Fresh thyme and basil may not have been a sensory high at the last ElderSparks session, but seeds were planted nevertheless. I decided to try again, this time using roses and carnations that were the stated olfactory preferences of E~ and L~ respectively. In addition to a second sampling of aromatic delights, I was hoping the flowers themselves would attract our poetic muse.

Unfortunately, store-bought carnations or roses that actually smell are rare commodities in this part of central New Jersey. Instead, I settled for lilies thinking that no one could resist their intoxicating fragrance. Also, they had a fascinating structure that was ideally suited to what the ancient Greek poet Simonides called “painting with the gift of speech.”

Silly me: the lilies weren’t a favorite either. (I’m only now beginning to realize this is one tough crowd to please.)

The plan was to have the women examine the lilies closely and describe what they were seeing. I would write down what they said so their words could later be crafted into poetry. The exercise was also designed to stimulate both their curiosity and powers of observation.

For inspiration, I read Mary Oliver’s poem, Why I Wake Early:

Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who made the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the

miserable and the crotchety —

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light —

good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

Much to my surprise, a first-timer also named E~ said that she couldn’t relate to the poem at all. Nor did she wish to work with the lilies. She couldn’t explain why, and I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sad for her. Still, I was glad she felt comfortable enough to share her negative response. Instead of the lilies, I had her describe the nectarine she was holding that a friend had given her. A second newcomer, S~, was barely able to see anything more than 3-5 inches from her face. I held my hand close to her eyes and asked her to tell us what she saw as best she could.

These were some of the words we had collected by the end of the session: color/gift/fingers/leaves/fruit/ friend/nectarine/fits/vase/stem/top/reflections/useless/circular/water/pink/white/green/red/shiny/heavy/ wider/soft/pointing/five/pretty.

It was a start.

After class, I wasn’t sure what to do with the lilies that no one liked. As I walked through the dining room on my way out, two residents looked up from their lunch and smiled. I gave each of them a stem. A male resident spotted the remaining lilies. His face lit up as he placed his hand over his heart and sighed appreciatively. Of course he got the rest. As I wheeled him back to his room, a nurse at the nursing station handed him a package of 5 cigars a friend had left for him.

Tuesday must have been J~’s lucky day.

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