Naomi's Legacy

By Susan Yates

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Last June, Naomi Beth Wakan celebrated her 80th birthday, a grand and well-orchestrated event held in the winding back garden of her small home on Gabriola Island, where she and her husband Elias have lived for 15 years. Guests came from near and far (some from across the continent) to enjoy an afternoon dedicated to Naomi and all that she has given to her community and the literary world.

Folks assembled along a garden path as Naomi made her graceful way past them. She outdid her own reputation for intellect and elegance on the day she began her 81st year, reciting haiku, recalling precious memories, and thanking many friends with her inimitable combination of sharp wit and endearing graciousness.

The garden was in full spring attire as Naomi floated through the crowd looking like a Klimt painting incarnate. Musicians and poets heralded her arrival, and friends and neighbours brought enough food to fortify a camp of gypsies. In fact, someone gently sang this winsome chorus above the crowd’s chatter: “And there was music, and there was wine, for the Gypsy and his La-a-a-dy.”

Indeed, both Naomi and Elias have lived the true gypsy life in former years, and there are still appealing elements of gypsy-ness in their mien and lifestyle. Perhaps it is the many chapters Naomi has lived that make her such an interesting character, and a writer with 40 published books to her name, and at least four more on the horizon.

Naomi has, in fact, lived several lives; she had a precarious birth as a twin in London, England in 1931, and her early childhood was fraught with the fears of World War II and the strictures of Fabian socialism. She was evacuated to Birmingham as a teenager, where, in winter, the beaches were bare of holidaymakers and tourist attractions, and where Naomi and her twin sister “could wander at leisure, like two characters in a French movie.”

This precise yet dreamlike self-image of Naomi as a child carries through in much of her writing. The phrases and expressions she uses to describe her background, her observations, and her life, in general, are striking and evocative. This is true for her poetry, essays, articles, and autobiographical sketches.

A phrase from the introduction to her latest book, A Roller-coaster Ride: Thoughts on Aging is starkly compelling: “I am a survivor by bloodline….” And Naomi is a survivor with a fascinating life history, and one who thrives, at the age of 81. A poem in Sex After 70 and Other Poems (published in 2010 and very popular among Naomi’s fans) describes the exoskeleton of her life:

Moulded by her mother and
Stepsisters to be a melding of
Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa
and the Russian mother of the year,
she woke up at forty and remembered
that she had really wanted
to be Ginger Rogers. She then
turned the supper upside down
on the table and walked out.

A few lines later:

Then, having won her teen years
back, years lost to Bernard Shaw
the Spanish Civil War and the
slum dwellers of Birmingham,
she remarried and immediately
learned about shovels and saws
and poverty, and how to listen
to country music and other skills.

Naomi certainly does know about shovels and saws, and about gardening and cooking beautifully presented vegetarian meals, and working hard to bring goodness to her community. Along with Elias, a fine woodworker and sculptor whose art is astonishing in its complexity and beauty, Naomi has also known poverty, homelessness, and the uncertainty of moving to a new country.

What of those other lives from where Naomi’s identity, experience and wisdom come? She was born Norma Rudd and immigrated to Canada in 1954 after graduating with a degree in Social Work from Birmingham University. Her first marriage resulted in two children, who were raised in Toronto where she worked as a psychotherapist. The incipient dissolution of her first marriage led Naomi to adopt Buddhism as a religion and lifestyle, and as Naomi says, “A raft to take me to another shore.”

Naomi first met Elias on a Buddhist retreat and, soon after, they lived in an underground house for two years. That’s when she started writing in earnest. Living as gypsies, they made and sold their wares, helped with farm work, and attempted to “live off the land” as so many young couples did in the 1970s. They also travelled extensively, and after a round-the-world trip in 1980, they returned with only $80, whereupon they supported themselves by doing dreamwork therapy, dishwashing, and lectures on how to live on almost nothing. Close friends will attest that Naomi and Elias fare well with far less than most people, and yet their lives are rich beyond imagination with creativity and inspiration.

Naomi and Elias both took new names when they married and moved to Victoria in 1982. Norma became Naomi and Eli became Elias. They adopted the surname Wakan – befitting a couple who are bonded in creativity, evoking the great and creative spirit of the Sioux nation.

Getting to know Naomi and Elias is an ongoing learning experience, and one is awed by their initiatives and accomplishments. Aspiring writers 20 years younger than Naomi make comments like: “That Naomi, where does she get all her energy and ideas?” A lifetime of prodigious reading and now writing for three hours every day has made her a scholar and teacher with a special talent for sharing her love of literature and learning.

Naomi’s latest book was launched in April on Gabriola, and the venue was crammed with eager fans; no matter what else is happening on a busy island weekend, there is always an excited crowd waiting to hear what Naomi says about life – and beyond!

Her roll-out of *A Roller-coaster ride: Thoughts on Aging* was a presentation without artifice, funny (it’s her unexpectedly blunt honesty), and full of sincere, well-honed advice. Each word was measured and thoughtful, like her trademark gems of haiku and tanka. Listeners laughed, became teary, and reflected on her wise and clever observations. Naomi’s words and writing never fail to take her readers and listeners into old age gracefully, responsibly, and with good humour.

Naomi is a frequent contributor to Senior Living magazine – enter her name in the search box on our site to read them.

Naomi will be reading at West Vancouver Memorial Library at 7:30 pm, September 26th; at Lynn Valley library, North Vancouver, at 2:30 pm, September 27th; and will be offering a workshop on memoir writing on September 29th at Word on the Street, Vancouver Public Library.



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