The Real Story: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

At the beginning, all you think about is loss.
An incomplete geode
on its way to full formation
but somehow interrupted
from reaching its brilliance.

Like a piece at the potter’s wheel,
you are gradually changing,
like a rock in the stream
becomes less sharp and develops smooth corners.
Perfectly imperfect.

Excerpt of poem from participants in Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, October 14, 2017. (Composed with lines from all by Pauletta Hansel)

Most of the poems in the book I called Palindrome (meaning something that is read the same backwards as forwards) were written in the roughly two year period my mother spent in her first nursing home. There are outliers on either side, but Mom’s move into “care” in March 2015 marks an unofficial start to when my life both on and off the page leaned into my role as her shepherd and as her scribe. Nearly two years later, the manuscript of poems and prose written in response to my mother’s dementia was accepted for publication. And about halfway through that period, in April 2016, I became Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate.

The timing was pretty good for putting my name in the running for this very part time positon. I had not tried to replace my previous position as writer in residence at a local college because of my new focus on Mom, whose dreaded “middle-stage dementia” had her literally bouncing off the walls. And while Cincinnati was asking for an occasional “occasional” poem, mostly they wanted a poet who had a clear plan for the role. Mine was to connect people to poetry and connect people through poetry, mostly through a series of writing experiences.

The first such experience I offered was a workshop called Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, in partnership with the Cincinnati Alzheimer’s Association which had been a huge help to our family before and after Mom’s move. Annette Wick, a writer, teacher and caregiver to her own mother, enthusiastically joined me in the project. (You can read Annette’s caregiving blog here.) Annette and I were on a similar journey, both as writers and daughters. Through the wonders of social media, I had learned of Annette’s interest in starting a family caregivers’ writing group, and invited her to pilot it through this joint effort. A year and a half later, we are still doing it, and have expanded our partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association and with each other to include writing with professional caregivers and sometimes with people with dementia, through their Memories in the Making program. (To find out about our February 27 program with professionals, including nurses, social workers and aides, “How Stories Help,” click here. For our March 22 program for family caregivers, click here.)

While most participants are also grateful members of the Alzheimer’s Association’s ongoing support groups, they appreciate how writing allows us to go down beneath our usual struggles and complaints to a place where we can experience the spiritual and emotional truths of our lives as caregivers. It helps that Annette and I have been at this, the writing and the caring, long enough that we can find beauty in the broken things: a mother’s cracked voice singing a hymn the daughter has never heard, or the way her hands still stitch an invisible needle through cloth that no one else can see.

Wherever you are in your journey as a daughter or as a son, I offer you this writing prompt to explore things those things “perfectly imperfect” in your own relationship with your elders, whether in the present, as Annette is, or in memory, as I am: Mom died in January 2017. One note: this will work best if you delay reading Part Three of the exercise until you have completed Parts 1 and 2.

  1. Find an object in nature, that is something that is not made by human hands: a leaf, a broken piece of bark, a shell, a rock, for example, or if you are able to write outside, a tree or a boulder, It is important that you can get close enough to experience it through most of the senses. If you are not able to find a natural object, at least choose an object that is not an objet d’art; in other words, for this activity a bent fork is better than a painting.
  2. Describe your object as fully as you can using some or all of these questions and any of your own.
    • Describe it through the senses—what is its color, shape, texture, smell, etc.? Be judicious in tasting!
    • Where did it come from? What is its natural habitat?
    • How did it get where you found it?
    • What is its use? Have you used it? Do you know someone else who has used it?
    • Do you know what drew it to you?

STOP AND WRITE!!

 

 

(Vincent Van Gogh–Two Cut Sunflowers)

  1. How does this object remind you of your mother or your father? (You can choose which.) If it doesn’t, that’s ok too—the negative space is rich for writing.

You might choose to use the poem and its title below (“Portrait of My X as a X”) as a model, or you may not. You don’t have to write a poem. You may find it more fruitful to write more directly about your parent in prose, referring to the object as a way to add metaphor and texture. There is no wrong way to do it—write whatever is coming up for you in relation to this object. I would love to see your work posted in the comments. You can click on one of the links above to find out more about the programs Annette and I offer through the Alzheimer’s Association. Information about my other workshops and retreats can be found here –or contact me.

Portrait of My Mother as a Dried Sunflower

The round shape of you
no longer round,
bent in on yourself
as if you are trying to find your way
back to the place you began.
You smell of dust
and still that scent
of only you.
I cannot see what you were
in what I have before me,
though in dreams you still stand
tallest in the field.
Every day a little
more of you
is gone. You are
beautiful.
You are so beautiful.
At the center,
a constellation of seeds
never planted.
(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

Note: this is third in a  a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia and The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love

 

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Writing Image-based poems

Often we are drawn to write poetry because of an intense emotion or the need to explore our thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, person, memory… Rather than beginning with the abstract thought or feeling (anger, loneliness, it was fun, I miss him) try beginning with a concrete image that brings that internal emotion into the external world. By concrete image, I don’t mean only what we can see, though that too, but also what we can touch, taste, hear, or smell. I have heard it said that smell is the sense most connected with memory (and maybe that’s why realtors try to have cookies baking in houses they want to sell!) but other senses can also bring you back to previous times. The summer that song was always on the radio. The nubby couch in your first apartment. The French onion dip that was served at every party you attended in your twenties! Sometimes an image will move you to tears or joy before you are even conscious of the reason. Here are a few of short poems of mine that attempt to let the image do the emotional work. Read them and try one or both of the prompts offered below.

Longing

This morning’s dog,
the no-color of the lake
he circles in his snuffling search
for what he knows has been
before him, will come again
once he is gone. Mist rises,
freezes as it falls.
© Pauletta Hansel 2014
My Father’s Ghost

here, in the stretched shoulders
of this sweater requisitioned from his study closet
even before his death—my parents’ house
that late December cold
for my blood, my father’s
not yet thinned by drugs
and their diseases. Now
his bookshelves line my study walls,
my shoulders, where his shoulders were,
hunch over books
not his; he had small
use for poetry,
except for mine.
I scrawl notes along the margins
as if my hand were his.

Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011

Becoming My Mother

In dreams I wear your feet, twisted as roots,
each step a wrenching up from earth.

The morning hands that reach to smooth
the years around my eyes are more yours than mine.

When I was five your friends would ask where
I got my curly hair, knowing I’d say,

my mother made it, as you made our
matching dresses, rickrack at the collar and the hem.

Now the skin around our collarbones is
rumpled, its fabric loose against our frames.

Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011

Prompt 1.

With this prompt, you are working with image as metaphor. Take an abstract emotion (longing, love, joy) and brainstorm images that bring it to life. They can be memories from your own life, or drawn from things you have seen (heard, smelt, etc.) Try: “If (abstraction) were a taste it would be…. If a smell it would be….” Also look at Lisel Mueller’s wonderful, “Imaginary Paintings.

Prompt 2

Make a list of people in your life for whom you have strong emotions. Next to their names brainstorm specific sensorial experiences (images) associated with them. Examples:

Daddy             Bookshelf, easy chair, back of head in the car

Granny           Grease jar, chickens, hummingbirds at her trailer porch

Then start a poem with that image and see where it takes you! You may find yourself moving into metaphor here as well.

About Poetry and the Senses

A poem should not mean but be.” (Archibald MacLeish, Ars PoeticaOne way of understanding this quote is that a poem should allow the reader as close to a direct experience as words are able to provide. Similar, perhaps to a painting, or a piece of music. One of the best ways to do this is to engage the senses through images. Here are some of my favorite quotes about the sensorial nature of poetry:

  •  Our senses note only particular. We never see color, we see particular colors; we never just touch, we touch something….This human preference for the particular is shown in many primitive languages, which may have no word for tree but may have many words such as ‘oak’, ‘pine’, ‘maple’ and ‘elm’.” The Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  •  “Poetry for me is always a process of inquiry. If I knew what I thought, if I knew what I felt about what compels me in the world, I doubt I would write a poem. That part of our minds which makes metaphor proceeds ahead of us, and the metaphors seem to know more than we do about our emotional lives, about our ideas…. my work as a poet is to…put pressure upon those images that strike me, in order to ask them to yield their meaning. –Mark Doty in Poetry Review . [Vol 87 No 2 Summer 1997].
  •  “I always begin with an abiding image. I sit with that image and I turn it and turn it and look at it from every angle, and I write into the mystery of that image. ..They (the images) are asking something of me. They’re asking me to look beyond the surface to the bigger levels of meaning and metaphor.” –Cathy Smith Bowers
  •  Image’s concentration, like sound’s, is a field where the energies of mind and body meet… Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both. — Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

My next post, Writing Image-Based Poems, will provide some ideas for using images to make poems.