I don't keep a journal and barely remember to update this blog but after a little research I had my outline done, a two-page handout for the class, and some ideas for our discussion. I showed up with pads and pens as a dozen senior citizens waited to find out about how to start and maintain a creative journal.
The class started out innocently enough. I explained the difference between keeping a diary and undertaking this journaling, and shared some idea-starters and topics. We talked about creative expression and personal expression. I said that one area to journal about is your worries or concerns, things that bother you; to write that letter that will never be sent. That's when things took a very meaningful detour for us all.
A woman raised her hand and shared that when her now-deceased husband was spiraling ever downward into dementia, she, in her despair or frustration or rage, cursed him out. With tears in her eyes, she said that to this day she feels guilty about this; what should she do? "Well," I responded, "this could be a great example of that letter that never gets sent. Why don't you journal about your feelings that day, how you felt in that moment, and express your regret about the event? It will help get it off your chest. When things go unexpressed they get a life of their own and you need to let it go. But more important, you have to cut yourself some slack for being human." I hope that she writes that journal entry and instead of beating herself up, gives herself credit for hanging in there during a terrible time on her life.
I got back on track and we talked about forming a writing group, akin to their knitting club or book club. Some more topics were discussed. Other hands went up. Clearly, the idea of letting go of their troubles in some way (verbal expression being the preferred option that day, it appeared) was opening up a floodgate among my "students."
"No matter how hard I try I can't seem to ..."
"I'm having trouble forgiving myself for ..."
"I wish I didn't always feel ..."
It was at this point that I started counseling my elders on choice. How we all have a choice about how we act or feel about anything; we just don't always recognize that at the time. In the moment we react but if we take a breath, stop and think, we realize we might not be able to change the situation but we always have a choice about how we will be about it, or what we will do with it. This engendered some more conversation; not everyone agreed with me, saying they can't do it alone. I countered that they didn't have to, sometimes we need professional help or family support to address an issue. We talked, honestly and openly.
I gave the class another short writing exercise and many were eager to share their entries. After some reading aloud for the group, another hand went up.
"We are here together in this community but we did not come here together. We are not all from the same backgrounds or have the same interests. I try talking to people and no one wants to talk; I try to make friends but it's not working. I always feel so lonely."
Oh boy. A two-parter. What happened to our writing class? Good thing I think well on my feet.
"There are two kinds of people, the ones like you -- the outgoing connectors-- and the others who are afraid. Many people are afraid, they won't reach out first, they need more time to warm up. As many people get older their worlds get smaller. You see that, right? So don't be discouraged; just keep trying to connect. Use the ideas from this class as your entree. Find shared interests, talk about something on your mind. It will happen." The woman seemed somewhat mollified.
"As for loneliness," I continued, "being lonely is part of the human condition. We can be surrounded by loving family and friends and still feel lonely at times; we can be married to someone for 50 years and have periods of loneliness." There were several nods of assent in the room on that one.
"Find someone in this class who you can share your journaling with," I said.
At the end of the hour, several people asked when I was coming back, which was very flattering. Our group therapy session/writing class had just been getting started, it seemed. I gave out my business cards and told them to call me with ideas for their journal entries or if they got stuck. It had been a cleansing experience for some of them and a powerful hour for me to be able to give something so unexpected to them.
Then the old man who'd been sitting silently in the back of the room shuffled up to me as I was packing up. He had tears in his eyes.
"I never told anyone this before," he started. I looked straight at him. "I was part of the third landing party at Normandy." Oh no, I thought, this is going to be very bad.
"By the time we got there, the first two landing parties were all dead or dying," he said in his sad voice. "A young boy was calling out for his mother, he was shot up and bleeding. I sat next to him and put his head in my lap." Now he was crying. "He called out, he thought I was his mother. And then he died. I had his blood all over my uniform." I fought back my own tears as he told me this.
"I have nightmares about this, I cannot get this scene out of my head. Almost 70 years and I wake up at night thinking about this. I can't take it anymore, I don't know what to do."
I looked at him, this sad old man who wants to forget the horror of that beach in Normandy. I said, "You gave a dying young man the comfort he needed. That is a very great thing. He was lucky and did not have to live with this memory but you do. Take this pad and pen and keep it by your bed so when you wake up in the middle of the night, you can write about your feelings."
He thanked me and walked out slowly. I said my goodbyes and find myself sitting here, journaling about the experience that so moved me.
So if someone asks you to lead an adult education class for seniors some time, be careful of what your topic is and which floodgates it might inadvertently open for you. And have your journal and pen handy.