WINTER 2011

Editor's note: Ellen B. Ryan is Professor Emeritus at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her psychological research demonstrates how empowering communication fosters personhood and successful aging. She has created the Writing Down Our Years Series of publications to highlight the many ways in which writing life stories can benefit older adults and those with whom they share their stories and poems. She is co-editor of the anthology Celebrating Poets Over 70 and webhost of www.writingdownouryears.ca.

Note: The full text of each of the poems excerpted in this article may be accessed by clicking on the authors' names.


the word sits
poised to move
this word will tell you
what I need you to know
it is my word
i will speak it to you
wait with me until it comes

— Dorthi Dunsmore

 

Aging is a time for visiting the temple of our memory, integrating our life, and coming home to ourselves. Writing is a spiritual practice through which we can contemplate and abide and be drawn to a sense of purpose.

The experiences of aging call us to personal growth in wisdom and compassion. Changes in body, mind, daily responsibilities, and social contexts lead us to reflect on who we are now, who we have been, and who we are becoming.

Writing regularly in a journal can help us find our inner voice. This practice enhances many spiritual practices: paying attention, finding beauty, seeking truth, showing compassion, saying thanks, cultivating silence, reviewing life, and identifying purpose. The very act of writing is a creative expression which affirms our human spirit, connecting us with ourselves, those around us, the world around us, and with our God. Writing about the highs and lows of our lives — past, present, and possible futures — gives us perspective, offers strategies to solve problems, reveals feelings we might not otherwise have recognized, and helps us move from "Why me?" to "Why not me?" Journaling usually combines reflection and decisions for action — in the domain of writing and beyond.

In addition to writing on oneís own, many people join or create a writing group to write and share together. Participating in a group can enhance creativity, support regular writing, challenge assumptions, stimulate further ideas — in general, support growth in writing and spirituality.

Once the inner voice is developed, an individual might wish to express her or his social voice. Personal experiences with illness, caregiving, grief, discrimination, political turmoil, and other stresses and losses often serve as the impetus for the social voice. Such writing can start with more thoughtful letters to family and friends, might extend to letters to the editor or newsletter/website contributions. Journal writers often progress to sharing memoirs or family stories, poetry, or essays. Some writers move into publication of nonfiction, fiction, or poetry.

Marianne Vespry and I recently put out a call for poetry written after the age of 70 to showcase the best of poetic reflections by older adults. The resulting anthology and website, Celebrating Poets over 70, present the writing of lifelong and post-retirement poets reflecting on the major themes of human life. Reasons for writing given by the poets have much to say about spirituality:

I write poetry to stay alive! . . . Writing is my passion . . . I am 83 and write every day . . . poetry: the power to fly . . . avenue to celebrations of life . . . writing poetry comes naturally . . . explore the colors and shapes of words . . . mysteries of the written word in verse . . . capturing strong emotional moments . . . Writing a poem helps me to live gratefully . . . still writing in [my] 104th year.

Marianne Vespryís article in this special issue elaborates on the poets’ contributions. Moreover, poems from the collection are presented throughout this special issue. Here, excerpts give elders’ voices to issues of writing as a spiritual practice.

Three poems address the social pressure the poets feel from ageism, pushing them toward invisibility and diminished expectations. Refusing to lose their voices, the poets strike back with eloquence.

   

Other poets use imagery to share their musings on the meaning of their lives in old age.

 

I am in the winter of my life
but I continue to revel
in the autumn of my being,
vibrant, colorful leaves
reflecting my spirit . . .
or I the leaves . . .

— Lois Batchelor Howard,
“A Page Turner”

 
 

I am sitting in a hot bath,
when, from nowhere, I say to him
“One of us will die first.”
“Yes,” he replied, “I was
thinking just that as I read
of the death of Darwinís daughter.”

— Naomi Beth Wakan, “Pretending”

 

Oh could I crack the rigid shell of age
And softly swell in each unfettered limb,
Disperse the adamantine cast of thought
And burst apart restrictionís boundaries.

— Adrian M Ostfeld, “The Shell of Age”

 
 

My grandchildren think I am old.
My children think I am older.
I think I am ageless!

— Barbara White, “My Gracious Lady”

 

Where was it written
That old women are mute.
Silent and wrinkled, invisible.
Gave away their voices long ago
Out of fear that no one listened
And silence had, at least, a bit of dignity.

— Frieda Feldman, “Old Women”

 

i donít do old
i do global warming
with Suzuki, Schindler
and Al Goreís concern
with climates
in crisis.

— Sterling Haynes,
“ I Donít Do Old”

This special issue of Itineraries highlights the many ways in which writing fosters spiritual understanding of meanings in long lives and late life development of strong personal voices capable of healing our world.