So there I was, hurrying through the light rain in Portland’s Old Port recently when suddenly, right in my path, appeared a gaggle of smiling young girls with a tape recorder, a wind-socked microphone and, they promised, just one question.
“Do you have any regrets in life and, if you do, what’s your biggest one?” asked the girl with the mic.
I stood there dumbstruck for several seconds, groping for a suitable answer. Dearly departed loved ones and long-dormant friendships jockeyed for my attention while my young inquisitors, still smiling, waited patiently.
“My biggest regret is … that I didn’t become an astronaut,” I finally blurted out. “All my life, I’ve wanted to go to space. Is that a big enough regret?”
“Yes,” they answered in chorus. “Thank you!”
Leave it to The Telling Room, Portland’s nonprofit writing center for children and young adults, to go boldly where the rest of us rarely have the time – or, for that matter, the inclination – to tread.
For the past decade, the storytelling organization has given voice to young writers via after-school workshops, in-school programs, field trips and, for the past few years, summer camps that range from fiction and essay writing to the aptly named “Everyone Has a Story: An Intro to Documentary Storytelling.”
Maybe you encountered them during their two week-long sessions this summer: Half-a-dozen teams of writers in grades six to 12, pinballing around downtown Portland with questions ranging from the wacky (“Do you believe in Bigfoot?”) to the wistful (“What is the place you would most like to visit before you die?”).
But life’s biggest regret? That’s a whopper.
“You have some people who just have a one-word or a couple-of-words answer,” said Molly Haley, The Telling Room’s director of multimedia and creator of the documentary camp. “And then with some people, it’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them this question. They have so much to say. They’re like, ‘Thank God I have someone to tell this story to!’ ”
For the record, “astronaut” was a completely honest reply. (Not to mention affirmation for those who have long read this column and concluded that I already reside on a different planet.)
Had I had more time, I’d have explained to the girl with the digital recorder how I grew up during the space race with Russia.
How, starting with Alan Shepard and John Glenn, I idolized any American in a spacesuit.
How one July night way back in 1969, I took a break from my dishwashing job at the Wellesley Country Club in Massachusetts and watched in unabashed awe as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon. I was completely alone at the time – the rest of the kitchen crew had already gone home – and it remains one of the most vivid memories of my life.
So yes, I regret that I’ve never gone to space.
Of course, I was but one of many randomly chosen subjects who agreed that day, with no advance warning whatsoever, to hit their life’s replay button and see what came back.
“I really regret that I came out so late,” a gay man told the students. “I wished I’d come out when I was younger and could have lived my life differently.”
Replied another man, “My only regret is that my wife died.”
And another: “Not fixing my steering – and then getting into an accident.”
Not everyone wanted to talk. But surprisingly, Haley said, about 90 percent of the people approached were happy to answer.
Some spoke for so long that the kids had to graciously activate their pre-rehearsed exit strategy. (Fine line, it turns out, between documentary storytelling and free sidewalk therapy.)
One recurring theme was college – should have gone but didn’t, shouldn’t have gone but did, should have gone farther away, should have stayed closer to home, shouldn’t have borrowed so much …
Ditto for letting others chart one’s life path. Noted Haley, “A lot of people said, ‘I wish I was truer to myself.’ ”
Interviewer Noah Hager, a 14-year-old student at Casco Bay High School in Portland, tweaked the “regrets” question a bit. “If you could redo anything in your life,” he asked his subjects, “what would you do differently?”
“Wow, that’s tough,” replied one man. “I would have married my second wife first.”
Another man: “I wouldn’t have gotten married the first time.”
A woman: “I think I would have made more of an effort to be closer to my extended family.”
Another woman: “I think I would have been more sensitive to everyone’s feelings, not just the people I cared about.”
Back to the men: “I would go back to sailing.”
A young man: “I think I would have stayed in Arizona.”
A boy: “I definitely would like to travel.”
A young man: “I would not cross the street before I got hit by a car.”
An older man: “Be healthy.”
And then, right there on the tip of a grown woman’s tongue: “When I was in the sixth grade, I did something very mean to a friend of mine. And I didn’t apologize for it and we stopped being friends. And it still makes me sick to my stomach.”
Truth be told, Haley said, many of the kids were nervous about asking such a personal question of perfect strangers. “No, you should,” she urged them. “It’s a good one.”
At the same time, the kids thought over and over – before they actually spoke with someone – that they knew exactly how the person would react.
“They have these preconceived notions about people on the street – the way they look must mean they’re a certain kind of person,” Haley said. “And it’s almost always the people they’re a little more nervous to go up to who have the most interesting things to say.”
I’m not sure what those kids made of the guy with the graying beard who always wanted (and, alas, still wants) to be an astronaut.
And as another glorious Maine summer flies by, I admittedly still envy the woman who told the fledgling storytellers, without a hint of hesitation, “Nothing. I regret nothing.”
She must not live here in winter.