Rita Blockman is the co-author of Listen to the Wisest of All. Men and women aged 88 to 104 years old were interviewed for the inspirational stories in this book. They were from differing backgrounds but all were willing to share their life stories, values, and accumulated wisdom.
Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Rita. You spent 2 1/2 years interviewing people for this book. When you began this project, did you think it would take that long?
Rita Blockman: No, I predicted l l/2 years and didn’t realize initially that it takes time to develop a real relationship when you are interviewing people for a book. One has to establish rapport with an individual or couple, establish trust and ensure that what I wrote was clearly what was intended by the interviewee and approved by family and friends.
Ferrante: How much time after the interviews did you spend writing and editing?
Blockman: During the entire 2 l/2 years, we were simultaneously writing, editing and interviewing people. During the last six months our copy editor was meticulously refining the vignettes which are highlighted in the book.
Ferrante: How did you select the people to interview?
Blockman: It was our intent from the beginning to select people from different backgrounds because interviewing people from different ethnic groups, different religious backgrounds (or agnostics) and different socioeconomic levels, we felt would be more interesting to our readers. We followed different leads from several sources to find individuals in the age range in which we were interested. It is our feeling that each person (or couple) brought to life a universal theme of human nature which is actually a microcosm of the world in some sense.
Ferrante: What was the most difficult about writing this kind of book? What was the most rewarding?
Blockman: It was difficult to ask some questions which I was very curious about such as wanting to know if different individuals had “death anxiety” because of the advanced age of our interviewees. Once I got over the fear of this type of questioning, I was pleasantly surprised that it appeared that the more satisfied an individual was with their life, the less they thought about subjects such as this. The most rewarding aspect of writing this book was it made us conscious of how we wanted to live our life which included living with more intention and realizing the limits of status, ego, and materialism in the final analysis. Although I know this intellectually, it was refreshing to hear our beloved interviewees talk about different topics: how they valued different things in each decade, how they developed an optimism in spite of physical limitations and aging issues, how being poor “has nothing to do with money”, how important nature was and how it nurtures your soul, and how meaningful traditions make lasting impressions and generational memories.
Ferrante: Many interviewees had similar beliefs and attitudes. Did anyone ever say anything that really surprised you, that was unexpected or unusual?
Blockman: One individual stressed how important he thought it was to surprise people when they least expect it. He felt (and I do now) that it is much better not to wait until someone dies to send flowers, but to anticipate the needs of others and find things that might be meaningful to them when there isn’t necessarily a holiday associated with it either. This individual would surprise people with a rose from his garden when they arrived at his door. It might seem like a little thing, but it brought joy to a lot of people. I have followed his advice and love doing this and love the feeling it gives me when I surprise someone. I actually have fun thinking about this type of thing during the year when the hustle and bustle of holidays isn’t an issue and one can focus on specific people at various times.
Ferrante: A common thread in the book is the importance of family. Do you feel that has changed for this generation?
Blockman: Most definitely. People engaged in conversations more, enjoyed family dinners more while cooking from scratch and overcame obstacles such as the Great Depression by banding together. There wasn’t as much mobility among families as there is today, so families had more day to day exposure to one another which led to celebrating more important events together. The lack of social media helped promote this type of interaction among families in my opinion.
Ferrante: Tell me about the photographs in the book.
Blockman: The photographs were purposely taken in black and white to reflect the period in which the individuals lived. We wanted the photographer to capture people in a spontaneous way and try to capture the “essence” of the individual and his or her interests.
Ferrante: One of the keys to longevity seems to be making oneself of service to others. For example Lloyd Dees serves as a parish visitor who calls on shut-ins, patients in the hospital, and people in grief. He also visits his homebound sister every day. The amazing thing is that he is 88 years old. Do you feel being of service to others helps people to live longer, happier, and healthier lives?
Blockman: Mr. Dees demonstrated in his actions and good deeds that spiritual maturity is giving to others and letting go of your own wants and needs to some degree. I do think when we look outside ourselves and meet the needs of others, we feel better, and it strengthens our own sense of self.
Ferrante: one thing that struck a chord with me is when Lucy Gray spoke about the loss of innocence for children. They are exposed to so much, so early, that childhood is severely shortened. How would you recommend children’s innocence be protected without exposing them to risk of exploitation?
Blockman: I attended a lecture last night in which an older gentleman described an idyllic childhood for all children. He was getting ready to introduce an artist who had drawn pictures of her recollections of visiting her grandparents during the summer on a farm. I liked what he said…”Every child should have the opportunity to run and absorb nature, play hide and seek, explore, pretend, draw without specific instructions, listen to good music, learn how to plant flowers and vegetables, interact with people of all ages and be free of worry. “ Things are very structured for children now, and children are facing much trauma and pressure in our contemporary world which forces them to grow up prematurely and miss out on the innocence and beauty of childhood.
Ferrante: Joe Hamburg “stressed how important it was to be a good person: to have good morals and to be kind, understanding, helpful, charitable, and also to have an appreciation for the arts.” How do you feel the arts fit in with being “a good citizen of the world.” To feel children today are exposed to enough arts?
Blockman: Our society, in my opinion, views the arts as a frill or extracurricular activity. Art, in its many forms, reflects the human spirit in a way that can’t be duplicated in any other way. It enhances people’s creativity, allows them a safe way in which to express themselves and share their perspective. It is just as important as any subject in our educational system today, and yet it is being cut out of every program because of lack of funds. In addition to the soulfulness of any artistic endeavor for individuals, it helps us understand our world historically and culturally. I always love the feeling I get when I go to a museum and participate in a docent tour where a small group of people give their perception of a painting. Often times each person has a completely different perception which is so enlightening. I think this type of experience broadens one (and as Joe said makes us better citizens) so that we don’t get too narrow minded in our views about things. It also helps us participate in the world at large which teaches us how to “feel” and appreciate good works of art which reflect the human condition in the most poignant way.
Ferrante: if you were being interviewed for this book, what would be the most important thing you would want to say?
Blockman: Although it might sound trite, I would have enveloped myself more in nature and offered more of this to our children, taken more time out to meditate on how to live with intention, actually visit and learn more from people from different cultures and backgrounds and never do anything that didn’t feel authentic to me.
(From a Bit of Banter, the Game That Gets You Talking)
Ferrante: What song do you wish you had written?
Blockman: A song about the beautiful insights that are gained and sensitivity to others —even when emotional deprivation is pervasive in one’s early life.
Ferrante: What is the oldest object in your home?
Blockman: It is an old clock on our mantle that my husband and I purchased 45 years ago from a gentleman who was passionate about clocks. We associate the beauty of the clock and its chime with the beauty of the interaction we had with this gentleman.
Ferrante: What food could you absolutely not live without?
Blockman: Chocolate, without question! And, especially chocolate of the finest caliber!
Ferrante: In that, we are definitely agreed. Thank you for participating in this interview series..