Thursday, April 7, 2016
My One Wild and Precious Life
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-- Mary Oliver
Each week at an Assisted Living facility, I go to the residents’ restaurant after I eat lunch in the staff room, a walled off part of the garage that I call the dungeon. While the staff room where I eat is in a drab corner of a parking garage, the residents’ restaurant has a high ceiling, and even on cloudy days the windows let in clean light. There’s a gas fire in an oversized fireplace, and crystal chandeliers shimmer. The residents use cloth napkins; linen tablecloths cover tables that have fresh flower centerpieces; waiters and waitresses ask residents what they’d like from the menu.
By the time I get to the restaurant, I have finished my Tupperware lunch, and residents are eating their dessert. Sometimes residents invite me to join them. I decline, telling them that I am full. They don’t know about the dungeon.
I have never eaten in a dungeon before, though I suspect that there were dungeons in the places where I worked before my brain tumors and disabilities. When I taught high school, there were the faculty and student lunchrooms. Where did the janitors eat? Probably a dungeon. It never occurred to me then.
In my last decade in education, I worked in schools where many students lived in poverty, and I went there to work for social justice, yet I seldom noticed my own privilege. I worked for justice AND reinforced an unjust system.
Though these elders live a privileged life in many ways—and probably lived privileged lives before coming to this facility—their lives have also become difficult in some ways. I simultaneously wonder about serving people who live with such privilege and love being part of joy in this difficult time of their lives.
Once a week, I lead a Poetry Club in which about twenty people gather in the facility’s theatre to read poems around a theme. Almost all elders at the facility have memory loss, some more advanced than for others.
As soon as I arrive at the facility, I Xerox the next week’s poetry (I now stay a week ahead, in case the machine goes down), and check individually with a resident or two. At noon, I arrange the theatre for Poetry Club, moving chairs so that participants can see and hear one another as well as the big screen. Then I go to the dungeon for a quick lunch.
After lunch, I troll the restaurant, inviting residents to Poetry Club. The residents always greet me warmly. (For about six months, one said, “I can’t remember anything, so I don’t know who you are, but you’re familiar, and I think you’re a nice person. Yes, I’m pretty sure I like you.” Now she knows me.)
The residents often make me laugh. One woman eats lunch by herself. When I walk towards her table, she looks up in a friendly way, though I’m not sure whether or not she recognizes me. I introduce my name, as I do with all residents, and she takes my hand, part shaking hands and part holding hands. I tell her that I lead a poetry club at 1:30 (so she has plenty of time to finish her ice-cream), and I would love for her to join us. She has blue eyes that sparkle kindly with a bit of mischief, and she asks, “Do I go to poetry club?”
I say, “You do.”
She says, “Maybe I don’t like it.”
I say, “You love it. And you love me.”
She laughs, and her eyes sparkle even brighter. “All right then,” she says. “I’ll be there. Where is it?”
I tell her, and she says, “I hope I remember. I’ll try to remember.”
For the first few months, I’m pretty sure she didn’t recognize me or our ritual, but now I think she does. We repeat it each week nonetheless, and we both enjoy the connection. Once we’re in poetry club, I know that her insights into the poem will be so sharp that she will challenge me to re-hear poems I’ve heard for years.
The club isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. There’s a good amount of negotiating where people sit, and people with walkers and wheelchairs seeking places that feel supportive to them. People who struggle to hear and see need to sit closer to the front, though they’re likely to head to the back. When I ask a resident to move up front, that person cups a hand around an ear, cocks their head, and says, “What? I can’t hear you.” One or two people ask, “Why am I here? What is this?” and the ones who remember say, “This is Poetry Club! Be quiet.”
Most weeks, each participant receives a poetry packet, a group of poems I’ve collected around a theme. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, however, I hadn’t noticed until the day before poetry club that we would be meeting on that actual day, so I had created a new collection the day before and hadn’t printed the packets ahead of time. It was a good collection: before MLK’s time there was Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” and several from the Harlem Renaissance. Then after MLK, there was a poem written in 1982 to MLK and Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” We were to close listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a celebration of the national holiday in his honor.
Because the Xerox machine was broken that morning when I arrived, I planned to preview youtube videos of the poems so that participants could see the poems performed. This seemed like a good back-up plan, but a person who works there and “helped” me set up was so distracting that I couldn’t preview the videos. As we began the club, I told the participants about the fact that we’d be watching video performances of the poems because the Xerox machine was broken.
I pulled up “We Wear the Mask” and chose the first match. A hairy white man with a towel wrapped around his private parts walked out of a shower and started talking about the poem and nakedness, the fact that we all wear masks. One of the club’s most enthusiastic members hid her eyes and said, “Oh dear God. Not this. You read it.”
So I did read the poems. We stopped to discuss each one, and residents shared personal connections to the history. One resident had been in Washington, D.C. on the day of the March for Jobs and Justice and remembered watching out her window and on t.v. Three participants were sleeping. In the middle of the session, in a moment’s silence, a woman who comes every week said loudly “Why are we here?” This sleeping and this yelling out had never happened before. When the hour was finally over, and they all began to shuffle out, a woman with good memory stopped and looked me in the eye. She laughed. “Oh well,” she said, shaking her head. “It wasn’t that bad. I still learned something.”
So I give them my best, which is sometimes not very good, and they give me kindness and forgiveness.
Am I working for justice, bringing some joyful moments to people living with health and memory problems, or am I again part of a privileged group, reinforcing that privilege? Or both?
And is this the best I can do with my one wild and precious life? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But it is fun.