Alameda poet Katie Cameron reflects on ‘later life’
By Liz Barrett
Alameda poet Katie Cameron’s new book, “Finding Time,” is aptly subtitled “Reflections on Later Life.” It’s not a how-to book, though it certainly offers some sound advice. Nor is it a memoir or a collection of poems, though there are plenty of good stories and poems inside. It is a warm and poetic invitation to pay attention, be helpful, and tell your own stories.
The book, which Cameron published herself on CreateSpace, starts with one of her bittersweet poems, “Our Retirement So Far.”
It’s a desperate ride, in a way –
(tattered manual on lap,
out-dated and hard to read)
tearing around every bend, “No – no – turn left!”
wind catching our instructions
as we hurtle toward death
at breakneck speed.
Just our daily life
to measure up or down to
and our only cunning
to outwit what lies ahead.
All weeds out, every flower
well-placed, car unscratched
and in tune, deck treated,
plaster cracks repaired,
money puzzled over,
silver vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids,
regular trips to the gym,
and garage sales or better yet
Craig’s List and eBay
(where a lifetime of in-come
ebbs out in reverse tide).
Oh – and filing cabinets,
inside of which are prominent folders
and “Instructions to Survivors.”
And seeing how so many
live on and on these days
(past all forbearance)
we need to add, “Be sure to die,”
on the project list
we keep by the phone.
Cameron, who lives part-time in Alameda and part-time in Olympia, Washington, has been a poet since high school but she set it aside for most of her civil service career as a social worker, mediator and management facilitator. When her mother was struck with Alzheimer’s disease in the early 1990s, Cameron returned to writing as a matter of survival.
“I started to write poetry because my mother had Alzheimer’s, and I discovered, as a lot of people have found, that writing is one of the ways you get through,” Cameron said during a casual interview at the Blue Dot Café. “When something unsolvable and really difficult is going on, and you just can’t put it away or take the right pills, there is no therapist that can make it better. But somehow writing about it does make it better. It makes it livable.”
Cameron’s eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and compassion as she recalled traveling to work with her journal and a dog-eared copy of Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within” in her briefcase, “like other people take pills to work to keep them sane.”
Once she started writing, there was no stopping. She began attending writers’ workshops and presenting her work at poetry readings. Eventually she began publishing her work in chap books. Reading those tender, honest verses feels like catching up with an old friend.
In 2004, Cameron’s husband Ken packed up his office and retired. The two of them headed to California in search of the sun. They spent much of 2005 in Alameda, taking care of their new granddaughter, Ruby. Cameron continued to write poetry and published “California Diaries,” a collection of poetry she wrote during those two years.
“I never bothered to really polish it; I just sent it at Christmas time to a bunch of people,” Cameron said. “Then I started collecting another year’s worth, and when I looked back at a whole bunch of them, I realized they all had something to do with getting older – one aspect of it or another.”
That’s how her book fell into place.
“I started out by thinking I was going to do a poetry book,” she said. “I was going to just organize the poems by title. But then I thought, ‘I think I’m going to write some prose about this.’” She had written articles for a few industry magazines in Washington state. “Pretty soon I got absorbed in the prose and I just started using the poems as tag lines at the beginning of each chapter,” she said.
She wrote the book when she could find time between the “undiluted joy” of caring for her granddaughter and the ongoing commute from Alameda to Olympia and back. Over a three-year period, she “just kept coming back” to the project until it finally was completed.
After she learned that she would have to be “a national expert on aging” in order to interest a commercial publisher, Cameron decided to publish the book herself. She did a lot of research and finally settled on CreateSpace because it was both reasonably priced and user-friendly.
“I’m not a techie,” Cameron said. “I use email and that’s about the extent of my understanding of these microchips that we live with all the time.”
There is nothing pretentious about Katie Cameron. She’s an artist and a poet but she’s also a gardener, which means she has to be pragmatic. The first chapter of her book, “Naming the Journey,” touches on the fact that, as lifespans increase, most of us will spend as much as a third of our lives in so-called retirement. Yet the defined-benefit pension plans that our parents and grandparents got from their employers no longer exist, and Social Security benefits are being threatened by politicians looking to balance a budget.
Cameron doesn’t rant or complain. Not by a long shot. She knows she’s very fortunate.
“Some will criticize this book, correctly, for its limited vantage point: middle class, married, heterosexual Caucasian woman living in the USA, spoiled and blind to the true challenges facing most older people on the planet,” she writes in her introduction. “I will not argue with this judgment. In fact, I agree with it.”
What Cameron offers is “laughter and comfort and food for thought.” And, of course, a challenge to be courageous in spirit, even if that means chucking a lot of stuff that once seemed indispensable. Her “From In-Come to Out-Go” chapter begins with a touching story about going through her father’s belongings after his death. She sums it up with a poignant haiku:
in the box marked “keep”
your letters, one silver brooch –
outside, spring cloudburst
The book is full of lovely moments like that, proving that Cameron has indeed taken her own advice to pay attention, be helpful, and tell good stories. “Finding Time: Reflections on Later Life” is available at independent booksellers and on Amazon.com.