Aging & Creativity or Putting on New Tires

by Francine Ringold

My daughter is going to be 60 years old. That seems impossible, almost as impossible as what she just said to me: “So many of my co-workers are retiring. Perhaps I should too. Yet. . . .”

That is a big “yet” for anyone to face, particularly someone who loves her work as she does. Yet it is bound to happen in this time when we are living longer, when we are healthy longer. We decide to retire.

When we reach an age when we no longer want to pursue the old way—the profession, the job, the vocation or avocation that has dominated the better part of our lives—people, many people, call it retiring. I prefer to say that we are re-tiring, putting on new tires because the old ones no longer suit us, no longer provide the speed and grace and protection they once did.

It is possible that when we re-tire we feel most ourselves—if, of course, we continue to be at work, at work making something: a loaf of bread, a new arrangement for our favorite room, a computer program that will do all the housework at once, a written record of our life up to now, a dance, a song, a story, a poem. We are at work! A different kind of work, work that is play and that has value in itself, work that gives delight in the doing as much as in the product of that doing.

It is no wonder the energy, productivity, and record of the mind and the body’s repertoire coming from older people are mounting. Medical science has made it possible for us to live longer but also—and crucially—that knowledge of the importance of the mind/body connection has become increasingly available. “Keep moving,” we are told. We shed the old tires, the old ways, for new ones. We reconnect with our body and our mind and discover the work to be done and the way to do it.

Yes, I am talking to myself. I do that frequently but I try to refrain from talking to myself out loud. What will they think? And I am not unaware of the physical and mental challenges of aging. I am, after all, eighty-three years old. The so-called “indignities” of aging, the loss of hearing, vision, mobility, bladder control, and recent memory, do not escape my notice. We experience them more or less as the years mount. The skin, the muscles, the bones, the vocal cords lose their elasticity so much so that sometimes they droop. Some of us move more slowly or limp. Some who have always walked quickly still walk as fast as we can even if we limp. And if we can’t walk, we will dance—with an arm, with a tapping foot, with a blink of an eye or a turn of a head.

We can do this—keep moving despite a loss here and there—because most of us have been prepared for the adjustments that age calls for by having experienced the “indignities” of simply being human: the water breaking as we gave birth; the time we tripped onstage and fell into the orchestra pit; the moment when we forgot to say “I do” or “I won’t”; the time we failed an exam or we were fired. Is it possible, given our survival from past embarrassments, to look at the indignities of aging not as losses but as a new way of being in the world? Thus we can welcome our shortcomings as, for example, astigmatic Monet did in the watery impressionist technique of his later paintings, or bedridden Matisse did when he invented his famous cut-out collages, which emerged only when he found painting difficult to manage among the covers. Losing your hearing? Think of how grand it would be to lower the volume on your neighbor’s orgasm screams without touching a knob or calling the police. Perhaps it is not always best to see the distinct outlines or the hard realities in order to see with clarity. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember that we all have frailties, that we are all, young and older, handicapped in one way or another—all imperfect.

And what about memory? The experts tell us that it’s all there: the names we seem to have forgotten, the stories we half-remember; they are all there imprinted on our brain and body. We just might take longer to retrieve the names, the details, like a computer, when its memory is full, takes longer to retrieve information. But the word, the files of years of experiences and thoughts and people are all there.

Sometimes not only does it take longer to bring our memories back, it takes a prompt, a sudden happening like Proust’s madeleine cakes, to thrust a memory forward. At the World Brain Mapping and Therapeutic Science Summits in the last several years, it was affirmed that the brain retains an almost perfect record of every lifetime experience. We just need to find the way to access that memory, those imprints, so that we can reclaim what seems to be lost or dim. We need to work!

As much as we need to work, we need to play. We have to welcome the unexpected, relish fragmentation, bits of information that return in the retrieval process and promise to grab on to the next fragment when it comes, like puzzle pieces that ultimately come together. Jotting down fragments, or spreading out machine parts until they form a new configuration, places our energy in the moment, what someone called “the present moment of the past,” or—we might hope—the present moment of the future.

Open spaces, the spaces between fragments, are also inviting. They suggest more than is stated. We are released from the insistent and even frightening demand of knowing where we are going, of having to see the total picture— beginning, middle, end. That might come later, the transitions, the linear perspective. For now, involved in the fragment and eased by the space between fragments, our energy is pulsing. We leap from one fragment to another. The parts are on the table and we see how to put them together and we make them work together. It’s fun!

Does this sound like a game more than serious business? I hope so. In this re-tiring phase of our lives, work is allowed to be play. And work and play are both enhanced when we engage the body to stimulate the mind and vice versa. I always start my writing of the day (writing is my work) with a simple physical exercise that stretches my mind as it stretches my body.

The importance of play in all meaningful activity was made explicit by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, who emphasized that play is something we do for its own sake, for its intrinsic value, for the pleasure of the doing and not for the resulting object of that doing. So, I suppose, when we work at something, when we work at making something and don’t worry about selling it, or publishing it, we are playing—we are joyful because each moment is full of life and presence.

Ideally, this is what we can do when we retire. We can enter into a process fully, attend to each moment, each fragment. We can really see, hear, feel, shape, revise, retool, and discover something new, something that brings us further joy. The arts allow us to do this kind of work/play. So does the engagement in making something: combining ingredients in a stew; stitching a dress or quilt with a new pattern; crafting a golf swing or a curveball; turning wood into bowl or statue; bringing a gaggle of voices into a chorus of collaborative singers. Language and image and color and form often spring out of those moments when we have the time and are given the grace to pull back from all the former routine “doing” in quest of something else, some profit outside the act itself, and re-tiring so that the car of our being runs better—not perfectly, but with new verve.


Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

Practicing Poetry at the Nimrod Conference

by Britton Gildersleeve

“As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth.
They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil,
the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude,
the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy
of the dance, the common work of the tribe.”
                                                                     —Gary Snyder

 The poets I love best—those I return to over and over again—are the poets who share these archaic values, as Snyder names them. Many of them have Nimrod ties—Nimrod is where I first encountered many of them. When I recently moved halfway across the country, I had the unenviable task of downsizing a lifetime’s library of books (mostly poetry) autographed by wonderful writers Nimrod has brought to its annual Awards Weekend, as well as to other events.

Many of these writers were recognized not only by Nimrod for their exceptional quality, but also by other national awards: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, Library of Congress Poets, state poet laureates. . . . The list is long and illustrious, particularly if you include the writers—like my beloved Seamus Heaney—whose past visits Nimrod has co-sponsored with The University of Tulsa, where we’re housed.

There was Henry Taylor, whose books The Flying Change and Understanding Fiction: Poems 1986-1996 helped fuel my desire for an advanced degree in creative writing. He knew so much I didn’t! Even during a 45-minute workshop at the Nimrod Conference in 1998, he had us writing and working. A true writer and teacher. Write every day, he urged us, sharing that during his bout with “chemo brain,” he did clerihews, a short fun exercise that he insisted kept his “poetic brain” alive and functioning.

And Mark Doty, who teaches me every time he comes to Nimrod, and whose poetry and fiction both are revelatory. When you get to where you think the poem stops, he told us, write one more page. You may be finished. But the poem may, instead, take a turn you never expected. Or Pattiann Rogers, author of more than an armful of great books—my favorite collection of hers spans 30 years of poetry: Song of the World Becoming. Her work taught me—teaches me still—that the natural world around me is full of magic, if I just stand still, watch, and listen.

doty_si-303x335(Mark Doty, Blue Flower Arts)

There is W.S. Merwin, who has written not only remarkable lyric poetry, but has written an entire epic. And also, by the way, completely restored acres of ravaged rainforest on Maui. In his spare time.

As judges of the Nimrod awards, fiction and poetry writers from around the country read their work to conference attendees. They teach short workshops. They share their craft, their ideas on art and life, their selves, with all of us. Looking at a list of all the judges we’ve invited to be part of the Nimrod family (which is how all of us think of Nimrod), I’m stunned all over again at the amazing diversity of work represented, including young, new writers—Anthony Doerr, for instance, was pre-Pulitzer, and less well known when we asked him to join us as a fiction judge in 2008. I had the great fun of reviewing his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. Six years later, he was both a finalist for the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize winner. What I remember best? That Tony Doerr was so knowledgeable about craft, and took all of us in his workshop as seriously as we took him. That’s true of almost all the Nimrod judges.

From established names like Denise Levertov, Ishmael Reed, Stanley Kunitz, and W.S. Merwin to newer craftsmen like Chase Twichell, Colum McCann, and B.H. Fairchild, each year some of the best writers in the country make themselves available to writers of all levels, from all over. During Awards Weekend there’s an entire evening and a full day devoted to writing. To poetry and prose. To writers. How rare is that, these days? That a town like Tulsa, Oklahoma, would be the site of a glittering weekend of literati?

My point? That even a short Nimrod Awards Weekend can function as almost a full course—certainly a workshop—in writing. And that’s the reason so many of us call it our writing home, even many of these illustrious judges.

I thought it might be fun to include a list of the judges for the original Nimrod/Hardman Awards, which have since become the Nimrod Literary Awards.

Here goes:

2017: Laura van den Berg and Jericho Brown
2016: Angela Flournoy and Robin Coste Lewis
2015: Karen Russell and Tina Chang
2014: Chris Abani and W. S. Di Piero
2013: Cristina Garcia and Aimee Nezhukumatathil
2012: Gish Jen and Philip Levine
2011: Amy Bloom and Linda Pastan
2010: David Wroblewski and Molly Peacock
2009: Robert Olen Butler and Marie Howe
2008: Anthony Doerr and Mark Doty
2007: A.G. Mojtabai and John Balaban
2006: Gina Ochsner and Colleen McElroy
2005: David Plante and Charles Martin
2004: Aleksandar Hemon and B.H. Fairchild
2003: Colum McCann and Chase Twichell
2002: Ron Carlson and Edward Hirsch
2001: Janette Turner Hospital and Pattiann Rogers
2000: John Edgar Wideman and Thomas Lux
1999: Ron Carlson and Mark Doty
1998: Anita Shreve and Henry Taylor
1997: Francine Prose and W.S. Merwin
1996: Antonya Nelson and Lucille Clifton
1995: William Kittredge and Peggy Shumaker
1994: Timothy Findley and Lorna Crozier
1993: Janette Turner Hospital and Lars Gustafsson
1992: Ron Carlson and Colleen J. McElroy
1991: Gladys Swan and James Ragan
1990: John Leonard and W.D. Snodgrass
1989: Toby Olson and Olga Broumas
1988: George Garrett and Stephen Dunn
1987: Gordon Lish and Carolyn Kizer
1986: Rosellen Brown and Stanley Kunitz
1985: Mary Lee Settle and Lisel Mueller
1984: Paul West and Richard Howard
1983: Ishmael Reed and Denise Levertov
1982: Diane Johnson and Marvin Bell
1981: R.V. Cassill and Mark Strand

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.



Au Naturel

by Jane Wiseman


In these times of climate change, I remember my relatively rural North Carolina upbringing as a pretty idyllic one. We lived a couple of miles from town in a group of houses backing up to undeveloped woods rolling down to Morgan Creek. We wandered the woods from breakfast till supper, mindful of snakes, mostly copperheads and water moccasins, trying to identify birdcalls, blissfully immersed to our necks in the swimming hole watching our dogs paddle around, and searching for unfamiliar flora to bring home, press, and identify.

As a teenager, I was desperate to become what back in the day we called an “ecologist.” Then there was nothing as satisfying to me as time spent out in “the great natural world.” And it was becoming more apparent to any discerning eye that this world needed protection by—and from—humans. I attribute my awareness of this in no small part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which called out to me in a way few books had. A call to arms: serious, authentic, admonitory.


Reality, i.e., mediocrity in the sciences, compelled reconsideration of my career choice, but interest in books on the subject of “the great natural world” has never deserted me. If I could, at will, pass out copies of one book indiscriminately to anyone willing to take it, I think it would be Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. I read it when it first came out and couldn’t believe how she viscerally transported you to her life outdoors on Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge of Virginia. I was caught by the first paragraph:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. . . . Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.

And just a few pages later:

That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. . . . “God is subtle,” Einstein said, “but not malicious.” Again, Einstein said that “nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning.” It could be that God has not absconded but spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.

Since my first reading, these paragraphs have lived with me, as well as many other images and experiences so magically described in Tinker’s Creek. I wish now I’d paid more attention to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods as a starting point on this journey, but I certainly remember youthful memorization of Robert Frost’s poetry, particularly “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Two recent books, a novel and a biography, I found engrossing are Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. The Signature of All Things follows Gilbert’s fictional heroine, botanist Alma Whittaker, who devotes herself to the world of mosses and in her global explorations develops a new taxonomy that she expands to encompass all life, much along the lines of Darwin’s work. In her biography, The Invention of Nature, Wulf resurrects the forgotten life and adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and explorer whose revolutionary views of nature inspired Darwin, Wordsworth, Thoreau, and John Muir, among others. Not to mention that he established fascinating relationships with Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, and Goethe.

On a final note, I’ll mention two books in my incoming stack that show great promise: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to · Find Your Way · Predict the Weather · Locate Water · Track Animals—And Other Forgotten Skills by Tristan Gooley. Mary Oliver in her poem “The Summer Day” asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” One could do worse than spend it in the company of writers and poets au naturel.


Jane Wiseman writes for a living as a Judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.  She counts the day she joined Nimrod’s Advisory Board as one of her happiest and currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board.