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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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August 2009 Archives

Strength in Numbers

I've just come back from a class reunion - not the usual high school or college kind, with name tags and dress-up clothes, cocktails and gossip - but a new kind, the lifelong learning kind.

A decade ago, the people at this reunion took a summer writing class together, in the university's Split Rock Arts Program. I was their teacher then. Most teacher-student relationships end, except for persistent goodwill, when the class is over. But this one didn't.

The students - all adults, most of them women - stayed in touch with each other. Those who lived in Minnesota began to meet regularly to share their writing, and they invited me to join them - not as a teacher now, but as a classmate, as a friend.

Soon, someone suggested holding a summer reunion. Every year since, we've gathered at a northwoods cabin for a weekend of catching up on our lives and our writing, with good meals, some beach time, and maybe a visit to a local flea market thrown in. (It IS a summer weekend, after all.)

Over the years, there have been changes in our personal lives, but when it comes to our creative work, change has meant an inward evolution - less a matter of difference than of greater focus, more clarity of intent.

One of the group switched from writing to painting and launched a whole new career for herself. Two have gotten Masters of Fine Arts degrees. Two more have had successful books published. Four of us are officially working on book-length manuscripts - three in memoir, one in poetry - and others are thinking about their own.

At each of our reunions, ideas bubble up. Everyone brings something they've been working on and reads it aloud to the rest. The feedback is solid - useful, reliable, positive. We help each other.

Just how much is always clearest at the end, when it's time for our final reunion tradition - the candle ceremony, a ritual someone suggested when the group was new. It calls for each of us to light a candle and make a wish for the coming year.

Sometimes, the wish is altruistic - for the health of a friend, say, or for a son or daughter about to start college, or for a grown-up child who's moving away.

Usually, though, the wishes are concrete and personal, connected to the work that brought us together in the first place - "that I'll get my manuscript finished'' or "that I'll find a publisher.'' Occasionally, a wish is spectacularly concrete and personal: "I want to be famous! And rich! And on 'Oprah'!''

Whatever the wish, it's always heartfelt. And so is the support. We take every wish seriously. One by one, each of us carefully repeats it, until the wish has traveled around the room, through all of us:

"I hear you wish that you'll get your manuscript finished,'' each of us says, or "I hear you wish for a better job and more time to work on your writing,'' or even "I hear you wish to be famous, rich and on Oprah.''

It's as if each wish were a candle flame - a small bright treasure that we are passing from heart to heart, protecting it as we go.

Hearing your own wish repeated eight or nine or ten times is even more powerful. It makes your wish stick. It makes it sound as if your wish can actually come true.

This year we went around the circle twice, once for each of us present, then around again, making wishes on behalf of others who could not come: a widow, a busy physician, a teacher in Florida, a government staffer in Washington.

Then, when the last wish was done, we just sat still for a moment and quietly looked at each other - at all of the now-familiar faces glowing in candlelight. Each one was smiling.

This is where a lifelong learning class can lead, I thought: Not just to lifelong learning but to lifelong friendships, which are - and deserve credit for being - their own sweet form of lifelong growth and sustenance.