“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…”

I wrote this for Life, the Universe and Stories

Alison shares her experience of a Shared Reading group in this beautifully written piece. Thank you Alison.

It was a cold and wet morning in August when I set off to my first Shared Reading session in Blackheath, about a half-hour drive from my home in the Blue Mountains. I’d participated in Shared Reading groups before, and each one brought its own set of slightly anxious feelings on the trip there: would I like the stories and poems? Would the people in the group get on? Would they like me? Would I have anything to say, or might I say too much, perhaps?

I was ushered into a quaint old hall by the facilitator and took a seat at the table. There were three others and we briefly introduced ourselves, then made a cup of tea. The facilitator explained how it worked, that we could follow along as he read out loud, that he would stop every now and then for us to say what it brought up for us, that we didn’t have to say anything at all if we didn’t feel like it.

He handed round copies of the story, “Welding With Children” by Tim Gautreaux, and began to read. The words came slowly, and slowly I felt myself relax into them. By the time we were at the end of page two, I was in the world on the page. We paused, and began to talk about what came up – sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes a childhood memory, a funny story or sad ones, or interesting things about other lives in other places.

This time, we agreed that we all knew men like the story’s main character. A lot of it was about how the characters appeared on the outside compared to what we felt like on the inside. So it wasn’t just me. We talked about children and grandchildren: who had them and who didn’t. By the end of two hours of sharing and reading, reading and sharing, I felt different. Relaxed and stimulated at the same time. It wasn’t book club, where we come to a verdict (those of us who have managed to read the book in its entirety, that is). I didn’t feel the need to say anything profound or original about literature, which to be honest has been my relationship with reading since first year uni. My ability to connect with people, which had felt lost since lockdown, was awakened. I could make conversation! I could meet new people! I’d also read a great story that I probably would never have come across were it not for Shared Reading. I’d read a poem without feeling pretentious!

Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”, with which we finished off our session, starts with the line, “You do not have to be good.” And you don’t – well, not all the time. You don’t have to be good at reading to be an integral and valuable part of a group. You don’t have to approach a story like you will be tested at the end of reading it. If you’re feeling a bit down, lonely after long months of isolation, or that life is always lonely and its always hard to fit in, a Shared Reading group will probably help you to feel that it doesn’t all have to be good all the time. Mary Oliver again: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine”.

It also felt good that the group had an experienced person leading it, so that if things did get too uncomfortable, or if somebody strayed into territory that might be upsetting for others, there was a trained facilitator to deal with any difficult situations that might come up. They had chosen the story for a reason, they knew what might set off too much sadness, fear, anger or grief, and what to say if it did. It was over too quickly – that was never two hours, I thought.

I knew pretty soon after we started hearing the story and sharing our reactions that I would be coming back for more. For one thing, I wanted to try listening to the reading without following along on the page, as one of the others had done. I wanted to try just listening to the words, letting them enter my mind like a meditation. I also wanted to hear more from the people in the group – people I would probably never have met otherwise, but who had so much to offer. Me too, I kept thinking as they spoke, I’ve also felt happy/cross/sad/devastated in that situation. The lack of connection – loneliness even – of the past two years was washing off me at last. Not that we’ve dived straight into a deep-and-meaningful, but we haven’t talked about utter trivia either.

I was back most weeks for a new story and a new experience. I’ll be back again. I could never say it anywhere near as well as Mary Oliver:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

Mary Oliver

If you would like to find out more about existing groups or becoming a group facilitator you can find more information on their website.

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