This post was provided by Sammy Steiner, who participated in Wave Hill’s memoir-writing workshop last fall. He shared these thoughts at a reading during the opening reception for Illuminating Nature, an exhibition highlighting the outstanding work produced in our year-round adult workshops.
While searching for worthwhile ways to spend my limited free time in college, I stumbled on the website of a small botanical garden with a memoir-writing class. At the time, I was not planning to write a memoir (probably because I am only twenty-one years old) but it seemed like an interesting distraction and a great opportunity to escape the linear landscape of Manhattan for the rolling Hudson a few hours each week.
Wave Hill’s twenty-eight acre facilities, in full bloom, drew me out of the somber streets of Washington Heights, and after a few phone calls, membership registration, and credit card payments, I made the ten-minute drive from Yeshiva College’s campus to this little garden overlooking the daunting Hudson. My 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix purred gratefully at this chance to stretch its legs and play on the highway along the river after weeks confined to alternate side hopping and trudging through traffic to and from Long Island a couple of times each month.
As the website advertised, I spent four healing hours at Wave Hill each Friday for the next five weeks writing, listening, learning, as well as enjoying the beautiful fall foliage around the old estate. Joan Motyka, an editor of The New York Times, who has taught this same course several times already, would be our teacher, guide, and friend. So, after each week in Yeshiva College, tripping from class to class and falling from paper to paper, I ran away to an overgrown mini garden where I shared my writing with the writing of others.
As I walked into our bright conference room for the first time it occurred to me how different I was from the other members of the seminar: I was somewhat younger than the other members, and the only male in years. But, despite those gaps, we wrote for one another and read of ourselves to each other as equals. The lines between author, reader, audience, and people dissolved as if enchanted by the power of our words. Everyone gasped at well-wrought descriptions, at the fear of little children for trenches of muddy gashes, at the shame in the glare of stern and disapproving eyes under the summer beach sun, letters from boastful fathers, and at what winter flowers can tell us about unfaithful partners.
One of the first stories I wrote described a fear I had as a young boy, at sleep-away camp for the first time, a fear of running through a dark field with other boys. I described the plot of land and my fear in two sentences: “Time and neglect dotted that plot of land with many hidden ditches and holes. And of course there was a deep furrow that ran down the midline of the grass like a muddy gash sinisterly waiting to gobble up seven-year-old boys like me.” Everyone murmured excitedly at that description and congratulated me after my reading on the vivid image and feeling of the field. They said they felt a little afraid themselves.
That description, mixed with the crisp October air, and the aroma of our steeping cups of tea and coffee, brought everyone in the room out of themselves for a minute and into me, invading me, joining me, comforting me. But at the same time, not me exactly. They experienced what it was to be the seven-year-old me, afraid and alone, with other boys on a dark night at summer camp. This therapeutic adventure into the past changed my feeling about the boy preserved in my memory, offering him company and making him somewhat less lonely.
Now, I still visit Wave Hill often with schoolwork, a book, or just spending hours watching the now friendly Hudson flow by.