I recently interviewed Andrea Carlisle, author of a newly released book entitled, There Was an Old Woman: Reflections on These Strange, Surprising, Shining Years. Andrea is finding her later years to be an extraordinary and interesting time. Through story, she inquires into the sources of negativity about the aging process — in literature and art, as well as the received wisdom that often leads people to dread what is in fact a transformative time of life. It’s a great read.
Part of what Andrea illuminates is the expanded creativity and non-attachment that can come with age. Creativity as you age means that your brain remains open, curious, playful. However, you may have developed the dreaded disease of our age – perfectionism. You may have the idea that you have to do things right. Perfectionism is the enemy of playfulness, lightheartedness, openness. Remember, you can’t do something perfectly that you’ve never done before.
You have to be willing to enter a new thing and do it badly until you learn the basics. Only then can you improve upon your initial efforts. But if you expect perfection from yourself, you’re setting yourself up for heartburn.
A year and a half ago, I began learning how to throw pottery on a pottery wheel. I took a class with 15 people who were much younger than me at a local clay studio. It was humbling. Learning to center the clay – that is – to get it to spin calmly in the center of the wheel took me months to master. I had to work with my whole being to learn the technique called centering. I had to calm my mind, hold my arms steady and strong locked against my trunk and remain focused on the clay and only the clay. I had to give up thinking that the whole process should be easier.
The good news is that as you age and come into your own, you gain a couple of new superpowers – fewer concerns about what others might think about you, a greater willingness to take chances, and a sense that you have less to lose if you mess up. All of this adds up to more creativity.
In her book, Andrea writes about learning to draw during the lockdown days of the pandemic and the freedom of letting go of expectations:
“When I started drawing, I didn’t have to be perfect. I could just play. In playing, I found that sometimes I improved, sometimes I didn’t. Either way, it didn’t matter. It was more about being with my number 2 pencil and my very old sketchbook found in a drawer and seeing what I could make.”
Can you be the kind of elder who challenges yourself to learn, to explore, to be curious?
Part of what’s essential is a mindset that says, “if this goes awry and doesn’t work, then I’ll learn how to let it go.” This is what I do with the weird and wonky pieces of pottery that don’t look anything like I imagined. What the effort did produce in that case, is non-attachment. A new perspective. Calm in the face of failure.
Making friends with aging can be about being open to what comes. No one knows exactly what the future holds. Don’t imagine the worst about your own aging process.
Let go of rules and rigidity. There are no winners or losers in this space. What if you didn’t have to prove anything to anyone just for today? What if you could learn and try again and see that as enough?
Becoming wiser as you age is a journey worth taking. Andrea’s book can help. You may have to learn some things, but mostly, you’ll have to unlearn. Question your motives, your needs, your beliefs. Offer your wisdom from a place of being wide open. This is the contribution that the world needs — curious, calm and creative elders who have made friends with aging.