An Interview and Poetry Lesson with Frances Kakugawa

Leonard Chan
Reprinted with permission

Editor’s Note: Leonard Chan, vice president of the Asian American Curriculum Project in San Mateo, California, interviewed Frances Kakugawa, Herald columnist from 2014-2020. Retired this year, Kakugawa continues to write for us from time to time. She is a children’s book author, poet, educator and blogger who also conducts workshops on poetry-writing for caregivers. The full interview is at asianamericanbooks.com/newsletter/2020mayarticle2.html.

Q: Tell us about what you’ve been up to, such as books you’ve written and other things of note.

A: Yes, I’ve been traveling throughout the U.S. helping people become the most compassionate caregivers, using dignity as our source.

I recently published my 14th and 15th books titled: “Dangerous Woman: Poetry for the Ageless” and “Echoes of Kapoho.” “Echoes” is a memoir beginning in the attack on Pearl Harbor up to the present.

I would recommend my most recent of two books on caregiving I published called “I Am Somebody: Bringing Dignity and Compassion to Alzheimer’s Caregiving” (2014).

… [Wordsworth the mouse] is now the mascot for the Alzheimer’s Association in Hawaii and is visiting islands helping children embrace our elders, especially those with dementia, through the efforts of [Alzheimer’s Association representative] Patrick Toal.

… I published two more “Wordsworth” children’s books since “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz.” The third is “Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer!”…. The fourth is titled “Wordsworth, It’s in Your Pocket.”…. Once again, he uses poetry to bring them back to nature and friends. Wordsworth continues to resolve human problems through poetry:

Grandma
When Grandma hugged me
And said, “How’s my Wordsworth?”

When Grandma sent me presents
On special days of the year,

When Grandma gave me candy
Right before dinner time,

When Grandma told me stories
Way past my bedtime,

She was Grandma to me
Because she was Grandma,

Not because she had a memory
Or because she knew my name.

Now that she’s losing her memory
She’s still my Grandma, isn’t she?

From “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz”
By Frances Kakugawa

Q: Can you help contrast the experiences of the lives of caregivers and those they care for, with the life-altering changes people are now experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: … With COVID-19, many of us are healthy people working at home. We are responsible for healthy family members. [Now] (a) caregiver, in addition to being responsible for [these] other healthy family members, also has a loved one who needs total care and attention — without the medical and caregivers’ help that was available before COVID-19. A caregiver has fewer options.

It’s very difficult to get items that we had taken for granted like Depends, special food, lotion and instant medical help. We can’t make visits to clinics anymore, etc. …

Hired caregivers are now gone. I recently advised caregivers to be careful of hired caregivers, because they are exposed to other families. … We need to be sure, if hired caregivers are needed, that we do not share the same rooms and that we constantly sanitize everything they may have touched. Taking their temperature before they enter the house is another preventive measure. “Home-bound” means not having anyone enter the house. We need to do this.

Q: … Can we look to life-coping skills of caregivers to guide people through our current crisis?

A: We need to return to who we are, our own humanity. As Sets [Setsuko Yoshida] said, “I’m forgetting to be happy exactly where I am.”

When I was a caregiver for my mother, I let go who she was and lived with the new person who was evolving before me. … I learned to love and honor that new person before me, and this brought moments of joy. I let go my plans of golfing or going for my flute lessons.

I said, “I’m a caregiver and I’m going to do the best I can.” Being in the present, doing the best we can may unlock this feeling of being placed in an entirely different world. Help those around you so they find this home-bound life an adventure. … Challenge yourself and discover a new you.

Living with kindness to strangers and to those we know can be one of the best survival tools ever.

For our young folks: we can’t go shopping for gifts anymore, but how about using writing? … Ask your grandparents or parents to write you a story of a memory when they were your age. And you write them a story of something special that happened to you. … Writers are very honest, so we don’t only write about the good things we did.

Adults, be honest, be human, be real. If you did something rascally bad, write about that. In my most recent book, “Echoes of Kapoho,” there is a story of how I was suspended from school in the fifth grade. … We need to appear as human as possible. We are not writing to teach. We tell these stories to preserve who we are.

Q: How can poetry-writing lessen the worries, fears, anxieties, anger and depression that we may be feeling?

A: Sometimes the best answer is one discovered by oneself as Rod did. Rod, a samurai sort of man, a caregiver for his mother, came to my session and announced, “I don’t read or write poetry so don’t expect anything from me.” We wrote after my lecture, and he was weeping. An excerpt from his poem:

… I feel more than you can ever see.
It hurts to feel.
I feel too, too much …
I wish to feel nothing.

He later sent me over 30 poems he had written over three months. His poems first questioned God, then life, then questioned the beast in himself. He became the most loving and vigilant caregiver.

Last Christmas, Rod sent me a thank-you letter. “You saved me and that matters to me. I would have carried much more grief if I didn’t release the frustrations of being an angry son. How could a man writing poetry make him stronger and a better caregiver? Yet, this happened to me. Thank you.”

Rod was planning to kill his mother who had Alzheimer’s and himself, before he came to my lecture. He wrote poetry to explore the entire process of giving care to his mother. … [W]e can look at what is there right before us; with poetic license, we can reinvent that truth into something gracious, beautiful and humorous. This art form returns us to our own humanity. And for today’s shut-in, don’t forget your sense of humor.

Beware of Childhood Wishes
Oh no, instead of toilet paper, I should have put
hair color on top of the list.

And I should have married a hairdresser.

My head has always been cared for by hairdressers
from haircuts, shampoo/blow-drys grey root color.

When I was a child living in a village, my father
always gave me short haircuts because hair lice
often sent the cafeteria manager into classrooms to
give an “‘uku” test, checking each head for lice. We
always had those Japanese bamboo lice combs in
our house. We called them “‘uku combs,” “lice” in
Hawaiian. I always wanted long hair like the
other girls. When my hair began to grow and I
could stretch my tongue to the side and touch my
hair by pulling them to my tongue, it was time for
another haircut.

Then the fashion experts said people with a long
face like mine need to wear their hair short and
succumbing to experts, I never had hair growing
below my chin.

Now, with hair salons closed, if you see a woman
with a long grey pony tail, please tell her, “I like
your hair.”

By Frances Kakugawa

Q: … Is there some simple lesson that you can impart to our readers to help them get started on writing their own poems right now?

A: Leonard, [it’s] as simple as a blade of grass. If you are saying, “But I don’t know what to write about. I’ve never written a poem…” think of one blade of grass. Not the entire forest, not the entire ball field. Just one blade of grass, one feeling, one idea, one event and write about that. … Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Just write, starting with one. Forget the poetic form. You may express yourself in paragraph form. Then find a poem in them. When Sets first came to my session, she wrote the following journal entry on her first day of our support group:

“Poems read by Frances Kakugawa this morning
reveal the feelings of ‘Divine’ in caregiving. …
How do I reach this point in caregiving for my
84-year-old husband who is returning to childlike
ways? I have such anger, resentment and frustra
tions at times that overwhelm me at unexpected
moments throughout the day and nights. Could
poetry and journal writing bring me some solace to
truly see me for who I am?”

Now look at the poem structured from her writing. I didn’t change a word, only picked out her own words and rearranged them in poetic form.

Can I?

Poems by Frances this morning
Reveal the feelings of “divine”
In caregiving.

How can this be?
Can I, too, reach this point
In caring for my 84-year-old husband
Who is returning to childlike ways?

Anger, resentment and frustrations
Overwhelm me at unexpected moments
Throughout the days and nights.

How can I deal with such thoughts and feelings?
Can poetry and journal writing bring me some
solace
To truly see me for who I am?

By Setsuko Yoshida, from “Mosaic Moon”

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