INTERGENERATIONAL WRITERS KEEP CREATING
February 24, 2022
"Change is the only constant in life." ~ Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher
The pandemic has necessitated many alterations, as was evident in the Intergenerational Writers Workshop, a collaboration between volunteers assembled through the Culver City Senior Center (https://www.culvercity.org/Services/Housing-Health-Human-Services/Adult-Senior-Services/Senior-Center) and sixth graders from Turning Point School (https://www.turningpointschool.org/).
I've volunteered for this annual project since it started in 2010. Prior to the pandemic there were usually six in-person meetings with four at the senior center and two at the school. Now everything takes place on Zoom, and we had a truncated version this year with four weekly 45-minute morning sessions starting Thursday, Jan. 20th and ending Feb. 10th. Josh Lesser of Turning Point arranged the intriguing syllabus, and Recreation & Community Services Supervisor Jill Thomsen saw that pertinent information was transmitted to the five seniors volunteering.
The students were split into three separate Zoom groups, each led by a teacher. Josh Lesser's group included volunteer Marilyn Russell. Whitney Gallagher's included volunteers Lee Quiring and Maggi Wright. And Peter Wallis's, to which Marty Zisner and I were assigned, included students Liam, Kayla, Thomas, Tessa, Simone, Kaylah, Graham, and Sebastian.
For our first Zoom meeting we were all at home. For the remaining meetings Marty and I communicated from our respective homes while Josh and the students, all masked, gathered in the classroom.
During the first meeting we all shared the good things that happened to us in the past year, proving that even a pandemic can have silver linings. We shared some basic getting-to-know-you information and read a poem by Rumi, "The Guest House," in which the human being is a guest house and the visitors are one's emotions. It reminds us not to resist our thoughts and feelings, and that all of our human experience is valuable. Our assignment was to write a poem patterned after Rumi's metaphor.
At the second meeting we shared our poems, and I was dazzled by the group's creativity. I wish we had room to show every poem in its entirety, but space allows only a sprinkle of tantalizing snippets from a few: "Human beings are like gears/The thrust of energy/Leads from one to another. . ."; "A human being is a pool/Not just any pool/The deepest pool/The darkest pool/And sometimes/The happiest pool. . ."; and "This human being is a lump of clay/Slowly being molded/Every challenge gives a chip/Every problem gives a scuff. . ."
We then read Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Tomatoes," and while odes are classical forms of poetry that traditionally deal with grand themes, Neruda chose to extol the common tomato. Accordingly, the assignment was to write an ode to a common thing using a lot of figurative language and short lines in the style of Neruda's poem.
The odes the students shared at our third meeting made me want to write an ode to them for their wonderfully imaginative work. They found admirable qualities in simple everyday objects including a pen, a candle, and even cereal: "Oh Pen/You are/Like the/Memories/That can/Disappear/With a/Snap. . ."; "Oh candle I put you in a dark abyss/You are like a blazing inferno when you are lit/The/Ticking Timer/Of/Melting wax. . ."; and ". . . Life is/Sweet/Like/Cap'n Crunch/
Its sugar/Runs/Through the/Streets/Of my veins. . ."
We then read "Breathing," a meditation poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who passed away in January at 95. He was a writer, poet, teacher, and peace activist, and the poem is a way to experience the various stages of mindful breathing. For the fourth and final meeting we were to present our version of "Breathing," mirroring its format of four stanzas and the imagery accompanying the acts of breathing in and breathing out.
Here is the opening to my meditation poem: "Breathing in/I see myself/as a new journal/whose pristine pages/are waiting to be filled. . ." This workshop provided a wonderful and inspiring addition to those pages despite the audio problems I struggled with on Zoom, which were exacerbated y the muffling effect of masks.
At that meeting my fellow volunteer, Marty, read part of a safety poem by Don Merrell that starts out "I could have saved a life that day/But I chose to look the other way. . ." It conveyed a powerful and excellent message, emphasizing the need to be responsible and accountable in our actions and interactions with others.
Marty's decision to share that particular poem didn't surprise me. After all, he is a former Lieutenant in the United States Public Health Service with a Veteran designation as well as a retiree with 45+ years in the Environmental Health and Safety/System Safety Engineering fields who spent the last 15 years at the Los Angeles Air Force Base working in the System Safety Engineering field supporting satellite ground control communication systems for those in uniform. The man knows safety.
He told me that "like you, I'm impressed with the caliber of the students articulating their thoughts in poetic prose and their engaging personalities guided by their teacher." During our workshop meetings he wore many academic/work-related hats and tops reflective of his career path in diverse job positions because "it's a form of inspiration not only for the students but also applicable to the teacher. We're all respectful for each other's safety needs in our life journey!"
And what a journey we have all been on since 2020. . .
Josh Lesser, the school's point person, shared with me that "we test everyone, staff and students, at least once a week, and have a system wherein a grade level might have to quarantine for a few days if there is a positive case in their cohort, but the rest of the school carries on as normal."
He felt that such pivoting "is far preferable to going remote fully, and we are managing to have as close to a normal school year as possible. Yes, we wear masks and have windows and doors open and regular testing on campus, but students get to take their electives, play sports, go on study tours, and we are even planning our spring trips for the middle school, which we were unable to do in 2020 and 2021. Our faculty and staff are committed to providing the best possible school year while keeping everyone safe and healthy, and the students have done a remarkable job of adapting to this new normal."
And this volunteer is doing her best to adapt as well. Even with the hearing challenges, I'm thrilled the school opted to continue the intergenerational program via Zoom. While it's now quite different from the pre-pandemic meetings where each group sat around a table and we really got to know one another, I'm very grateful it continued and sad it's over for this year. I'm reminded of a poem by Crystal Ruth that concludes with "every good thing must come to an end." But I console myself, knowing the workshop will return next year, and whatever form it takes, I'll roll with it.
Why? Because I find the poems to be clever, inspiring, entertaining, and thoughtful. Such creativity needs to be shared with a wider audience, and I would love to see the school publish a book of poems by the students. Since several are artists, it could also be illustrated. Additionally, perhaps the school could consider a special spoken word assembly or a poetry slam. The talent is certainly there, and while our very capable and caring teacher, Peter Wallis, was most gracious in telling Marty and me that "your kindness and wisdom are much appreciated," this experience enabled us to learn from the students as well.
Here's to intergenerational synergy!