Earlier this month, our Patron, writer Esther Freud, joined me on a visit to our new creativity:revealed project at Michael Sobell Jewish Community Centre. This is enabling vulnerable older people – including Holocaust survivors, people with Alzheimer’s and people with complex physical and mental disabilities – to develop new friendships, creative and social skills; and helping to reduce isolation. Here are Esther’s reflections:
“It must be eight years since I first became a Patron of Create – a charity dedicated to bringing creativity into the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people. I was drawn to it initially by its commitment to ensuring schools still made space for creativity even when the pressures of the increasingly academic time-table made this difficult, and as a non-academic child myself, whose educational experience was saved by the abundance of art and drama in my school, I was immediately enrolled. But in the intervening years Create has branched out into many new areas – supporting and inspiring marginalised people from all sections of society.
It now runs hundreds of projects across the country, and one of these currently taking place is creativity:revealed – at the Michael Sobell Jewish Community Centre in North London. The workshops are for vulnerable older people, and revolve around photography, poetry, sculpture and dance. The day I attended, a group of about fifteen were signed up to work on poetry. Create’s professional writer, Joanna Ingham, had already inspired them to write a series of poems about food, and today’s subject was going to be music. It took a while for the residents to assemble – some with dementia, others suffering the effects of strokes, the majority in wheelchairs, several with carers in attendance, and while we were waiting for everyone to settle, Joanna explained to me the challenges of working with such vulnerable people. After all memories can be painful, none of us know what these people have lived through, so a broad theme such as music is ideal.
Their first assignment was to make some notes on what music made them happy. ‘Straus,’ said a birdlike lady, ‘it makes me want to waltz.’ Another woman had recently lost her husband, and was having trouble sleeping. The last piece of music she heard before she went to bed spun round and round in her head, but once pressed she admitted to loving Light Operetta, music from the 50’s and 60’s, and folk. ‘If Elvis was alive today,’– the man on her left told us, ‘he’d be eighty!’ And in homage he chose Jailhouse Rock. There was Jazz, Jewish music, a big orchestra to change the mood.
When all the memories had been assembled it was time to begin writing. Joanna nudged them gently to consider the use of repetition – a refrain, or echo, like a piece of music itself. Soon everyone was hard at work. As with any writing group, and I’ve lead a few, there is something intense and magical that happens to the air in the room when everyone is writing. In this instance there were whispers: ‘Raindrops and roses … what else are a few of my favourite things?’ and in some cases carers transcribing muttered words. But by the end of the session there was no one who hadn’t created something beautiful – a condensed and joyful memory, with its own title. By lunchtime the various members of the group were ready to depart, each one with a small jewel of a poem that they could take away with them. I can’t think of a more enriching way to spend a morning.”
During the workshop, Esther wrote and presented her own poem to the group, inspiring and uplifting us all:
As I stand in the kitchen
My hands wet from washing up
My heart elsewhere
I imagine fields of violins
As they rush into the next stanza.
Where is it now? That dark double cd?
Lost on the shelves
Lost from my ears
But I still hear it.
Esther Freud is also contributing an article on “Writing and its Power to Heal,” appearing in the Autumn 2015 issue of Jewish Quarterly. Nicky Goulder, Chief Executive