Tag Archives: creative aging

Warning: Poems Save Lives (“Live in the layers. Not in the litter.”)

Fly Away Home  “Fly Away Home”

Image and essay by Janet Riehl. Poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

This morning readying for June’s Creative Catalyst post I opened a notebook  which turned out to be from 2008-2011. It fell open at page 31 to reveal Stanley Kunitz’ fine poem “The Layers.”  Ah, there’s the poem copied out in my own hand from a Memorial Booklet. It’s a poem of wisdom and compassion for self and others. Very much where I am now (and perhaps always have been).

I read the comments posted after the You Tube video of  Stanley Kunitz reading his poem “The Layers.” [Click to see.] People focus on how this is a poem of an older person. Some say what the heck is this about? Help me out here.

This poem is as close to my life story as anything  can get. It’s been the story of my life since my 20s. Now at 65 it’s still my life story. I believe our deepest life stories stay with us and do not change that much. I need no college course or poetry commentary or poetry discussion group to know in every syllable, word, and line  what this poem is about.

It’s about hope and heartbreak. It’s about the courage of not knowing. It’s about the fruits–both bitter and sweet–of a nomadic life of constant re-invention. Here you go.

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (July 29, 1905–May 14, 2006) was a noted American poet who served two years (1974–1976) as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the modern Poet Laureate program), and served another year as United States Poet Laureate in 2000.


I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers” from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz.  Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Source: The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2002)


Janet Riehl is a country girl who roamed the world and then came home. So many countries, so many homes, so many heartbreaks, and so many hopes. You can read more at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st century  where the mission is to create connections through the arts and across cultures.

Daddy Care: Somewhere in Time


Photo and essay by Janet Grace Riehl

Dateline: Central West End, St. Louis, 2013

As I drift awake, I wonder for a moment where I am—in my world in the city, or in my father’s world in the country? Then, I look to my right and see the marble-topped walnut bedstand–transported from my girlhood room to the city. No matter where I am, I carry my childhood home with me, mostly inside. I’ll always be a country girl.

On my way to my galley kitchen I pass my front room dubbed the Goddess Gathering room which I’ve designed around circled chairs. It’s my life in objects. Layers reveal antiques from the homeplace, beloved artifacts from Africa, paintings and sculpture from art school, rattan furniture from California, and art deco furniture I bought when I moved here in 2007.

In a flurry I dress for my exercise class at Santé, my health club housed in the lower level of a landmark hotel. At 64 I am perhaps in better shape than I’ve ever been. It’s a brisk walk on sidewalks lined with trees and elegant homes before I reach the cluster of boutiques and restaurants, and then cross the brick street to the side door of the historic Chase Park Plaza. Built in the 1920s it’s welcomed celebrities of all stripes—from movie queens to foreign kings, from popular singers to political leaders. And now me.

My neighborhood is my village. I greet strangers and friends alike on this daily two-block walk. The valets at the side door are my guys. We greet each other with hand jive we’ve invented. Then I stroll into a palace of marble floors, a domed mural, and a gigantic bouquet of flowers placed on a round table in the lobby. Along the way I greet the concierge from Barcelona in Spanish, and get a hug from another of my favorite guys who valet at the front door. Then, I dash down the stairs to enter the sliding doors—my portal to Santé. This is not just a health club for me; it’s a casually elegant social club where I’m known. A. J. at the front desk says, “Good morning, Miss Janet”—a nod to a private joke. I stash my stuff, and hustle to the group exercise room where, as it turns out, I’m the only one there.

Beau’s kick-your-butt class is driven by a mix of retro music—depending on how you define “retro.” A tune catches my ear and I ask him who does it.

“Incubus,” he says. “They’re an eclectic band. Jazz. Funk. Grunge.” I’m not up on my funk and grunge, but I nod anyway.

“They were popular when I was in high school,” he says a look flickering across his face. I know that look.

“Does that seem like forever ago?” I ask.

“Well, yeah, it’s a decade ago.”

“About a third of your life, right?”


“I know. I think of things that happened in the 1980s. They seem just a flash ago. Yet, when I do the math, I can’t believe it’s 20 years ago. I guess it’s a matter of ratio.”

“Sounds right,” he agrees, and we set up the weights, bar bells, and kettle bells. Strength training with bells on.

Time intertwines. A song—whether from Incubus or the Andrew Sisters—washes what it will to the shores of memory. When I leave this class, I’ll travel across the Mississippi River to Daddy’s world.

Dateline: Evergreen Heights, family homestead, on the bluffs above the Mississippi, 2013

My father, at 97, lives in the past. Not just his own past of nearly a century—but the past of six generations who’ve lived on the land since the 1860s. This place is the place where—with the exception of World War II—he’s lived his life. It’s more than a backdrop. It’s interwoven with all that he is, and all that he wishes to pass on. He’s grown up here, cared for his aunties, raised his three children, farmed the land, nursed his wife before her death, and now drifts towards his own death with a grace that defies all odds.

My brother and I split the week in caring for Pop. Gary is mostly outside fixing things and tending to the business of the property. Me, I’m inside, especially this winter, in the parlor that has become my living room, just a call away from my father’s chair in the next room.

Here, and throughout the 150-year-old house, each room is stuffed with memories. Some of these are mine, but many are family ghosts that hover over everything.  Pop says, “Janet, sometimes I feel a presence, and then when I open my eyes, no one is there.”

“Your aunties?”

“Yes. It’s as if they are calling me.”

Stuffed birds fly around the living room walls—my mother’s touch—an artifact of her fascination for birds in whatever form. A painting of the Riehl family compound in Alsace Lorraine links us back to a Germany of the 1800s. A wood-burning stove inserted in the fireplace hasn’t burned wood in decades. Where the fire would have warmed our hands, there is no hearth.

On the mantle above the fireplace I’ve arranged what I now see as an altar to my mother, gone 6 years now. Pictures from her 20s through her 90s trace a life well-spent. In one she holds Julia, her first-born—who died way too soon 8 years ago. In another mother smiles softly next to my father on their 50th wedding anniversary.

My favorite family photo hangs opposite their anniversary picture above the mother mantle: Julia, Gary, and me in stair step threes. Let’s say we are 11 (Julia), 7 (Gary), and 5 (me). This picture captures a cultural moment—even if it’s a moment before we were born. Julia and I wear detachable crocheted collars. These delicate and intricate testimonies of patience emerged under the needles of our great aunties. They sat in this very parlor entertaining the likes of Mary Baker Eddy (and other luminaries of their day) who came for the renowned Sunday dinners of the Misses Riehls.

Those indomitable women are part of the chain of strong women on both sides of our family. The Aunties are heroines of many stories that have risen to the status of myth over the years. Strong men, sure, but increasingly it’s the women who raised him that occupy my father’s thoughts. And, increasingly my father shares their frailties which makes their strength more real. Maybe even with my own frailties I could be one of those strong women in the family chain.

But in this front room built a century-and-a-half ago I am frozen in time as I carry out the role of generations of younger daughters who stayed on the homeplace to care for aging parents. I am more than that, I know. But it’s hard to remember. Remember it I must, as if my life depended on it.  Because, it does.


Learn more about Janet’s work at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century at http://www.riehlife.com. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

Daddy Care: Life Turns on a Dime

View from Riehl's

Downriver View from Riehl’s (artwork and essay by Janet Grace Riehl)

Pop relaxes in his green lazy boy chair, even though he’s never been lazy—not even now when he’s feeling poorly. I stand next to his chair holding his hand surreptitiously taking his pulse as I look over our hill to the Mississippi below with Scotch Jimmy’s Island a long stone’s throw from the bank. My eye grazes over a bluebird house my brother built, the birds that fly towards one another for their pas de deux, and the bare black trees that filter my view of the river.

I’m singing along to a CD we recorded two weeks ago—cranked up loud so that he can hear.  “I’ll Miss You When You’re Gone” and other love songs hold pride of place. My father increasingly quotes a line from one of his poems, “I cry not for my death / but for the music that will die with me.” He’s a repository of music from the 1920s through 1940s—tunes that are little known or no longer played. Music—even today’s music that seems to be everywhere—has to be played to stay alive. Even though we’ve endlessly documented this music from his youth—including by a Smithsonian Scholar—it can never be enough. Just as a life such as his could tick on forever and never be enough.

Life turns on a dime. I left Sunday night and Pop was fine. By Monday morning he was sick, but not deathly so. By late morning his blood pressure had dropped alarmingly, he struggled for breath, and his other vitals weren’t good. My niece Diane, bless her heart, was here in the morning and afternoon–despite her own family chaos and incalculable work stress. By this time she must have the equivalent of an advanced degree in Daddy’s medical condition. I drove back to Pop’s in the early afternoon. By the end of the day he was on hospice, and Diane finally went home.  We’re not saying “hospice” to him just yet. We’ll see where it goes. He may yet bounce back as he’s done so many times before.

Currently we’re guessing it’s a lung infection—complicated by the 12 other things that are wrong with him of course. Hospice for now means two visits each week by a nurse. I asked  her yesterday that there not be a chaplain involved. (Daddy has his own religion as we know.) And, that if a social worker needs to visit for their organizational needs, that they talk just to the family and not with him. Amidst the dysfunction that most families bear, ours is remarkably functional around Pop’s health and dying issues. We’ve gone through death before and we’ll make ‘er again.

So, his medications remain the same plus some tweaking. Oxygen is turned up to the max on the dial, and that clear plastic tube looks to be a round-the-clock accessory rather than just at night. He’s on ibuprofen and cough syrup not morphine. We’ve had a “no hospital” policy for some time—unless he were to break his hip or suffer something fixable—but no invasive procedures ever again. Right now we’ll just take it day by day. This morning he’s up and dressed, with some help, out of his bed and into the aforementioned chair where he eats his fried egg and raisin toast.

Because I put myself on a Rest Cure this past month, I have some reserves to bring to the situation. Coming back home to the Midwest from California after my sister Julia’s death in 2004— and then for keeps in 2007— was one of the biggest, best, and hardest decisions of my life.  One phrase by a friend released me to make that decision: “Everyone deserves to know the truth about their lives.” And, this surely is where a big chunk of that truth resides.


Read more about my father Erwin  Thompson at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century at www.riehlife.com. Just type his name in the search box. A bounteous archive of posts by him and about him will pop up.

9.1 Daddy Care: Staying the Course

By Janet Grace Riehl

What’s creativity anyway? http://bit.ly/dZ7Nhq That question ripples through all 38 Creative Catalyst posts since November 2008. During these three years of exploring the Creativity Question new definitions continue to pop up. Here’s today’s: Creativity is a horse we ride to go wherever we need to go, and do whatever we aim to do. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s not. During the past seven years my trusty horse has carried me through the forests and fields of care-giving.

Starting in 2004 I partnered with my father to care for my mother who died in 2006. My father survived that blow as he has so many others. Now it’s his turn to be cared for as he somehow combines vigor and fragility at the end of his life. At 96 he still writes, plays music, carves little critters, and bosses his crew around to tell them how to fix just about everything. It’s not your typical care-giving situation. No diapers. No hospice. No last breaths to report. Not yet. This care-giving creates a context for my father’s longevity. “Creative Aging” I think it’s called.

On our family team each of us has a job that allows Pop to stay in the home where he grew up, raised his family, nursed his wife the last five years of her life, and now spends his last years. My job is to be Erwin Thompson’s daughter. In fact, I am his youngest. In the time of my great aunts the Younger Daughter stayed home to care for her parents. This was understood. The Good Daughter was a clearly defined role within the family and society. Not so much these days. But, I have to say I’ve been a pretty good Good Daughter. My life now is as anachronistic as my childhood. I carry a portmanteau filled with a passel of jobs that tumble out when I open the lid just a crack: companion, confidant, assistant, attendant, social secretary, executive secretary, public relations director, publisher, cook and housekeeper, hostess, maid, driver, audience….  All the invisible stuff that has made up traditional women’s work.

My job really, though, is to prepare for my father’s death. We’ve done all the obvious stuff over the past five years: obituary (we wrote it together), eulogy (I wrote it in Ghana in 2008), funeral arrangements (he picked his urn), gravestone design and epitaph (with my brother), and getting the family grave site in order (restoring and moving stones), recording his wishes for his memorial service (including which songs to play).  He and Mother put their legal affairs in meticulous order decades ago. For most families this would be more than ready.

In ours, though, there’s the heritage and legacy project to harvest not only his life, but the life of our family back to the 1800s. We’ve set up archives in universities, local libraries, and county historical societies. We’ve continued publishing his books (three in the last five years—plus mine—several winning awards). We gave talks and workshops and appeared on the radio. The regional Smithsonian Scholar recorded Pop’s music now released on the Midwestern Library data base. Gosh only knows what we’ve been doing. Even I can’t keep track.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2011 was not to do more, but to do less. My brother and I agreed that our top priority had to be saving our sanity so we could stay the course. I resolved to be a Slacker—to put my Puritan work ethic to the side—and just enjoy Slackerhood. That’s more of a challenge than it might seem. It’s as if I’d founded a nonprofit called the Riehl-Thompson Lineage and Heritage Society. Naturally I was the Executive Director and more than ample staff. I resolved to cut waaaaay back on the staff work and sent the director on long term leave. Bye-bye projects. Not just his, but mine too.

If you’re gonna to do something, you gotta do it well, right? To be a Good Slacker I let more and more things go—while continuing to be My Father’s Daughter and the Woman in His Life. I channel my mother with a nod to my sister Julia who died in 2004. It’s a lot to shoulder, and there’s no way I’ll be coming up to that standard. Of course nothing I do will hold back Death who one of these days will not be chased away from his door.

One of the hardest things I had to do this year was to tell my father “No.” We sat in his office—nominally our dining room—with papers and photo-documentation books and pictures and clippings and tape cassettes piled high on the table. He worked on one of his computers while I read in the comfy Lazy Girl Chair that affords bird’s eye view of the birds flying onward to the Mississippi.

Pop swiveled to face me. “What do you think our next book should be?” His face glowed with all the excitement and anticipation of a kid on Christmas morning. My heart sank. This was the question I’d been dreading.

“I’m sorry, Pop,” I told him straight-up. “But I’m all played out. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the juice.”

His face fell as he swiftly swiveled away from me back towards his computer screen. “Well, then, there’s no use talking about it.” My ear knows the gruff voice of the stoic when I hear it. In a life filled with things that just have to be borne stoicism is a useful tool.

I got up to wrap my arms around him over the back of his chair. “I know you’re hurt and disappointed. I am too. I wish I did have the juice, but I just don’t”

Tears welled in his eyes. He softened, accepted, and we went on. As in any long term intimate relationship we’ve had to find ways to just get on with it. Shedding my Northern California personal-growth-speak I’ve learned once again the power of Midwestern plain talk—with a nod now and again to feelings that clearly are standing in the middle of the road.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing these days with at least half of my life: being Erwin Thompson’s daughter. That’s not a job title that rolls off the tongue in social situations when people ask me what I do for a living. These days it’s about what I do for dying.

In the city I take up my Slackerhood with great glee—as if it were secretly a project. I hang out (and exercise) at my health club, and visit friends, I read—a combination of brainy books and what would be beach reading if I were anywhere near a beach. I cook food I like rather than food Daddy likes. I do my best to do nothing with redeeming social value. I do my best to take a giant step out of Daddy’s World into my world.

My time with my father is likely to be the only ‘til death do us part relationship with a man that I’ll have in my life. His death will be a death of many things. Is there life for me after his death? That’s my biggest project of all: to believe that there is a life waiting for me on the other side of his death. Just as I believe there is a new life waiting for him on the other side when he steps over.


To round off 2011 for Creative Catalyst readers, and for myself, here’s the Creative Catalyst Year in Review. Instead of my ordered plan to develop material for an e-book on Creative Harvesting I ended up writing five posts on Creative Enemies and whatever came to mind. I’m making it up as I go along. That’s one of the skills in being a Good Slacker.

2011 Creative Catalyst Year in Reviews


11 Creative Catalyst Nudges for 2011


Creative Challenge: Five Tips for Creative Independence: Don’t sell your soul to the company store


Creative Challenge: How to pitch your creative work without losing your mind: 4 guidelines for actors, authors, painters, and musicians


Creative Challenge: The Lull


7.1 Art of Harvesting in Five Tricky Steps  by Janet Riehl and Stephanie Farrow


7.2 Harvesting a Life: Never too late to create


8.1 Creative Enemy: The “So What?” Factor


8.2 Creative Enemy: Art Envy


8.3 Creative Enemy: Censorship.Yours.


8.4 Creative Enemies: Someone else knows the answers? Nope.


8.5 Creative Enemy: Enough, already?


9.1 Daddy Care: Staying the Course (http://wp.me/p14fQq-yG)


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog. Learn more about our audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.” Become a Riehlife villager.