Written by Pat Ginn, member of the Lifelong Learning Institute at Washington University in St. Louis
For many people who are getting older, building a sustained life can be a daunting task. Friends move away, you can become distanced from coworkers once you retire and don’t see them every day, an accident has posed physical restrictions on you, or your kids grow up and leave the house. For a myriad of reasons, aging requires adjustment and a shift in thinking of what your life means, pushing you to begin anew.
It’s not easy making such shifts, and it’s easy to find yourself adrift. That was the situation I found myself in after I retired from teaching high school English twelve years ago. Part of the problem was finding myself with too much unstructured time. As a friend said to me, “one day you look in the mirror and see your hair has greyed, you have some wrinkles you didn’t have a few years ago, and you’ve put on ten or twenty pounds, but in your mind you’re still as vital as that thirty year old you once were.”
I understood what he meant. Psychologically, I was still young and felt sharp and engaged, but I lacked something to channel those youthful feelings. After retirement, I found a rewarding, part-time job as an adjunct instructor in Developmental Reading at St. Louis Community College – Forest Park. However, I had a series of accidents that presented me with numerous physical limitations. After a three-year recuperation, I needed to make another series of adjustments. I began by volunteering at DePaul Hospital, worked on several political campaigns, took drawing lessons, and tutored a middle school girl through the YMCA Literacy Program. Even though I enjoyed those undertakings, something was missing. I found myself going through the motions between activities and knew I needed to find something different.
I kept thinking back to a quote I had read attributed to Michelangelo: “Ancora Imparo – I am still learning.” He had said it when he was 87 years old and working on St. Peter’s Basilica. I first heard it when I was in my thirties, and with each successive year, its significance has increased for me. It seemed to be saying “look at everyday as something new, learn something new, do something new.” So I resolved to take my endeavors down a different path.
Five years ago, an acquaintance told me about the Lifelong Learning Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. I requested a brochure and signed up for the Writing for Ourselves and Others class. As a teacher, I had taught a creative writing course and enjoyed it. I had always kept a journal, but my other writing was more sporadic. By taking the class, I hoped it would give me a platform from which to launch my inner “Virginia Woolf.” The course allowed us to pursue our own interests in writing and receive criticism for our musings. Each class we read something we had written for the week, and the class members provided gentle feedback. The critiques often guided me to better revisions of my work by providing positive suggestions on the parts of the writing that are successful as well as those that are not. The facilitators created a warm writing community that pushed class members to grow as writers. Through the course, I regained a sense of joy in the writing process I hadn’t felt in years.
At home I find myself at the computer with my hands poised above the keyboard, pausing for the words, then the flurry of typing once they come. Another pause, another flurry until I have a completed the work. Besides pushing me to write on a regular basis, the class has helped me develop story ideas through my other interests. I’ve used my drawing as a launching pad for selections in describing the creative spirit in art and used my work in family genealogy for telling fictionalized stories about my ancestors. The members of the class have encouraged me to submit my work to contests and literary magazines, something I would never have considered before the Lifelong Learning Institute.
Another class I have taken several times at the Institute is Art as Muse. In this weekly course you are given three photographs of artwork. You select one of the photos and write a story or poem. I find this course gives me more structure and forces me to stretch the literal boundaries of the artwork, to use my imagination and carry my words beyond the confines of the art. While this class also offers critiques, the students share a common set of prompts. It is interesting to see how different people interpret and manipulate the same works.
Lifelong Learning Institute offers dozens of courses covering literature, science, history, art, and other disciplines. One course I particularly enjoyed was World War I Poets. It was conducted in honor of the Centennial of WWI. The Institute also offers a variety of other activities such as gallery talks at local museums, current event discussions, and trips to concerts and lectures.
When I first came to the Institute, I didn’t know what I would find, but I found a place with a diverse group of people with a variety of interests wanting to learn a broad spectrum of subjects. I found a welcoming group of people who want to grow, even at a time in their lives when many people do not. Members of the Lifelong Learning community embody the spirit of Michelangelo’s motto “Ancora Imparo – I am still learning.” And, all of us are.
To learn more about Washington University’s Lifelong Learning Institute visit their website at lli.wustl.edu, or call 314-935-4237.