Many of us abandon our creative impulses as soon as we shed childhood's exuberance. We become boxed in by adult constraints, rarely allowing ourselves open time for artistic play and exploration. Doing art for its own sake, the way a young child becomes immersed in the spontaneous glory of line and color, is gone. Whole afternoons making up songs on guitar become a thing of the past. Reclaiming this part of ourselves later on is one of the surprising pleasures of growing older.
Following abdominal surgery, I was flat on my back for a month. I was in my early forties, in the midst of commitments from all directions that had to be put on hold. My surgery thus granted me an expanse of time. I took out a set of artist's pencils that had gotten buried in the back of my desk unused, a rainbow of seventy-six wonderful colors. I had always intended to decorate the title pages of each of my journals, but there was no place in my life for such idle ornamentation. I drew entwining vines draped with tiny leaves along the edges of many pages. Hours went by as I watched the lovely sharpened point of my Spring Green pencil fill each leaf shape without a single smudge veering out of line. I twirled my hand-sharpener patiently, like the little girl I had once been, and let the shaving drop wherever they did. This was bliss.
Too many of us wait until we are slowed down or halted physically before we let ourselves soar artistically. Fortunately, living long tends to soften us and open us up to sides of ourselves long neglected. Involvements formerly consigned to the bin of useless pursuits may become enthusiasms. Physical diminishment, in particular, demands a willingness to stretch ourselves and improvise. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, inventiveness becomes all the more necessary in stripped-down circumstances. With mobility compromised and time at loose ends, we may face the absolute ground of creativity - the need to make something out of nothing.
A woman living in a nursing home asked me to retrieve a poem she had written from the cork board on her wall. There it was, tacked up between the nursing home's calendar of events and the menu for the month. A few weeks earlier, she had woken up one morning with the poem already half born. Laboriously, she scribbled the lines onto a napkin with her stroke-destroyed scrawl. She worked on the poem throughout the day, changing a word here and there, and then got up the courage to read the finished version to the cheers of her tablemates at dinner.
I handed her the napkin. She read the poem out loud to me, slowly, savoring the rhythm of each line. I took a deep breath and put aside my sense of hurry, shutting out all the tasks awaiting my attention. The tree outside her window was her inspiration. I turned to look at it and settled into the sweetness of what was being conveyed. The entirety of nature had come to be compressed in this one tree and the portion of sky visible behind it. Her words lingered on the subtle changes in the angles of light on the branches. I felt as though I had been taken inside her gaze to the hundred mornings she had watched this light. When she finished, we let a few moments hang in the air around the poem, and then she asked me to tack it back up between the calendar and the menu.
Inwardly, in the territory of the soul, there is no disability. In many ways, this woman's capacity to delve into poetry's domain had been spurred and then accelerated by her stroke. She had been simultaneously restricted and freed by becoming half-paralyzed. She told me that there had been so much more silence in her life since she had been "struck down" and that the poem seemed to arise out of that silence. In her late eighties, she did not worry whether or not she was a poet. Her poem beckoned and she followed.
She refused my offer to type it up on fancy paper, preferring to keep the frayed napkin with her own handwriting in her line of sight. She liked that she had written it on a napkin and that the words she had crossed out were still visible alongside the ones she had favored. "You can see how it came straight from my heart." Anyone who came into the room to help her get dressed had to reckon with a woman who wrote poetry.
Elders have shown me that I shouldn't wait - that creative outlets are true re-creations of the self, not idle diversions or wasted time. Coloring in flowers on a hand-made birthday card for a friend, I feel like myself again. I don't have to sell paintings at fancy galleries to justify giving the artist in me free reign. I don't have to possess a world-class talent in order to regard time spent like this to be as valuable as paid hours for my job. I am finally at an age when I know what value is and how to assign it in accordance with my own spirit. I can be an artist, if only for an afternoon here and there, knowing that greatness resides in the qualities of my choosing and the extent to which I feel fully alive.
In figuring out how to earn a living, we may end up excluding our creative leanings as impractical. We tend to scorn our early efforts at song-writing or poetry or drawing as amateur dabbling, telling ourselves that the real artists are the ones who get to do such things professionally. Years can go by as these longings remain suppressed, cast aside and even dismissed. Later in life, many of us finally begin refusing these self-imposed limits. We change our definition of what we consider worthwhile and start to make room in our lives for the artist in ourselves - not to attain greatness but to render entire afternoons vibrant in discovery.
Adapted from Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.