent the better part of the past four years mentally preparing myself for this crushing moment.  But much to my surprise, I feel buoyant and newly energized.  This moment is pivotal, unlike any other milestone birthday.  Something really shifted inside me.

When I turned 50, I said: “Look!  I can still do everything I did when I was 40!  Woo-hoo!”  I was on a single trajectory, looking back and comparing myself to earlier days on that same path.  When I turned 60, on the other hand, I looked forward at an infinite number of paths.  I do not know how many more years I have left with good health, mobility, and clear thinking.  

So how can I make sure that I fill the remainder of this lifetime with what is important to me?  I have been seizing moments with much less fear than ever before.  I no longer weigh the pros and cons of every action with debilitating caution and slowness, to the point of not doing what I really want to do.  I feel like I am stepping into myself, and into my life, like never before.

From Jo
The most surprising thing for me has been the difference in how I experience time. At age 88 anything and everything was "yesterday."  When in middle years people spoke of "30 years from now" that seemed a lifetime away.  But from today's perspective that was a blink of an eye. I'm not just making a rational statement.  I'm talking about an internal feeling, an awareness. The internal image of time has been turned on its head.  

From Mel
The thing that surprised me most about aging was (and is) the recognition that I am as mortal as all those who came before me.

From Anonymous
What surprises me most about aging?  One aspect of my life that surprises me is that my life did not turn out as I'd always dreamed it would: being married, having children, living in a huge mansion, making a lot of money, and having numerous friendships.

Instead, I am single and have no children (but enough nieces, nephews and other children around for the experience).  I have a lower-middle income, live in an apartment, and am a caretaker after work hours for my elderly mother.  I have many acquaintances, but only a few close friends.  I suppose God had a different plan for me, although I do on occasion wonder how things would have been for me today if I had only chosen other directions. 


I'd love to do another of these "What Surprises Me Most" posts, so if you are so inclined, please do email me your response, in either list or paragraph form.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Holiday Stories

Some of the more interesting stories we may tell are those that emerge from--or are shared on--the holidays. And as I wrote in the Stories book, by holidays I mean “…the annual occasions—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, New Year’s—when, whether you like it or not, the family is gathering and you’re expected to show up.” 

There are also, of course, holiday stories about our friends, who for many of us now stand in for those family who have died or disappeared from our lives.

But no matter how and with whom we spend them, the holidays can’t help but make for good stories.  They are driven by anticipation and expectations, by what we imagine them to be and by what they turn out to be. 

And so each year around this time I offer a workshop in writing both about and for the holidays, personal stories we may want to give as gifts and keepsakes on the holidays.

For example, several of my high school friends and I gather each year at Christmas, and some small gift giving around the festive dinner table is involved, e.g., scented candles, boxes of chocolates, a homemade holiday ornament, even gift cards.

This year, what I'm planning to give everyone is a collection of stories from our high school years, stories I will ask for from each person in advance, edit and organize, then hand to everyone as our "collected high school memories" that night. So while these will not be stories about the holidays, they will be given as keepsakes for the holidays.


If any of my readers are interested in giving some of their personal stories as holiday gifts, you might consider joining this year's workshop.  There is just one space remaining, but we will keep a wait list, and if enough people sign up for that, we can open a second session.

Writing Family Stories: The Holiday Version at Bookends & Beginnings Bookstore in Evanston
Saturday, November 21, 12 to 2 p.m.
This workshop is for people interested in writing family stories—those real-life accounts of the important people, places, and events in their and their family's life. Using a handful of fun and inspiring writing prompts, we'll record several stories to share with friends and family--whether orally or as written gifts and keepsakes-- at upcoming holiday gatherings.
Space is limited to 8 participants; fee is $45. Please pre-register with Carol or contact her for more information at

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Old Love, Within Limits

In 1967, when my father and stepmother married, they were considered old.  Or, at least, at 56, my father was.  Bess was seven years younger, still in her 40s, though it was hardly a May-December romance.  Each had been married before, their spouses now deceased, and each had grown children.

The marriage lasted 40 years, longer than their first marriages had, ending only with my father’s death, just four months shy of his 95th birthday.

My father and Bess were very companionable and well suited, lending their skills and talents equably to the relationship.  Bess was an excellent cook and kept their 2-bedroom condo in good order; my father handled both the finances and their social life with ease.

That social life blossomed once they moved into an independent living facility in 2002, a move encouraged by their children.  We’d known for a while that our parents--my father now in his ninth decade--would be better served living in a communal setting, especially one where healthcare professionals were on hand to respond to any crisis.

And so now it seemed that my father and stepmother were finally, really old, though my father, as his doctor once told me, was a good imposter, hiding the inevitable ravages of age pretty well.  He’d been a salesman all his life, and the posturing such a profession often requires, served him well as he recovered from various falls and dealt with both legal blindness and poor hearing.

Then the inevitable happened and before our parents could move into the assisted living floor of their building—a move we and they had all agreed was next—my father, following yet another fall, ended up in the nursing home part of the facility, a separate building on the same property.

Ever the optimist, my father expected he’d quickly recover—hadn’t he always?—and return to living with Bess.  And even if it meant their moving from independent to assisted living, it would be just four floors down from there current 6th floor apartment, and within easy reach of the facility's social events they regularly attended with their favorite fellow residents.

Which is why he was so devastated when the facility’s manager told him in a meeting to which we were all invited that policy dictated otherwise: the health and well-being of Bess, who they determined was in no position to be my father’s primary caregiver, his live-in aide, had to be taken into consideration. My father would remain in the nursing home.

Now, I’ve no idea how Bess really felt about this decision—out of her hands, really, and one to my knowledge that she in no way influenced nor likely even understood.  Born in 1917, she was of a generation of women who took it as their lifelong duty to care for their husbands at home, and for as long as needed.

What I did notice, though, was that when I'd visit them out at the facility--my father in the nursing home, Bess in their original apartment--she seemed calmer, more relaxed, gaining back some of the steadiness she'd lost as my father's health declined while they were still living together.  She even became more social without my father's help, finding a group of women residents with whom she appeared at ease.

My father didn't last long in the nursing home, a not surprising turn of events, falling again, then finally landing in the hospital and dying.


This bit of family history came to mind after recently reading, and ruminating on, a Modern Love column in the New York Times: "My Father's Last Romance."

For me, the piece illuminates just how much may be changing in this "new" old age, especially among those within shouting distance of Boomers, a generation that saw so many cultural revolutions as they made their way into and through adulthood.  For while older people luckily still fall in love, they may now make different choices about how to respond to the "in sickness and in health" part of their relationship--whether it is officially codified in marriage or not.

At least Arlene, the "romance" part of the article, did. And unlike my stepmother, she did so without benefit of an official policy.  All the more courageous, I think, for her having done so.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Gig Economy

I no longer have a resume that reflects reality.  Or, to put a better face on it: I have helpfully condensed my work experience for the sake of brevity and readability. As well as eliminated the first 15 years of my working life.

A life, by the way, that I was ill prepared for.

What the fine nuns at my all-girls Catholic high school prepared us for were not sterling careers in medicine, engineering, or business.  No, all they wanted was that we graduate into good Catholic marriages, eventually becoming good Catholic mothers.  If we had to work until that happened, well, it was hoped to be of a short duration, and usually in one of the pink collar ghettos available to women in the early '60s: teaching, typing, or nursing.

But that's not how my life played itself out.

Starting with my first job at 20, as a mailroom clerk in the corporate headquarters of a large grocery chain, I've worked all my adult life, though unlike most of my peers, I didn't stay in any one job for long.  That is, except for this last one, the one I made up for myself circa 1991, as a writer and writing coach.

In other words, I became a freelancer, something rather unusual at the time, especially for a nearly 50 year old divorced woman who'd only recently completed her graduate work in English, the alleged training for the made-up job.

But I was not without training in freelancing itself, having spent way too many years as a temporary secretary, a "job" that required me to hit the ground running each week, sometimes each day, at an endless round of real estate companies, law firms, ad agencies, and corporations. As a result, I knew what it was like to not know from one week to the next what my income would be; I knew what it was like to live without health insurance and other benefits, including paid holidays.

Mostly, though, I knew that despite all the risks involved in living the freelance life, it was the only one I could bear, especially if I was to find truly meaningful work. As for the money part, well, as the book title assured me, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. (I'm not sure the book promised exactly when, but I was fortunate to be born an optimist.)

And, now, it turns out that a whole generation of workers--our endearing Millennials--are not only themselves seeking the freelance life, and in record numbers, but are, in the process, transforming the 21st century idea of work.  I salute and encourage them in their quest to make their work more of a calling, and to insist that it be just one part of a well-lived life.

Which is all I ever wanted for myself.

For more about Millennials and The Gig Economy, see below.  I've excerpted bits from each link:

"According to a recent study published by Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk, there are 53 million Americans in the U.S. workforce who have opted for the flexibility of freelancing rather than working the traditional full-time job for a steady paycheck. That is 34 percent of all American workers."


"I call that traditional view, 'Big Work,' and millennials intuitively understand that's not where the future is. They are, in a sense, the first generation of freelance natives. They’re embracing freelancing in a way no other generation has. And now, they’re the majority of the workforce."

"A recent Millennial Branding report found 45% of Millennials will choose workplace flexibility over pay.  Dori Albert, crowdscourcing practice manager at Lionbridge Technologies Inc., stated that Millennials helped create a “new nature of work,” with increasing reliance on the gig economy and freelancing."

"Reports and studies seem to indicate three roots to Millennials’ discontent and the resulting upheaval: the drives for flexibility, purposeful labor and economic security."