HARRISONBURG, Va. — In childhood, parents and schools pave the way for exploration into hobbies and interests, and college offers a gateway into new worlds of obscure sports and pastimes. Once people enter adulthood, there's little time for activities between a nine-to-five, but is that the end of self-discovery and creative pursuits?
"Better With Age: Creativity, Discovery & Surprises" is a collection of personal essays submitted from writers ages 65 to 95 who rediscover or reinvest in their interests. Sharing empowerment through physical pursuits and arts or reflecting on aging, the glue between each story is how the writers draw upon their pasts and ages to embrace their present selves.
Co-editor Bob Bersson has always been active in the literary, visual and performing arts. At 70 years old, he refused to succumb to the imminent fear of his abilities fading and decided to take a leap. When he saw the Dayton Tavern was preparing to open in 2017, he contacted owner Diane Roll about offering music night, so he could pick up his lost love of playing guitar.
"I really wanted to do something where I could keep growing because the stereotype and to a degree the actuality of getting into your 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and some of your powers are in decline," Bersson said. "That idea of decline is pretty powerful."
His first night returning to a stage and performing for an audience was nerve-wracking. Gradually, he became familiar and comfortable with the scene and played there every Tuesday evening for the next four years, until the pandemic brought live music to a halt.
Curious what other feats of courage and rediscovery his friends and colleagues had ventured and overcome during their later halves of life, Bersson sent an email prompt to which he received nearly 30 responses. Twenty-nine of those voices are shared in "Better With Age."
Bersson's own story is printed in the essay "Playing Through My Fears," and is in the company of several local contributors such as Chris Bolgiano, Ruth Stoltzfus Jost and Harvey Yoder.
Martha Woodroof is a retired author and radio host for WMRA and NPR whose personal essay is titled "Dancing With Cancer." For several decades, Woodroof has championed the idea of embracing one's age and finding beauty in all stages of life. With stage four cancer in her lungs and salivary glands, Woodroof continues looking at life as a grand adventure and her diagnosis as a new companion until death.
Dancing is an innate passion of Woodroof, and she said moving and grooving along to old-time rock 'n' roll brings her a joy that no diagnosis could ever take away.
"I may be dying, but I want to keep living until I'm dead. I don't want a dying person to be my last career," she said.
Several contributing authors are far from professional writers, but co-editor Jack Greer, who has dedicated his life to literature, said the submissions surpassed his expectations, and the final publication culminated into an elegant arrangement of essays.
"It's not really a happy talk book, feel-good self-help book. It's deeper than that, and I think Martha's story is an example of that, which she takes on with careful exuberance," Greer said. "Age can take many things away from you and your muscle mass, your short-term memory, those kinds of things, but it doesn't have to be viewed as a time of decline."
When Roll ordered a copy off Amazon, Bersson directed her to read a blurb that recounted the days leading up to his first return on stage and the sweet memories of filling the restaurant with warm jazz. Roll said reading the experience through Bersson's eyes brought her to tears and renewed her spirits, working and operating a business during the pandemic.
"I'll tell you what broke my heart, what a sweet gesture, and I never would in a million years would have guessed they were nervous," she said. "You can see beauty in things that some people can take for granted, and when you read a book like that it can make someone stop and appreciate there is a little clarinet in your restaurant."
"Better With Age" was published in August and is available for purchase on Amazon or at OASIS Fine Art & Craft. On Wednesday, OASIS's "Stories on Two Feet" will highlight the collection of essays over Zoom.