There’s nothing quite like the taste of a cherry tomato, freshly twisted from a greenhouse vine. So I was delighted to share this very seasonal snack at my ‘Words for Wellbeing’ workshop, as part of the Unforgettable showcase in September. But what – if anything – do tomatoes have to do with words for wellbeing? How might a word bring out a flavour, or a flavour evoke a memory or experience? Research bears out what we intuitively know, that the more of our senses meaningfully engaged, the more memorable an event is likely to be.
The concept of ‘words for wellbeing’ seeks to find the right words at the right time, to introduce or enhance the possibility of evoking an personal response and in-the-moment connection with ourselves, another person, or with nature. The experience may also stir a memory that might otherwise be out of reach. Poems offer a great opportunity for possible moments of connection, whether the poems are familiar and well-loved, or never heard before.
On a practical note, if you are reading something with a group, do make enough copies to hand round to anyone who might like to read along, making it clear that no-one will be expected to read the poem unless they would like to. It’s also important to ensure the font is clear and legible. There is no rule to say that a poem cannot be longer than a page, but it’s good to see the end to help people stay engaged. Some people may like to take the poem home.
Always give people an opportunity to read. It is often assumed that if a person is living with dementia they are no longer able to read. While this is true for some people, it’s not true for everyone. Some people continue to enjoy reading aloud, for example if a person has been a teacher in their working life, or if they have read regularly at church or another group.
Together at the workshop we read ‘September Tomatoes’ by Karina Borowicz:
The whiskey stink of rot has settled
in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies rises
when I touch the dying tomato plants.
Still, the claws of tiny yellow blossoms
flail in the air as I pull the vines up by the roots
and toss them in the compost.
It feels cruel. Something in me isn’t ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I’ve carefully cultivated all these months.
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit.
My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.
After reading the poem, we reflected on the parts that stood out to us. One woman shared that it reminded her of her grandparents house. Somehow the poem had transported her back to her grandparents greenhouse many years before. Another woman said her husband had always been a keen gardener. She added that he is now living with dementia, and is less able to garden as he had in the past, and the poem brought into focus a sharp sense of loss. A few gardeners in the group agreed they were reluctant to uproot their tomato plants at the end of the season: ‘Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit.’ Suddenly these end-of-season tomatoes represented a kind of hope.
Seeking the right words at the right time is a good goal, but can feel elusive. Along with a poem or collection of quotes, consider which of the five senses can also be stimulated. What might we be able to see, hear, touch, smell or taste to enhance the words we’re reading? The goal is quality time together, not the shared love of a particular poem, which may or may not emerge. Either way, the more time you spend with someone the more you will know about what might evoke something meaningful to each of you, whatever is in season.