A new resident joined us at our ElderSparks table. The first thing she did while being wheeled into position was to raise her arm and point at one of the regulars sitting across from her, exclaiming, “I don’t like that woman!!!” (or words — possibly harsher — to that effect). Fortunately, the target of her opprobrium was hard of hearing so the comment went unnoticed. The second thing E~ complained about was forearm pain. The attending social worker reminded her that the nurse had treated it earlier and suggested she try to ignore it for now.

Based on this, I wasn’t sure how our usual opening exercise — holding hands around the table to foster connection — would be received. When I asked for feedback afterwards, the reports were: “Very nice,” and “Friendly.”

Today’s goal was to continue the work of uncovering our inner Emily Dickinson that had commenced the week before. In the interim, I had transferred the participants’ original verbal descriptions to sheets of return address labels, one word per label, and added extra pronouns, verbs, inflectional variations, etc., to expand the choices for our fledgling poets. I did the same with three of Mary Oliver’s poems (Song of the Builders, The Lily, Wild Geese) and one by Robert Frost (A Minor Bird) — again, to enlarge their poetic vocabulary. The idea was for each resident to gradually construct a poem, one word at a time from those on the label sheets — much like everyone did with Magnetic Poetry on their refrigerators years ago.

Once again, I began with the Mary Oliver poem, Why I Wake Early. This time, the response took on a different tone. Although everyone appreciated Oliver’s message, her experience wasn’t really an option for them — not when their aging, aching bodies precluded any sense of well-being. All I could do was to nod my head in sympathy and understanding.

As a warm-up activity, I threw out different words and asked them to respond with the first that came to mind.
















                                two cups of water


                                dollar bill

                                save it

Next we turned to the label sheets in front of them. I asked each of the women to find a word that drew their attention, whether because it had a strong association, evoked a powerful image, looked funny — whatever. S~ chose small, explaining that it just came to her; E~ picked smell because it’s found in everything — flowers, food, clothing; and L~ was drawn to morning, the beginning of the day.

Working individually or with my assistance, they placed the selected word on a black sheet of paper, and then added others, one by one. Occasionally, I’d suggest a possible rearrangement, or write in a new word at their request.

Our efforts produced the following opening lines. (Click on images to enlarge.)

I was impressed with how evocative the first lines were, and how difficult it was to sustain that feeling in the ones that followed. I encouraged them to think less literally by giving voice to their creative spirit. As an example, I referred to E~’s poem that started with the words “Soft cream lotion smell”: “Instead of saying, ‘Makes me feel good,’ (as E~ originally wrote), what image could the poet paint that would evoke a richer experience for the reader? Does applying the creamy lotion feel perhaps like a feather brushing lightly against the face, arms, legs, and torso? Or is it like standing under a gentle waterfall, the cool water flowing over every pore? Maybe it’s like my hands stroking the side of your head [as I demonstrate] or something else. You tell us.”

I asked L~ if there might be something other than flowers that the early morning sun is shining on. How about “golden lips” I proposed (wondering where that came from myself.) “That’s too far out,” she replied, so we left it open for another week.

(I couldn’t help but notice this is the second time L~ has used “far out”. I wonder if she’s a closet hippie.)

As for S~’s work, I think she’s off to a great start. If this becomes a four-line poem, it will take all my willpower not to have my say on the final word.

By the looks on their faces, I saw that everyone was intrigued by my pep talk on imagination. I grabbed the umbrella I had with me and opened it up above my head. “Is this an umbrella or a mythic bird hovering above and shielding me from harm?”

They got it. E~, the woman who had arrived in upset and pain, was beaming. “I’ve learned things,” she said at the end, “I can’t wait to tell my son what we did this morning.” S~ thanked me for the “special lesson.” She also complimented me on the sweater I was wearing — an ElderSparks first!