As a culture, we tend to collectively define our elder population under a certain set of ideas: wisdom and tradition first and foremost, occasionally with endearing variations of wiliness or unrelenting candor. But very seldom do we consider creativity and growth as components of the proverbial “golden years.”
Maybe we should.
With a welcoming demeanor and gentle but persistent encouragement, writer and teacher Angela Burton is negating that stigma through her weekly Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops that she brings to senior living facilities throughout Louisville. With sets of prompts, her workshop participants give life and body to their memories or thoughts, creating a tangible record of both hilarity and tragedy, yesteryear and present day, monumental and mundane.
“Our lives are meaningful up until the day we die,” Burton affirms, “and they need to be. When you become old, you aren’t forgotten. Your life doesn’t stop at a certain point because you’re unable to do certain things. Your place in the world is really important.”
She passionately explains that through the simple act of putting pen to paper, participants foster numerous benefits, including a written legacy for their families, exercise for their minds and deeper camaraderie.
“When I initially started to do this, I thought the obvious reason was that they can create legacy pieces for their children and grandchildren, and they do, but it goes deeper than that,” she says. “They start to see and understand that they’re benefiting from writing about their lives in so many ways. They’re able to recapture moments in time that would’ve otherwise been forgotten or buried in the recesses of their minds. Then there’s the sense of community, which they get in senior care facilities, but they might get it in a much more intimate way through a writing workshop. The stories that they wind up writing are much more personal than everyday conversation.”
Burton began the workshops two years ago when she was driven to make the most of her writing and teaching background and to do so from a passionate standpoint, she says. Deviating from the “clinical” classroom setting, she started hosting workshops from her home, (and still does). Her mother, 84 years old at the time, drove from Bardstown to attend one of her two-hour workshops each week but found that her age created a struggle to keep with the commitment. She urged her daughter to bring the many assets of a writing workshop to those less able to seek it out, namely the elder community.
“When your mother tells you to do something, you do it,” Burton laughs. “So then I set about figuring out how to get to seniors. I talked to someone at Brownsboro Park [Retirement Community], and I literally sold them on an idea. It turned out to be extraordinary. The participants responded to every challenge that I gave them.”
Since then, Burton has worked with over 200 seniors ranging in age from 75 to 104. Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops are currently offered at Brownsboro Park, Episcopal Church Home, The Forum at Brookside, both Magnolia Springs Louisville locations, Nazareth Home, Sunrise Senior Living, Elmcroft Senior Living, Miralea/Masonic Homes of Kentucky and Sacred Heart Home. Each workshop lasts six weeks with four or five prompts each week, which participants can interpret and choose from. At the end of each six-week session, they are welcome to sign up again and again.
“I emphasize to them that this is an opportunity to tell their version of the story, and I think they take a lot of pride in that,” she explains. “I also give them permission not to remember the details, and it’s fine because no one remembers all the details of their lives. We talk about writing snippets a lot as opposed to trying to write your whole life story. We work in pieces and there’s not a chronology to the situation. The prompts are across the board. They might be a word or a phrase or a moment in history, and they go in all different directions with it.”
On a sunny Tuesday, Burton walks into Miralea for the 2 o’clock workshop. She has a small, quiet conference room reserved, and members steadily file in ready to listen and to share, each of their personalities beaming before a single word is read from their journals. The atmosphere is concurrently peaceful and exhilarating in the promise of stories to come. One member has brought with her the typed story of an absent workshop participant, Joe Conway, still dutifully sharing his work despite being unable to attend this week.
Burton reads Conway’s story aloud, a comical recollection aptly titled, “A Joke Which Backfired.” He recalls living with his brother and grandmother during his youth, a time when one of his responsibilities was rising early to start the fire each morning. Resenting the task while his loved ones carried on sleeping soundly, he one day got the idea to disassemble a shotgun shell and place the pellets in the oven before starting the fire. The resulting explosion blew out the glass on the door and he feigned ignorance to his grandmother, who never learned what really happened. The real backfire, however, came a few weeks later when, forgetting the lack of glass on the door, he attempted to warm his backside by the flames and his long johns caught fire, forcing him to run out in the snow to extinguish the karmic retribution.
Starting at one end of the table, each participant shares the prompt they chose and the story that unfolded. They are brief but entrancing, confidently shared by hypnotizing voices that make you wish each teller were a beloved relative, if only so you could get another helping of their narratives. After each piece is read, they praise one another sincerely, comment on the times and indulge in occasional laughter.
Elaine Whelan, who selected the prompt “mass confusion” from the previous week, regales the room as she reads her story about living in Seoul, South Korea in 1960. She recalls details from her surroundings after wartime, noting that the tallest building in a city of millions was a two-story hotel. The confusion ensued when hundreds of Korean college students destroyed a nearby missionary home in protest one day, and two small children were briefly entangled in the hysteria when they attempted to cross the riotous grounds on their way home from school.
Not every piece is a memory. Some are commentaries on their present lives. Elaborating from the prompt “hopes and dreams,” Joy Peterson tells of wanting peace for mankind and wondering what the world might be like if each person were as concerned about the needs of others as they are about their own. “How can I live by example to make this world a better place?” she reads. “I suspect it is a matter of being aware and open to what is right in front of me.”
Joy’s introspection is a subliminal commentary on Burton’s previous assertion that age seems irrelevant to her writers’ willingness to explore their minds. “They take learning very seriously,” she says. “Education to them is just precious. Every time I show up for a workshop, they are ready to go. Their pencils are sharpened, their journals are open. If I’m one minute late, they’re asking me, ‘Where have you been?’ They are the best students.”
Indeed, each participant proves to be a student and a teacher alike. Their wisdom emanates through the pages of these journals whether the act of writing comes naturally or not. Burton emphasizes that writing, not storytelling, is a crucial distinction. Oral storytelling, though one of humankind’s most ancient traditions, allows for the altering of tales by each voice that carries them forward. The commitment of thought to paper is crucial to the entire mission of the writers’ workshops as it retains the original voice.
The Miralea writers agree that the prompts can spur otherwise lost memories. They nod in agreement of the workshop’s enrichment of their lives and admire one another’s work without hesitation, using words like “exquisite” to describe stories from previous weeks. They take in new prompts hungrily and converse effortlessly. Though personalities differ, each one is kind and clever in ways that make such characteristics seem an intrinsic part of aging we can all hope for as we grow older ourselves.
For family members, written glimpses into their loved ones lives often become a precious heirloom with details preserved like jewels in the handwriting. Because she shares such a frequent and personal bond with the elders who have become her students, Burton reaps a unique perspective as a teacher and proxy family member to many. “I don’t think it’s possible to do this without getting attached,” she says. “It’s a very special kind of relationship. You hope that what you give is valuable and memorable and gives them happiness and fullness, and they certainly give it back to me tenfold. They always thank me and I thank them back. I don’t think they realize that they’re giving me a gift too.” VT
Story by Kellie Doligale | Photos by Steven Anselm
Excerpts from Episcopal Church Home & Dudley Square writers:
He stood there on her back porch,
hat folded neatly in his hand.
When he moved his steps were labored
Like his shoes were full of sand.
Old head glistening in the sunlight,
A broad smile upon his face,
It seemed, just looking at him
This must be his favorite place.
Just then his gentle knock was answered
By the opening of the door.
She stood there as remembered
As she often had before.
Hair of silver shining softly,
Tall she was and full of grace,
Her arms reaching out in welcome,
Smile of sweetness on her face.
Now his arms reached out to hold her,
Hold her with a strong embrace.
Sweet memories they were sharing
As love lighted up each face.
Recaptured youth was busy mending,
Easing burdens of old age,
As they held each other tightly
Life began a brand new page.
by Ken Farris
“When I look back at my early teenage years, I remember how I wished I were older. Maybe it was because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. In 7th and 8th grades, I had a group of girlfriends who gathered in our homes on Sunday evenings. We ourselves the OLD MAIDS, but we talked a lot about the boys we had crushes on, even though we weren’t dating yet.
Fast forward 70 years and now I turned 83 on 8/3 – that won’t happen again. Why does it seem my weeks and months and years move at a faster pace?
Getting to know this class as we “put our feet to the fire” through writing would be enough. But the positive attitudes, humor and cheerfulness of the ECH friends have shown me how to live life day by day in good and healthy ways. Carpe Diem! It’s easy to seize the day living and writing here.”
by Carol Mead
“My mother and her siblings had seven sons. All served in the military. One was killed. One was an MIA who emerged from a Japanese prison camp. One did “languages” in South America. Two more were in the Pacific in the Navy. I don’t know details about the last two.
As I mused about these relatives I had an epiphany. One was killed at Pearl Harbor on the first day of the war. Another was on the USS Missouri and witnessed the signing of the peace treaty with Japan on the last day of the war. Strange.”
by Barbara Stone