A Lesson I Needed To Know

Inuit Eskimo Women

It’s been almost a year now that my book, POTLUCK: Little Stories from a Big Table has been published (like most unknown authors, I self-published POTLUCK). Michael, my book adviser, suggested I say that my book is “independently published.” He’s right, that sounds a little more professional.

Anyhow, once published, the next job for me was to make sure my book got into the hands of readers. If readers enjoy POTLUCK, and tell their friends, there’s a chance I might get picked up by a larger “real” publishing company. Until that happens, promoting my book is up to me.

For 12 months, I have been doing all I can to promote my book. Like with all sales, you must plant a lot of seeds (it’s a numbers game) and eventually a certain percentage will sprout. I’ve had many book signings and I’ve made numerous book presentations in libraries, private homes, book clubs and book stores in Florida, California, Virginia and Ottawa, Canada. I’ve even spoken at a writers’ conference and was interviewed on local T.V. in my home town of Seal Beach, California (that interview is currently being edited for a December release).

During our summer in Canada, I was able to get my book on the shelves and do book signings in eight large Indigo book stores (they are like Barnes and Nobel stores in the U.S.) The events were moderately successful (but don’t look for my book on the New York Times Best Sellers List just yet). Michael tells me that I’m doing better than most new authors, so that makes me feel good. But, my book is not exactly flying off the shelves.

It’s been lots of fun and extremely challenging to promote my book, even for an out-going person like my-self. Some folks in book stores are friendly and willing to listen to my spiel about POTLUCK while others clearly try to flee when they see me approaching. But, last week I had one of the most unusual experiences I’ve endured in this year-long process. And, it taught me an important lesson.

After exhausting the typical venues for promoting my book, I decided to try offering my services as a speaker to a few retirement homes near our place in Ottawa. I Googled “high-end retirement homes near me” and emailed the activity coordinators of the establishments that responded. The title of my email read, “Hilarious and Lively Presentations by Local Author” and I included a description of my book and my website address. I was sure I could provide the retirement residents an hour of fun, even if no one who attended the event purchased a book. After all, making people laugh and telling self-deprecating stories is how I survived my youth.
Overall, the response was excellent, and I was able to immediately schedule three facilities close by.

So, in case you ever write a book and want to promote it in senior living centers, you need to know there is a BIG difference between “independent living” and “assisted living” communities. Independent living communities advertise something like this: “Retire in Comfort and Style.” These communities offer things like multiple dining options, health and wellness support, fitness classes, laundry services, and even a bar or bistro.

The first two facilities I made presentations in were populated by independent seniors who simply didn’t want the responsibility and upkeep of home ownership any longer. Been there, done that, they were retired, and so was their lawnmower. Some still had their own cars, handled their own finances and while a few used walkers for getting around, they were all alert and engaging, regardless of any minor physical limitations.

Both facilities were beautifully appointed, spotlessly clean and in both cases I made my presentation in a theater with big comfy chairs for the residents. In one, a hostess served coffee, tea and cookies during my event. The events were lots of fun and modestly successful; I sold the same number of books in a one-hour presentation as I did in a four-hour book store signing, so that was good. And, none of the residents tried to flee the theater. Most folks got my jokes and laughed quite a bit. At the conclusion of my presentation, the residents thanked me politely and I felt confident I had put some fun in their lives.

My third retirement home was a totally different experience. The minute I passed through the doors of the reception area, I could see what the words “assisted living” really means. The place was nice and clean, and the staff was attentive and friendly, but all the residents needed some kind of assistance. (Okay, yeah – duh, Paula….it’s called assisted living for a reason).

Only about a third were walking about on their own. Most used a walker for support, had an oxygen tank attached to their person, or were in a wheelchair and being assisted by a nurse. Also different was the room I was assigned to. I made my presentation in the “activity room,” a multi-purpose room which housed the library, a craft area, a small kitchen and the chairs set up for my presentation.

At 1:30 sharp, the residents started to arrive. I stood at the door, introduced myself and greeted each resident with a smile and a handshake (if they were physically capable of shaking my hand). The first lady to arrive was Ellen. She was being pushed in a wheelchair and she was crying.

Her nurse smiled at me and then spoke to Ellen. “Why are you crying, Ellen?”

The nurse could see I was concerned as they passed by.

“She has Alzheimer’s,” the nurse whispered softly in my direction. “She’s in her own little world right now. It will be okay.”

Several other ladies arrived in wheelchairs. Some smiled at me, others had a blank stare, I think one was asleep. The nurses stationed the ladies on either side of the plush padded chairs that were set-up in a semi-circle in front of the posters I had assembled for my presentation.

Inuit mother and child

I heard soft singing near the entry door and turned to see a small dark-skinned woman approaching.

She wore what appeared to be fur-lined boots that came almost up to her knees. Her gray hair fell to her shoulders and lay against her face. Her eyes were piercing, yet sweet and her smile was bright. I couldn’t understand what she was saying as she took ahold of my blouse and pulled me closer to her face.

“She likes you,” said one of the nurses. “She is happy you are here.”

I smiled at her and touched her soft hand.

“Her name is Amka and she’s Inuit.  Amka means, one with a friendly spirit.”

Amka continued her singing as she eyed my posters and chatted to me in words I could not understand.

I had heard of the Inuit.  My grandson, Thomas, is studying Canadian history in college. He told me the Inuit were the last native people to arrive in North America and because all the good land to the south was already occupied by hostile Indians, they settled in the Arctic.  Nobody else wanted that land because it was one of the most extreme climates in the world and includes Alaska, Greenland, Northern Canada and Siberia.  The Inuit must have been masters at adapting to be able to sustain their people over thousands of years in such a hostile environment.

Community of igloos (Illustration from Charles Francis Hall’s Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux, 1865) Inuit Village near Frosbishe Bay 1865, in Nunavit, Canada

Amka continued to sing and wander about the room while still others arrived.  When she spied Ellen crying, she went to her side.  Amka lifted Ellen’s hand and patted it gently.  She looked into the lady’s tear-filled eyes and sang with a tender tonality that touched my heart.  Obviously, Amka was trying to make Ellen feel better.

“She’s singing a prayer,” the nurse told me.  “Amka’s daughter tells us that all of her songs are Inuit prayers.”

Ellen seemed to be comforted by the singing and stopped crying, momentarily freed from the pain of her private world.

“It works often,” said the nurse.  “Her little prayers always seem to help.”

The last person to enter the room was a mostly bald, grey-haired man bent over at the waist in his wheelchair.  I couldn’t see his entire face because of the way his body permanently arched towards the ground.  I had been watching him as he arrived ever so slowly in his wheelchair, under his own power, one miniscule shuffle at a time.  It took him several minutes to inch his chair over to the place he wanted to settle in.  I waited until he was at a full stop and then I took a glimpse out at my audience.

Except for the three ladies sitting just in front of my posters, the audience appeared to be in varying stages of sleep.  I wondered, how could these good folks enjoy my performance in their condition? Would they even understand my words?  Would they get my jokes?  I had no idea, but I decided right then and there to give it my all.  I wasn’t going to pre-determine what they would or would not understand (I suddenly felt sorry for stand-up comedians). These folks were going to get the best I had to offer.  But, recognizing the mental state of so many, I did decide to slow it down a bit.

Amazingly, when I told my first story about the time I ate a small bowl of nuts on the counter of our friends’ bar, only to find out later that it was Koi food, the ladies in the front row cracked up laughing.  Several others got big smiles on their faces and I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard the bent man grunt.  The positive reinforcement gave me hope.  So, I continued enthusiastically, moving about the room telling my stories with exaggerated animation.

I finished my performance and stood waiting by the table that had been set up for book signing.  To my delight and surprise, four of the residents came up immediately to purchase a book and two of the nurses purchased books as well.  I was pleased (and relieved) and began packing up my supplies when I noticed the bent man making his way, shuffling ever so slowly, in my direction.

“Do you take credit cards?” he asked when he, at last, arrived at the table.

I had to bend over to see his face since he was staring towards the ground.

“I sure do,” I answered, looking up into his partially-hidden eyes.

I fumbled to retrieve the credit card apparatus from my bag.  The truth was, I hardly ever used the credit card machine that connects to my iPhone.  My husband suggested, to make it easy, that I sell my books for $20 (tax included).  Most of the time people just hand me a twenty-dollar bill.

“I don’t use this thing very often,” I admitted to the kindly old gentleman. “I hope I can figure it out.”

We chatted as I turned on my phone and connected it to the machine.  Jason Clark was his name, and Jason was an 88-year-old World War II vet.  His wife was recovering from breast cancer surgery and he was going to start reading POTLUCK to her that evening.

“I know she will enjoy it,” Jason said. “She had a whole bunch of siblings, like you.”

While Jason told me about his life, I attempted to get my device working. Once it was connected, I couldn’t figure out where to insert the credit card, so I screwed it up by inserting the card multiple times and the machine signaled me to start over.  Then I messed up entering my password.  I was getting flustered and beginning to sweat. I felt like such a doofus.  (I don’t have a math, mechanical or electronic gene in my body.)

Also, still running in my head, were the old tapes of my youth, the results of an angry and impatient father who stood over me as I attempted to figure something out.  Even at 75, my dad’s words run in my brain when I’m faced with an unfamiliar task.  His was a simple and constant message … “Hurry up!  It’s not that hard to figure out!”

Jason’s words, on the other hand, were not rushed.  He reassured me as I fumbled about, “Don’t worry, Paula.  I have all the time in the world.”

This kind little pretzel of a man wasn’t in a hurry. So why was I?

After what seemed like eons, Jason kindly asked, “Can I help you?” and he gently took the machine from my hand.

Within seconds, the credit card transaction was complete, and we were laughing.

“This will be a story you can tell in your next book,” Jason said happily.

I watched Jason slowly shuffle off to the elevator. He was an impressive figure, despite the crooked condition of his body. His back was bent, but his mind was not, and he was eager to continue to be of help to another in need.

Amka was meandering about the room singing her mysterious prayers.  The nurses would return to escort Amka to her room once the more-needy residents were attended to.

Just as her nurse arrived, Amka noticed I was still in the room and came over to tug on my blouse and say a few more unrecognizable sentences to me in Inuit.  I felt like if I just listened closely enough, maybe with my heart instead of my ears, I would be able to understand the meaning of her words.

“She enjoyed your talk,” The nurse assured me.  And she’s singing you a blessing.”

A blessing of Amka’s choosing, it was no doubt a blessing she felt I needed.  Or, perhaps her words were something like this ancient Inuit saying I found on the Internet later, “Everyone is expected to contribute to life, regardless of their physical or mental state.”

I left the facility that day taking away so much more than I had brought to offer to these sweet folks enduring their final stages of life.

As life unfolds, there are lessons you can learn, at 75, at 88, right up until the end.

That day, I learned a lesson that I needed assistance….living.

By Frank E. Kleinschmidt – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC 20540. Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. No copyright renewal found, 2009, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59350894