Spell “World” Backwards

Okay, everyone out there. You had better start practicing.  Someday in your distant, or not so distant, future, someone is going to ask you questions like this: “Spell world.”  That’s easy. “Now spell world backwards.” Don’t worry. They are just checking to see if you have dementia.

Can it be that we will live into our nineties only to be asked to spell world backwards? That’s all they want to know?lesleystahl-300x219

On a recent 60 Minutes show, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” Lesley Stahl interviewed Dr. Claudia Kawas and several of the oldest of the old. It seems that Dr. Kawas discovered a gold mine for her study on aging. In 1981, fourteen thousand people in a retirement community south of L. A., once known as Leisure World now as Laguna Woods, filled out extensive health and lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kawas was able to find 1,800 of these same folks, now in their nineties, still living in Laguna Woods–a perfect group of nonagenarians to study. Many also agreed to have their brains analyzed after death.

These men and women were gracious and willing to answer Lesley Stahl’s questions, as well as the standard ones for assessing the on-set of dementia. The ones without dementia laughed with her about being old.

There was a certain aren’t-they-cute-and-amazing tone to the episode–as if these people were a group of pandas or some adorable pilgrims sending messages back to those who haven’t reached the land of the old.

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

I realize that all these studies of the oldest of the old are meant to help us understand the nature of dementia, but the program seemed self-serving and somehow reductive. When complicated individuals are reduced to objects of study, the world turns backwards.

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Nonagenarians’ Lament

” …and pilgrimes were they alle, /That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”
–Chaucer

We were children once.
Our mothers took us shopping for spring outfits,
and we showed up at church
dressed in miniature suits,
white shirts with clip-on neckties.
Our sisters wore dotted swiss dresses
and patent shoes with buckles.

We were children who played roller bat
in the street and croquet and kick the can.
The girls liked jacks and jumping rope.
We learned the alphabet and sang it too
and made words from the letters in our soup.

Our hands curved around a pencil,
and we formed A’s and L’s with big looping arcs.
The Palmer method,
remember that?

We were children who fell asleep
hearing our parents laugh at oyster roasts in the yard
and rode home without seatbelts
curled up in the back seat of the old Mercury.

We knew our geography and the capitals
of all the states and the names of rivers too.
We studied chemistry and memorized
the bones in the body.

Ruth, in her 20's

Ruth, in her 20’s

We could recite in Middle English
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
We sang in the choir.
We fell in love.
We taught school, wired houses,
became lawyers, waited tables.

Now we practice yoga, write,
eat fish and chocolate, shovel snow,
go to concerts, nap,
play the piano, walk,
paint the sunset
and palm trees in oils.

They seem surprised.
They study us.
They ask: Who is the President?
What is today’s date?
They say: Remember three words.
How did you live so long?
What did you eat for breakfast?
Blood pressure?
Did you smoke? Drink wine?
Did you enjoy sex?
If so, for how long?

As if what mattered could be
quantified, replicated,
extended, amended,
comprehended,
once we are suspended.

They study us.
And after we die,
they dissect our brains.

–Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea/Jumpstart: What do you have to say about “the oldest of the old”? Or have you heard something in the news, on television, or in a recent conversation that caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, or prickle, at least? If so, write it down. It’s good to put some words on paper since I doubt our ideas, stories, bits of insight will show up under the microscope when our brains are dissected.

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Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.

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P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.

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Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    — Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist

 

I Come From the Sea

Where do you come from? Our origins make all the difference in the stories we tell.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.

Thus begins Alice Munro’s story, “Dear Life,” the title story from her most recent collection. This autobiographical story and the three others which conclude Dear Life map out the contours of Alice Munro’s origins in rural Ontario where she grew up.

Here are a few responses from writers in the Sanibel workshop who wrote about origins:

I come from the sea...

I come from the sea…

I come from the sea.

Born beside the Atlantic on the west coast of Scotland.
I search for the sea.
Born on January 23rd, in the sign of Aquarius,
I look for the water.
Sand in my shoes a constant.
Pebbles and shells in my pockets, reminders of where I’ve been.

-Brenda Hunt

I come from a tiny state, a big Italian family, and a kitchen with wonderful smells.                                             -Arlene MacDonald

My two sisters and I were born in a small city, Utica, known as the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Seems romantic enough I know, but in truth it was a town cobbled together by Italian immigrants who settled here after building the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s. Yes, the city’s future on the cusp of recession in 1929 probably still looked good to my father and twin brother, Canadians eager to leave behind the prospect of socialized medicine for the greener fields of the U.S.  Not that they were money grubbers–far from it. They were lucky to be able to get through the University of Toronto compliments of their missionary great aunt (another story to tell) who was left a decent sum of money by her lumberman brother killed in a hotel fire on one of his properties.                       -Jill Dillon

I like the way each of these writers launches into story, poem, or memoir with confidence. We are ready to follow these voices anywhere they will take us.

Mahmoud Darwish, often spoken of as the Palestinian national poet, writes of exile and loss and home in his poems.

I Come From There

Marmoud DarwishI come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

In contrast, listen to country singer Alan Jackson tell us of his origins:  “…where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken.” Click here to hear him sing and see the lyrics:  Alan Jackson “Where I Come From.” 

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The prompt we used in the Sanibel workshop is  from Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, a book I recommend if you’re looking for “daily invitations to the writing life.”

Today write about your origins. Start with the phrase, “I come from.” Include words and sounds you remember hearing, smells, tastes, and sights. Write about all those things which, had you not known them, would have significantly altered who you are.

You could also adapt this prompt to apply to a fictional character you are creating in a novel or short story. Where do your characters come from and how does that shape their stories?

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“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Jumpstart, Anyone?

imgres It’s that time of year again when I begin my Sanibel writing workshop. I’ve been leading this workshop for several years now and call it “Jumpstart Your Writing.” It’s for writers, beginner to advanced, who need a jolt to rev up their writing lives, the way a car needs a jumpstart when the battery is weak. Actually for those of us who write or who aspire to write, the battery is never really dead; it just needs a little juice to get it going again.

 

jump´start`

v. t. 

To start (the engine of a motor vehicle) using a temporary connection to supply electrical power from another vehicle or another source of current; – an emergency procedure used when a vehicle’s own battery has insufficient power to start the vehicle normally.

2.

To provide a speedy start to (an activity) using the assistance of some external impetus; to re-energize (an activity proceeding sluggishly); – accomplished by application of a stimulus not normally used in the activity.

The word can be a noun or a verb, but it is the verb that I like best. I also like the idea that some “external impetus” is needed “to re-energize an activity proceeding sluggishly.” What that external impetus is will vary from writer to writer, but for me, one battery charger is the company of other writers–not just any writers, but writers who believe in “the practice school of writing.” (See Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Writing as Practice” in Writing Down the Bones.)

For several years now, I’ve been a part of a group of poets. We meet every Monday morning in the home of the gifted poet and teacher, Deborah Keenan. Without her gentle guidance, her selection of wonderful poems and poets and the writing suggestions she nudges out of the poems, as well as the inspiration of  the others in the group, I would have a very low writing battery. Bringing my poems to this group has nourished and enhanced my writing life, which was almost extinguished after the completion of my MFA. (That’s another story.)  I enjoy these opportunities to create and craft my poems. Somehow the ego washes away, and the little bubbles of writing that emerge in my notebooks become poems.

So as we start these next few weeks, here on Sanibel with this group of writers, I hope to re-create a little of the same spirit. We’ll use writing from others as models and inspiration and also create our own envelopes of writing jumpstarts. I’ll be bringing some of what we do to these blogs. So those of you not on Sanibel can take the workshop along with us.

There is always the question: Can writing be taught? Maybe, maybe not, but it can be practiced–the way one practices the piano or yoga.  And through practice in the company of others engaged in a similar practice, it is my hope that the writing becomes better–as the practice itself remains enjoyable and always challenging.

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IMG_6241I like to re-read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones when I start a new workshop. Way back in 1985 or ’86, I took a workshop in Minnesota with Natalie. She had just sent the galleys of Writing Down the Bones back to her publisher. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration. “What are your deep dreams?” she asks in one chapter. This will be the way I’ll start the class on Monday.  “What are your deep dreams?” One of mine was to write a novel. So maybe it is time to go back to it and see what I still have to say. It’s never too late.

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Writing Jumpstart:   What are your deep dreams? Go for ten minutes. What is that spark that ignited your desire to write? Ten more minutes.

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Happiness Floats

Thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye for this lovely poem–and to all of you who follow Turtle House Ink.

I so enjoy your comments and mail.

Best wishes during this holiday season and for the new year…and…

Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.