I’ve been grappling with the death on August 10th of Pat Schneider, founder of The Amherst Method of leading writing workshops. She was my workshop mentor, and taught me everything I know and love about facilitating groups for generative writing. But she taught me so much more than how to be an empathetic leader. She forever changed my life and how I thought about writing, including my own words. This poem is for Pat.
All Pat Schneider Taught Me
by Lana Hechtman Ayers
You never know at the time,
or at least I never have,
when a chance encounter
will change the course of your life,
and in my case, the flow of generosity,
not only away from the heart to others,
but back toward.
Having been writing since
I could manage a crayon between
my chunky thumb and index finger,
those words rushed and sloppy
were my life raft, a way of testifying
that was surviving daily assault
and still breathing, still willing
to keep breathing, but barely so.
Until I discovered the Amherst Method
casually perusing ads at the back of
a writer’s magazine, I was certain
my words had no use to others,
artless and overwhelming,
without value, and beyond that,
a waste of precious trees.
In that training circle
in the Amherst Writers Method
Pat Schneider’s living room,
I learned how to listen deeply,
not only to others, but to my own soul.
How its voice could raise a bell
in celebration with and for others.
How its lonely distant train whistle
on the night breeze could help
relieve others’ suffering.
In that sacred Amherst circle,
the voices around the room,
were as much my own as their own.
I learned listening is
the most active verb
and speaking is an act of generosity.
I learned forgiveness
of self and others
begins with the words written
on the page, then breathed out
by the lungs, flowing liquid oxygen
into the veins and every organ.
My life with words transformed
from despair to joy,
becoming charged with vitality,
with a soul-renewing energy.
In those precious days with Pat in her cozy home, my breath changed, my heart changed. I became a writer welcomed into the family of writers, as grand and myriad as every human who has ever spoken a syllable of their own truth. And I learned to believe my own truth could be art as well as power.
My dad died nearly 30 years ago, but if he were still here, he’d turn 96 this week. Happy birthday in heaven, Dad.
by Lana Ayers
My dad woke before the
5:30 AM alarm weekdays to ready himself for his hourlong commute to work as a
maintenance man. Weekends too, he rose that early out of habit. On Saturdays he
would trim the yew bush shrubberies, weed the garden, prune the leggy roses,
sweep the driveway and the path leading to the house, all before starting the
loud brassy gas lawnmower at 9:00 AM. The delay in mowing not so much to avoid
waking the rest of us lazy lay-ins—my mother, my older brother, and me—but to
remind us a Saturday is not to be wasted.
Upon hearing the grinding
roar, my brother and I would throw off our covers and rush into the living
room. Being six years older than me, it was understood my brother got to choose
what we watched on TV. Dial on and channel clicked, monsters from outer space
would fill the monochromatic screen. Though I would have preferred Bugs Bunny
cartoons, I learned to love those science fiction B movies as much as my
After a half hour of
mowing the small front lawn and driveway median strip of grass outside our 1955
brick ranch house, my dad would come in by the side door of the house that
looked into the living room and peak at us. My brother and I sat cross-legged
on the orange shag carpet, slurping sugary cereal from bright plastic bowls. Dad
would shrug out of his grass- clipping-covered shoes which brought such a rich
smell of life into the dark, dusty house. Then he’d step over to us in his
socked feet to pat us each on the head. Often, there was a kiss instead of a
pat. Sometimes both.
“That’s not a real
breakfast,” Dad would say.
Sometimes I broke away from watching swamp monsters or crazed robots and followed my dad into small square kitchen made darker by brown cabinets in a single East facing window. Dad would begin his Saturday morning routine of removing all the ingredients for a cheese and egg scramble from the refrigerator—the only appliance that seemed to be changed out over the years: first a short stocky Norge that looked more like a bank safe, then an avocado green number, and finally the brown fridge with a darker frame of black—and set them on three-foot length of counter between the stove top and sink.
Next, he got out a mixing bowl from one cupboard, a frying pan from another, and finally a butter knife, spatula and whisk from the drawer below the mustard-yellow corded wall phone. My dad would whistle as he cracked eggs and stirred, not tunes I recognized, but always cheerful. He switched on the gas flame under the frying pan, which came on with a puff, like a teeny explosion. He flipped half a stick of butter off the knife and swirled the pan around, before pouring in the egg, milk, and American cheese mixture.
Dad whistled and stirred with the spatula for a few moments. When he stopped stirring, he went and removed four slices of bread from the wooden bread box on the counter next to the fridge, set those in the toaster beside it and pushed the plunger down. By this time, he’d call out “Plates” loudly if I were still in front of the TV; softly if I were there with him in the kitchen watching his nimble movements .
I would reach into the cabinet under the window and get out a stack of three dinner-sized plates, setting them on the counter next to the stove. My dad gathered clean forks from the green dish drainer next to the sink and handed them to me. A round Formica-topped table was shoved into the corner of the kitchen. Along with forks, I set out a napkin for each of us from the vertical orange holder. Then, I got two glasses out of the dish drain and filled them with milk from the half-gallon carton in the fridge. Then I set butter dish in the center of the table. Dad reached for the percolator next to the toaster and poured a cup of coffee into his favorite mug–a translucent white glass Pyrex cup he’d gotten for free for filling his tank with gas at the Esso station.
“Hot and hearty, come and get it,” my dad would call to my brother.
Finally, when my brother and I were seated, my dad doled out the meal and presented the two of us each with a steaming plate of eggs and a slice of toast. Dad’s only reward to himself for cooking us breakfast was an extra piece of toast to go with his eggs.
Mother never woke early
enough to be treated to the scramble feast. I always wondered if she somehow
resented Dad usurping her kitchen. But my brother and I were delighted to
partake in his generosity—a warm breakfast one day a week. Saturday breakfast
was a meal that perfumed the house with eggy, cheesy, buttery aroma. I probably
could have filled my belly up on the scent alone.
And my brother and I never minded missing a few minutes of the movies, reruns we’d seen dozens of times anyway. Dad never talked while we ate, busy buttering toast and chomping away, though he sometimes hummed between bites of cheesy, buttery eggs. The comfortable silence on these Saturday mornings of warm, satisfying breakfasts was one of the deepest expressions of love I experienced growing up.