Elizabeth’s Fig, Remembered
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
The piece of paper pictured above is the same document discussed by Krista and Dr. Alan Dienstag in our recent program about Alzheimer’s disease, written by a woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. You can really see how the author, Elizabeth, struggled to finally articulate the simple, poetic recollection:
I can remember picking a fig from a tree in Athens. My lover watched me with delight.
Elizabeth wrote about this memory while she was participating in Lifelines, a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The Lifelines Writing Group was a collaboration between Alan Dienstag and the novelist Don DeLillo — and from Dienstag’s account, he was skeptical about the idea at first. However, DeLillo sold him with a simple statement, which Dienstag writes about in his essay reflecting on the Lifelines experience:
Writing is a form of memory. The phrase stayed with me for some time. I repeated it to myself and told it to others with whom I worked. I realized that for all of my work with people with memory impairments, I had thought very little about memory. To the extent that I thought about memory at all, it was in fact about the loss of memory. It had never really occurred to me to think about other forms of memory and the possibilities inherent in them.
I found myself gripped by the story of Lifelines, both on hearing his interview with Krista and then later when I read his essay. On an intellectual level, his account touches on the value of writing, the complexity of memory, and the power of collaboration — all things that I find fascinating.
But I think the real meat of the story is how it really gets to a deeper existential fear that we all share on some level — one that doesn’t require an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to experience. It’s something we also touched on recently with our program with Mercedes Doretti: a fear of disappearing. While Doretti touches on the emotional trauma caused by the disappearance of family and loved ones, Dienstag’s account of the Lifelines group gets at the horrifying prospect of losing one’s self.
This is why seeing these documents can touch on such a deep level — Dienstag calls them "acts of remembering," to me they’re small stones cast in a battle for the vanishing self, a battle that is in some ways won with every person that reads one of these memories.
Here’s another memory written by Charlotte, an 84-year-old participant in the Lifelines writing group. You can also read part of it in her handwriting here.
I remember the first time I walked with my parents on the bridge that went to Brooklyn. It was hard for me and I fell very often. My father would pick me up and carry me for a while and put me back to walk It took a little time to learn to walk all the way but I did. I remember as I write this about the cat that lived with us who also like to walk and when he saw us ready to go he was right with us and we loved it.
I carried a love for walking all through my life, and even now when things go bad I walk and things seem to get better.
I hope I’ll be able to walk as long as I live.
Alzheimer’s, Memory, Being
Krista Tippett, Host
This week’s program is another one that draws on my past and tugs fiercely at my heart. I write about my formative, wonderful, heartbreaking experience as a chaplain to Alzheimer’s patients in my online journal this week. When I wrote my book a couple of years ago, I had to recognize the men and women I came to love who had Alzheimer’s as being among my greatest teachers. And I found in Alan Dienstag the wise teacher and conversation partner about this experience that I’d been waiting for, without knowing it, all these years. He wrote to me afterwards that the conversation was very nourishing for him, almost therapeutic, and it felt that way for me too.
Like the best of conversations that delve deeply into particular human experiences and passions, as Trent noted after he heard the interview, it speaks beyond those particulars to the wider human condition. This is a mystery, and part of the reason I keep doing this work.
I’d also like to do a kind of shout out and thanks here to the Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut, where I spent several hours each week over 18 months that are now woven into the fabric of a radio program. Recently out of the blue I received an e-mail — through our show inbox — from Ray Cooley, who was the chaplain there and my mentor and supervisor through that experience. It meant so much to me to hear from him and to know that he’s listening!
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Phillip Toledano’s "Days with My Father" is a moving, personal photo essay. To call Toledano’s work a “photo essay” is simply inadequate; it’s so much more than that. It’s a reflection on memory and relationships, on absence and loss, and on the frail, tender spaces between the love of a son and a mother and a father.
It lacks pretension. I’ve imbibed this son’s portrait of a 98-year-old man many times — the first at three in the morning, the last reading Toledano’s simply worded tales of remembrance and observation to my 'tiny' family during supper. We laughed. We cried. We sighed. We kissed our boys.
Yesterday, we had our first cuts-and-copy for a show addressing Alzheimer’s disease (podcast release, March 26th). While listening to Krista and psychologist Alan Dienstag’s conversation, the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir kept swirling around in my head, “speak, memory.” I even found myself mouthing the words in some strange poetic manner.
Why? Dienstag’s insights into Alzheimer’s became universal quite quickly. His experiences speak to memory writ large. They speak to me in my life as I try to remember all that is good, and even my failures.
Nabokov spoke to this in his writing about his own life. And I’m learning that there is this indistinguishable line between the autobiographical facts and events of one’s life and the stories that surround them, that build on them, that transcend them. That includes the stories we tell to our loved ones. They become as true as any recordable event.
Sharing these stories is a way to communicate when all else is lost. Giving away these memories in some recorded form ensures that these memories endure — even as the person holding these memories loses contact with them.
And although Toledano’s father has short-term memory loss and not Alzheimer’s, a common silken thread of factual events mixed with stories fill the gaps where memory ceases to exist. And from this necessary mix a new story emerges. As his son records these memories, remembering begins again. And that gift of memory is given to us. I’m incredibly thankful for that act.
(photo: Phillip Toledano)
Biblical Stories Are So Catchy
Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Production Intern
What is it about Bible stories? For me they can be like catchy music; I’ll get one stuck in my head and then, while I wait for the bus or cut up vegetables or fold laundry, the story will run on repeat, offering its melodies, harmonies, dissonances. These ancient stories — so full of existential drama — can become obsessions.
I’ve been thinking constantly for the past year or so about the Book of Ruth. (Read the whole book yourself here.) Naomi, her husband and sons all dead, is in mourning. She’s planning to move home to Bethlehem. She tells her newly widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their families; they can remarry in their native towns. But Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, insists on moving with Naomi back to Judah. We don’t know exactly why.
Then, Ruth makes a speech as she announces her intention to stick by Naomi, and it’s one of the most famous speeches in the Bible: “Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God,” she says. Ruth chooses radical commitment. She becomes a foreigner, abandons the life she knew, and moves bravely into a new one. I think about the courage that would take.
I like retellings of Bible stories too. One of my favorites is told on an episode of This American Life, “Sink or Swim.” (You can listen to it in their online audio archives. It comes in at about 44:20). In this story Noah is old and crotchety. He calls his sons “dummies.” His “old-school” work ethic demands that he teach his children right from wrong using most severe methods. God, in this story, likes Noah’s style. He chooses him, therefore, to save the animals and repopulate the earth after the flood. It’s a wild story that casts God as a big grouch.
In light of these adventures into the Bible, I appreciatively stumbled on an interesting blog over at Slate.com. Blogging the Bible is David Plotz’s analysis of “what’s really in the good book.” He spent a year making his way through the Hebrew Bible and writing about how the stories struck him. If you have any favorite stories, check out his perspective. It may give you new ideas to run through. Over and over.
The First Breath after a Coma
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
As we all know, Fridays require mini respites from the long working week — whether I’m coming off a professional high (cue Peabody Award post) or the depressing reality of six inches of snow in April (yes, we are in Minnesota). How about a video snack?
The last several months I’ve been turning to the delightfully short films of independent auteur Carolina LaBranche (aka cayoyin) on Vimeo. Her compositions are elemental, musically thoughtful, not overly maudlin, and display a lust for life that reminds me of why the day’s a gift and not a drag. This particular video has a loose narrative. I’ve woven my story in my head; what’s your take?