by Jerry Waxler
I went to Philadelphia last week to see a few people sit at a table and chat. The promoters called it a “panel discussion.” To me it was as good as a rock concert. The panelists entertained the audience by sharing themselves, using words instead of musical notes. The occasion was another one of those Boomervision talks I enjoy down at WHYY public television studio. The Boomervision talks are hosted by WHYY and Coming of Age, and were introduced by Coming of Age director Dick Goldberg. This evening’s panel was called “You are what you create.”
I love these gatherings because they are my best opportunity to hear people share their observations about life and growing older. Imam Miller, a Muslim preacher, said that growing older at any age makes most sense when you are growing towards God. Community activist, Irma Gardner-Hammond “preaches” by telling stories. I loved that she has found this method to share wisdom. And professors, Mary and Ken Gergen, also told some fine stories. They publish the Positively Aging newsletter, which reports on the good news about aging.
The riff that impressed me most during the evening was a woman in the audience who stood up and said she had raised 6 kids by herself, because their dad ran off. Now the kids have kids and she has to raise them too, and it never ends, and so how can she be creative under so much pressure. The room grew quiet, and I could feel my heart weighted down with the heaviness of her life. Irma suggested she expand the meaning of creativity to embrace the challenges of surviving under adverse circumstances. Ken Gergen, in a kind voice reached out to her with the music of his mind, and suggested that if she could tell the story of her life, that she might find in it the strength to carry on. His voice awakened echoes of Viktor Frankl’s tune, that finding meaning is what makes life worthwhile.
Before the program the technicians set up their camera equipment. The production assistant, watching the large overhead monitor, said in monotone, “a little to the right.” The panelist’s caring face inched closer to the center of the screen. “A little to the right.” The camera intoned again. When he was satisfied he said, “Set” and shifted his attention to the next panelist. As I sat in the audience watching these arcane workings of the television studio, a man behind me leaned over and asked me who I am and what I do. I squirmed. I’ve never had an easy time talking about myself, but now that I’m researching my memoir, I am far more open up with strangers than I ever have been in my life. His name was RegE, and he asked me where I went to high school, and I told him Central High. He gestured to his wife, Geri. “She went to Girl’s High.” That’s the school that I passed every day on my way to and from the trolley stop at Broad and Olney. She asked me if I was one of the Central High boys who hung around talking to the girls as they came out of school. I blushed, remembering how much of a nerd I was. She might as well have asked me if I wrestled alligators. “No. I worked at my dad’s drugstore.” RegE asked where the drugstore was. I said, “Seventeenth and Tioga,” Now it was Geri’s turn to dime on her husband. She said, “RegE grew up a few blocks from there, at Seventeenth and Erie.” I lived the first year of my life in the apartment above the store, and worked there all through high school. RegE and I had spent some of the crucial years of our lives within a few blocks of each other.
So there I was at WHYY’s Boomervision panel, returning to Philadelphia to understand my own life. In a way, meeting RegE and his wife is as close to coming home as I can get. The city has changed dramatically since I grew up in North Philadelphia, and so have the people with whom I have shared my cabin on this spaceship earth. It’s a vast ever-changing world, and one that makes no sense whatsoever, until we create the stories that bring us all together.
See also a blog entry on a previous Boomervision talk by clicking here.