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AGES + STAGES

FALL 2023 ISSUE

OU SONT LES NEIGES

By Barbara Shields | Contributor

Barbara painting.jpg

Photos credit courtesy of Barbara Shields

Nostalgia is having a day. Barbie. Hip-hop. Yoko Ono. 1945? Not so much.

It was VE Day in Europe. World War II ended. Allied forces marched into France. It was an era of global celebration. But not for this baby boomer.

Caught in the matrix of my birth year, I discovered that a 78-year-old woman with a substantial body of corporate and nonprofit work dating back to 1966 hasn’t got a prayer in the job market. 

Having my position “eliminated” after a 30-year stint at a renowned New York healthcare institution, I found myself confronted by internet job applications, requiring date of birth and/or school graduation. Foiled again! 

After several polite, online rejections, I began to imagine an in-person interview with a potential employer:

Interviewer: Good morning. Ohhh! Be careful. Don’t fall. That chair swivels.

Me: I’m fine. Thank you.

Interviewer: I see from your resume that you graduated from college 57 years ago. (Deep breath.) Do you drive, and do you know how to use a computer?  

Me: Of course I drive. And I’m proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.  

Interviewer: What about the internet?

Me: Yes. But no Tiktok, Twitter or Tumblr.

Interviewer: (Laughs nervously.) Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Me: The family plot in Greenwood Cemetery. It’s in Brooklyn. Have you been there?

Interviewer: (Horrified.) No. (Pauses.) Normally, we do background checks on our candidates, but in your case, I don’t think our system goes back that far. 

Me: Are you sure?

Interviewer: (In a huff.) Yes, I’m sure. We’ll keep your resume on file. Good luck in the future.

Now what?

I’d like to reach back to a time when I called someone in my family and they didn’t ask, “Who’s dead?” Back to the Eisenhower administration when my life was much simpler. White gloves, pearls and bangs. The only thing I had to worry about was how Lucy and Ethel were going to escape the chocolate factory with their pride intact.

I cling to fond, chaotic memories of raising three children amid the colorful backdrop of Manhattan’s publishing world. How lucky I was to sit across the room from trailblazing writers like Germaine Greer or to hold my daughter’s hand on Sept. 12, 2001, as she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Long Island historic site.  

Then there was my favorite hospital where we brought hope to so many and found comic relief gossiping about the “grandes scandales” and love affairs happening between shifts. We never missed an opportunity to reach out to our crew of down-and-out regulars whose “maladies imaginaires” usually landed them in the ER as the lunch trays were arriving.  

But sequences like the anguish of sprinkling rose petals on my young sister’s coffin, releasing balloons at a pediatric patient’s funeral and grieving at friends’ gravesites have shattered my heart. Alas, they have to become part of the existential mist if I am to survive and face my life today.

Armed by the past, I resent being dismissed as “elderly” and lumped into a demographic that makes me — and those I care about — invisible. 

Why aren’t I a suitable job candidate? Because I’m 78? Surely, I’ve retained a few active brain cells. Will no one realize that I still have value, that I can touch a life, help someone in need, and continue my quest to learn everything I can while I’m still on this side of the hydrangeas?

Happily, there’s an entrepreneur in my town who didn’t blanche at the thought of hiring a senior citizen. In fact, when I walked into her gourmet food shop and referenced her help wanted email, this lovely woman didn’t even ask to see my resume. She just said, “Can you start Monday?” (I did.)

Thanks to her, I’m having a retail moment. The cash register screen is like the wall on Jeopardy. And I find myself in Double Jeopardy quite often. Not my comfort zone, but I’m learning a unique business and wrapping my head around a fabulous menu of British-themed foods. This Churchill groupie is thrilled to inventory the likes of Cornish fare, Scotch eggs, shepherd’s pies and Irish marmalade. My goal is to hear my boss say, “You done good today.”

I’m grateful to have lived this long. There’s a theory that age brings wisdom. While I’m fortunate to have retained a few active brain cells, I’m not so sure about that. I can’t speak for everyone in my demographic, but I wouldn’t take my advice about your love life, Medicare or getting separate checks if you’re at dinner with someone who consumes large quantities of alcohol.

I have a carousel of children and grandchildren, and cherished girlfriends who’ve supported me all my life with uncompromising patience and fortitude … in good times and bad. I want them to remember me on the best days I've ever had.

So don’t give up. In the end, we are our choices. You have time. Build yourself a great story.  I’m still working on mine. 

MIDLIFE GRAD SCHOOL

By Barbara Shields | Contributor

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Looking back on my university days, I recall vaguely wanting to get my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, after I graduated from UCLA with a degree in English and an incomplete minor in creative writing. 

It was 1991, there was a recession, and many of my fledgling writer friends were avoiding the job market and applying to programs. I procured a letter of recommendation from my mentor at the time: the poet, novelist and Native American scholar Paula Gunn Allen. She had so many requests for recommendations that she made us write our own, submit them to her, and she’d sign them. I felt dumb writing glowing things about myself and it was painfully obvious that it was a 21-year-old’s voice. She signed it anyway.

I couldn’t bring myself to apply. The idea of two to three more years of intense schooling sounded depressing and lifeless, even if I'd be doing what I purported to love. Instead, I got a summer job at an advertising agency and saved enough money to get as far away from my parents as possible by flying with my best friend Karin to New Zealand. 

We worked as WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, now named Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and lived mostly outside and barefoot in the wilds of forests with prehistoric ferns and mountains of unparalleled beauty. I learned more in six months there than I learned in all of my years at university, proving my point to myself that I didn’t need more school.

Still, upon our return home, Karin and I decided to take the GRE just for kicks. We bought the prep manuals. She studied, I didn’t. When the time came to take the test, I might as well have created a surfboard or a dinosaur picture out of my filled Scantron bubbles. It was a total bust. My scores, delivered to me by mail, were abysmal. Karin, who also happens to be a genius, aced hers, and eventually went on to Bastyr to study acupuncture. 

Armed with my dunce-level GRE score, I could not apply to the MFA programs that I really desired, such as UC Irvine and the University of Iowa. Plus, these were the best programs in the country — was I even of that caliber? Not likely. I tucked away my half-dream and went on to work in communications, ending up in my late 20s, funnily enough, at UCI.

I joined writers’ groups and took creative writing extension courses at UCI and UCLA. I got married and had two babies back to back. I quit my job in favor of full-time motherhood. I continued to write and submit my work sporadically, but after multiple rejections I gave up. The one thing I held on to was my fierce need to be a student. It saved me, and kept me from completely atrophying as a writer. 

Several years later, my marriage began to unravel and I started spending summers at Esalen in Big Sur at author Cheryl Strayed’s Writer’s Camp with Pam Houston, Samantha (Sam) Dunn, Steve Almond and many others. I was encouraged by Sam to apply to Pam’s Writing by Writers Draft program. 

I submitted a car crash of a manuscript, linked essays I’d written at Esalen detailing my life as a wife, mother, and the trauma and aftermath of my divorce. The stories were breathless and salacious and lacked clarity and white space, but there were a few sparks within the pages. 

After two years of intense nurturing in the powerful Writing by Writers program, where I learned how to write and edit on a deeper and more polished level, I became fixated on the idea of applying to an MFA program — at 49 years old. My string of essays was growing into a memoir. This time around, there were more MFA programs to choose from, including low-residency ones intended for adults with jobs and/or families that were still highly respected and boasted impressive faculty rosters.

I landed on Sierra Nevada University (now University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe) largely because of faculty such as Alan Heathcock, who also taught at Esalen and had recommended SNU, and the highly esteemed author Lidia Yuknavitch, whose magical Corporeal Writing workshops in Portland, Oregon, transformed my understanding of what it meant to be a writer. At SNU, there were five total nine-day residencies over two-and-a-half years, and the rest would be remote with an assigned faculty mentor. It felt doable; I knew I would be in good hands. 

Once I was in, I’ll be honest — I was terrified. My first semester was the summer of smoke and fire in Lake Tahoe, and I arrived to find I’d be sleeping in a dorm room just as I would have as an 18-year-old undergrad. There were no special accommodations for “adult” students. That first residency, I had a hard, jail-type mattress and a stiff pillow. The carpet was crunchy in places. My view of the fragrant tall pines outside softened the blow, but not much. 

We had a welcome dinner with a lovely, friendly group of faculty and new and returning students, but Lidia and Alan were not on campus that semester. I didn’t know a soul. The director of the program, the poet Brian Turner, saw me sitting by myself and forced me to join another new student introvert, Jamie, who was also solo at her own table. We made small talk, to the best of our ability, and met with our creative nonfiction teacher for the upcoming residency. As the teacher talked to us about craft and expectations for the class, I felt a growing sense of panic. When I got back to my room, I called my 76-year-old mother and told her I’d made a mistake.

“I can’t do this,” I sobbed. “I think I need to come home.” 

Suddenly, I was a child again, wanting to be picked up early from the slumber party.

“No,” my mom replied. “You were born to do this. Just get through the next few days, and then reassess.”

“I’ll try one day,” I said.

I tossed and turned on my prison mattress that night, hitting my head on the scuffed wooden headboard, convinced I’d fail before I even started. I didn’t know what I was doing. Were people going to think this was a midlife crisis? How would I ever fit in with all of these accomplished people? Who was I, this aging manic pixie dream girl/crone walking around campus with my space buns and backpack and 1.5-strength reading glasses and stiff ankles?

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That first residency was a challenge. My creative nonfiction class was heavy on craft theory and elements I had never heard of. I was intimidated by the assignments. However, I found myself blooming in the in-class exercises: studying poetry for inspiration, playing with language, sharing little snippets of our work each day. Even as smoke from nearby wildfires hung heavy and toxic over the campus and some students and faculty left early and joined us via Zoom, I persevered. By the end of the residency, I was relatively certain I could maybe pass my classes and take on a few more. 

The next two-and-a-half years, I found myself reading more books in a short period of time than I thought possible, and writing on a level I had never before attempted. I hadn’t entirely factored in what being in school would entail with the added weight of two teenage boys and working 40-plus hours a week as a divorced parent. I read my assigned books late into the night and wrote in random intervals: at my desk at lunch, at 1 a.m., on weekends. I found myself turning down social invitations and concerts. I deleted my dating apps (not a big loss). My boys and I did our homework together sometimes at the kitchen table. I didn’t have an office, so I wrote at a small desk across from the stove. It wasn’t ideal, especially if the kids were watching “Breaking Bad” reruns in the other room, but we made it work. 

My body of work grew, and I learned how to mold it into a manuscript, which would become my 120-page thesis. Although I was often near exhaustion, I also found myself dissolving into a deep well of joy with the work I was doing. It expanded me and took on new dimensions as I began to examine my story from fresh angles, bringing in themes that made my story less about me and more about our shared experience as human beings. Reliving trauma from divorce and other life events on the page is harrowing, but also cathartic. I found release and forgiveness, most of all for myself, as I unearthed my stories. I found dark humor, glimmering on the edges. I found compassion.

The camaraderie I found on campus was entirely unexpected. We ranged in age from 23 to over 60, and we all hung out. We went to our favorite dive bar The Paddlewheel at night, and on our day off we hung out on the beaches of Lake Tahoe. We had dance parties and late night cram sessions. We read each other’s work and offered thoughtful feedback. The nature of writing itself is so highly personal that it bonds you with your fellow authors in a manner I’ve never experienced in any other setting. You become a family.

During my fifth and final semester, it was time to defend my thesis. Even though I was told it would be a friendly conversation rather than a firing squad, I was terrified. What if I forgot my influences, my craft choices, my themes? What if they asked me questions about where my manuscript was headed and I just blacked out? Lidia was on my panel, along with the writers Gayle Brandeis and Peter Mountford, all of whom I had worked with one-on-one during mentorships. 

When my time came, I arrived at the table with a vague awareness that my underwear felt loose. I imagined it sliding off before I sat down. My mouth immediately went dry. As I began to talk, Lidia wordlessly handed me her water bottle with the top removed. I looked at her dumbly, and she gestured pointedly to the bottle. I drained half of her water and launched into my introduction. 

I was aware of what I was saying, but also separate from it. As I listened to myself, my confidence grew and I found myself answering their questions and even laughing with them. I shared that I wanted my writing to be an act of service at this stage in my life — that this was perhaps an advantage to being an older student. It was no longer about ego, as it surely would have been when I was in a different stage of my development.

We concluded our talk, and they sent me out of the room to discuss my work. When I was invited back in, they welcomed me as a Master. I worried I might break Lidia when I hugged her with my whole being.

That same week, we all read sections of our manuscripts during an open mic on campus. I'm always nervous reading in front of a group, and this was no exception. The response I got when I finished shocked me: People were emotional, engaged, wanting more. I even received compliments from faculty I had not personally worked with, which was gratifying. It made me believe I might have something of value to share with the world — that I hadn’t waited too long; it wasn’t too late.

A week later, I graduated with my highly talented peers: creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction and young adult writers. My two teen sons were in the audience cheering me on, my eldest just having graduated from Newport Harbor High School two months before. I scanned the room, trying to take it all in, to hold this energy, to remind myself that this was not an ending, but rather the beginning of a new part of my life. I’m inspired to keep growing as a writer and a human being, to ignore numbers and stereotypes that don’t represent me, and continue to live my weird and wonderful life. 

21 IS A FASCINATING AGE

By Paige Wood | Contributor

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Twenty-one is such a fascinating age. It holds a captivating allure, being associated with alcohol, parties and fun. It’s getting to live with your best friends. It’s swapping clothes every time you go out to find the perfect outfit. It’s reuniting and catching up with high school friends when you’re home. 

However, 21 is also an age when you’re faced with many pivotal decisions — adulthood is creeping just around the corner. You may never live with all your best friends again. It’s “investing” in clothes for the long haul instead of buying another cheap, cute going-out top.  Catch-ups with friends now revolve around post-grad life and who’s doing what. 

Twenty-one is a whirlwind. 

Twenty-one is still relying on my parents but grappling with adult responsibilities like bills and taxes. It’s yearning for old friendships but making exciting plans with others. It’s hearing of so many people doing amazing things, yet I still can’t seem to remember the date of graduation. Conversations fade in and out of topics, both lighthearted and profound. One moment I’m chatting with a friend about their day; the next, we’re discussing career goals and living plans. 

Twenty-one is the age where some are off amassing fortunes, as actors, professional athletes or influencers, while some are getting married and starting their family. Others, including myself, are heading into our last year of college, still wondering what lies ahead. 

Don’t get me wrong, 21 proves to be a very fun year. I agree with the notion of 21 being filled with excitement; I have had my fair share of good times and am enjoying the new independence that comes with it. But little attention is brought to the tough parts: the constant comparison, the anxiety of growing up and moving on, the end of a childhood and the conclusion of college life. 

Growing up, I dreamed of the day I would turn 21. The glamour of big parties, legally drinking, new independence going to a bar or club, celebrating with all my friends. Little did I know that amidst all the exhilaration comes an equal number of new fears, worries and difficulties. 

I asked my friends, “What’s one word you would use to describe this stage of life?”

The most common response? Scary. Followed by words like unpredictable, growth and complicated.

Twenty-one is scary — it’s the first time we realize we cannot be carefree college kids forever. Questions of the future become more frequent and the pressure to have an answer intensifies. Twenty-one feels like a last hurrah before true adulthood and real responsibility creeps its way in. Twenty-one is holding on dearly to the days we have left while trying to outrun the inevitable moment we have to grow up. 

Constant comparison plagues 21. It’s not new at this age but simply becomes more pronounced in different ways, adding careers, internships and future plans to the comparison of looks, grades, status and intelligence that we know so well. There is a new pressure to not just have a plan, but an impressive one that aligns with expectations. 

The anticipation of the imminent future is like a continuous chill before the storm. There’s no rain or lightning yet, but a sense of foreboding looms. I’m so worried about the storm that I can't enjoy the sunny days. I am continually tempted to look ahead, to anxiously just wait for the rest of my life.

Twenty-one is quite the paradox. It’s envisioned as a joyous year of final freedom, yet you can feel trapped by the numerous changes and the approaching weight of adulthood. Paralyzed by this, you can feel unable to fully be present in a year that should be so enjoyed and remembered. We are letting the opportunity of being young slip out from under us. 

But as I’ve come to learn that 21 is different than I imagined, I’ve also found a new appreciation for this age.

Twenty-one is so special. I get to live with my best friends in my little beach college town. Aside from attending my classes, taking care of my house and graduating, my responsibilities remain relatively limited. I am lucky enough to receive help from my wonderful parents and family, and although graduation looms and it feels like I will be all on my own, I know they are not going anywhere.  

Each stage of life brings new challenges and excitements. Twenty-one is merely another stage. Another stage to laugh, cry, love and, most importantly, grow. A stage I want to truly enjoy, to live in the moment. I’m determined to live 21 to the fullest while I still can. I am incredibly grateful for where I am and while I’m uncertain about the future, I’m at peace with my uncertainty for now. 

I shouldn’t know what I’m doing for the rest of my life right now. 

 

Twenty-one is such a fascinating age. 

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