It was the first day of the fall semester and as I walked into the classroom, fifteen pairs of eyes swung in my direction. A few students started whispering to each other as they continued to sneak looks at me.
At the age of 77, I was returning to college, perhaps to work toward a degree, mostly to fill empty time in my retirement. I had always enjoyed being a student and lately an interest in creative writing had inched its way into my mind. Without second guessing my intentions and without any pre-planning, I found myself on the last day of August walking into the MCLA admissions office. The director agreed to allow me to register, and I chose to enroll in a creative non-fiction writing course focusing on memoir. The next day I got a student ID and parking permit, and three days later slipped into an undergraduate classroom for the first time in over five decades.
During the years after retiring, I found myself unprepared for life as an old woman. I even began to restrict my activities because of the limitations I thought old age was placing on my body: hearing and memory losses, mobility issues, weakened vision, brittle bones, pain from sitting in uncomfortable chairs, and a diminished capacity to learn. I was becoming the stereotype of stereotypes about being elderly and began to believe all the advertisements that told me I needed a computer with an oversized screen, a cell phone with an enlarged key pad, a hearing aid, a walk-in bathtub, a motorized cart, and a button to push when I fell and couldn’t get up.
I don’t know what I had expected from old age, nor do I know how to define what it is to be old. After all, we start to age the minute we are born, and I am aging as me, not as anyone else. I still think as I did when young, and what I was as a young woman is probably what I am now, albeit with wrinkles. I’m an ordinary person who just happens to be over the three-quarter-century mark.
I seesawed my way through that first semester in the memoir class. Some of the writing assignments came easily; others came in through the side door. Comments from the instructor became predictable: “nice job but is there a deeper meaning”; “nice beginning but is there a more significant story here”; and my favorite: “when you get to the real story you head for the exit too soon”. Assignments were sometimes frustrating, but I usually began my days anxious to write and regretted having to stop when other commitments intruded on my time.
The following January, I registered for a magazine writing course. I wasn’t sure that type of journalism was going to be to my liking, but I underestimated how I would react. There was some relief in not having to write about myself or my family, and I enjoyed doing research, interviewing people, and writing about subjects that interested me. My first drafts were tentative, far too long, and sometimes strayed off the topic, but as long as the writing improved with each revision, I was satisfied. While not a requirement, the instructor encouraged me to submit two articles for publication in a regional magazine. One even got published.
Now enrolled in a third semester, my former memoir instructor is once again part of my classroom life, prompting me to write personal essays. I’ve taken a liking for this style of writing, and it appears I may have found the occasional deeper meaning in some of the stories I’ve chosen to tell.
This unexpected love for writing that I’m nurturing has changed my thinking about the aging process. Retirement brought me to a standstill, and with it a kind of now-what-will-I-do attitude. Writing, on the other hand, has helped me regain a sense of moving forward. Each writing challenge has been met with tiny victories and a hopeful sense of purpose.
I think the act of writing, for itself alone, might have been satisfying, but the young students in my classes have enriched the experience. In sharing your writing, I’ve come to know the serious challenges and insecurities you have faced and admire that you’ve done so with strength and grace. You bring a new perspective to what’s important in life and that, too, is part of aging and part of renewal.
We don’t have a choice about getting old, but now I understand that reaching a great age doesn’t mean the end of a life. It’s an inevitable progression, and we either hate it or celebrate it. I’ve decided to celebrate and will work toward being a writer, for whatever time is left to me.