Inside | Outside, the most recent anthology of work by the writers at Harwood Place, made its humble debut last Saturday. In front of a full house, the authors each gave a stellar reading of their pieces from the podium. They spoke with ease and with grace, and one spoke for a writer who was unable to attend.
Earlier in the week, I received a phone call from a long-time participant, Richard, who said he couldn’t make it. He’d been down and out for the last several weeks, was recuperating well, but knew he would not be at the event. This reading highlights our year as writers together, so I understood, even before he said it, that missing the afternoon was a great disappointment. For all of us, really. Richard is the patriarch of the group–and he’s quite tall; his absence would be a void. So we did the next best thing: looked for someone to stand in for him and read what he had written.
Finding a proxy didn’t take long. Richard is not only a leader in the group but a good friend to many and a cheerful spirit for all. I had a response to an email request within an hour and assurance that his piece would not be left out. But what happened next speaks even more to the heart and temperament of this group.
As is my custom at these events, I run around sweating and testing the mic and helping the writers find their order in the line up. I make sure everyone is settled, and then I always begin the reading with a little introduction. But before I could take my place at the podium this time, I had to check on the lemonade and cookies, which were late to arrive, which are as critical to the afternoon as a strong mic for an older generation of men and women whose voices sometimes fall to a whisper. So I slipped away for a second in search of the refreshments.
When I walked back into the room, Chuck, another compatriot of the group, had picked up the mic to ready the audience with a little ad-lib and a smile. Then, he spoke of Richard, who had “gone AWOL,” as he said–absent without leave, excused but still–and gave a beautiful tribute to him by reading “An Ode to Richard.” Steady and most gentle of men. It became clear that absent or not, Richard was still very much a part of the event.
Beginning this year, I am sharing my teaching duties with a colleague, who will alternate months with me. While this frees up my time to pursue more of my own writing, I won’t lie: it’s tough to let go of this group even a little bit. I may be their teacher, but as is often the case, I am their student as well. They continue to serve as witnesses in the ways of community, cherishing stories from every corner of the table, vowing to ensure each person’s words are heard, honoring that connection, and taking care of one another. An important lesson these days.
Community in action with gratitude of the time spent together.
From left to right: Mary, me, Val, Chuck, LaVerne, Betty, Ruth, and Mary.
Not pictured but greatly missed: Richard.