To Do List – Climb a Tree

I amazed at how long it takes the seeds in my life germinate. They are unlike the lettuce seeds sowed only weeks ago and now I can enjoy the fruits of my limited labor. But the seeds that are cause for growth of others around me, or even myself.

Several years ago, I undertook the effort to become a certified facilitator in the ways of Women Writing for (a) Change. Though I had long been a published author, a writer in the WWFC groups, a board member of the foundation and a podcast facilitator, I had yet to commit myself to a life of writing. They were seeds scattered, hoping a plant or flower might grow. Hope triumphed over intention, and intuition reigned over planning or action.

Early last year in 2009, I found myself walking through a newly wooded path carved out near my home. I was listening to a podcast in which a well known author Don DeLillo and Alan Dienstag had teamed up to produce a writing workshop for individual in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

My mother lives in northern Ohio and I live in Cincinnati. At the time, she too had begun the descent into dementia, with family well aware of the potential outcome in years to come. At that moment, in those woods, with snow softening my heart, something inside of me melted as if to water a seed newly planted. I knew I may not frequently be in a place to offer my gifts to Mom but resolved to share them with others in a similar position.

With vigor, I created a lengthy proposal to create a writing circle that could potentially be administered and supported by the Alzheimer’s Association, in the same way they support an art program called Creative Memories. While researching, I found the Arizona Alzheimer’s Poetry Project and studied their findings. I misspelled Alzheimer’s each time I typed the word and cursed Alois Alzheimer, the neuropathologist who first described the condition back in 1906, on the surface because of his name, but deep down inside, for the disease itself.

Through the Internet, I came across the name of a former writing sister who had been a board member of the association. I made contact with her, asked for her input, and put my proposal to the association in the mail.

By now, it was summer. Six months had passed. Lifetimes had come and gone for Alzheimers individuals. Present day events were escaping their memory as fast as I could type.

Four weeks following my submission, I called the director. She seemed rushed, though took my call. I briefly explained who I was and asked was there interest in this program. She sucked in her breath, and brusquely told me they had plenty of programs they were already offering and had no interest in mine at the time.

I hung up the phone and sunk into my chair. Plenty of programs, but how many were designed to recover lost voices? As would happen, I was an avid newspaper reader, and because of Mom’s condition, had noticed the ads about the award winning Alois Center near Winton Woods. I knew nothing of the center, had not visited, yet I placed a call to the number indicated regarding activities for the residents and shared my thoughts. I no sooner heard back than was sitting with the Director Jennifer Delassandro and Activities Director Marvin Knoblach about the creation of this circle.

Though I was blunt about wanting funding, and my proposal would prove to be out of sync somewhat with what the residents were capably of, the center offered me the opportunity to launch this program, with the understanding that they would be my only client in the memory care field. This was a difficult decision to agree to, as it was also stipulated that there would be no monies available in the immediate future, but perhaps there would be access to funding in the long run.

Because this seed germinated deep in my heart, from a place only a higher power could have reached to plant, I agreed to let it grow within me. Luckily, a close friend of mine, Leigh agreed as well.

Over a set of four weeks, and then another four weeks, we threw out all my original poems and ideas. but one. It was the beginning class. “I am from,” the poem begins. We asked the residents to use this line as a jumping off point for their own writing. And when we did, we found residents “from a river town in Kentucky” and found others that wrote about where they were from, but soon tore up the paper in an effort to destroy the memories.

We captured each agenda and lessons learned, of which there were many. Focus on the rhythms of poetry as much as the words. Keep it simple. Facilitators should not be writers. Help them remember. Involve the use of multiple senses to evoke. The basic tenets of any teaching were all present. And yet something was lying underneath.

Though we were there to talk about poetry and writing and their lives, we also existed in a one hour vacuum that allowed for the residents to be present in moment, together in community. They would laugh at each other’s jokes. Hold hands. Pass the stone to check-in, which was one day a baseball instead. Smell rawhide. Eat birthday cake. Hold up a shell to their ears to listen for the ocean. Run their fingers through sand in a box. Croon all the words to “What a Wonderful World.”

Eat a hot dog while singing “Take me out to the ballgame,” even if they “hated Sundays because my mother and dad always watched the ballgames on TV”, or while they recounted the memory of their “father working at the post office, and occasionally taking me to the game,” or even chastised “those who drink too much beer at a ballgame.”

For our “Jazz” theme, each participant was given a musical instrument, culled from our possession of preschool items, outdated in both our households. Each resident took up their instrument, in a call to arms, and shook rattles and bells to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Though some were not mobile, we encouraged those who could to rise up and march. Some looked at us with a blank stare, but two bold women jumped out of their seats, with urgency of someone who heard “Fire,” and began to clap their hands and shake their tambourine.

My mother would have been singing Louis and Ella, and for certain, she would have danced with the other bold women. One might think I could have facilitated this one on one with her, but I have found that it is the energy of the group which fosters the courage to grow, to dance.

The center maintains files with the resident’s writings. When the staff meets with the family of a participant, the writing is shared. Families are seeing loved ones in new ways, separate from their disease.. Someone who regrets “not buying that house on Cape Cod, when it was selling for pennies.” Someone who will write down simple words, “Elba, Italy with my wife,” as a special time spent at the ocean. And those simple words speak volumes for one who can’t.

What was lying underneath the participants and their writing was the seed that had been planted in me. We had now planted those seeds within them. Most residents don’t recall what day of the week that we arrive with more bags than a family of four on vacation. But they have a sense that they don’t want to miss it. “Make sure they remember to come get me when you are here,” one woman tells us each time. And hugs are always exchanged, both ways.

With gratefulness we were rewarded by the staff who provided us with support, inspiration, gifts cards to the Cheesecake Factory, and journals for our own words. And even more satisfying, a phone call came later in our last week, from the Executive Director, interested in meeting with us, to find funding so the residents could continue this method of self-expression.

There are tomato seeds that push through the earth to become food and seeds that grow into bursting dahlias for my vases. But some seeds take root farther below the soil. Seeds that become trees for shade on a simmering August afternoon, for leaning against while killing time, and those that perennially produce fruit and nuts. Best of all, some seeds become trees that are meant for climbing.

One comment

  1. Annette,
    It sounds like you are doing important life-work, for both yourself and the residents with Alzheimers. The garden analogy works beautifully.
    I only wish I could be there to share your journey in person, to hear about it first-hand from your lips. But your writing is so vivid that it makes up for physical absence.
    Love a.


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