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Monday, April 25, 2016

Late Bloomers

As with most life-altering decisions, this one began with a lousy job.  It was 1985, I was going on 42, and this was—give or take—job number twenty-something. It wasn’t the worst I’d ever had; that might have been at the shower curtain company.
           
But for pure tedium, the university job qualified. I was a “program administrative assistant,” meaning I typed stuff, filed stuff, and stroked the egos of the Big Wigs in the Vice Chancellors office, not one of whom had a decent sense of humor.

To break the tedium, I’d sit at my computer and, with no one the wiser, do my own writing—creative writing, personal stories, anything to keep my head from hitting the desk, whether on purpose or from boredom.

I did try finding another job, mostly in editing.  One thing my two self-important bosses did manage to compliment me on was how well I improved their overwritten, jargon-laden letters, memos, and reports.

But when months passed and nothing materialized, I felt trapped, rudderless.  And me with a dog, a cat, and an aging Volkswagen to support.
             
Then during one particularly dark night of the soul, a light suddenly clicked: Graduate school!  And in English!! Hell, I loved to read.
           
And so it was that I was admitted to the MA program at the University of Illinois at Chicago; acquired both a student loan and a part-time clerical job; and began what I thought would be my lost years: nine wonderfully aimless quarters spent reading English literature and wandering the university library. 

Such a pleasant way to stay distracted, I envisioned, while trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. 
           
But here’s the thing about being lost: sometimes you are found.  It happened to me while studying the works of the masters:  Chaucer and Milton and Eliot (both T.S. & George), Austen and Auden, and especially Samuel Johnson, that crackpot 18th century writer who created the most comprehensive Dictionary of the English language in 1755, which, for this writer, is equivalent to the Bible.
           
But I was doubly found in my second year, when I was accepted as a teaching assistant in the university’s English department.  To prepare to teach our own classes, all TAs were assigned a full-time professor to shadow, usually someone who’d taught college writing for years.

We would be required to teach some of their classes, and read and grade student papers. My mentor was the head of the composition program, and the day I taught my very first class to 21 college freshmen, he sat in the back of the room, silently observing while taking extensive notes. 
           
When the class was over, still dazed from the experience, I went to get my things and leave.  As I approached Dr. Miller, he looked up, smiled and extended his hand.  And without a false note in his voice, said: “Welcome to the profession.”
           
I was just shy of my 45th birthday and finally launched into my real work.

Those heady days came back to me while reading the recent article, “Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life,” by Mark Miller in the New York Times.

A couple late-in-lifers are featured, but I was most taken by Robert Hevey’s story, especially since he started on his masters in plant biology at 53, following a “30-year career detour” into accounting. Detour, indeed.

He will be 66 when he finishes his Ph.D. and hopes to work in the field he’s pursuing in his studies. Oddly enough, he’s quoted as saying, “I’m certainly not going to start a new career at 66 or 67,” referring to those who complete their advanced degrees and then go into academic teaching.

But, of course, that’s exactly what Mr. Hevey is doing, although more than a new career, it sounds like he’s returning to what has fascinated him since childhood—plants.

So, as we oldsters are often fond of saying, maybe everything old really is new again.




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Stories: Understanding Our Life Backwards

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
        ---Søren Kierkegaard

And so we have stories.

Often those stories are about, or influenced by, those formative experiences we have while growing up, "origin stories" from childhood, through adolescence, and often into young adulthood. These experiences may not determine who we become, but they often shape us, even explain certain tendencies we acquire later in life.

I first became aware of my interest in life stories while an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was 1969, I was 26, and newly returned from New York, having separated from my husband of just two years.

I’d left college as an education major when Philip and I married and moved to Manhattan. When I returned to my city, I also returned to my studies, but this time in psychology. Not surprising, I suppose. I was reeling emotionally, not sure what had happened to my marriage, to my life.

It was in a course on the psychology of old age, ironically enough, when I first realized how much the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves may help us better understand our lives, especially as we age. After all, by the time we’re moving past 50 and into our 60’s, we have lived a lot of life forwards. As such, we have hopefully gained the perspective needed to understand all those years that came before, a perspective grounded in our stories.

Over the years, it has been my immense privilege to help people tell their personal stories, especially to write and pass them along to others, whether as published memoirs and personal essays or as family stories.

Which is all prologue to this:

I am thrilled to be invited back to this year's Printers Row Lit Fest, where I'll be conducting my workshop, "Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories" (based on my book of the same name).

And double-thrilled because the theme of this year's Fest is "What's Your Story?"

Dates for the Fest are Saturday, June 11 and Sunday, June 12. The final listing of authors and events is not yet complete, but you can get the latest update by clicking here:


I will send the official schedule along when it's available. But for now, hold those dates for yet another fabulous celebration of the written word in CHI. 



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A B&B Brief: A Love Poem

An animated rap poem about love at 85 might not be everyone’s cup-o-tea, but give it a chance, ok?

It may inspire you to look forward to old love. Or to at least agree with the poem’s title, “Love Is the Only Reason We’re Alive.”





Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A B&B Brief: Florence

Now, I’m not an angry old lady, though being patronized because of my age can raise my hackles. Or result in the occasional f-bomb.

And despite having grown up with him, I’m not much of an Elvis fan, though a good-looking impersonator might catch my eye.

Mostly, though, I want to travel my own path, especially if it leads to a karaoke bar where I can get a nice cold beer.

And so I feel a special kinship with Florence. Here’s her story:







Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Talking To Old People

When my parents moved to Chicago in 1939, they left behind in Philadelphia both sets of parents; my father’s brother and sister-in-law; my mother’s sister and brother-in-law; and a handful of nieces and nephews.

I arrived on the scene in late 1943 to join my older brother as our parents’ only children, a more or less typical nuclear family for the times, though not so typical was the distance that separated us from our extended family.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, those nearly 800 miles between Chicago and Philadelphia might as well have been 8,000: flying, except for an emergency, was out of the question, though we did manage an annual car trip east. Our relatives rarely came west; not only would it have been too costly, but what travel they did manage were mostly short trips not far from Philly.

And so to stay connected to everyone across that vast distance meant phone calls—though mostly for special occasions—and whatever letters might pass between my parents and their respective families.

Which is all to say, I didn’t grow up with any relatives living nearby, especially older ones, the grands- and greats- my friends often relied on to answer those large looming questions they might not ask their parents: Will I ever get a boyfriend? Should I go to college? Is it OK to move out of the house before I’m married?

And then maybe the really big one: what am I supposed to do with my life anyway?

I wonder now if that access to my older relatives would've made a difference in how my life has unfolded. Possibly. I’d like to think that my Poppity Swaine or Nanny McCarthy would have passed along some wisdom they‘d accumulated throughout their lives, some of it I now know was hard-earned.

But as my life is still unfolding, I take comfort in knowing that asking the Old Old—those 85 and beyond—is still available to me. And to all of us, no matter our age.

To find out how, read this: