Our Stories, Our Working Lives

Marsha Gildin and Robin Bady
Writers-in-Residence, Spring 2019

Introduction

Teaching artists Marsha Gildin and Robin Bady led a workshop at the Selfhelp Innovative Senior Center in Flushing, New York. The workshop focused on the theme “our working lives.” Participants learned storytelling techniques as they shared their stories with each other and at a culminating celebration. Their stories were transcribed and published in this anthology.

This program was funded by a SU-CASA grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Find a video montage of photos from the workshop’s final anthology celebration here!

A NOTE FROM MARSHA

The Selfhelp Innovative Senior Center hums like a beehive. Activity is going on – discussion groups, English and Spanish language, dancing, chair yoga, movement of all kinds, karaoke, Chinese opera, Chinese sword dancing, LUNCH and so, so, so much more. The schedule is packed to the max! And under the guidance of Jane Qiu and the Selfhelp staff, the center is run by a slew of friendly and hard working volunteers. What a world! The Flushing community is a world I have loved working in as a teaching artist for over 20 years. Here’s a little history. I have had the joy and privilege of coordinating an intergenerational living history theatre program with Selfhelp senior volunteers and PS 24 5th graders for twenty-three years through Elders Share the Arts (ESTA). Sharing stories from our life experience and creating original presentations for the community grew in depth and meaning for us. Most importantly, we grew as a community, connected in friendship and appreciation. When ESTA closed its doors last year, after 40 years of service, we were lucky enough to be ‘adopted’ by Teachers & Writers Collective and funded by SU CASA so that we could return. Thank you! We returned in a new way. Robin Bady joined the team. Two teaching artists – a storyteller and a story gatherer. Letting go of the intergenerational piece for this year, we wanted to cultivate the riches of more stories and more storytellers from within the senior center, to hear and give voice to your life experiences. We created a Story Circle of Storytellers based on the theme Our Stories, Our Working Lives, and were thrilled to welcome so many new members to our weekly gatherings. And the stories we’ve heard! This anthology you have in your hand, produced by Teachers & Writers Collective, is a taste, a sampling, of what was discovered and shared each week, as we grew in our remembering, our telling, our listening and our reflecting back.

Thank you, storytellers, for taking the leap. It’s been a joy to get to know you.

A NOTE FROM ROBIN

Humans are, as the anthropologists tell us, “the storytelling animal.” Storytelling is our primordial art form. It is natural, easy and fun! The storytelling sessions at the Selfhelp Innovative Senior Center were just like that – natural, easy and fun! Our topic was “Work”. Once we got started, the stories rolled off the tongues of the tellers and into the ears of the listeners. We became attentive listeners as well as strong tellers. Connections were made one story inspired the next , and our different experiences became part of a new shared experience. Our anthology consists of these stories, poems, bios and pictures. And did I mention the food? Stories were originally were told around the fire and at meal times, and we (Marsha and I) wanted to replicate that. So, Jane and the wonderful people at the Center brought us cookies, crackers, fruit and water. As each told his or her story, the others listened contentedly, with a full brain and a full stomach. Storytelling is magic. It reaches across years, cultures and language, and connects people, open ups hearts and minds, and offers realization and release. And pleasure. As one of our participants said, “I go home and don’t watch TV. Why should I? I just go over in my mind the stories I heard in the class. They are much more interesting than what’s on TV.” Thanks! To Jane, the staff of the Center and the storytellers who made our class and our time together so extraordinary.

Featured Student Writing

Yen Yun Shu

I sang in night clubs all over Asia. My husband had a weaving factory. He had other businesses also. We went from Singapore to Kualalumpur, Thailand and Indonesia. Once I married my husband, he did not want me to do anything. He would cook and he would clean! He just wanted me to sing. My singing gave him a peaceful heart. We had five children together. From my 50th year, I stopped all the performances, which means I am not working for a living now. I began to relax, live and enjoy myself. All the stress could be put down. In New York City I was very happy to perform with the Hsiang Ying Chorus. We perform all around the city. In 1985 we performed in Symphony Space. The title of this performance was “Chinese Poems and Folk Songs.” We also performed in Lincoln Center and many other places.

Yen Yun (left) performing in Symphony Space with Hsiang Ying Chorus

Although I traveled a lot of places in my life, I have never taken a detailed look back at that time. Now I can use all my time to enjoy it. In my home, I still like to learn all new things. Everything relates to music and new songs. I join some parties for entertainment. It is a wonderful time which is totally different than before. I still have a song in my heart.

Elena Wolfe

The story involves Albert Einstein, my mother and Russian people. I read a short story that Einstein was said to have written. He was using this story to illustrate what stupidity was. He placed himself in a foreign country on a bridge. He was going one way and someone was coming the other. When they got in the middle, neither spoke to each other because they did not speak each other’s language. Einstein called this stupidity. I totally disagreed with this. He was such a big genius of our time – for a genius he had no imagination! My mother only spoke Spanish. She hung around with a group of Russians who did not speak Spanish or English. One day I came home. I wondered, “Why is my mother hanging out with these people? What gives?”

So, I was about to ask her when she said to me, “Mamushka today was so happy!”

I asked her, “Why was she so happy?”

“Her husband is in the hospital.”

“Why is he in the hospital?”

“He fell down because he was drunk and broke a leg. Back in Russia, he used to drink and beat her up.” “That’s quite a story,” I said.

“How did she manage to tell you …in Russian?”

My mother got up and used pantomime to show me what happened! I felt validated. Einstein, you take that! Whereever you are! I was feeling very good A few days I went to the Chinese store looking for chicken soup. I was browsing and could not find it – all the labels were in Chinese. Then I see an envelope with a chicken on it. I take it and am ready to pay when I see a lady coming down the aisle. I ask her if she can help me, “Is this chicken soup?”

She starts laughing, “No that is something you can catch in the sea. What makes you think it is chicken?” She was laughing hysterically.

“There is the chicken on it,” I say.

She said, “You shouldn’t assume.”

So that’s one for Einstein! Sometimes you need the language. So, we both win. He is right and I am right

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