I kept thinking of the old American spiritual, We Shall Not Be Moved, after our last ElderSparks session. That’s how the participants responded to 40 minutes of pushing, prodding, coaxing, and enticing — all in a failing effort to have them illustrate an Escher-like poem I had written especially for class. Entitled Circular Reasoning, it went like this:

One night, as I lay down in bed,

Tired as a lump of lead,

I found myself in darkest black,

A maze without an exit track.

Scared, I searched between the lines,

Connected dots that gave no signs.

But all I did was run around

In circles on the ground.

Suddenly a door before me

Opened when I turned the key.

Inside, a pretty stairway led

To me, all comfortable asleep in bed.

I read the poem several times, as they followed along in printed booklets that included space for drawings. (Click on images to enlarge.)

After reading each line, I paused to explore its meaning and point out words that might be clues to an appropriate illustration. Visually, I wasn’t looking for another Michelangelo — just some representational lines, shapes, dots, etc. For inspiration, I drew some possible treatments and distributed pictures of stairways, a maze, keyholes, and keys. We even discussed abstraction and symbols but nothing registered: either the simplicity of the exercise, or its corresponding sophistication, completely eluded them.

It was easily the toughest audience I had faced since my debut in New, Improved Bingo.

As a last resort, I wondered if acting out the poem’s narrative would give them something more concrete to draw on. I trudged around the room as if sagging from bone-deep fatigue, searched frantically for an exit, tapped heads and tabletops, staggered around in circles, climbed imaginary steps, and pretended to fall asleep. L~ could not stop laughing and everyone else was grinning broadly. I had finally gotten a reaction.

Once I caught my breath and took my bows, I said that the morning wouldn’t feel complete to me until we had drawn something — anything! — before we left. I opened a roll of paper, extended it the length of the table, and drew a long curvy line to get things going. E1~ asked if I could draw a heart for her (a symbol she keeps coming back to), and write, “Love to everybody.” (Later, the group decided to add the qualifier, “Friends and families,” and signed their names.)

(To preserve privacy, full names have been obscured.)

L~ wanted to depict a Christmas tree but wasn’t sure how to draw one. Her choice of subject matter surprised me since she and everyone else in the room was Jewish. It reminded me of my elderly mother, afflicted with dementia, who preferred Jingle Bells to songs from her own tradition.

I drew an outline of a tree, topped it with a star at someone’s suggestion, and passed it on to J~ and E2~ for decoration. The rolled ends of the paper reminded me of a Torah scroll, so I pretended we were at a synagogue service and each of us was being called to the bimah to recite the blessings. Instead of prayers though, we offered up small illustrations. J~, the former food critic, jumped at the chance to drape popcorn strings on the tree, and E2~ added candles. We joked about this being the first and only Torah to include a Christmas tree.

While the group was disbanding for lunch, E1~ told me she had a good time but “couldn’t figure out what had happened.”

That made two of us.

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