Poems open the windows into our souls. When I was in high school I hada record of someone reading poems by E. A. Poe. One of the poems was Annabel Lee (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174151) and I remember it still after nearly 50 years. What gets into my soul is not the meaning of the words but the rhythm of the words and the patterns of the sounds. I’ve never known anyone called Annabel Lee but the first stanza pops into my mind every so often:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

The rythum of the words is, well actually, sheer poetry.

I have been digging through a collection of poems and essays titled, When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple (Edited by Sandra Martz, Papier-Mache Press, Watsonville, California, 1991). The first poem in the book, Warning by Jenny Joseph, begins with the book’s title and goes on to tell about how when we are young we feel the need to meet other’s expectations, but when we are old we can do as we please and be ourselves. We can even wear clothes that don’t match.

I just wonder how much of life is spent in seeking our authentic self? I think of artists like Modigliani (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0367188) or Jack Kerouac (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0449616) who each had mighty struggles seeking their authentic core and lived lives of desperation and tragedy. I also think of my parents who never seemed to ask any of those questions and who died empty and sad. Most of us are somewhere between but I think it is best to seek than never to wonder.

Life review is a fairly common concept in long term care and hospice settings. There are a number of web sites with methodologies for using it with elders (See Web Sites below) and there are some research articles on the effectiveness of life review (or reminiscence therapy) in the literature. Most research has focused on measurable things like depression or quality of life. These are short term and apply more to fitting into the flow of the long term care facility as opposed to helping people truly find meaning. Perhaps remembering is not where meaning lies.

Poems form a wedge between all those thoughts we have and our need for things to somehow “make sense.” Poems appeal to the unconscious and as we let them in without any expectations they can lead to understandings, not of the mind, but of the heart.

My Wednesday night study group once undertook to study the poems of the 12th century Sufi teacher Rumi. It was difficult for us as we kept trying to put Rumi in the same boxes as we put other philosophers and spiritual thinkers. Rumi did not fit and so my group left him for other more deliberate thinkers. But for me Rumi did fit. He fit into my soul. His words, inspired by glimpses of the infinite and applied to the everyday, cannot be put into other words but simply need to be felt.

Two brief snippets of Rumi –

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

And —

The chess master says nothing,
other than moving the silent chess piece.

That I am part of the ploys
of this game makes me
amazingly happy.

From: Barks, C. The Essential Rumi. Harper, San Francisco, 1995.

Web Sites:


  • Bohlmeijer E, Smit F & Cuijpers P. Effects of reminiscence and life review on late-life depression: a meta-analysis. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry, 2003, 18, 1088–1094.
  • Haight BK, Michel Y & Hendrix S. Life review: preventing despair in newly relocated nursing home residents short- and long-term effects. Int J Aging Hum Dev., 1998, 47(2),119-142.
  • Lin LJ, Li KY & Tabourne CE. Impact of the life review program on elders with dementia: a preliminary study at a day care center in southern Taiwan. J Nurs Res., 2011, 19(3), 199-209.
  • Lin YC, Dai YT & Hwang SL. The effect of reminiscence on the elderly population: a systematic review. Public Health Nurs. 2003, 20(4), 297-306.