In bold, narration. In italics, sound from the “Creative Aging” writing workshop hosted by the Brooklyn Public Library, and my sound editing.)
SCENE 1 – SWITCHING ONLINE (SET UP)
Music begins – “Ranch Hand” by Blue Dot Sessions. Soft jazzy dings, and then tempo picks up a little bit, still jazzy)
People logging into class… reverberating dings from the music
“Hi how are you?”
“It’s good to see you.”
It’s early afternoon on a Wednesday, and the class is slowly trickling in… One after another, faces in Zoom rectangles pop up on my screen…
“How’s everyone doing, how are you guys doing…?”
I’m sitting in on a “Creative Aging” writing workshop organized by the Brooklyn Public Library… The class is specifically aimed at older adults…
Susan, in class, says “Okay we’re going to go ahead and get started”
That’s Susan Buttenwieser…
SUSAN: I’m a writer and I’m a teaching artist and I teach creative writing and poetry…
She’s been leading writing workshops for a couple of years now, and last spring, as COVID-19 swept through the city and country, her class shifted to a virtual format.
Susan, in class, says “If you’re not speaking, can you keep yourself on mute so it doesn’t, so that not a lot of noise picks up…”
New Music begins – Ether Ridge by Blue Dot Sessions – ambient and echo-y, kind of solemn sounding
There’s about 12 of us in today’s workshop. There’s a woman calling in from France, but most live in Brooklyn, and they all migrated to Zoom soon after their first and only in-person class, and have stayed there, now, over a year later.
Susan, in class, says “Um, the first thing we’re going to do is look at.. Look at a poem called Boletus, I think I’m saying this right, by Rosanna Warren…”
The group meets every week for two hours. They’ll look at some poems, and then Susan will give out a prompt – maybe it’s responding to a line from a poem – and will write for several minutes, before reading out what they wrote.
Students reading from “Boletus” by Rosanna Warren
“A country clawing its very idea to shreds.”
“The scarlet boletus mushroom prongs from decaying wood.”
“‘Crickets are stitching the afternoon together. What the squalling catbird rends, crickets relentlessly repair.’ So that gives them some positive meaning to them…”
SUSAN: I think people are really open to just really to diving in…
The poems range in topics and themes… they’re about darkness, loneliness, pain…. About spring, rebirth, beauty… an opportunity for those attending to express where they’re mind is at….
Susan in class says… “We could write about, what are we carrying, you know that line ‘we carry with us’ she says, ‘what we left below..”
When they started doing the programs virtually, most workshops took place over the phone because the older adults didn’t always know how to work on Zoom. But when they finally caught on, it was like a dam broke open…)
SCENE 2 – CREATING THE COMMUNITY
SUSAN: When people tell their stories I think they find connections with each other that they might not have. I think it’s a really important community building exercise.
Lockdown montage from NY1 – “In a major shift, Mayor de Blasio announced he now recommends that all New Yorkers wear facemasks to contain the spread of coronavirus…”
For over a year, as New Yorkers had to shelter in place… urged to stay at home to stay safe… Many older adults were confined to their apartments.
Lockdown montage from NBC4 “We are all in quarantine… those are the words of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo today…”
Their routines were disrupted, and their socialization halted. For many, their only outlet was through the workshops offered online.
SUSAN: I think libraries are a total lifeline
ELISA: So having all these things to look forward to and to stimulate your mind and your creativity, it’s been really, It’s been a life saver, really.
This is Elisa. She’s an actress and performer… And when the pandemic shut everything down, she turned to online programming to keep herself busy. Beyond creating notebooks filled with collages, paintings, and poems… (Fade up of Wanda saying “You mean I’ve never met you personally?” and Holly giggling) … She met Wanda and Holly through one of the classes.
WANDA: We’ve never met?
ELISA: Well, that’s the fantastic thing, I feel so close to you, I feel like you’re a really close friend, because we went through a lot and we shared a lot of information through our work… but when you actually do creative arts you somehow transcend that, that, ‘Hi, how are you? How are you feeling,’ and really deep, heavy things that are, that are really meaningful.
Susan says that for the many women who take her classes, poetry has allowed them to speak more honestly about what they’re going through.
SUSAN: Making art during stressful times is a healing process, and doing it together with other people, I think is really different than just sitting by yourself and reading poems and writing.
ELISA: Because of the nature of the work that we do, we have a window into each other’s soul like you wouldn’t have from a book club where we discuss someone else’s writing. Here, we discuss our own, what made us think that, why do we feel that. And sometimes we have to share some very personal information.
HOLLY: I think this is just such a unique atmosphere. It just stands alone. It just makes you feel kind of like, we’re kind of like a tribe of, of artists and, and poets that just really inspire each other.
WANDA: So this is what it has given me most like this, this ability to just continue to create. I love sharing, you know, so, so to share it and to be a part of, so we’re, part of a confined community, so to speak. But a confined community that’s actively engaged in moving forward.
At the end of the workshop I was sitting in on, as Susan reminded the class that they would be off for the next two weeks, one woman unmuted herself to ask if the rest of the class would be interested in meeting anyway, even if they weren’t led by Susan through the workshop. They all said yes.
SUSAN: I mean, even though we’re all separate, somebody said about it, she’s like, “I don’t even know you all, but we’re heart to heart, you know?”
SCENE 3 – POETRY (and creative writing) AS A COPING MECHANISM?
Over the course of a couple of months, Elisa, Holly, and Wanda became close friends. Through their work, they started opening up about what they were going through this year. They came to need each other. Here were people with whom they could share what’s going on in their lives beyond the workshops …
Music begins – Fourteen Count by Blue Dot Sessions – ambient, more tonal than Ether Ridge.
SUSAN: I really want people to be able to just talk about what’s happening, but we’re not, it’s not therapy.. So there’s’ not, like, like a solution based reason for talking, maybe just to share the struggles that people are going through, and that, that, hopefully in and of itself is helpful. I think maybe just the act of saying out loud what’s going on and not being alone with it, I hope that that is helpful in some way, rather than just completely being alone and scared.
Wanda found herself suddenly alone in September… when she lost her husband of over 30 years.
WANDA: In moments of loneliness, you know, I – I’m always reminded by the so many things that I’m surrounded by, which, you know, takes that away. I have found that through the arts, you know, through the art, you know, I can find peace. I can find joy. I can say so much without verbally saying anything.
Through poetry, assemblage and collages, Wanda says she was able to grieve her husband’s death…
WANDA: So to be able to thrive in darkness, it’s just a wonderful experience and something wonderful to look forward to. It’s not in denial, it’s more a form of acceptance, awareness, totally being totally aware of what’s going on around you and accepting that that is what it is. But what can I do amidst that to thrive .
It was in Susan’s class, after reading a piece by Mary Oliver , that Wanda wrote a poem where she felt that acceptance.
Wanda reads her poem
WANDA: In troubled times like these
when I must socially isolate myself
from family, friends and loved ones,
I begin my days with affirmations
reminding myself of who I am.
And, that who is not defined by whatever befalls me.
I surround myself with words of inspiration,
positive quotes like,
(sounds from the storm rise up….)
“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass
(transforms into rain)
It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
(Sandy Shuffle by Blue Dot Sessions starts playing in the background, with reverb and echo… sounds distant. It’s jazzy, kind of latin and bossa nova like. There’s a trumpet and trombone.)
And I surround myself with music
that draws me to my feet,
into a moment of dancing partner-style with me
leading and following.
(Trumpet gets a tad louder before fading again)
And recognizing that on some days
the music will be soft pitter-pattering rain,
and on other days, strong whistling winds.
And every now and then
when darkness like a blackened midnight comes,
music will gush upon me like a mighty rushing river
that overflows and spills into every fabric of life
and spreads swiftly like COVID-19.
And it is then that I must dig deep within
and embrace the five senses—I must
see the beauty yet still around me,
hear and listen to the quiet sound of peace within the storm,
smell the biter-sweet fragrance of change,
taste the clementine of sunset and sunrise,
cling to hope for a better future.
(Music gets progressively louder before fading out, piece ends on that note.)
Clips were cut from NBC New York show “New York’s Entire Workforce Must Stay Home to Stop Spread of COVID-19: Gov. Cuomo” from Mar 20, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vst3VkeQqaY (first 8 seconds)
And from “All New Yorkers Now Recommended to Cover Nose and Mouth When Outside” from NY1, from April 2nd, 2020 ”https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2020/04/02/do-masks-prevent-coronavirus-new-yorkers-now-recommended-to-cover-nose-mouth-when-outside (first 16 seconds)