“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Emily Dickinson
What does it mean to call yourself a writer? Or an artist, for that matter? Musicians and dancers are a bit more straightforward, everybody knows what it means if you say you are one of them. Ostensibly if you call yourself a writer, you spend part of your life writing something, and if you say you are an artist, you are taking time for creating something. Having said that, however, leaves a wide swath of creative space. How to fill it, and with what? Are questions I have asked myself frequently over the years.
You see, in just over one month’s time, I will become fifty years old. Even writing the word makes me sigh. Half a century has gone by since I came into this world. I have to admit, it is difficult to believe I have been alive for this long, long enough to have t-shirts written about my age and all sorts of jokes in bad taste. For the past year, I have given a lot of thought to this encroaching birthday and its significance. There are days when I think of it as, ‘I now stand on the top of the mountain, behind me is my whole life up to this moment, now only memories. As I look out on the beautiful vista, I can see many other mountains and valleys. From here, it is downhill all the way, and the end of the journey is Death: the Great Beyond.” Otherwise known as the end of the road. I have gone through the whole spectrum of emotions around this birthday! Dread, despair, fear of getting old and losing my looks and body and sex drive and passion and….. all of that. So as a help to that part of my psyche, I have also read whatever I could find by wonderful, intelligent writers, both men and women, about this phenomenon called Midlife. No one denies that my fears about aging are understandable, and somewhat justified. The plain truth is that becoming older is a physical reality and one’s body can become rather unreliable. Obviously one’s appearance changes, we grow lines and wrinkles in places we could never have predicted, pain in places we never thought about before, greying hair and thickening of waistlines, and a hundred other changes, which signify that we have changed; the other side of the mountain or hill shows a different reflection than the first side did. Then there are all the more subtle, but no less real, emotional changes. One example for me is my newly gained fussiness about time and regularity of meals and bed. Sometimes I feel like a persnickety old lady, not to mention the raised eyebrows which my daughters show when I decline offers to dine and hang out with them past 8 o’clock in the evening!
On the other hand, many wise humans have beautiful words about the process of becoming older. Here’s one: ‘with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,” wrote Shakespeare. Here is another wonderful quote taken from my recent find, On Women turning Fifty, by Cathleen Rountree, wherein she interviews 18 women of influence about their lives and how they see themselves personally and in relation to the world in their fifties. She introduces the book with the following quote by Louise Mattlage, in Women and Aging:
“I’ve known younger women who were only forty and older than I was at fifty. Fifty? Who’s talking about fifty? That’s youth. Fifty is simply young. It has health. Beauty. A rich background of talents and the means to express them. Fifty is strong. Fifty is the end of the burdens of retarded childhood, one’s own and one’s children’s. It is full of power. It is being totally alive and having plenty of time to be alive.”
Another quote, by Joan Baez: “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live. Now.” Rountree then writes, “When we finally confront our fear of dying and eventually accept our solitude, women can discover a new self-confidence. This is when our freedom to be who we truly are emerges. The fifties can be the beginning of the most creative period in our lives. Through this newly gained confidence and creativity comes true iconoclasm. The necessity for developing an inner life and creative expression become increasingly important in a woman’s middle years. When a woman touches that center of genuine expression of emotions and imagination within her, life takes on another dimension, in which the inner life begins to dictate the outer existence.”
Claire Braz-Valentine is one of the women interviewed in this book. She is a playwright and author who writes about herself and her life with humor and humility. She tells that as soon as she became fifty, and had a play open in New York, because her three sons were grown and no longer living at home, she retired from her job at a university in California and devoted herself to being a writer full-time. She writes,
“Now was my chance to be a writer. Money has never been that important to me. I figured if I stayed at the job and got used to having all that money just for myself, that I would never live my dream of being a full-time writer. I held onto the dream. It felt like I was putting my foot on a high wire and stepping out, but I knew that if I fell, I fell alone and I would just have to get up.
I like writing about women in history. Every time I discovered another woman in history, I became so fascinated with her that I needed to write about her just to get her out of my system. I believe that characters come out of history to live in my bathtub until I write about them. They nag me night and day until I write about them. Then they get out and leave me alone to bathe in peace.
When I was in fourth grade, one of the nuns gave us a wonderful piece of wisdom: ‘When each of you comes into the world, you are given a bucket. And when you leave this world, regardless of whether your bucket is small, medium-sized or very, very huge, God checks that bucket. And it must be filled up to the top. Each of you knows how big your bucket is and what you must do to fill it. Never, ever forget it. That is your mission.’”
What a great mission! To fill your bucket to the very top by the time you leave this earth again. Now that I am about halfway through (or maybe a bit more than that!) with my life, I am taking some time to consider how full is my bucket? When I look, I see that I have filled it so far with many beautiful experiences, and have even brought considerable beauty to the world through art, through creative acts, through relationships, and my magnum opus, through bringing and raising three amazing daughters into the world.
Like Claire Braz-Valentine says, my bucket still has a lot of room in it. I have a strong desire now to give my gifts and talents and what wisdom I have acquired over the course of time, to the wider world. How exactly I can accomplish this is something I am currently pondering. But what I do have is the need to share what I can with others, and this blog is one flowering of that need. The visual artist side of me has been on hiatus for a while now, and she would also like an opportunity to become active again, creating new works, teaching what she knows to others who would like to learn.
To end with what I started this blog with, I believe that whether I am creating art or writing something or not is not as important as the simple, deep recognition that I am an artist and a writer: it is my nature, my soul’s journey; I can’t not be it. Fame and money may or may never come as a result of who I am and what I create, but what is important is that now, at nearly fifty, I can honestly face myself in the mirror and affirm who I am. Just for me. It is a completely selfish act, to create for oneself. In one way. But in another way, it is also a very selfless act, because by making a piece of art or piece of writing, I allow all others to do the same; to express themselves, to take their time and give themselves over to the act of creation. We teach each other by example. As I have been taught by all of the people whom I admire and respect, and have taken their creative lives to heart and so changed my life to reflect what they have taught me, so I too can teach by my example. Then life becomes exciting and interesting, full of possibilities and mystery. When I can feel that my own life, my very soul, can help another human to live to their potential and fulfill their dreams of being an artist, a writer, or any other creative endeavor they are pursuing, I see my own life at fifty with new eyes; as having great value, as something noble, as a path with true heart. Then I become hopeful about the future instead of despairing, optimistic instead of fearful. Aging doesn’t have to be something to dread. It becomes a great opportunity to share, to help, to further, to nurture, to inspire, to teach. It could be something fantastic, exciting, and lovely. When I look out at that vista from the peak of this mountain I stand upon, I realize that I can get a bit lower and then climb other mountains, see other vistas, experience much more of life, see even farther than I can right now.
And when, one day in the future, I leave this earth, I will leave in peace, with the knowledge that all that time, without realizing it, I was actually growing wings. Wings that I will use in the next world. And I’ll be happy to say that I have honestly earned them.