Apr 18, 2013

Hemingway’s Garden

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

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By Tom and Karen Brenner
Alzheimer's Reading Room

In spring each returning plant is welcomed as an old friend. The crocus and daffodil bring color once again to the sleeping garden; they also bring hope that winter is finally past.

While spring is the time to celebrate new life, there is a darker side to the burgeoning season.

This is also the time when the gardener must be prepared to rip up, dig out, cut back.

In my garden, I become ruthless with shears and shovel, many of the hopes and dreams of last summer are bundled onto the compost heap.

This process of creation and destruction is also the dilemma of the writer. There always comes that moment when the writer must be prepared to destroy. Hemingway, so lean and spare a writer, was ruthless in his ability to cut words, rip out sentences, throw away entire novels. His garden would doubtless have been clean-lined and minimalist, marching rows of the useful vegetable patch and perhaps one exotic palm tree, but no wild roses, no daisies.

I share these thoughts about gardening and writing with Jo, who is an artist. Jo reminds me that artists, too, have to be prepared to destroy in order to create. She tells me that when she makes a mistake in a painting, she first tries to paint over it, but sometimes, she has to start with a clean canvas.

Jo is in her eighties and trying to cope with the twin blows of having Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. I watch as she applies paint to paper. Her hand shakes so badly that she must cup one hand around her arm in order to steady her brush.

I watch Jo working on her portrait of a single, red rose. She creates shadows and depths in different shades of red while the leaves trail away, curling and turning with patches of brown and pink and shadings of green.

As I watch Jo layering paint, rubbing off the excess with her thumb, the flower, leaves and vines become luminous under her touch. I promise Jo that I will have this glorious rose painting framed.

When I meet Jo again a few days later, I hand her the painting, matted and framed, the rose looking even more vibrant under the glass.

Jo looks at me blankly, not remembering me, not remembering her painting. She shakes her head and tells me that this is not her work.

Relentlessly, Jo’s diseases are destroying both her mind and her body, but within this destruction there still lives the artist, the creator. Once again, I hand Jo a paintbrush.

This time an entire garden of flowers jump to life under her shaking hand. Watching Jo’s courageous brush strokes, I am reminded of Hemingway’s words:

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Tom and Karen Brenner are Montessori Gerontologists, researchers, consultants, trainers and writers dedicated to working for culture change in the field of aging. They are the authors of  You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care. Learn more about Tom and Karen at Brenner Pathways

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