Poetry is just the evidence of life – Leonard Cohen
“I just don’t read poetry!” the young mother said, as she watched her toddler drawing in the shade of a tree with obvious delight.
After a moment’s reflection, she continued, “There was some poetry in a high school class – but I didn’t get it.
It was too hard to understand!”
I thought of the OWLS**, a group of women in their seventies, and their poetry teacher, Oshea Luja. How they all revel in poetry! And I silently wished something similar for the mother when she reached “retirement age”.
One of an enthralled audience last weekend, I watched the OWLS speaking their poetry with tenderness, passion and joy. It was the long-awaited launch of their exciting first anthology “Singing Ink”.
Every Wednesday, in the library of their senior apartment building, they meet with their guides and teachers, Oshea and Melanie Luja. Oshea and his Muse, Melanie, are talented and acclaimed Spoken Word Artists (Food4Thot and Queen Socks) and to this community of poets, they are also gently encouraging and greatly inspiring guides.
What does poetry mean to the OWLs? Obviously discipline, but also commitment, and community, — yet there’s more! In their own words from “Singing Ink “:
Kit, who never ever seems to stop writing, “Poetry is my bliss/The cosmos whirling inside my bones/The hard work of plucking the miraculous/ From thistles”
Dolly, who now laughs at how often she has incredulously asked if her writing is poetry, answers “Translucence of words/becomes a mirror reflecting my life/embodying forgotten memories”
Felicia, who asks many questions in her poems, including those about the process of poetry “What walls have I hit?/ What is standing in my way?/ I see my shadow standing in my way./Dare I push her aside to meet my creative needs?”
Abigail writes “To my surprise/ I bleed joy/ I was waiting for pain and sorrow and rage/and here is joy.”
Jo-Lynda, after a lifetime of writing, affirms that “a poem/will gush forth/becoming a stream/a river, the sea/pressed down/and overflowing/covering the planet/with verse.”
Oshea describes the meetings where “a word orchestra took place. Readings were shared and the fabric of this group’s melody began to sing beautiful ink across the fabric of these pages…..while we’re here, we have decided to play every note, every sound, chord, piano key, and sing our beautiful song like no one’s listening, watching or judging.”
For my part, I see you, poets!
I believe in you!
And I gratefully hold you as inspiration to create fulfilling lives as you age.
(Who knows, I may even write a poem or two one day! Until then, yours is there to savor.)
Singing Ink by Felicia Soissons-Segal, Kit Harper, Dolly Brittan, Abigail Howard and Jo Lynda Blake is available on Amazon Books.
(** as you will discover in the introduction, OWLS initially called themselves “Old White Women” but, after processing in their group some of the racial divisiveness afflicting the country, and experiencing together the universality of being human, they are now Oshea’s Wise Ladies.)
“…when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments?
I said not yet but I intend to start today.” (Raymond Carver)
I have always especially treasured the perspective of my friends who are older. Often I learn simply from how they are and what they do. I discovered that my friend Joe used to print quotes from his wife’s favorite poets and authors to hang on a peg over the washing machine for her to read and savor, transforming this most ordinary chore.
The most important lessons are completely unexpected. Here’s a story of a recent one:
It is an inviting and comfortable house in a pleasant neighborhood close to a beautiful park. Cheerful boxes of flowers line the steps to the front door. Once inside a quick glance reveals evidence of a cultured lifestyle – the many books, art, dvds and cds bear witness to a deep and long-standing involvement in the arts. The artifacts collected from foreign countries indicate well-educated and well-traveled owners. It is the home of an elderly couple, sadly each with a brain now mercilessly eroded by disease.
In one room, the old man sits at a table, head down, lost in his own reality. When he speaks, it is in great sorrow about the past and of a life of regret. He declares that he has never been loved. His son, who had traveled thousands of miles from his young family to stay with his ailing parents, carefully prepares each meal and lovingly ensures that it is his father’s favorite food.
Friends of many years come to visit several times a day. Each sits with him, holds his hands and reminisces about the many happy times over the years. We fondly describe the many celebrations and visits and travels and shared meals. Central to our memories is a devoted husband and a vibrantly affectionate wife. Theirs is a great love story, which we have all witnessed over the decades and that continues to inspire us, their friends, through time and into the present. The feeling of love in their house is palpable. We each tell the old man that we love him, but he denies it to our faces. All the old man can recall is an ancient hurt, a rejection that has erased 60 years of life well-lived.
At each arrival of friends, she rouses herself and blesses each one of us with her characteristic smile. She murmurs in gratitude at the flowers she receives and when her son feeds her – she says clearly “I am so lucky!”
The old man and woman have shared a life in the same house for more than 60 years. They traveled together, went to plays and opera, art museums, sat and read from their extensive library in their comfortable house. They received the same friends and loving attention from their only child. We joked how his view of life’s cup being half-empty was more than compensated by her conviction that the cup overflows.
How is it that their last days are spent so differently? He, crying and feeling unloved, and she, smiling and feeling so very blessed. Although, much needs to be attributed to the kind of disease they each suffer, it is worth “stop(ping) and ask(ing) for understanding” and reflecting on how we choose to be.
Do we have a choice? If we each live a life of gratitude and appreciation, do we lay down so many neural pathways that they remain operating right up to the end? If we make the intention now, not knowing how long we have, will it bear similar fruit?
I think it is worth trying because, regardless of the end goal, the process – living – is much more enjoyable.
What important questions to ask. What important lessons to learn.
(in gratitude photos and art by M. Kellen-Taylor)
Published in HowlRound “a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community,” based at Emerson College. A description of the Mentoring program that I used to design and direct during my employment by a non-profit that serves seniors in Southern California.
I humorously call theatre “the family curse” because I have grandparents, great-grandparents, a daughter, and a grandson all marked by a passion for the theatre. Therefore, I am not surprised when many of the seniors with whom I work fall under its spell. The residents at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, their appetites whetted by acting and writing classes, formed their own theatre company to write, direct, and act. They continue to receive coaching from professionals and play to full houses for their neighbors. They experience the alchemy that exists between actor and audience.
Through our programming, people who initially were sure they were audience members find themselves onstage performing, converted by the magic, challenged by the complexity, and expanded by the process. They write from their own lives and by acting the roles, they deepen their understanding of family members, friends, and even archenemies. They worry about forgetting lines; they rehearse, argue with the director, and form new connections, but when the curtain opens, they are on!
It is interesting to see how theatre has permeated EngAGE’s Mentoring program. Each semester for the last five years, high school students are selected to work with EngAGE Mentors at the Artists Colony on different arts projects. Many of these students have fallen out of the school system for various reasons and are at risk of dropping out. Their last chance is to attend Burbank Community Day School. There they work with Principal Chris Krohn and her talented team of teachers who are dedicated to enabling students to succeed. Working with the residents of the Artists Colony is an important component of this work.
The project involves a sequence of arts programs, some involving theatre, each with their own finale. For example:
- Making one-minute Claymation movies
- Creating a rap video
- Designing video games about life
- Making a twelve-minute film
A Cast shot of the students who wrote, acted in, and crewed the short black and white film, “Time After Time,” through EngAGE’s Mentoring program. Their Mentors provided inspiration and encouragement behind the camera.
During one finale, we watched a short black and white film on a big screen in the Colony clubhouse. The audience was composed of the students, their families and friends, school district administrators, and the fiercely proud mentors. The film was about a boy dreaming of his grandfather who loved to play baseball, and the big game that his team won. It was a sweet tribute to the relationship between boy and man. The ripple effect beyond the seniors and mentors became apparent when the writer’s father said, “I never thought my son could do that—write a screenplay for such a good film!” I saw him struggle to change his perception of his son as a “problem” and was encouraged by the mentor’s pride in the boy’s talents.
Mentor and student construct models for their Claymation movie. Each pairing wrote, directed, and captured their own one-minute film.
Another project called “Walk in our Shoes” was with Stacy Sims, a Mid-western writer/performer. Her project encouraged students and seniors to write stories that began with the prompt: “If you have never walked in my shoes, you will not know…” The goal was to perform the stories. Over time trust grew, and both mentors and students wrote and shared heartbreaking and heart-warming stories. That finale was a powerful performance of the stories, in which the actors, connected by long red strings, stepped out of a tableau vivant to perform their work. I recall one heart-wrenching moment when one of the girls started her monologue about living with serial abuse. Two seventy-year old women moved downstage to stand with her, conveying their solidarity, powerfully and wordlessly.
The group was amazed when a quiet eighty-year old gentleman, who retired from a successful business, revealed that he had been labeled a problem kid and sent to a special school. These were important life lessons for the young people as they witnessed their elder partners’ resilience and ability to survive. The students learned that it is possible to survive awful experiences and still go on to live successful, happy lives.
The power of theatre is its ability to amplify storytelling into a visceral experience. The grief, anger, and resolution in the stories drew in the audience and connected the actors. Some mentors better appreciated their own capacities through revisiting events in their lives.
The cast of the rap video project. Students learned that rap is poetry and mentors learned they can rap well into their 70s and 80s.
There is now a palpable change of attitude for many of the people living in the Burbank Senior Arts Colony. When the school first opened next door, residents looked down on the playground at recess and discussed with fear the “gang-bangers” that had become their neighbors. Now they talk about “our kids next door,” and the two groups wave to each other.
Mentors themselves understand that they are contributing something of great value. Students, who graduated from the school and went on to college, have returned to share their accomplishments. They write letters to the mentors, or run up to them in stores and give them bear hugs.
Each semester a different group of students join the mentors; however, the mentors remain the same. One mentor said, “We learn to love the kids in a short time and working with them is the most meaningful thing I do.” A student explained that he learned that “old people are not smelly and boring.”
I once heard an educator say that a student needs only a few adults to believe in them to have a chance at success. The Burbank Mentors quickly come to believe in the students. The invisibility that cloaks seniors and divides them from younger generations begins to melt away, and nowhere more so than through the arts.
This was published recently in LinkedIn
In just over 11 years 20% of the US population will be over 65 and, if recent ageist tradition holds, millions will continue to be dismissed as useless and obsolete.
20% of society with 40 or more years of life and professional experience constitutes a huge and rich source of social capital. In the spirit of sustainability, organizations in various fields including education, wellness and social service, are changing that waste-heap into recycling and repurposing sources.
Creativity and Aging – An Insider’s Hopeful View.
For the past 35 years my work has been to transform the feelings of purposelessness and depression that often arise from being consigned to the waste-heap of American society. The Arts and Humanities provide one set of useful tools in the transformation from discard to social asset.
The threat of reduction in Federal funds for the Arts and Humanities only reinforces the misperception that the Arts are solely for entertainment -and thus a mere frill. I am countering that misperception with how Arts and Humanities offer, instead, opportunities for meaning and purpose for the remaining 20 to 30 years of living. That is, living in the active sense!
Understanding how and why the creative process affects us is key to curing this political mis-perception.
I also hope to begin to reassure young people that aging includes many adventures, fun, excitement and even a re-ignition of passions and interests that they are presently forced to side-line.
The Insider: Practicing both art and aging for many years, I am sharing from the perspectives of an artist, a teacher, a developer of arts and humanities programs for adults and children, and as a past expressive arts therapist. This paper addresses work with aging adults but can and does apply to all ages – as research has consistently demonstrated the benefits (1, 2)
Although I describe the creative process in terms of the arts – visual, performing, literary – because I know about them, it is vitally important to acknowledge that creativity expands far beyond them. For example, my father, a retired mechanical engineer, designed and built working models of all kinds of machines. This miniature working steam-engine is a beautiful embodiment of his esthetic and creativity.
Involvement in the creative process means exploring the potential inherent in music, writing, performance, painting (or engineering design) and then actualizing it. At the same time we are also exploring, both consciously and intuitively, aspects of our own potential. We learn to actualize these through expression. This makes for a satisfying integrity to optimizing the aging /human process through the arts.
When a musician picks up an instrument, even if you know the piece she is going to play, you do not know how she will play it and how you will hear it. Imagine the hushed anticipation of the audience right before the performance begins, that exciting moment of “not-knowing”, when the music is still a potential. The musician begins to play, the actor speaks the first words of his part, the painter lays color onto the canvas, and all the possibilities – whatever they might be – are decided upon, actualized and become embodied into the final piece. This is also a great metaphor for living.
In the same way that artists actualize the potential of their latest piece, creative aging includes involving each individual in exploring his or her potential, and bringing into being, undiscovered aspects. It is such an exciting process of discovery! Over and over again, I hear “I never knew I could do that! How wonderful!”
This process can continue if we let it, until the last breath. I remember a hospitalized man in his late eighties in a visit by an artist from my team, enthusiastically confiding that he had “another design“ for their ongoing work together. Neither of them knew that this was his last day of life. He had spent his prior final days in a sterile hospital room engrossed in imagining colors and shapes and mentally moving them into satisfying and beautiful patterns. Although his body was completely immobilized by disease, his imagination remained active and flew free. (3) We used one of his designs to advertise the Elder Banner Project of which he was a participant. (**)
Knowing this kind of freedom is a possibility invites us to reach for that freedom.
Stepping into the creative process is like boarding a plane. After take-off there is little sensation to remind you that you are traveling at 700 miles an hour, 38,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Similarly, being immersed in creating moves us into “creative time”, or flow. In that state there can be little sensation of time passing as we are transported out of the studio into other worlds. I think of this timeless place as a connection with the eternal, when the artist becomes ageless, and draws on past experience while reaching into the future.
The created piece itself, be it music or sculpture, writing or painting, has a similar ability to transcend time and place. The lines drawn on paper, thousand of years-old splotches of color on a cave wall reach across centuries and countries to touch us and share with us the artists’ views and experience. The hospitalized man was re-living his life and love of the abstract paintings he saw in the Berlin of his youth. That youthful vigor continues to be palpable in his remaining art-work. It reminds me that creativity can transcend and transform, even momentarily, the most dire physical state.
We have all felt how music can, and does, transport us. I listen to the guitarist playing a favorite and I am once again a dancing 17 year-old. Music can also serve as a two-way street. In our work we watch where, over and over again, a piece of music reaches the mind-spaces into which confused, institutionalized people have retreated and gently draws them back into present time-space. We watch in wonder as the musician throws out a life-line and we become connected in a group of people swaying in shared time.
The arts are an integrative force. Just as time and space are integrated into the moment of creating, our varied physical and emotional experiences are integrated, brought together into a coherent pattern. Using our eyes, hands, ears, arms, imagination, memory and feelings to create a painting, brings sometimes fragmented or forgotten aspects of ourselves into working in concert. In writing we bring forward ideas, experience, knowledge we did not know existed. The Arts and Humanities become doorways into social contribution and connection.
We practitioners in the field of Creative Aging believe that an individual’s potential does not disappear with age. That it is always there to be discovered is the crux of our work. For older adults to comprehend that we all continue to possess potential is vital. It is vital (from vita meaning life) because, in the face of widespread ageism, this reminds them/us that we have a purpose, that our experience is useful and valuable, that we can have hope.
With increased longevity, the demographic we call “older adults” includes several generations. We hear a great deal about the Baby–boomers and their needs, desires and hopes for the future. They can’t help the noise because there are so many of them. Most important, they are acknowledging the wounding this society inflicts on its aging individuals. I like to call the immediately preceding generational sub-group, Path-finders, and I am a member. We are quieter because, like all scouts, we need to hear the sounds and see the clues in the surroundings that indicate the direction of the path. In so doing, we revolutionized popular music, the theater and visual arts as well as social mores in the 1960s and after.
The Greatest Generation (of WW2), Path-finders, Boomers, the arts give us all ways to continue to be creative, self-respecting people, certain of our purpose and of the value of our contributions to our families and communities.
We are finding new ways of being the path for future generations to follow in joyful anticipation.
“So treat your dancers well
Remember their place.
They were not put here to serve you
But instead they give you grace.“
Caroline McElroy (4)
Maureen Kellen-Taylor, Ph.D. is a Visiting Scholar at The USC Davis School of Gerontology, Rongxiang Xu Lab for Regenerative Life Sciences. She was Founding Director of ArtWorks at Mount Zion Hospital, San Francisco; provided arts, humanities and intergenerational programs along with wellness and lifelong learning to 34 apartment communities in Southern California, for 14 years with EngAGE; adjunct faculty in Quest Lifelong Learning programs for South County Community College District, Hayward CA for 12 years; recipient of California Arts Council funding for 5 years and their Directors Award for dedication to the Arts in California.
1. Washington State Arts Commission, 2006. Arts for Every student: Education Resources Initiative, Washington State Arts Commission, Washington State http://www.arts.wa.gov
2. Silk, Yeal Z. Mahan, Stacey. Morrison, Robert. 2015. The States Status Report A Review of State and Regional Arts Education Studies. Americans for the Arts, Washington, D.C. http://www.americansforthearts.org
3. Artworks at Mount Zion Hospital, The Banner Project: Making the Invisible Visible,1981-84 San Francisco CA. A project under my direction that took designs from homebound elders to be constructed into 8ft x4ft banners by active elders and then displayed publicly.
4. Gibson, Ph.D, Morgan and Kellen-Taylor, Ph.D, Maureen (eds) 2014. Engage in Poetry: an anthology of poetry by residents of active aging apartment complexes.
The stories swirl and wind/
wind in the changing light
Seeping from the seven-gated body; flowing
Through family/tribe/district, through the teeming,
Milling city streets.
In the course of my explorations of creating a new map of aging, and inevitably writing a new story of aging for myself, I find people talking about recreating stories in a number of important areas including politics, environment, racial and cultural identity. Of course, there are many more but these are where my path takes me. And they are all interconnected. It seems that, at least in my part of the world, this is the era of stories to increase understanding and, by providing visions, to improve the quality of living for the individuals of human and other species and of the planet as a whole. It is this feeling of being interconnected with everything and everybody that brings all the efforts together and somehow makes the contribution of each one of us important. So I am encouraged in my work to write a different story about aging that empowers people and contradicts the ageist propaganda.
I feel heartened by knowing that the people working in many different fields and countries who attend Fritjof Capra’ s class on the Systems View of Life (http://www.capracourse.net/about/), as I did, are just as dedicated in their efforts to make our world liveable as those working with the Frameworks Institute (http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/), and with George Lakoff (1) (https://georgelakoff.com/blog) to re-invent language and improve communication. The Pachamama Alliance (2) (https://www.pachamama.org) training activists who are working towards preserving the beautiful bio-diversity,as well as honoring indigenous rights, in this world are as dedicated as the Arts and Ecology practitioners in Europe (https://www.facebook.com/groups/artsbasedenvironmentaleducation), and the artists at the California African-American Museum of Art (www.caamuseum.org) who are exploring their racial and cultural identity through their creative processes. I am hopeful because even though the individuals in these organizations might not even know about the others, their efforts eventually will come together to create a transition to the new world we so desperately need.
My bias towards the arts as useful tools for all of these endeavors runs through all of these posts. It is my desire and belief that it is now time for the arts to be spread around society where they can do a great deal of good.
Shelagh Wright (Mission Models Money) in her introduction to PROVOCATION by Tim Kasser Ph.D.**writes:
“Arts as cultural practices are some of the most participative, dynamic and social forms of human behaviour,(sic) are, in our view, integral to this process of transition. The capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue and foster new ideas and relationships offers a powerful and democratic way of expressing, sharing and shaping values.”
I visited my local African-American Art Museum yesterday to hear Dominique Moody speak. (She and her work have been featured in earlier posts and she is always an inspiration to me (dominiquemoody.com). As I wandered through the exhibits I saw how different artists’ explorations of their racial and cultural identities inspired the museum visitors and encouraged some deep conversations. With a small epiphany, I learned the name for the work – Art as Social Practice- and now have a name for my own work of 35 or more years to change aging with the help of the arts.
My latest work is with a local university on a couple of arts and culture projects. Our team hopes to contribute to the new story of aging and also to strengthen cultures and increase respect for the many cultures in our area, which even though they enrich our society, it is a time when they are under attack in some places.
One of our projects uses storytelling and visual art to connect young people with their grandparents’ generation. The stories are a way of passing on a legacy of experience that is often dismissed as irrelevant in this highly technologized age where we tend to judge others and ourselves by familiarity with the “latest tools”. The truth is that human behavior lies behind all the technological tools now available and influencing young people in particular.
When I was a very small child of 3 or 4 my grandfather introduced me to gardening. We planted seeds together and he described all the wonderful things that were going to happen. The next day he was amused to find me digging up the seeds to see if they had grown yet. I don’t remember what he said exactly but it has remained with me as a truth “It takes time for good things to grow.”
It may have been my first step in valuing process as much as end result. I am sure it acted as a magnet for other similar experiences. But I don’t remember any of those – I remember my grandfather, pipe in mouth, smelling of wood shavings from his workshop, kneeling and looking with me at the place where the seeds would mysteriously grow in their own time.
In the same way, the stories we are now gathering from older adults are about human behavior, life and what they have found useful for living.
The young students illustrate the stories and, by using various non-verbal ways of learning, gain a different kind of understanding. In making the pictures and developing a relationship with the stories, the students will also take ownership in their own way.
The second project uses the tools of storytelling to explore and illustrate cultural values. The stories come from a group of older people of different cultural backgrounds. They may perform their stories or in pictures show values that have strengthened their cultural identities. Their stories will be videoed, the pictures displayed and shown to the public. Through the processes of reflecting either verbally, or visually, we will give them the opportunity and encouragement to appreciate the importance of their legacy of experience. To be approached by a team from a well-known university to tell these stories because they are important to younger people, we hope will increase their pride in their own heritage and perhaps also see the values that they hold in common with people of other cultures.
Reflecting on these projects I am aware that I too am acting out of my family and cultural values and at the same time bringing a sense of purpose to my own life.
**Tim Kasser, Ph.D. Professor & Chair of Psychology, Knox College, Illinois, USA (http://faculty.knox.edu/tkasser/) writes about the potential of engagement in arts & culture to encourage values that support well-being, social justice, and ecological sustainability.
photos by m.Kellen-Taylor
Back to the original point of this blog – to make a new road map for aging – or in other words to create a new story that is relevant to us now in this time and place.
Discussions with friends about what we can call the process of living life after a number of years, yet not invoke all the unpleasant and often untrue associations with the word “aging”, are stimulating and energetic.
I ran the name “Building Momentum” (The Frameworks Institute) from my previous blog entry past a couple of friends – and although they like the verb and the action inherent, they said it seemed too abstract.
L. who, after 90 or more years of living, has the first thought upon awakening daily of “Good! Another day to Paint- and Love my wife!” This touches on the important aspects of long life (in my book) – Creativity, Love and Appreciation.
A conversation with A. brought up the words “Relishing”, “Reflecting” – and, said quite wistfully, – “Relaxing”.
Another name”Recounting” grows out of my exciting intergenerational projects of putting old and young together in art and learning processes (and I like the potential double entendre). Combine these to the current process of “Reframing” and the alliteration is very pleasing, however a bit low energy for my tastes.
Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote: “Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age.”
What an exciting prospect!
Some years ago, on a walk towards a city park, I met a tiny grey-haired woman who almost danced up to me. “Don’t forget to admire the tulips,” she said with great enthusiasm and joy ” They are gorgeous and make the day special!” I had just met the passionate eighties embodied.
It is important for me to have images as touchstones to remind me that I choose a dynamic path over the state of stagnation and decay so often depicted or implied in this culture.
I am playing with these and there will be many more to come:
What language do you have to offer that inspires you towards long living?