Whenever Lorraine Young is happy, or stays in bed with the blues, she conjures up a poem or two that helps express her views. The words come to her in wavy lines, sometimes more than two at a time. And if by chance they happen to rhyme, she smiles and says that's fine.
I grow old with beauty.
My children stand before me proud and tall,
Protecting me from any harm that may befall,
A steady arm to guide my way,
A laugh to brighten up my day.
To grow old with grace
I look life firmly in the face,
And count my blessings a thousand fold.
I do not feel that I've grown old.
After suffering a stroke nearly two years ago, Young, who is 66, has made a comeback, riding the rhythm of poetry, which she writes from the window of her bedroom at the Washington Center for Aging Services. With prose celebrating children and how their laughter brightens her day, she recently won first place in the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Contest for Seniors.
It is no easy task being optimistic about growing old. For women especially, those final years are often spent alone and in poverty. For those like Young, who spent so much of their lives caring for others, the reality of being sent to a nursing home is also hard to take.
One night when she was not feeling well, Young wrote:
I am like a caged bird yearning to be free.
Four walls I cannot stand; they simply enclose me.
When the seasons change, I'd like to migrate to a foreign shore.
These walls I would see no more.
When Young finished reading, tears had welled in her eyes. "I used to cry a lot about being here," she said with a smile. "But then I wrote that poem and it makes me feel better."
Young worked hard as a homemaker, but she never held a job outside the home. When she and her husband separated, she moved into a housing project. She lived with her children after they were grown but was placed in the nursing home after her stroke, despite her objections to the move.
Young's poetry began to flourish under the guidance of her social worker, Franca Posner, who had Young's poems published in the nursing home newsletter.
Young had written her first poem at age 13, shortly after joining the People's Congregational Church in Northwest Washington. While her sisters did embroidery in the back yard, Young wrote down her thoughts at the kitchen table.
What goes on in a soldier's mind as on the ground he lay.
Is it thoughts of his mother or sister or friend or hope of a better day?
What makes the soldier lay down his life on the battle field one by one?
It's his pride and the hope of victory and the thought of a job well done.
When Posner heard about the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Contest, which was sponsored by the Washington Seniors Wellness Center in Southeast Washington, she told Young, who balked at the idea of entering. Brooks, who recently completed a year as poet in residence for the Library of Congress, had challenged senior citizens to "pour out their hearts" in poems.
"I was feeling down and I didn't want to enter any contest," Young recalled. "I told her Posner that I didn't feel like writing and I didn't feel like thinking. But she kept after me, so I started thinking about it, and then I started dreaming about it and before long I was eating poetry."
Seated by the window of her nursing home bedroom, she began to stare beyond the walls that enclosed her, thinking about her poem. And when she fell asleep, indeed, she started to dream.
"I dreamt of a world that I knew nothing about, that I couldn't reach but that I could feel," she recalled. "I wanted my soul to fly out into that world and come back and tell me what it was like."
When Young awakened, she was ready to write.
Age is a state of being, so I'm told.
To grow old with grace is all I ask.
No lingering moments of the past for me,
No wishing I were young again,
But rather I'd choose to hold each precious moment that is now forever in my hands.