Learning by Going # 6: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

In his poem  “The Waking”  Theodore Roethke says:

“ I learn by going where I have to go.”

I used to have that poem by heart, helped by its cadence, repetition and form (something called a villanelle…another favorite example is Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). But most days, I am still not sure what Roethke’s poem means. One of the lovely things about a poem is you don’t have to grasp it on a logical level for it to be part of your life. And that line, “I learn by going where I have to go” has become a kind of mantra for me. It is, I suppose, another way of saying, I seem to be an experiential learner…

If you had asked me five years ago whether I would be specializing in using poetry with older adults, I don’t think I would have told you that was in my plans. But in addition to the strange serendipity of connecting to working with people two or three decades older than myself  (initially through a family therapy internship,)  there is a very real way in which these writing sessions I’ve developed grow out of continual experiment—Each session I develop I try something new, large or small. Each session, through experiment, I’m experiencing what works best, what’s within my capacity.

My first exposure to people using poetry with older adults was through the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. A PP MN specializes in engaging and enlivening older adults, especially those with dementia, through poetry and creating group poems. I’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful mentors in learning about arts and aging, including Patricia Samples, Zoë Bird, and Rachel Moritz, all of who generously shared the ways that they successfully use poetry and writing and creativity with older adults.

I love their work. And I quickly realized the creating group homes probably wasn’t going to work for me. Since I’m legally blind, writing down peoples words on a big flip chart and then transcribing it later was a complicated task. Of course there are other ways to capture people’s words, but this difficulty, while no doubt surmountable, led me in a different direction.

It led me to working with older adults who Still have the capacity to create individual works, for the most part, their own writing in class. And ironically , through working with groups of older adults on their own individual voices and poems, overtime I found more ways to build creative community.

At first I saw my family therapy learning and work and my teaching artist work as very separate. But overtime I have brought more and more and more of my family therapy expertise around how people interact with each other to the work I do with poetry.

The writing groups are not therapy.  That’s part of what I love about these groups. There is a certain kind of freedom in working In a “nonclinical” space. But my students teach me again and again how deep and meaningful the  community of support and encouragement that people can create in a writing group can be. More soon.



Learning by Going #5: “People Are Good”

At one of my partner sites for the Writing Home project, after a writing session I usually stop by the cubicle of the senior services  program staff person to say how things went. Usually I am full of stories, how wonderful people’s creativity and imagination and play and writing were, and how much fun we had, and how kind  and supportive people are with each other.

What kind of support an I talking about? Sometimes a good poem opens a door to people to write about their own experience…poems like “Vision Test”, by Patricia Kirkpatrick or Breathing, by “Mark O’Brien” can encourage people to get pretty deep pretty fast into their own medical or body experiences or traumas. Most of the bodies in a room full of people mostly 65 and older have been through some stuff. And I’ve seen a lot of moments where group participants seem to know how to provide just the right environment of empathy and support to people to move through the re-living an experience that writing can sometimes be.

Sometimes this support is between people who already know each other, as neighbors or from exercise class, or craft group. Sometimes the support is between people who started as strangers a week or two before when they walked into poetry group. They have become close through writing in community.

So one day, without going into a lot of detail (because we’ve agreed in our Writing Home sessions, that “What happens in poetry group stays in poetry group”)  I’m  describing a few  of the day’s lovely moments to Jeanne, who’s worked for decades at the same organization running the senior center activities and overseeing the Meals on Wheels program.

I believe in the power of writing sessions as a way of creating community, I tell her, but it’s one thing to say it and another to see it in action.

Jeanne smiles and stops me, “Naomi,” she says, “People are good.”

I have known Jeanne a long time and I know her to be wise and kind. And at first I shake my head to myself. I have a hard time making a blanket statement like this: “People are good.”

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a time when homicide rates exceeded even the ugly pitch of current headlines. By the time I left Chicago in the nineties I’d been burgled, robbed or assaulted 5 times; two of the incidents involved a gun or knife.

To put it another way, I grew up in a time and place where it was important to be nobody’s fool, where wariness and skepticism were important values. “People are good” was not imbibed in my baby bottle.

And then there is a certain amount of ugliness going on in the world around me.

So I do not lightly come to the idea of innate goodness.

But on a daily basis, through these little writing sessions at libraries and senior centers, I see people acting out of a positive e hunger for community for goodness, for ways to help each other.

~People bring each other cookies and treats.

~They offer to write for those whose hands don’t do it alone.

to read for those who cannot read.

~They listen.

~They hold each other’s pain.

~They managed on the day after the election to create a space of healing, without getting into politics. (how many times have I yearned for this same combination of compassion and restraint in social settings since then!)

These folks are not just writing wonderful poems; they might be teaching me how to live in the world.

So what do I say to the proposition: “People are good”

When Jeanne says this, I an silent. I don’t know. I’ve got my upbringing; I’ve got the news…I don’t always feel I am good. I have certainly seen other settings where poets don’t behave well; I wouldn’t say they are bad. but I don’t know if I would say they are good.

I can say:

People seem hungry for good.

I can say people have goodness in them and that poetry group, on a good day, can bring out that goodness. It’s one of the privileges of this work to watch it.