Plunging Inward for the Giving Words
by Ellen B. Ryan
Old age brings change, more losses than gains, and an increasing awareness
of death. Older adults can follow a path of growth in wisdom and compassion,
or we can stagnate in isolation and despair.
One spiritual call in later life is to review our lives, seeking wisdom and
a sense of wholeness. Another is to contribute to our world, especially to
younger and future generations.
Writing can help us to clarify and meet these challenges. Writing is a
spiritual practice through which we can contemplate, listen for quiet
insights, be drawn to a sense of purpose, and engage in mindful service.
Current models of vital aging focus on healthy eating, physical exercise,
mental exercise, adapting to losses, incorporating gains related to life
experience, and engaging with life. The inner work of spirituality deepens
our motivation to take on these responsibilities. Studies of centenarians
highlight characteristics such as faith, hard work, family values,
resilience, sidestepping adversity, and a sense of humor. We can develop
motivation to live all the days of our lives by creating meaning at various
life stages from active postretirement to frailty and finally to dying.
Journaling, writing for ourselves, can be central to spiritual practice in
later life, a vehicle for reflection and prayer. In addition, some men and
women may choose to write as part of their service to others. Here I will
tell my own story to illustrate the importance of writing in later life,
both for personal development and for contributing to society. The
possibilities are endless, unique for each person responding to the
invitation to write regularly.
It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a
— Vincent Van Gogh
You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours.
— Florida Scott-Maxwell
Writing and Inner Work
I began keeping a journal while recovering from a car accident some years
ago. Double vision and vertigo limited my ability to work and left me
adrift. I could read for only brief periods, usually with enlarged font and
text-to-speech computer adaptations. For pleasure reading I learned to
listen to talking books. I felt especially cut off because I found myself
physically uncomfortable in church for liturgy and could not do my
accustomed spiritual reading.
My academic writing projects stalled. I was plagued by a recurring nightmare
in which I searched madly for words while getting lost in a huge field of
sunflowers. I could no longer spread papers out to consult while I wrote.
Now I had to delegate reading and writing tasks to colleagues and students.
The Road Now
Retiring from paid work
I stop to see where I am
follow the echoes
of projects heralded
for grit and wit
touch the ribbed weave
of disciplines colourful
in their crossing
sniff the ricochet
of novel thoughts
taste the chocolate cherry joy
of collaborations where
three minds surpass
What road now
worth the pilgrimage
— Ellen B. Ryan
A friend introduced me to Julia Cameron’s morning pages from The Artist’s
Way — write three pages each morning on any topic, just keep the pen
moving. At first I wrote with big colored markers on every other line. Later
my eyes allowed me to write more normally with a fine-tip marker in a spiral
notebook. Soon writing and thinking with the journal became my way of
organizing each day as well as contemplating my life.
At first the pages filled with all sorts of complaints. Gradually, some
perspective emerged. I began to write about how my situation could be worse,
about all the supports I enjoyed, and the potential for learning valuable
lessons through these experiences. Unable to pray much at the time, I began
to listen during my writing sessions for spiritual insights — and the more I
listened the calmer and more trusting I became. My enforced solitude and
quiet non-reading life became a gift of time for my journal — paying more
and more attention to the moment, nature, myself, and other people.
After a while I could read a couple of pages a day. These were selected from
books increasingly well-chosen for their readable fonts and stimulus for
contemplation. I scribbled away, reflecting on the few printed words I had
managed to absorb and their applications to my current life, to my life as
part of humanity, to all life on earth. I learned later that reading in
small doses followed by reflection has a long spiritual tradition — “lectio
divina.” Through this process, I faced my feelings, counted my blessings
daily, and asked myself more and more fundamental questions. As Doris
Gumbach wrote in her late-life memoir, “Keeping a journal thins my skin. I
feel open to everything, aware, charged by the acquisition of intensity.”
Since then, journaling about other spiritual practices after each episode —
prayer, liturgy, long walks, physical exercise, church groups, meditation,
volunteer work — has deepened and supported these disciplines over the long
Life review is central to personal growth in later life. Writing regularly
about the highs and lows of our lives — past, present, and possible futures
— can lead us through the inner work needed to claim that life, that
evolving self. Looking at ourselves in this manner gives us a foundation for
reaching out to others. As I continued to dig for memory treasure in my life
story, I became more aware of the Author of life.
Through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s
Writing Down the Bones, I discovered that writing exercises would take
me repeatedly into life review. Stirring my imagination and heart, these
starters move my pen ahead of my thinking mind. I started to incorporate
sensory details, metaphor, and word play. Kathleen Adams’ Journal to the
Self offered enticing suggestions about making lists (e.g., where I
would like to travel, my favorite celebrations), writing letters (to be sent
or not), and composing dialogues between myself and another (e.g.,
mentor/parent, God, nature, a specific author or an inanimate object).
After months of journaling and using writing exercises, a half-waking dream
made clear to me that I should learn to write poetry. During the dream I
realized how well poetry would fit with my ongoing reading and writing
impairments — just a few words, with plenty of white space. I awoke from the
dream calmly confident that I would be able to say what I needed to say
through this unfamiliar medium.
The Day Dad Died
Someone making coffee, lists,
Yesterday’s completed crossword puzzle
beside library books marked in progress;
jars of crab apple jelly on the counter,
varied hues of first-time experimenting.
Garden grey in November bleak,
plants shrunken into earth, yet
on the anniversary rosebush, barren all summer,
two yellow blooms.
— Ellen B. Ryan
|Not knowing how to proceed, I wrote about the dream in my journal, and
realized it would be wise to take a course. Ironically, the course I chose
did not involve the anticipated lectures. Participants were expected to
bring 15 copies of their poem to a workshop for critiques by group members
and by the leader/poet. Instead of learning about iambic pentameter and
poetry of the ages, I was soon writing for the group’s gentle critique. My
entry into creative expression with the mutual support of a writing group
My experience of writing poetry has been spiritual. I write in my journal,
participate in a writing group, use writing exercises, pay close attention
to nature and people, make lists of images and startling words, and listen
for the muse. Creating a small database of colorful verbs (e.g., juxtapose,
catapult, scrounge, trumpet) has been a special delight. Yet, when a poem
begins to emerge, it comes as a gift of words from God. For me, creativity
is both listening prayer and expressive prayer. Once I have the initial
skeleton of a poem, I am learning strategies to craft ever better final
versions. Stretching myself in this new creativity is nourishing. Some of my
poems appear in this book.
Writing is an act of discovery. The regular discipline of journaling
stretches the spirit and opens my mind, reduces my fears to mere words, and
highlights my blessings. Through journaling, I return repeatedly to basic
questions of identity and to basic values, especially awe, gratitude, and
I wanted to choose words that even you would have to be changed by.
Words lead to deeds ... They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it
— St. Teresa of Avila
Writing As Service
Writing can become a calling, central to how we choose to age with spirit.
Journaling usually combines inner reflection with decisions for action — in
the domain of writing and beyond.
Once the inner work progresses, we may wish to express our social voices.
This can start with more thoughtful letters to family and friends, may
extend to letters to the editor or newsletter/Web site contributions.
Personal writing can progress into memoir, history, essay, poetry, and
fiction to share with friends and relatives or to publish in magazines, Web
sites, and books.
When I took early retirement, I deliberated at length in the journal about
my postretirement calling. Over time, I developed the goal to learn new
kinds of writing. I had already begun to address storytelling and
storywriting of elders in my academic research, partly because I could no
longer focus on my usual complex analyses. Partly, however, this was a
natural late-career shift from the theory underlying problematic
communication with frail elders to application: how to facilitate mutually
Now I Notice Sea Shells
Age ten I charge surf at high tide
leap with thunder and roll
hours in swarming-cousins heat
Set aglide by curl of longed-for wave
I yearn for next year stronger, faster
Conch shell calls, horizon beckons
Age sixty I wade along low-tide beach
pants rolled up, jacketed for off-season cool
Seagulls and sandpipers scurry ahead
Pelicans swoop, sunset shadows stretch
colours shifting as sky reflections ebb
Conch shell woos me deep inside
— Ellen B. Ryan
Eventually, I identified my passion for these years: “writing to learn,
teach, and inspire others.” I am committed to improving my poetic skills and
to submitting poems regularly, if sparingly, for publication. I edit the
Writing Down Our Years series of inexpensive publications highlighting the
writing of older adults, especially memoirs, grandparent–grandchild stories,
caregiving stories, and poetry. I offer writing workshops and initiate
With colleagues and students, I continue to explore creative ways to elicit
and write down the stories and poems of elders who are physically and/or
cognitively frail. My writing for professionals fosters enthusiasm for
hearing, reading, and eliciting such stories. Finally, I host a Web site on
Writing, Aging and Spirit for a broad audience of older adults and aging
professionals to foster hope and connections through story.
When we write as service, we can be entertainer, chronicler, historian,
social commentator, educator, advocate, and/or activist.
In conclusion, writing is working as a spiritual practice when it enriches
our sense of self in community and invigorates our service to others.