Valentine’s at the Alois
There is a suspended moment in time from when we instruct participants in our writing circle on the activity that we are about to embark upon, to the time in which they take the pen to paper and begin to write. Even those that cannot physically write will attempt to compose a line that might correlate to what has been offered as a prompt. Some writers call that moment inspiration. Others call it breath or soul. As observer, as well as facilitator, one might also call it love.
The theme for this February morning is Valentine’s Day. Most participants, suffering from a broad range of memory loss symptoms, do not know Valentines’ Day is four calendar days away. When escorted into the activity room, surprised residents catch glimpses of red and purple balloons, a pink tablecloth and boxed candies on the table.
We greet each in turn, with a smile and a nametag, for us to remember. We too are memory challenged, and the roster often changes just enough to throw us off. Brief discussions occurred – “J: It’s cold in here”, “M: Don’t those balloons look fancy.” L: “What is the topic today?”
Poetry and Valentines. We are careful not to refer to this hour as a writing class, for writing brings up memories of crass teachers rapping knuckles with rulers or marking up one’s life story or belabored poem with a red pen. We are also sensitive when using the word “Love.” There is so much emotion in that word, which we want to encourage, but not inflict pain.
When L. is informed we will be reading Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edgar A. Guest, he responds with enthusiasm in his radio voice, “I know Edgar Guest. He was a poet from Detroit, had his own show for a while, colleagues didn’t like him too well.” L. is also aware he may be asked about love. The theme is evident to some. He speaks aloud, “I wonder if I am an emotional man. You know, I enjoy learning, but I don’t know if I exhibit a lot of emotions.” But L. will stay because of Edgar. Only minutes later, when L is asked to share with the group about Edgar Guest, L. will draw a blank. We capture in the moment what we can.
We open the circle with a candle, asking each participant to say his or her name. Some are prankish. F. calls herself Pete. P. states her full name. J. struggles to speak her name so we name her into the circle. We begin reciting the poetry, first Anne, then Elizabeth, then Edgar, selecting works that represent not only spousal love but universal love and friendship.
Next, we begin brainstorming about people to whom they might like to write a Valentine. Brainstorm when written out seems an ironic word choice as during the past months or years of the participants’ lives, they have experienced their own brain storms when memories are trapped in the tangles of their mind. Their only hope is staying rooted in the present and being supported by those who will weather the storm with them. Ideas begin to flow and extend from grandmother, teacher and brother, to the obligatory spouse or children. We write these down for all to see.
Then, the real brainstorm occurs. We instruct participants to begin writing at the top of their homemade Valentine, Dear _______. “Let’s write a letter to this person. Tell them what you loved them for, why you are thankful for them.”
In this instant we hold our breath, and dive into the waters of memory with them. Some begin immediately. Some look confused. We sit and review and write with each contributor who needs us. We prompt, we cajole. We mourn and celebrate. Twenty minutes pass.
We step away from the tables and turn down the volume on Louis Armstrong singing, “I can’t give you anything but love.” Whether through our transcribing or their own movement of pen across paper, in front of each participant lies a body of work.
Each contributor is asked to read his or her Valentine aloud. Those who cannot read will entrust their words to us to share. When the circle makes its way to L., he is not too proud to ask, “Well, I would like someone to read this for me.” His eyes are pooling with a tear or two, so one of us lifts his Valentine to read, careful to breathe before giving a voice to his words.
Thanks for all the love that you expressed to me when I was just a small boy growing up in the grocery.”
There is more from others:
“Dear R. – You have a smile that cannot be forgotten.”
“Dear T. – I love your quietness at times.”
“Dear Mom – Thank you for encouraging me to be a nurse.”
“Dear D. – The best son and helper that anyone can be.”
“Dear T. & K. – I wish you lived closer.”
There is never a full narrative elicited from these writings, only the fascinating fragments of the participants’ stories that come to life on paper.
We have incorporated various themes in our (not a) writing circle, including The Secret of the Sea, I’ll Fly Away, What I Would Dress as for Halloween, all producing smiles, sighs and admiration. But only love could let loose these fragments that float in the space between idea and paper, in a way no other subject could.