According to the latest Calaveras County demographics, about 9,000 of the 45,000 plus-or-minus residents (one in five) are over the age of 55. With the graying of the community, history suddenly becomes more important to the elders, and leaving behind a legacy, an imprint of being alive in this world, grows paramount.
The awareness of time accelerating its course increases by the age 65 in a strange way. By 85, if we make it that far, it must be a screaming insistency. Why is it that time flies faster as we get older? It’s a strain to remember what we learned about the theory of relativity back in high school. We may have vast thoughts about black holes and string theory, the universe expanding or contracting, and our impending end, thoughts that recur during reflective moments. The reality is that we won’t know that reality until the last moment.
Enough with the doom and gloom; we can dispel such dark thoughts by creating and bringing new life into the world via our words and thoughts organized into a paper or digital being. Writing is an act of creation, a baby consisting of words that grow and live on.
Only 555 seniors at 85 years of age and older are still with us in just Calaveras County, and we may wonder how many of them still have the faculties to remember much.
Mark Twain once said about memory, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.”
And that’s the joy of telling your story, you can fudge the edges.
The window of opportunity to share life’s experiences with others is a short one. Many seniors, however, have taken up that challenge and have begun poring over family papers and documents to write their family stories down, recording their past adventures in print and pressing their singular voices onto paper before they fade away to disappear altogether. Many do this alone and struggle with how to begin, but it does not have to be that daunting a project. Start small, just a piece at a time.
A friendly group seniors over age 55 attends free Voices of Wisdom writing classes at Manzanita Arts Emporium in Angels Camp, with many new writers joining to find their voices. It has become a bona fide writing community, members supporting each other in their efforts, always welcoming new people. Thanks to two grants from the Calaveras Community Foundation in 2017 and 2018, the Manzanita Writers Press Voices of Wisdom program has flourished and grown, with one culminating anthology of writings released in 2018, and a second one due out in May.
Earlier iterations of this column in Sierra Lodestar were written by Suzanne Murphy, who died suddenly on March 9. Suzanne had a vibrant literary life in retirement. We loved her dearly at Manzanita Writers Press. Not too many people may know this, but she did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to keep it running. In the past four years, Suzanne enjoyed being an integral part of Manzanita Writers Press as vice president and publicity director, helping to found the Manzanita Arts Emporium and obtain nonprofit status.
Not only was Suzanne the publicity director and vice president, writer of exquisite articles about artists, writers, events and creator of whimsical flyers and notices, but she was one of our main editors, a lifeblood of the press.
Suzanne touched all of our hearts with friendship, profound and witty insights about life and living and loving, and a brave stand against the odds. As an editor and writer, she was top notch, with meticulous and intuitive work on manuscripts and books. As a teacher, she was gifted, and her friends will miss her Voices of Wisdom classes, her friendship in writing and being. Suzanne taught Voices of Wisdom classes in 2017 and 2018 and co-edited the anthologies.
She had a knack for listening, and friends and people she met would pour out their hearts out to her. Nonjudgmental, humorous and whimsical in recognizing the ironies of life, Suzanne was staunch in her beliefs and unwavering in her moral sense, and was always a cheerful and encouraging friend to many. Suzanne was always there, steady and willing to volunteer, regardless of limitations or pains or troubles, not asking for anything in return.
“Suzanne helped me with writing my book, ‘The Untold History of Sonora Pass and Its People,’” wrote Cate Culver. “We met regularly once a week for months. She was a very patient teacher and gave it her all to have my sentence structure perfect. Over this period of meeting we became more than just editor and writer. We looked forward to each meeting and visiting after each session. Her greeting was always, ‘How are you?’ She cared deeply for the people in her life and wanted them all to be healthy and safe. It was a joy to have her in my life and she will be missed.”
Suzanne wasn’t one to burden others with her worries or discomforts. She was very private that way. Her sweet, twinkling eyes will remain a vision, and her soft words that said just the right thing will echo and still be heard.
The continuing goal of the Voices of Wisdom program is to help seniors recover dim memories, develop their voices and tell their stories by recording them in publications that will remain in museums, libraries, senior centers and other outlets for the public to enjoy. The 2019 classes are made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org for more about that entity.
What happens at these classes? Participants bring writing tools and journals or laptops, if they choose. Writing coaches craft lessons that stimulate memories and hone writing craft, using multimedia and multisensory approaches. Participants write and share with the group, if they choose, then perfect their writings with help from coaches and peers. The writers, many of whom haven’t written formally before, have developed a full, publishable collections of their words ready to share.
Staged at Manzanita Arts Emporium, the free, six-week sessions run continuously on Tuesdays through the end of November, with a celebratory reading in December. April classes run from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. with Sally Kaplan. Starting in May, Chrys Mollett leads the group and the time shifts to 1 to 3 p.m. The remaining sessions will be conducted by myself and Denella Kimura, with another coach added for the fall.
The loss of Suzanne Murphy, a beloved Voices of Wisdom writing coach, has made the senior writing community acutely aware of the need to write their stories down before it’s too late.
Seniors who wish to join the program are encouraged to call me at 728-6171, or drop by the emporium, 1211 S. Main St., Angels Camp, between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Wednesdays through Mondays.
For more about Voices of Wisdom, visit manzapress.com.