At first it was black swans taking up residence in the newly created wetland a couple of hundred metres from where I live. A couple of years ago a pair of white swans arrived with a brood of almost grown cygnets, which have since departed. The adult pair reappeared, but I can’t say for sure whether it is the same pair as before. They have been keeping a low profile lately and I was beginning to wonder whether they had moved away, again so what a thrill it was to see they have merely shifted to a different pond and produced five cygnets. That’s seven swans a-swimming at Christmas, but they are camera-shy and you’ll have to look hard to see the cygnets in this photo.
Yesterday I was drawn to the formal rose garden in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens in search of my favourite rose: Peace. I was on an errand that took me through the Gardens starting from the wall of flowers, an ever-enlarging memorial to those who lost their lives in the unspeakably awful shootings in Christchurch last week, and my feet took me to the Rose Garden. I vaguely remembered the bed of Peace roses from visits years ago and soon found it.
There are now just two gnarled standard bushes, surrounded by lower-growing modern roses, but what glorious roses they are, reaching for the warm autumn sun. There were crimson buds and blowsy blooms fading from yellow to cream and with a pink flush edging their petals.
This rose, which acquired its name at the end of World War II, is a balm, a promise, a hope that’s still worth clinging to, a harmony of unlikely colours, resilient and still blooming. It was what I needed yesterday and what I need today.
Hmmm, a bit embarrassing to discover that my last blog post was almost two years ago. That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of other updates to this website, but the blog section has withered away. If I was into excuses, I could say life is busy, but isn’t everyone’s?
Since I last posted I have reinvented myself as a literacy tutor and work part time, which allows me more time to write. Over the past couple of years, I’ve concentrated on poetry and with the help of a fabulous critique group and a more disciplined approach to writing and have started to clock up a few modest successes.
The poetry facilitation project has been ‘on hold’ this year, mainly because my working hours have been changeable, making it hard to schedule sessions. However, my timetable for next year is looking more predictable and I’m thinking about starting up again next year. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve done, and I miss it.
It’s five years since I published What Are You Doing Here?, my book about my mother’s experience of dementia. I hadn’t given the book much thought until recently when I was having coffee with a friend who said that she had lent her copy of my book to a friend of hers who found it useful. Something I’ve heard many times. This is a book that’s out of print, but available in most public libraries in New Zealand. This conversation made me think about the possibility of reissuing it as an e-book. Maybe.
It’s the time for end of year functions and my favourite, so far, this year was lunch with one of the poetry facilitation groups I worked with earlier in the year. The participants were delighted when I brought poems back to them using their own words from the previous session, and in a fit of enthusiasm I suggested we had enough poems for a small booklet. It took a while to pull it together, but it was finished in time to give each participant a copy of the booklet at their Christmas lunch. This was my first poetry facilitation group and I was thrilled with the poems produced.
For the last few weeks I’ve been working with two groups of older people, sharing poetry and creating new poems.
I just love the way poetry triggers thoughts and associations and gives people a voice and allows them to speak about what is meaningful to them, whether it’s about something that happened yesterday or sixty or seventy years ago. There are no right or wrong answers, no pressure to remember specific things, and imagination is as important as memory.
Some lovely poems come out of this process. Here’s one of my favourites. It came out of the first session with a group run by Presbyterian Support’s Enliven service. We started with poems about dogs and after reading the poems we started talking about pets. Everyone wanted to talk about cats, so we went with that. The poem captures the participants’ unique way of seeing and the importance of their pets. They were delighted with seeing the poem created from their own words.
A dog would die for you, but a cat
just sticks its tail in the air
and walks away.
They seem to know things
and appear when they hear
noises from the kitchen.
They regard humans as poor providers;
that’s why they bring in rats and mice.
A cat chooses you. Ours came from a paddock
at the end of Woodville Street.
It has a long tail with different coloured circles –
grey and red and brown.
Our neighbours brought us chocolates
because the rats have gone since the cat arrived.
You do go for looks with cats.
Ours is ginger. Very pretty.
Cats purr like traction engines.
They like to be patted; they’re very relaxing
and calm you. You pick them up
and they snuggle up and gaze at you.
I dunno—I just love them.
Just when I thought ‘What Are You Doing Here?’ had run its course, a new order pops up! It was as rewarding to receive this order as it was to receive the first order 18 months ago when I first published the book.
The original print run was small and is now almost sold out. The book is no longer available in bookshops, but I still have a handful of copies stored in a spare bedroom. I now wish my initial print run had been larger, but at least I avoided the self-publishing trap of ending up with boxes of unsold books. I’ve contemplated another print run, but it is just not cost-effective.
A couple of weeks ago I had a stall along with other local authors at the local Lincoln Farmers’ and Craft Market. Once a month the market has a special theme, and for July it was books. In a sunny spot at the far end of the market, alongside the huge second-hand book sale, a group of authors sat bundled up against the cold chatting to a steady stream of people about their books. I fortified myself with bramborak—a Czech potato pancake—and hot blackcurrant juice from a nearby stall selling Czech food. Then all I had to do was sit back and chat to people and sell books. By the end of the morning I’d run out of stock.
Most book marketing efforts don’t involve sitting outdoors in the middle of winter. I’ve had a couple of lovely talks at libraries recently. The first was at a meeting of a book group run by the local library and coincided with the group’s anniversary. I’m not sure which was the bigger attraction—me or the very large, generously iced anniversary cake. The second talk was at a meeting of the Christchurch Friends of the Library. I hardly needed notes at either meeting and spent most of the time responding to thoughtful questions on topics ranging from how I wrote the book to coping with dementia.
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, is a delightful romp with the endearingly quirky fictional professor of genetics, Don Tillman. At the age of 39 and never having been on a second date, Don sets out with a 16-page questionnaire to find the perfect wife. Perfect for him, that is. He is blissfully unaware that his criteria eliminate just about every woman he’s ever likely to meet.
Although it is never stated that Don has Asperger’s, he quite clearly has. He may have little insight into the thoughts and feelings of others, let alone the minefield of social interaction, but he is acutely aware that his brain is wired differently.
The lack of a label works brilliantly by keeping the focus on Don who comes across as a real character, not a list of odd behaviours. For me, The Rosie Project isn’t about someone with Asperger’s; rather, it is about acceptance and is the story of someone who doesn’t quite fit in and his search for a relationship.
I had the pleasure of hearing Graeme Simision talk about The Rosie Project in Wellington last month. He said that he didn’t research Asperger’s and didn’t set out to invent an ‘Asperger’s’ character. This got me thinking about dementia and how people with dementia are portrayed in fiction and it seemed to me that concentrating on the character, rather than the condition, as Simsion did with Asperger’s, is the way to go.
Graeme Simsion is such an engaging speaker and his reading from the book was so entertaining that I immediately rushed off to buy the book. To my surprise, The Rosie Project has a minor character with Alzheimer’s. Daphne is an elderly neighbour of Don’s and her life revolves around visiting her husband who is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Don befriends Daphne and tells her a great deal about genetics as he accompanies her when she visits her husband in his nursing home. After her husband dies, Daphne develops Alzheimer’s and Don visits her regularly when she in turn goes into the nursing home. He continues his visits long after she no longer recognises him. He may be awkward and perplexed by the nuances of social interaction, but he accepts Daphne and is a friend to her when no one else is.
The Daphne story is incidental to the book and I’ve never seen a reviewer comment on it, but I think it’s a lovely complement to Don Tillman’s story.
It’s great news that people are reading my book. How do I know this? Partly because I keep a close watch on which libraries hold the book. I also look at whether any copies are on issue, and have been delighted to see that lots are on issue throughout the country. So, word must be getting out there.
I see the book on the shelves when I go into a bookshop, but what I don’t know is how many people are actually buying it.
Another way I know that my book is being read is from feedback from people who have bought it.
I’ve discovered that someone will buy the book and then hand it on to another person, or sometimes two or three other people. Great! One of the reasons I opted for a print book, rather than an ebook, was that I thought readers might well want to lend their book to other people or pass it on. So, it seems I was right on that score.
When I wrote the book I had a lot of things I wanted to say about dementia and it was very, very important to me to get the book into readers’ hands. But there is a little sting in the tail—I have discovered that readership does not equal sales.
Although sales are ticking along nicely, it’s just as well I don’t define success purely in terms of sales.
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to a lovely, receptive audience at a Grey Power meeting. I started by talking about why I wrote What Are You Doing Here? Reflections on Dementia, but spent most of the time discussing why it’s important to talk about dementia and why personal stories are so important.
There are plenty of very good caregiving handbooks or guides around, and they are invaluable for people in the middle of day-to-day coping and caring. But I wanted to reach a wider audience of people who probably know someone with dementia or a caregiver, but don’t necessarily have those daily caregiving demands themselves. When I first started writing, people told me that they weren’t so interested in caring tips—they wanted to read personal stories.
Here are just a few of the things that make personal stories powerful and engaging:
- People connect with stories
- Stories are a way of sharing experience and can illuminate a subject in a way not otherwise possible
- It’s reassuring and validating to read of others with similar experiences
- Stories ‘fill in the gaps’ and can reveal what not obvious to outsiders
- Stories come from the heart and touch our hearts
Stories invite other stories. One person tells their story and another adds theirs. When I invited questions at the end of my presentation, one woman stood and told a little of how she and her husband coped with dementia. I had spoken about the importance of concentrating on what a person can still do, rather than what they can’t. The woman illustrated this point beautifully by telling us how her husband was still able to add figures and she would give him lists of figures, which kept him happily occupied doing something that he could do well.
Obviously this was just a glimpse of a much larger story, but it was important for many reasons. I’m sure, for example, it’s a revelation for many that a person with dementia is often capable of intellectually demanding tasks.
It’s so rewarding when people connect with stories and a talk becomes a conversation.