Jan Slepian is 95 and lives at Sunrise of Arlington, a senior living community. She is renowned for her children’s and young adult books. She’s written 28. An American Book Awards nominee, “The Alfred Summer” broke ground back in 1980 when it was published, the main character a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who, with three friends all challenged in their own ways, scheme and work to build a rowboat in a basement in Brooklyn in 1937.
Now, in 2016, literature, both children and adult, is rife with stories of people with disabilities who are portrayed as interesting mutlilayered human beings. But 36 years ago, “The Alfred Summer” stood alone.
Just as “Jellybeans in Space,” Slepian’s new book of poems, stands alone today.
Slepian is old now. But she wasn’t always old. A daughter, a sister, a friend, a speech pathologist, a writer, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, she was married to a genius mathematician, David Slepian, for 59 years. They had a whirlwind wedding in Paris. They lived for years in Hawaii before moving to New Jersey. Now she has three grown kids. Now she has four grandchildren. Now she has gray hair and a little trouble walking. Now may be the sum of her life, but it is not the sum of her parts.
But old age is like a tattoo. It’s what people see first. It’s cosmetic. It is not essence. But often it’s the only thing people see.
In 2008, Slepian wrote “Astonishment: Life in the Slow Lane,” a collection of short essays about living in a retirement community. She also made an audio recording: www.cdbaby.com/cd/JanSlepian. In 2012, she wrote “How to Be Old — A Beginner’s Guide.” Both books were adapted for the stage and produced by Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre in New Jersey. “What do you do when there is leftover life to live?” she asked in one of her essays. Her answer? “Write.”
And so she began her first book of poetry and fell in love with the process. “All these many years of writing for children have trained me. To write for young people, you have to incorporate big ideas into little portions and you have to write rhythmically,” she told me on a recent afternoon. “I have observations of life at 95 that I didn’t have. Fortunately, I came to poetry at a time when I needed it. I like mulling over ideas and expressing them in a way that makes me feel expressed.”
From “Jellybeans in Space,” this poem is called “The Bike Path”:
“She sits in the sun on a bench, at the bike path
famished for the warmth.
She spreads her winter bones
to the sun like a Galapagos lizard
on a hot rock.
Her walker stands nearby, handlebars
outstretched in blind companionship.
The bike path has its feet to the pedal,
skaters, joggers, speed walkers,
whatever the locomotion.
It is busy with the traffic of muscled legs,
helmeted beings from the planet of motion.
They speed past the woman on the bench
innocent of any connection.
What has age to do with them?
They can’t even imagine it.
Fast forward is the movement of the moment.
The woman on the bench inhales it all:
The feel of the sun, newly green bushes,
flower heads pushing,
the beat of new growth
and the pitch of human motion,
all there for her breath
and her thanks. Her creased eyes have seen what
the bikers can only dream of.
She has more to think about.
The handlebars are waiting,
and so is lunch.”
For her children’s books, Slepian mined the past. For this thin, thoughtful, transformative book of poems, Jan Slepian has mined the present, too.