Why it is never too late to pursue your dreams

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

In this episode of The Mindful Writer, Sandell Morse tells me about her journey back to herself and why it is never too late to pursue our dreams. Before I introduce Sandell, let me update you on my writing journey.

I am making steady progress with my WIP, a dual timeline story set in 1940s war years and 1964, north Yorkshire. My 1964 protagonist travelled in to Harrogate to buy a pink gingham dress similar to a popular one sold in Biba that year. I wanted to know where young people would have shopped for fashionable clothes in 1964, Harrogate, so I sent a message to the Harrogate, Past, Present, and Future Facebook group. 

Within one minute I received a response, followed by many more. 138 comments to date. I loved the recollections that people shared: glass fronted wooden counters and drawers from which items were carefully removed by assistants wearing gloves, then displayed over the counter for inspection; the discussions about which shops were there in 1964 and which ones came later. We all love to reminisce and share memories about our community. History is preserved through these stories handed down through generations. 

So, my heartfelt thanks to the Harrogate, Past, Present, and Future Facebook group for their generosity in sharing their memories, and for their support in my research of this novel.

Memoirs are a powerful form of story-telling. They give us a glimpse into another life, another time, another culture. They enable the writer to reflect and make sense of life experiences, sometimes finding new meaning.

This is a great lead in to this week’s guest, Sandell Morse, prize-winning author of a fascinating memoir. So let me introduce you. 

Sandell Morse is the prize-winning author of the memoir The Spiral Shell: A French Village Reveals Its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II

In this episode Sandell explains:

  • How writing her memoir changed her perception of herself and her community.
  • Why she is still skiing at 82
Sandell Morse

Listen to the podcast here: Episode Seven: Why it is never too late to pursue your dreams

Or read on for a summary:

I was humbled to interview Sandell Morse. This prize-winning author’s journey is remarkable. At 81 Sandell’s first book The Spiral Shell: A French Village Reveals Its Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II, was published, receiving much critical acclaim – a silver medalist in the 2020 Sarton Women’s Book Awards for Memoir and a finalist for the 2021 New Hampshire Literary Award for Nonfiction. 

The Spiral Shell is a double journey, one outward in which Sandell uncovers long-silenced stories of courage and resistance in a village in Southwest France, and one inward as she unexpectantly finds herself on a journey back to her own Jewish identity.

I asked Sandell what inspired her to write this memoir and how the story developed as she researched Jewish resistance in WW11.

Sandell started writing when she was middle-aged. First fiction, and then non-fiction. She had a residency at Moulin à Nef, a retreat owned and operated by the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts https://www.vcca.com/ in Auvillar, France. Auvillar is on the Campo de Santiago, a pilgrimage walk, which means that it is also on a Crusaders Route and that got Sandell thinking about Jews both in the Middle Ages and during World War II.  

She chatted to a rabbi about her interest and he suggested she meet a friend of his. Initially, Sandell had no intention of writing a book. Her plan had been to write a series of essays. The connection made through the rabbi, led Sandell to a French woman who was a Jewish scholar and a journalist. She became Sandell’s translator. Another connection led Sandell to the discovery of a nine-year-old resistance courier who had lived in the village with his family. He shared Sandell’s maiden name and so it intrigued her to discover more. 

 It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs, Sandell said.

I commented on how life was sometimes like that, leading us along a path that we had not expected. It sounds as though everything fell into place for you; I said.

‘It was not so much falling into place as being present in the moment.’ 

She went on to say; I was 71 when this all began. I had raised my family, and I had been writing for many years, but I had not travelled alone. 

‘I had the opportunity to be the person I wanted to be. Just me.’

I returned to the same village in France, many times. I was introduced to Germaine Poliakov, a 92-year-old-woman who had been a caretaker in a secret house in another village not far from where I stayed. We became very close.

I was interested in Sandell’s observation that now that she no longer had responsibilities as a parent she could be herself. I have spent much of my life being a wife, and a mother. When I try to find my true self, I think back to the person I was before I took on these roles. I wondered whether Sandell had found freedom in this, later in life.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘That is what I experienced.’

I quoted back to Sandell her epiphany as she described it in a press release:

‘I wanted my French friends to acknowledge their heritage and history. But what was I thinking?  They were holding a mirror to my face.  This was what I wanted to do, stand tall and say to the world, I am a Jew. No more childish games.  No more now you see me, now you don’t. No more being a Jew only inside the comfortable world of other Jews.’

I asked Sandell how writing her memoir changed her perception of herself and her community.

‘That was huge,’ she says. I was the daughter of a German/Jewish American father whose family came over to the States in the mid-1800s, and an Eastern European orthodox family on my mother’s side. My father’s main goal was assimilation. Assimilation is when a minority group take on as many characteristics of the majority group as they can. But the irony is, you can never belong, because however much you try – you won’t be us.

I had blue eyes and fair hair so it was easy for me to assimilate. I celebrated Christmas, a wreath on my door, etc. Then, when I was studying for a Master of Arts in literary studies, I took an interdisciplinary class about dealing with the past, led by a Holocaust scholar and and an English scholar.

I did a lot of reading and research and I realised that assimilation was a kind of erasure of a culture and people and that was Hitler’s goal. I didn’t want to contribute to that and so I started going to synagogue and learning more about my Jewish identity.

When I was interviewing, Germaine, she was also a very assimilated French/German Jew– in France there is a lot of hidden antisemitism – Germaine told me about her experience when she went to a concert. A friend whispered to her, ‘That conductor. He is Jewish.’ She observed her friend would not have mentioned anything had the conductor been Christian.

Sandell asked Germaine, if she then told her friend that she too was Jewish. Germaine said, ‘You can’t do that here.’

I asked Sandell how long it took her to internalise her new understanding and then change her behaviour.

It’s ongoing, Sandell says. As a Jewish person I grew up as a minority where the majority were Christians. The way Christians understand being Jewish is from their interpretation of the bible – Old Testament. Jewish people read the Hebrew bible before it was translated.

This interested me as I have long felt that religion, particularly Christianity is based on scriptures written thousands of years ago and interpreted by man. I expressed my belief that religion unlike spirituality is manmade and can be about power. Religions can set people against each other. In my view, there is one God but many ways in which to worship as we all come from different backgrounds and cultures. I would love to study theology so that I could identify the common truths that run through all religions.

Sandell agreed with me that religions have more that unites them than divides them. However, we did not entirely agree on the importance of rituals. I explained that I no longer went to church as I found the rituals imposed on me distracting and as a result I felt further from God. When I meditate, I experience a deeper connection.

Sandell’s view is ritual takes us to past, present, and future within a framework. That Judaism gives us the freedom to create our own rituals. She went on to say that she doesn’t believe in God, but in spirituality and mysticism. In Judaism, there is no hierarchy. No head of church. Every synagogue is a small community.

Image by Simon from Pixabay

I asked Sandell how her attitude to ageing had influenced what she had achieved in her life.

I have come to accept that you cannot deny your body is ageing. My mother-in-law was a wise-women. She told me, 

‘You don’t give things up – they give you up.’

 I thought, I am not going to give anything up until I really have to. So, I just keep going. I am a hiker, and a skier. Just keep going until you can’t.

I asked, ‘Do you think fear can stop us from carrying on doing things?’

Absolutely. People say to me, are you afraid you might break something? If I was, then I wouldn’t be able to ski properly because I would tense up. I just have to take the risk and accept the consequences. Sandell skis with a group of older people. One of the group broke her shoulder but now she’s back skiing. A man in his 90s still skis with them. 

We laughed about the transition from ‘falling over’ when you are under 60 to ‘having a fall’ when you get older. The shift in perception of how others see you. 

Sandell said that publishing her recent book gave her renewed energy as she had to learn social media and how to market when her book was published during the pandemic.

I asked for her words of advice to her younger self.

Sandell told me a wonderful story about how when she was 3-years-old she would stand on the porch and watch children pass by on their way to school. One day, unknown to her parents she followed the children to school and took herself to kindergarten. When her parents found her, the teacher said that Sandell could stay in the class as she was no trouble. So, she continued to attend kindergarten until she was old enough to start. When her mother tried to enrol her, the teacher said, ‘You can’t put that child back into kindergarten she will be nothing but trouble. You’d better get her tested.’

When Sandell was tested, she was asked to colour a picture of a cow purple. She responded, ‘I’ve never seen a purple cow.’ So, Sandell was enrolled in first grade instead of starting Kindergarten.

Her reply to my question, ‘What advice would you give your younger self?’ ‘None because I don’t think my younger self would have listened to anything I said.’

I asked, what advice would you give listeners who think it is too late to pursue their dreams?

As long as you are breathing and able to; give it one hundred percent. Sandell teaches creative writing workshops to people who have started writing in their seventies. When you get older, she says, life slows down and you reflect more than you did. Stories come out and you want to write them down.

Sandell is going to be my role model for ageing. Whenever I question if I am too old to try something new, I will tell myself, Sandell Morse is still skiing at 83.

When we finished recording this interview, I expressed concern to Sandell that maybe I had revealed too much of myself, my spiritual and religious beliefs. I am always careful to be inclusive as I do not want to alienate listeners who have differing views. I thought I might need to edit the chat but when I listened again, I decided that it was okay to share my personal beliefs. They feel deeply personal and exposing myself in this way made me feel vulnerable. 

I think that this is true for all creatives when we express ourselves through our art. It takes courage to be authentic. To dig deep. In writing her memoir, Sandell has shared a transformation of self. When we read other people’s truths it helps us to examine our own. I am grateful to Sandell for inspiring me with her honesty, courage, and her positive attitude to ageing. 

I hope you are now convinced that it is never too late to pursue your dreams, whatever they might be – maybe you will write a memoir? 

You can connect with Sandell Morse on:




So, until next time: Take care of your beautiful self and trust the journey.

You can find all episodes of The Mindful Writer podcast here: https://themindfulwriter.buzzsprout.com

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