January 5, 2012
by Jackie Parker
I had been asked to teach a writing workshop for a group of women and their teenage daughters who lived within blocks of each other in Alhambra California, a city of 80,000 eight miles from downtown Los Angeles. Alhambra is the birthplace of the painter Norman Rockwell whose scenes of everyday American life graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine for forty years. Many of these women were first generation Americans: Mexican, Filipino, Korean, who, by any standards had achieved a great deal. One had begun selling hotdogs at Dodger games. She now owned several properties, another was a nursing supervisor in a large hospital, another a social worker with a Master’s Degree in family counseling. They had worked and studied their way to impressive positions, bought homes, raised families, lived in a manner far exceeding their parents’ dreams for them.
But it seemed that they were having trouble getting along with their teenage daughters, and one of the women, who was enrolled in a workshop of mine, thought that by writing together they would find a way to create meaningful connections and a basis for understanding each other as women. The daughters, who had known each other since they were toddlers, had agreed to give it a try.
As I sat down in the comfortable living room and looked around at the fourteen of them—I was apprehensive and yet excited to see what would happen in the next two hours. The truth was I had no idea what I was going to ask them to write about, and no idea whether this group would end in disaster or triumph. I rarely prepare a topic before meeting a group, feeling out the needs of the people in the room by listening to what they write in the first exercise: a five minute free-writing that elicits results I still don’t understand after fifteen years of doing this work. People open up to aspects of themselves that are moving and deep and true, as if those truths are standing behind a door waiting to be invited into the room. But would teen-age girls risk writing their truths with their mothers right there? Would their mothers risk revealing themselves to their girls?
I had asked everyone to leave their phones and connective devices in another room and one of the girls said she felt really strange. Even stranger when we began simply by sitting in quiet together, breathing in silence for five minutes. A few of the girls laughed nervously. Some of them squirmed. I held the quiet like a cloak, spreading it out over the fidgets and giggles as they settled in. Sometimes just five minutes of silence in a room can shift moods and connect us to the inner life that we hunger for and often fear, but that we must work consciously to give to ourselves these days because so much that is rich waits for us there.
Just before the writing began one of the women asked if she could write in her native language. “Of course,” I said, off handedly. “Write in whatever language feels right for you.” She was the first person to read that day. “I know you won’t understand what I’m saying but I had to write this.” she began.
I had never heard Filipino spoken at such length. And no one but her daughter could follow the story. And yet, as she read, haltingly at first, and then musically, her words rising into a rhythm and meaning we could sense but not quite know, something happened to us all. I looked around the room and there were tears in the eyes of many of the women and girls. Simply hearing the language had moved us. Was it possible that we had gleaned their meaning as well? “Could you read it again?” everyone urged once she had finished. How beautiful was her first language. It was a privilege to listen, we all agreed. A privilege just to hear. Then she translated her story to us. “It’s a letter to my mother,” she said. “I’m apologizing to her. She had wanted me to become a doctor, but I failed. I failed her. All I was able to do was become a nurse. I have never spoken these words to anyone. I don’t even think I have ever really let myself feel them.”
Her daughter got up from her chair and embraced her. The tissues were passed around the room. We heard many deep and wise stories that day, in Spanish and Korean, in English, as well. It was a day of profound connection on many levels, far exceeding my goals for the group. It was a day that changed my teaching. Now wherever I go I remind people that they may write in any language they choose. And roomfuls of people are graced with the music of languages they might never have heard. And if not the language, then the stories that arise from the experiences that are held in the quintessential American experience: our immigrant selves. There are 92 languages spoken in the City of Los Angeles. One day, I want to have heard stories in them all.
Jackie Parker is a writer and teacher who conducts workshops nationwide.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org