In 2004, I was a Fishtrap Fellow at the Fishtrap Writers’ Conference in Joseph, Oregon. The theme of the conference was “Writing and the West,” and included poets, fiction writers, songwriters, and anyone else who had anything to say about living in and creating in the Western half of the country. I remember most clearly meeting Rosalie Sorrels, a folksinger who’d played with Dave Van Ronk, Utah Phillips, and Pete Seeger. She was 71 at the time, and I don’t know if I ever said it to her out loud, but I surely thought “I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
Notwithstanding the question about whether I ever grew up, what I meant at the time was I wanted to emulate her easy way with her art, her sense that no one much cared what you did so you might as well do what you wanted, and her willingness to share what she knew with anyone who showed the slightest spark of interest. Her creative spark was as alive then as it had been in her youth, playing guitar in the cafés of New York.
I’m a lot closer to 71 now than I was then (obviously), but I find I’m still looking for the mentors to carry me later into my seventies, on into my eighties, and sans creek-rising, the nineties and beyond. Who are they?
Pablo Casals, who practiced his cello four or five hours a day into his eighties, because, as he said “I think I’m beginning to see some improvement.”?
Eubie Blake, the jazz musician who played and recorded until he died at 96?
Harriet Doerr, who published her debut novel at the age of 74?
Georgia O’Keefe, who went blind at 84, but continued to paint until she died at 98?
I teach older adults and I’m always troubled by the fact that so many people in that cohort don’t think of themselves as creative. Many have lived lives of great achievements in business, education, family life, and yet they don’t see the spark that made them alive through their work. Worse, they think they are too old to create any more, too old to pick up a paintbrush, a pen, a hammer and chisel.
What works in their favor, if they could see it, is the shedding of some of the daily responsibilities: commuting, working, childrearing, the expectations of others. Time becomes more abundant as we age, though it moves a hell of a lot faster. But it is nothing to take a little time for yourself and create something. Write a poem, knit a scarf, tie a fly. The product doesn’t have to be beautiful and it doesn’t have to be extraordinary. But the impulse needs breathing space. It is nothing to create, and it is everything.