Of the creativity workshops I have offered to different groups, the encounters with old folks have been the most profound. I have found elders open and subtle and gutsy, and possessing a gentility that is almost translucent.
At Home Woods Retirement Home I spent an hour and a half with a dozen people, all over ninety. I showed them unorthodox ways of expression- drawing sounds, shuffling memories, moving their bodies to pieces of sentences. They were enthusiastic and bold, even though three of them refused to experiment with poetry that did not rhyme, so firm had their training been.
Memories flew out like freed birds: the horse bringing ice blocks on a sled in front of the house, the young boy’s fascination with any wheeled thing. And as they traded recollections I witnessed a quality of shared inquiry that is rare. One woman looked at a green line her friend had drawn, and said it reminded her of the green line on the ocean horizon just after the sun has dropped beyond sight.
“Has anyone else ever seen that green light?” she asked.
Oh yes, they had. She said she used to go to the beach every evening with her friend and watch until the green line appeared. Her friend is passed now, but she thinks of her every time she witnesses the green flash after sunset. That spurred a memory for another woman at the table: she recalled a night soon after her wedding when her new husband woke her from sleep. He had come to show her the moonlight on the white blossoms of the orchard next to their home. She said it was magical, with the quality of a dream.
What I think is so remarkable about these associations is the sensitivity those nonagenarians had to bodily sensations. Because of their experience and their calm attention they had an ability to classify qualities of experience. They were not just making connections between objects or ideas, but between the nature of the feelings they remembered. This is a high level of metaphor, a sophisticated consciousness of soul and body interplay. It is poetic awareness.
There was a fine wit about them, too. When I asked “What’s a song we all know?” they chose Silent Night. I gave them each a piece of colored paper and a felt pen, and asked them to draw the sound of the refrain: “Si ..iiiilent night …” across the length of their papers. We sang the line together, and they let their hands dance the music visually onto their papers. Then we placed all the papers end to end. They formed a continuous line that swerved and jiggled from one end of the long dining table to the other, save for one paper that had been left blank. Jackie explained, “Well, it was Silent Night, so I left it blank to represent silence.”
The folks I saw at Rose Villa Retirement Community were just as enthusiastic about the creative inquiry. A group of residents, the youngest 86, sat round a table as I placed a red rose in a glass dish in the center. I asked them to say a word the rose made them think of. “Mother,” said one. Parade. Garden. Peace. John, who has dementia, eagerly offered, “Seven O’clock!” I wrote down the words on pieces of colored paper. Warren, struggling with dementia, studied the rose intently, and then said, “Vulnerability.” He was full of concentration, and raised his hand to say more. “Appetite.” His brow clenched. “It’s hard to say, but there’s a person who wants…” He faltered, “needs something,” … Long pause… “and someone can give it. Knows how.”
He pointed to the rose that sat between all of us. “It’s that thing. What that is.”
His faltering message, and the poetic beauty behind it, made me realize again the refined sense of metaphor and symbolic beauty that can accumulate in a human life. He was telling us that the rose is the means of connection between two selves, between needing to give and needing to receive. He was pointing to the catalyst for communion.
I am 52 years old, Warren is 94. I have encountered thousands of roses in gardens, poems, and songs, and noted the frequency of the rose as a symbol of life. But not until Warren’s difficult, grasping answer did I see that we need each other to bloom. In human relationship, full of vulnerability but insistent as hunger, we can transform from incomplete matter to blossoming interdependent spirits. And like the vulnerable and insistent rose, relationship — parent to child, student to teacher, lover to lover, friend to friend– shines with a profound beauty.
The group laughed, shared stories, invented rosy phrases from traded words. Near the end of the hour I asked Warren, Gladys, John, Agnes, Mabel, Deanna, Carole, Betty, Davena, and Billie to speak a phrase inspired by the rose. The poem that follows is exactly what they spoke.
Scent appetite parade
Mother’s face glows
Peace tattoo wings
Daylight come and we wanna go home.
Bike and hike appetite
Hot chocolate mother
The beauty of Portland