A Call from the Future

(Zoom Xplore Talk: October 29, 2020)

Welcome to our fifth session of “Life Sentences.” I’ve been enjoying our journey together as we think about many aspects involved in writing about our lives. 

In Session 2 (“2020 Vision”), we considered Writing for Discovery and the exploring and evaluation that can be involved. Last week, in Session 4 (“Restorying Our Lives”) we considered Writing for Wholeness. It was a brief glimpse into a topic that merits hours, not just an hour. If you are interested in exploring it further, I’ve added—at the end of the Zoom Talk notes on the web site—a link called “Extending the Learning.”  That offers a few book suggestions and a TedTalk viewing recommendation.

You may recall one of the questions I was asked last week: Could recommend particular memoirs that I view as good examples. It was a logical and most appropriate question, especially since I had commented on my disappointment in personal memoirs that do not do such things as connect themselves to their social and historical times.

You may also recall I gave a quick and immediate response, mentioning works by two writers—Horton Foote and Frederick Buechner—neither of whom is well known. I stand by those suggestions, but I’ll confess that I was not satisfied with my answer. 

I love the question. As a teacher, one of the great benefits of developing and leading such a course as this is that along the way I discover such focal questions. In retrospect, they seem obvious, yet they had alluded me.

I’ve continued to think this question of memoirs to recommend—and so have some of you. I have appreciated the suggestions several of you have sent me. I am working on a longer list of recommendations and, if you know of life stories that reflect well the things we’ve been talking about, please e-mail them to me. I’ll add them to my list and share it with all of us.


“We learn by going where we have to go.” I’ve said that, probably a number of times, quoting the poet Ted Roethke. It is our good fortune that we also can learn from others and where they have gone.

When I prepared for this course, I was hoping we would have a good range of experience and skills reflected, and I’m grateful that wish has been fulfilled. Those of us with limited writing experience bring to this class a keenness to the new learning. And those with established writing skills bring a knowledge and perspective that complements my own. I want us all to benefit from that knowledge.

For the start of our session today, I’ve invited Allen Harder, who is joining us from Abbotsford, B.C., to share from his experience editing the memoir of his late brother-in-law John Lewis Taylor.  John Taylor was an international urban planner and his book, published in 2018, was Off The Beaten Path. I’ve asked Allen to talk for a few minutes about what he learned in the editing process and how that knowledge might help him and us in our own life writing.

Allen Harder’s Reflections on Editing Off The Beaten Path

My thanks to Allen for his sharing and my best wishes on his own memoir writing.

Our focus today is on Writing for Legacy. I noted last week that when most people think about “life-writing,” it is writing for legacy they have in mind. In this course, we’ve broadened the consideration to include writing for ourselves but today, our emphasis will be on writing for others. 

Typically, when we hear the word “legacy” we think of a gift of money or of personal property that comes to us through someone’s Will. But that understanding of the word is too narrow and materialistic.

Originally “legacie” was the office of a legate—an emissary or ambassador. With thjat in mind, as we think about “Writing for Legacy,” we can think of ourselves as ambassadors bearing a message, not from one party to another, but from one time to another. We are speaking on behalf of our present time and our past to someone in the future.

I’ve thought about this session for a number of months and I’ve been influenced by a Jewish rabbi—Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He’s the author of many books, including From Age-ing to Sage-ing, which offers a very positive view of our role as elders. (Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi spent almost 20 years here in Manitoba, teaching Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba)  It is from his Age-ing to Sage-ing book that I take the title for our session today: “A Call From the Future.”

In our life work, many of us have answered a “call,” one that has led us into a particular vocation. Now we may respond to another “call,” one that others may not hear. This is “a call from the future,” a call that looks for many things—wisdom; hope; honest memories; reflections on dealing with pain, trauma and conflict; forgiveness; and the joy and recollection of a hundred ordinary details. I’ll say more about these things in a few minutes, but first I’d like to address two objections I often encounter when I have conversations with friends about life-writing and leaving a legacy.

The first, and most common, objection is “I am not a writer.” In our class, I probably could skip over this objection, since most of us have shown an interest in writing and a willingness to consider writing about our lives. The reality is that most people do not think of themselves as writers. When asked if they are, 95 percent of people say they are not—even those who are very competent writers.  

I did a presentation at a national music conference last year, as the Board chair for a local music school. And I was impressed to see a session led by a music teacher who taught all of her students, even the beginners, to say, “I am a musician.” They were making music for others. I encourage each of us to think the same way, to identify as writers, whether we are writing for ourselves or others. Too often, when we say to someone that we are writing, their immediate response is, “What have you published?”  The appropriate question should be, “What are you writing?” Or “What have you written?”  If you write, you are a writer. Publication of some kind may be part of the process, but it is not what makes us a writer. That only makes us a ‘published writer.’

The second objection I encounter when talking with friends about life-writing is more relevant for us. We say, “My life is not extraordinary. There’s nothing that makes it exciting enough for a book or even a story.” I know that some of us ask ourselves, “What’s the point of writing about my life, really? It’s has been quite ordinary. It hasn’t been filled with globe-trotting adventures. I don’t want to just chronicle a private list of achievements.” 

Part of my answer, as you know, is that we write for ourselves as well as others, and that our writing helps us to evaluate and to integrate many of our life experiences. But we also have compelling reasons to share our life stories, to Write for Legacy.

First, if we can put any false humility aside, each of our lives may be more interesting than we let on. I’m glad that John Lewis Taylor, whom Allen talked about, was willing to write his story. Reading it, I learned much about the work and thinking of an Urban Planner and about the life and culture in many places that I will never live. We learn something from almost any life account we read, something that adds to our own wisdom as we continue our life journey. I firmly believe that our lives are not as ordinary as we sometimes think. 

By analogy, consider the snowflake. When we look out on a winter landscape—and here in Canada that now will be easy to do—we may see miles and miles of snow, piled several feet deep from coast-to-coast: countless billions of snowflakes.  All of that white beauty has come one snowflake at a time and here is the most incredible part—no two of those billions of snowflakes is exactly alike. [If you want to know more, read about ‘the Snowflake Man,’ Wilson Bentley, a farmer in Vermont, who proved that to be true].

My point is that if every snowflake is unique, and they are formed in an instant, how much more true must that be for each of us. We were formed over many months and now have developed over many decades. Surely there’s a uniqueness in our story!

Last week, when we were talking about conflict, I mentioned Jessie Mae Watts, the antagonist in “The Trip to Bountiful,” a great story by Horton Foote. I return to that story today and, by way of introduction, I’ll say that I regard it as one of the best American stories in the 20th century, certainly on par with anything written by Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and I revere those writers.

Horton Foote is not a household name, so let me offer a bit of background. You know that previously I’ve mentioned his coming-of-age memoirs Farewell and Beginnings as good books to study for the use of scenes. Foote began his career as an actor, but mostly he is known for his playwrighting and screenwriting.  If you’ve seen the classic movie “To Kill a Mockingbird,” based on Harper Lee’s novel and starring Gregory Peck, the screenplay was written by Horton Foote. He won an Academy Award for it. In the literary world, Foote is known as “the American Chekhov.” 

“The Trip to Bountiful” is an original Horton Foote story. It first aired as a TV drama in the early 1950s, then moved to Broadway as a New York stage play, and in 1985 it was released as a movie starring Geraldine Page. Again, it won an Academy Award. 

On the surface, this Horton Foote story is about the most ordinary people. Mrs. Carrie Watts is an old woman who has seen her share of hard times and now is in fragile health. Her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae depends on Mother Watt’s pension cheque to indulge her selfish pleasures. And the son, Ludie, is recovering from a nervous breakdown, caught in the tensions between the two women that he loves.

These are very plain people. They’ve been cooped up in a one-bedroom apartment in Houston for years on end. They can’t afford a car. They can’t afford a home of their own. They can’t afford to take Mother Watts on a visit back to the town where she was born and raised—Bountiful, Texas. Basically, Mrs. Watts is held captive because the couple needs her pension cheque to make ends meet.

In time, she succeeds in running away, heading back to Bountiful. Her escape is short lived, but it is a powerful story of acceptance, forgiveness and resilient aging, all told through the lives of very ordinary people. 

[If you are interested, and can afford an hour-and-a-half of viewing time, the movie now is available on YouTube. It is a movie story I watch at least once a year and I never fail to learn from it and to be inspired by it. The Trip to Bountiful]

Probably none of us will write with the vision and skill of Horton Foote, but he demonstrates that we need not be deterred by the ordinariness of our story. 

Several of you mentioned, in your Hopes and Expectations for learning in this course, a concern with motivation and discipline when it comes to your life-writing. My hunch is that it comes back to this sense of the ordinariness of our lives. There are so many other things that seem to need doing, so many other people we can help if we use our time that way.

Each of us, by our age, has demonstrated discipline in some areas of our life.

  • Musicians: practicing to develop skills and to stay in shape for performance
  • Teachers: prepping for classes and attending to feedback on student work
  • Doctors: sustaining the long hours of work, seeing patients in brief windows throughout the day, doing rounds at the hospital, staying abreast of new medical and pharmaceutical developments
  • Farmers: keeping up with the never-ending list of chores, including the long hours involved at the time of planting and harvest
  • Homemakers: maintaining steady routines of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundering, child-care; very self-directed, needing to manage one’s own schedule.
  • And so on. Most of us know how to work to deadlines (whether we like them or not)

Usually our discipline relates to doing things for others, rather than ourselves. It may help to think of our life writing as not so much for—or about—ourselves, but for the benefit of others. Because it is. Life writing is not about vanity; it’s about legacy. Many other short-term things that we do for others may be forgotten, but our legacy work can be a long-term gift. It will continue to benefit others for years.

I’ve mentioned before the writing of Frederick Buechner, a novelist and minister. In his third memoir (Telling Secrets), he addresses this question of why one writes about oneself:

“…before anybody else has the chance to ask it, I will ask it myself: Who cares? What in the world could be less important than who I am and who my father and mother were, the mistakes I have made together with the occasional discoveries, the bad times and good times, the moments of grace” (29).  

It’s a very honest question and, a short while later, Buechner answers it this way: 

“…I talk about my life anyway because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine….but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours” (30).

The “call from the future” challenges us to think of those we love—our children, grandchildren, younger friends—and anticipate what they one day may wish to know. One way to do this is to imagine we had an opportunity to spend an afternoon with one of our parents, grandparents, mentors or teachers along the way. What would we ask? What would we hope to learn? Those who come after us may have much the same interests.

In the various Writing Activities, I have tried to anticipate some of these legacy things, and if you become comfortable sharing with others some of your responses, I’m confident they will find them of interest—if not immediately, certainly in time to come. 

In earlier lessons, we’ve talked about offering “stories of hope,” and those will always be relevant. We’ve talked about wise dealing with conflict, and conflict will not go away. It may come as a revelation to those in the next generation to discover that their own conflicted lives are not unique. 

We might revisit traumatic circumstances and deep grief to work through our story of forgiveness, as Wilma Derksen has done so powerfully in a number of her stories after the murder of her daughter Candace. 

And our stories can be about the hundreds of ordinary experiences that have made up our working lives and home lives.  I recall the words of Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” 

A challenge for all of us, as we write, is to capture that sense of  living forwards, of the tentativeness and uncertainty, of ’not knowing’ what will happen. (By the time this course finishes next week, we likely will know the outcome of the American election, but ‘living forward’ we feel the suspense, anxiety, and emotionally-charged hopes of both sides).

In most of our sessions so far, my focus has been on the first part of Kierkegaard’s statement—“understanding life backwards.” And that has led me to emphasize not only the physical, mental, and social-emotional dimensions of our elder years, but also the spiritual. 

The result may be that this emphasis distorts the “living forward,” with all of its tentativeness, uncertainty, confusion and meat-and-potatoes needs. We may have 20 / 20 hindsight, but our earlier foresight may be limited. 

As I look back, seeking to understand my life, I am concerned with its meaning, purpose, values and direction—and those are spiritual concerns. But lest I seem totally preoccupied with those aspects, I’ve posted to the Bountiful Journey website a number of short true-life pieces that I’ve written for various occasions. Most of them are comical in nature. They may have a theme, but none of them is especially uplifting and certainly not spiritual. 

Each of these stories is what Gary Kenyon and William Randall, in their book Restorying Our Lives, called “Signature Stories.” These are stories that “reveal much about how we see ourselves in the midst of our lives, of others’ lives, and of our ultimate environment” (132). If you read mine, you may conclude that I see life-as-a-comedy or perhaps that I’m a buffoon. I’ll take the risk. 

These are stories I’ve found myself telling frequently over the years, so likely they reveal something about me. The final story that I’ve included, however, is not my own—“Fed Up in Bandung.” Years ago I took one of the stories that Allen Harder had told me of his early experience in Indonesia and I wrote it up in first-person.  So, you can enjoy that as a collaboration of both of us, and it may give you an idea why I eagerly await Allen’s completed memoirs.

There is another category of stories, perhaps more important, definitely more difficult, and those are ones we tend not to talk about: “Secret Stories.” I suspect that each of us has had experiences or made decisions that significantly have shaped our lives, yet we tend not to talk about them, at least not often and then only with people we trust. 

I cannot offer expert advice on such stories. They may involve complicated ethical choices about what, when, and how much to reveal, and as with all secrets there may be great pressure not to tell. Sometimes we need to, not to air “the dirty laundry” and certainly not to get revenge, but to honour the truth. Silence can be damaging for ourselves and others. 

I’ve mentioned Frederick Buechner’s third memoir. He entitled it Telling Secrets, saying that “what we hunger for more than anything else” and “what we also fear more than anything else” is “to be known in our full humanness” (2-3), to put aside at some point the “highly edited version” of ourselves and tell the stories we have suppressed or repressed. For Buechner, that was the suicide of his father, something his mother would never discuss.

In her memoir My Life So Far, actress Jane Fonda confides that for years she did not know her mother’s unexplained absences were stays in a mental asylum, nor did she know that her mother’s fatal “heart attack” actually was suicide, a fact she learned by chance while reading a magazine. Again, she was never able to discuss this sad event with her movie-star father Henry.

Our secrets may not be so dramatic, but they can be painful and difficult to reveal. At this point in our lives, we may say to our children, “Now you are old enough to know and understand.” Or we may say to close friends, “I did this long ago, but it’s part of who I am. I can’t change the past but I do take responsibility.”  We bring our secret stories out of darkness and into the light. 

Done with care, and perhaps professional guidance, our disclosures can help us to restory our lives, to find peace, contentment and wholeness not just for ourselves but for those we love. We recall the words of Jesus in John 8, that if we know the truth, the truth will make us free.

Katie Funk Wiebe, in her final memoir Border Crossings, says that one of our tasks as elders is “to make maps for those coming after us” (199). That is a good metaphor for our Communication task. Yet I would suggest another, one familiar to many Canadians. 

When we hike through the Cambrian Shield wilderness or follow northern canoe routes, we often encounter the iconic Inuksuk. It is more than a decorative pile of rocks. 

In ancient times, they told Inuit hunters where to find game, fishermen where to seek their catch, and subsequent travellers which way the leader had gone. Even today, they provide both direction and the assurance that one is not lost. These human-like stone figures convey a social presence. Whoever put them up did not know that it was you or I who would be coming, but they anticipated our need. 

In our stories, we too can provide such guidance—narrative Inuksuks that convey our presence and give assurance to those who come after us that they are not lost, that others have gone before them and have pointed the way.  In our life stories, may we all be good ambassadors, hearing the “call from the future” and speaking words of wisdom, hope, forgiveness, resilience and joy. 

Take care and stay well.

Extending the Learning