As I approach the age at which my grandparents’ lives ended — when living past 70 was considered a full life — I feel an urgency to live life to the max. You could say I’m making up for lost time, for every opportunity I let slip by, every time I allowed an abundance of caution to stop me from stepping outside my comfort zone. I’ve invented reasons not to try something new. A case in point: Passport-required travel. I always said to myself, “It’s too expensive” or “What if I don’t like the group?”
While shifting from more-than-full-time work as a social entrepreneur to part-time consulting, I suddenly and unexpectedly lost my husband of 42 years. As I was struggling to find a new normal, the phone rang one day.
“Hi, Barbara,” said a strong, unfamiliar male voice. “This is David Mezzapelle. We haven’t met. I got your name from a mutual colleague.” After mentioning a few of his considerable entrepreneurial credentials, the conversation took an unexpected turn.
“I’m calling to invite you to contribute to a book I’m publishing that’s a collection of uplifting essays. I’m calling it Contagious Optimism. In today’s world, I think readers will welcome inspiring personal stories,” he explained.
“Why me?” I wondered. But then I quickly thought, “Why not?”
“Could I write in the first person?” I asked.
“Sure,” Mezzapelle said.
“Okay, David. I’ll give it a try,” I replied.
A New Chapter Opens
In the weeks that followed, I tried my hand at creative writing for the first time since high school. Guess what? David Mezzapelle and his editorial staff accepted every essay I submitted. I was hooked.
Over lunch one day, a friend said, “You enjoy writing so much, and seem to have a flair for it. We have one of the best writers’ centers in the country right here. Why don’t you check it out?”
I took her advice and dipped my toe in the water by signing up for a workshop series on memoir and personal essays at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. On Day One, when the first participant read his work aloud, I looked for the exit sign. Whoa, I thought, I’m out of my league. But I stayed, and miraculously, my work was well-received. After the last session, the workshop leader and I walked out together. She asked, “Would you like to join my memoir club? It’s a small group that meets weekly in my home.”
Would I? “Yes!” And a new chapter of my life opened. I began working in the company of strong writers — mostly women my age — who gently and thoughtfully critiqued each other’s essays. I learned from them and from our master teacher, Sara Taber, an accomplished author and writing coach.
“Add some details and dialogue to the narrative,” she might suggest, or “Ask yourself what this piece is about; then ask what it’s really about, then what it’s really, really about.”
I applied those lessons as I revised, reviewed and revised some more, and began submitting my work to print and online journals. A small miracle happened: my work has been published, again and again. Signing up for one workshop series led me to a new, late-in-life love affair with writing. I gained a new passion, identity and a passport to communities of writers near and far.
Time to Travel and Write
Now I’m on a roll. Out-of-town writing workshops offer enticing ways for me to travel with company. I’ve signed up and set off to augment my skills with writers at the Omega Institute in upstate New York, in a farmhouse near Baltimore and in a mountain-top aerie in northeastern Massachusetts. I’m always surprised by the validating affirmations and perceptive suggestions offered by the quickly cohesive circles of instructors and attendees, seasoned and fledgling writers of all ages, from all walks of life.
Last summer, Sara Taber led a writers’ retreat in Auvillar, France for a small group of her students. Guess who renewed her passport and packed her bags for that adventure?
Looking back, I marvel at the serendipitous phone call that opened this portal to me. And I wonder, who gave David Mezzapelle my name? Can we ever know the angels of serendipity who swoop down to sweep us out of our slumbers?
Mine arrived, shouting: “This is your wake-up call. Look around, look inside, light up your imagination and use your God-given gifts!”
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