Baby Boomer Woman: Sheila Bender

by Anne Holmes on March 31, 2010

Poet, personal essayist and creative writer/teacher, NABBW member Sheila Bender, shares her inspirational boomer life with our readers.

  • Using one paragraph, tell us a bit about yourself?

I came to writing poetry seriously when I was just about 30. I enrolled in non-matriculating classes at the University of Washington, near where I lived and was raising kids, then 4 and 6. After studying one semester with David Wagoner, I knew that class felt like home. I went on to study with Nelson Bentley, Colleen McElroy, Stephen Dunn, Stanley Plumly, William Matthews, and Robert Hass among other poets. Eventually, I took David Wagoner’s advice that when you are a poet, you must always learn to write in at least one other genre because there would be times when the poems wouldn’t come.

I fell in love with the personal essay when I combined what the poets had taught me with what I had to teach as newly employed freshman composition teacher. There was no turning back–I had begun the courses with the goal of publishing one poem. 30 years later, I have published many poems and books–two books of poems, a chapbook of poems, and about ten books on writing and now a memoir. I am working on my next creative writing book due to its publisher, McGraw-Hill in July. I have enjoyed teaching writing and editing to help others find the direction their words are taking.

  • Tell us about your family; married, divorced, children, grands, boomerangs or parents living with you, etc.

I am remarried. My first marriage didn’t outlast my adventure into poetry. My poems told me a lot about myself and I had to address those things. I raised two children. My daughter is a mother and professor now and she has two boys who inspire me in my writing and in raising a vegetable garden so they can enjoy picking fresh food. My son died almost nine years go when he was 25. In my grief, I turned to poetry, the one conversation I wanted to have, other than any I could have had with my son. October 1, 2009, on what would have been his 34th birthday, my book about the months after he died became available to help others understand the strength of poetry and usefulness of turning to it to heal. I believe so strongly in the wisdom poetry brings that the book is entitled A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. Here is a website for the book .

Seven years ago, two years after my son Seth’s death, my husband and I launched an online magazine for people who write from personal experience: The website has grown into a larger resource, but the magazine is still at the heart of the project, and my son’s wishes and spirit drive me in the endeavor. When he was four, he told me that one day he would build me a house on wheels so he could drive me around and around while I wrote poetry. At 17, he designed me a house I live in now, but used as a writing retreat for a decade. His spirit surrounds me, and I want nothing more than to share his maturity with others. In college he told me that he and a friend had worked out a philosophy that they thought would serve them well: that in order to enjoy love and accomplish your desires, you need the right food and the right stuff. What he meant is that you didn’t need a lot, but had to be wise in your focus. I try to help writers find the right food and the right stuff to allow themselves to write and then once they have written, to find the food the particular piece of writing is using to grow into its own.

  • What is your favorite childhood memory that is reminiscent of growing up in the 50s, 60s or 70s?

I grew up in the 50s and was a college student in the 60s. My favorite memories are of my time at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the vast openings we all experienced in our perception of how the world could be. It was a dynamic time, not perfect, but full of emotion and direction that changed our lives and taught me how to be a person-centered teacher and parent.

  • What qualities do you have that speak of our generation of women?

I never put aside my skills and aspirations outside of the home, even as I was raising children. I explored my talent, first teaching and then writing, read about psychology and gender issues, society and the brain research and still do. I wanted nothing more than to raise whole children who felt confident, compassionate and open to possibility.

  • What inspires you?

Poems, vegetable gardens, people’s courage in the face of sorrow. Any one who wants to learn.

  • What brings you the most pleasure in midlife?

Helping my mother who is in her 80’s, listening to my daughter talk about her achievements and watching her nurture us all–her family, me, my mother–with her interest and energy. And of course getting to know “my boys,” those miraculous grandkids who have the best mother in the world, a wonderful father, and school environments preparing them to honor the world and help work with the problems ahead. I don’t feel like I have to mention writing since it is so much a part of what I do, but being able to write every day and edit as part of my work for Writing It Real and other sites and publishers makes me very happy. I love that my husband is my computer guru and has become the best editor for my early drafts–working together on a writing project is a dream come true.

  • Do you have any interesting hobbies?

I guess my life has been pretty much full of family, teaching and writing most of these years, with some exercise and vacationing sprinkled in, but I have dabbled in gardening and now I have a large, sometimes sloppy, luscious looking fruit and vegetable garden. I work it in my spare time with my husband. We are pretty much Sunday gardeners. He says he never thought gardening would be the activity we shared, but he loves it. Me, too. I want more time to do it. But I also love to travel and enjoy time away (I am trying to make that happen when the garden doesn’t need much). I’ve enjoyed helping my mom with her toy poodle.

  • Do you have a favorite book or movie? If so, tell us why it’s your favorite.

The film Many and Lo is one of my very favorites. It’s a road movie about two sisters separated from one another in different foster homes who connect with one another and run away. When the younger one finds out the older one is pregnant she does what it takes to help make things work out including finding a “mom” to help them work through the birth. I love the depiction of the three females, especially the younger sister who uses her logic and intellect and love.

  • Do you travel and if so, who are your favorite travel partners and where do you like to go?

I remember thinking once a long time ago that my favorite way to travel would be to have work where I went and to have the people at the place I traveled to show me around. And, within the US, that is exactly what is happening. I can be in a small town or a large city, some place famous for something or somewhere no one ever talks about, but it is all made special by the things people treat me to seeing–mosaics in the median of a highway, U pick farms, caves, nurseries, famous mansions, and walking tours that emphasize their memories of growing up, for instance.

This last spring, my husband and I traveled to Athens and then on to Istanbul, since Turkey is a place he always wanted to experience. A colleague of my daughters, who had grown up in Athens, showed us around for a couple of days there. We saw the markets where she bought food as a kid and college student, the place her mother had sung protest songs, and a restaurant with the best grilled octopus in Athens. Of course we saw the historical sites as well, our guide an impassioned Greek who also spoke about the way the Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church had saved 10,000 Jewish children when the Nazis invaded Greece by changing the names on their official papers overnight.

In Istanbul, an online student of mine picked my husband and I up at the airport. We had such a good time that we spent two days with her seeing the sites and learning about Turkey. So, I guess my desire to know others where I go to see their hometown as they do is going international.

  • Do you practice preventive medicine? Please elaborate.

I do. I don’t go overboard on supplements (I do take calcium with vitamin D and lately cayenne pepper capsules which it think improve circulation) but concentrate on eating vegetables (the garden helps with this), drinking filtered water at home, and exercising daily.

  • What do you stress about?

Deadlines. And yet I love them too because they make me productive!

  • Is it important for you to retain your youthful looks, and if so, to what degree are you willing to go?

Oh, yes. I am sad seeing people grow a little too old looking for their age. I think when the spirit is alive, the face and body are too. When people are bored or afraid, this starts to show in their eyes and posture and skin. So, mostly I rely on the diet and exercise and keeping stress as low as I can (but I actually like some to keep me excited) and of course a little hair color and moisturizers and that cayenne pepper which I think makes my skin smoother.

  • Have you re-invented yourself, and if so, how?

I think I did when I was 30 by beginning back to school in writing. I wanted to be a poet and that didn’t seem like becoming anything at all to so many people. Luckily, I surrounded myself with people who did think it was a brilliant thing to become and I found out that I am a poet and by being who I am I was able to raise my kids well and teach others and find my way to a life that satisfies me and leaves me inquiring and active.

  • Do you plan to retire?

I would like to do less “day job” stuff in my writing life and more traveling to teach and writing. But who knows–editing pays the bills!

  • Are you doing anything to GO Green?

My vegetable garden is organic. I drive less and less, bundling my errands so I leave home to do them all at once and don’t pop into town 8 miles away each day. I think we are consuming less in plastic stuff and of course we recycle. I am conscientious about leaving the heat low and turning off lights and not letting water drip. It seems to me something my parents, both children of the depression, thought was important and I always have too. I not to buy over-packaged things.

  • Do you engage in any faith based practices?

I was raised Jewish and I think my outlook is faith-based–doing mitzvahs (good deeds); teaching; caring for my mother are all part of the faith.

  • Can you pinpoint major turning points in your life that led to your life’s work/play at midlife?

I can point, as I have already, to my study of poetry and to my divorce. This all started with having children and realizing that in order to raise them well, as my heart desired, I would have to raise myself and be myself and seek my calling, which I had been hiding from. I was not fully alive, I don’t think, until I allowed myself to study and write poetry and learn through my gift. Once I was divorced, I learned a lot about who I am and what I really need to prosper emotionally. When my son died, I think I re-invested in life for many reasons–my daughter and later her children among them. But there was also a sense that to honor my son’s life I had to carry him within me and live well. I started my online site as a way to expend the energy I wanted to bring into this world.

  • Do you still have unfulfilled dreams, and are you doing anything to accomplish them?

This is a tough question, since I have spent years learning how to live in the now. And I am happy in my life and its scope. I’d like to be asked to speak in new areas for new organizations. I’d like to repaint my house. I’d like to take my oldest grandson to a city he hasn’t been in before (that’s his wish that I would like to grant). I’d like to know more about astronomy. I’d like to spend time in Hawaii relaxing in the lovely air. I think I can probably accomplish those things.

  • How do you make a difference in the lives of others, your community, and your world?

I volunteer to help high school students in my town learn about the construction of college application essays. I donate books and subscriptions to fund raising auctions. I come through when neighbors and friends ask me for help. I am using the proceeds of the new memoir to benefit the Summer Camp Scholarships funds at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. It is very exciting to me to help foster young peoples’ interests in the environment this way.

  • Who has had the biggest influence on your life and why?

Oh, big question. I think my father did for sure as he was a hard worker and a man with great integrity. He devoted himself to raising my sister and me and earning a living. My mother taught me about being gracious and about having fun and being a little mischievous. A man I met when I was writing plays, directed one of my works in progress and meeting him influences the course of my life because he helped me see I did have wisdom and talent. David Wagoner and Nelson Bentley, my first poetry teachers, certainly did that too. I gained confidence in myself as a poet, as someone who belonged in literary endeavors.

  • If you were to have a personal mission statement, what would it be? Feel free to be as serious or fun as you choose.

Since her birth in 1948, Sheila (then Lillian) has been a sensitive soul, who overcame early childhood tantruming about limitations and harshness to develop that part of herself that could transform insensitivity into art; she is committed to helping others explore writing as a tool for self-knowing and to continuing to do that herself. She preserves and promotes an inclusive intellectual and emotional environment for herself, her family, her friends and her students and encourages them all to be themselves and attain lives that honor the grace and spirit inside them.

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