At age 47, Sherman Alexie may be a bit young to be worried about aging. But the nationally acclaimed poet, author, screenwriter and performer has found himself focused these days on how he’s changing.
His hair - graying all over and sprouting in odd places. His body - shifting, sagging, growing.
“What’s happening to my body is just hilarious – like the apocalypse is hilarious,” said Alexie, whose style mixes humor with humility. “Random hairs. I have to constantly be grooming because of the hair - ear hair, forehead hair, the funniest thing, the gray nose hair. It’s neon because those nostrils are so dark and here comes my elderly nose hair.”
Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian (a term he prefers over Native American), is one of the rare few who makes a very good living as a writer. “I’m in the one percent and I did it with books, which is nuts,” he says. He is turning his focus these days toward the topics of aging and health – both in his standup comedy routines and as a frequent speaker at local charity events.
“My father died 11 years ago of kidney failure on years of dialysis,” he told the audience at Northwest Kidney Centers’ Breakfast of Hope fundraiser in May. “The grief has not abated. It’s changed shape. He’s coming back day by day as I look in the mirror.” Alexie then fiddled with the growing jowl under his neck. “I could carry things in it. My son plays with it.
“I’m really starting to look like him in the shower,” Alexie said of his father, Sherman Alexie Sr. “I shower with my eyes closed now because nobody really needs to see it.”
Life stories. Humor. Emotion. Alexie, like Mary Poppins, offers the spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down as he weaves his tales and lessons. He was born with hydrocephalus and underwent brain surgery at six months, not expected to live. Even after surviving the operation, doctors predicted he would face severe disabilities. He suffered seizures throughout his childhood, but he persevered in a big way. He learned to read by age three and was devouring novels, including John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, by age five. Often ostracized from his peers, he decided as a teenager to attend high school off the Spokane Indian reservation. He had found his mother’s name written in a textbook at the reservation school and realized that he and his classmates were using the same materials his mother had used 30 years earlier.
When he transferred to Reardan High School near Spokane, he was the only Indian – other than the school mascot. But that didn’t slow him down. Alexie became a school basketball star and founded the drama club. He earned a scholarship to attend Gonzaga University, where he went for two years before transferring to Washington State University. Although Alexie had originally planned to become a doctor, he fainted numerous times in human anatomy and instead found himself drawn to poetry. After earning a BA in American Studies he had two of his poetry collections published.
Since then he’s published 24 books, the most recent being a collection poems, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned, in 2013. He often uses the pain he and his family endured on the reservation (the res) during his childhood to make poignant points with readers and audiences.
He is “one of the great storytellers of our time,” KCTS broadcaster Enrique Cerna said when introducing Alexie at the Northwest Kidney Centers’ fundraiser.
Much of Alexie’s writing is loosely autobiographical, and very observational. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to open the window on his culture and his family.
A typical day for him is spending 70 percent of his time as a father to his boys, ages 12 and 16, and the rest of the time on his work. “My kids are busy. School. Little League. Music lessons, science stuff, experiments. Between them they play the guitar, piano and sax,” said Alexie, who lives with his wife Diane and the kids in Seattle. Father by day. Writer by night. “That’s the good thing about my job. I get them off to school and generally go back to sleep. I’m a night owl. From 10pm to midnight to 1am I’m doing something creative. It might be watching TV or reading. As the boys get older and busier there will be less time for writing. If I want to be a crappy dad I’d write more.”
Right now he’s working on two novels, a children’s picture book about finding a new name, and a book for elementary school-aged readers. When he’s not with his kids or working on a project, he still likes to play a mean game of basketball with other aging men.
As Alexie watches his own aging process, he focuses on the death of his father and the aging of his mother. His father became an orphan when his own father died during WWII on Okinawa and his mother died six months later of tuberculosis. His parents met on the reservation and remained married until his father died in 2003 of kidney disease. His mother, now 75, still lives on the reservation and is facing the many ailments that come with old age.
“She was very youthful until very recently and things have gone quickly,” Alexie said of his mother. “It’s not that she has major health issues, but the sheer number of moderate to minor things is dramatic. Dad died 11 years ago and it’s been harder. They were together for decades. The combination of losing dad and aging has played havoc with her health.”
And even though his father has been gone for more than a decade, Alexie recalls fondly the hours he spent at his side while his father underwent dialysis treatment – four hours a day, three days a week.
“Last night I was telling my son about him and showing him photographs. I explained to my son that dialysis filters out the impurities,” he said. “You have this life now because I’ve filtered out the impurities for you so you don’t have to. He laughed. I get to say all these him because dialysis gave him six more years.”
Although he frets about the hairs in odd places, Alexie said he feels very young. “I still feel inside like I’m 25. I’m engaged in a job that doesn’t really require growing up. I have a spring break kind of life. I don’t go to school. I don’t go to a regular job. I roam around the country. Almost every decision I make about my life is my own. It’s really the function of an adolescent life.”
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/ Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/ Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. In addition to his best-selling books, Sherman Alexie is also the winner of the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for Smoke Signals. His directorial debut was The Business of Fancydancing.
Cynthia Flash owns Flash Media Services. One of her clients is Northwest Kidney Centers.