Finding Wisdom in the Arts
Strategies for cultivating creativity and brain sharpness in later years
I didn’t set out to write another book. I began by pondering, as psychologists do, my current life stage at 60-plus chronological years. Time passes swiftly and change is inevitable. Perhaps it was simply a matter of shifting priorities or interests, but as I approached age 70, I began to feel wanderlust for exploring what could yet be discovered in my own life.
“What’s next?” and “If not now, when?” surfaced as nagging questions begging for answers. These could be the quintessential questions of the first stage in life without a clearly laid-out path and set of expectations. At this point in our lives, many of us are still physically active, intellectually curious, emotionally stable and yearning for meaningful ways to spend our time. But how?
The Life of the Artist
In my case, I went to look at cellos in a San Francisco shop that sells and rents stringed instruments. Knowing nothing more about the cello than the smooth and mellow music it can produce, I rented one along with a case to transport and protect it. In rapid succession, I bought a self-instruction book, a music stand and a metronome.
And thus began my journey with music which led to writing The Vintage Years, a book about the benefit of pursuing the life of the artist after 60. Broadly defined, that includes writing, playing an instrument, pursuing the fine arts of one sort or another or immersing yourself in any activity in a novel or creative way.
I use the term “artist” very loosely. It’s as much about the way you might approach things as the form it takes, bringing openness and a child’s fascination to the experience — what Buddhists call "a beginner’s mind."
All sorts of books have been written about the years following retirement, but this book specifically focuses on the fine arts because of the benefits they provide to an aging brain, and conversely because the aging brain has capacities that actually help develop the budding, late-blooming artist. This is a circular, reinforcing process, and we are the beneficiaries.
The Science of Aging
The burgeoning field of neuroscience offers some good news to counterbalance the popular beliefs about the downside of getting old.
Research findings suggest that humans don’t outlive their quest for learning and natural curiosity. The brain, according to recent scientific research, does not simply decline, become less robust or lose its capacity for growth. It maintains its vigor quite well and, like a muscle, if you give it the right kind of exercise, it will repay your effort in some interesting ways.
The brain’s ability to adapt, renew, and reshape itself over time is called neuroplasticity, a powerful and relatively new idea. There is some evidence that over-60 folks can actually focus better than the average young person. Our ability to zoom in on what we wish to focus on may be the compensation for other kinds of neural losses. Keeping neurons firing at rates that will ensure brain flexibility is an important goal that requires effort, just the kind of effort that someone at this stage of life is ready and able to give.
The Value of Engaging in the Arts
While writing the book, I decided to interview more than 20 artists who had not begun to explore their passion until later in life. I noticed some significant similarities between them.
One striking phenomenon was their ability to focus with laser sharpness while they were engaged in their art. Whether writing a poem, sculpting or playing the violin, many described being in an altered state of consciousness: alert and aware but without distraction, in a cocoon where nothing else seemed to matter at that moment. They were learning entirely for its own sake and were much less worried about lack of talent, or what others might think, than they might have been earlier in life.
Their stories now highlight The Vintage Years. Here are two examples:
Henry is a woodcarver. A tall, attractive man dressed youthfully in light colored khakis and a crisp plaid shirt, he met me at the door with his walker. At 96, he lives alone and independently with a full life and a busy calendar. He has the distinction of being the oldest of the artists I interviewed.
Woodcarving requires some strength as well as dexterity, and until recently Henry could lift and drag huge hunks of wood. At 68, 78 or even 88, woodcarving had still been manageable. But not at 96. Henry explained, without much sadness, that he has launched into his most recent project, 3-D art. A new beginning!
Nearly 30 years ago, Henry saw an art show that changed his life. Walking through the exhibit, he excitedly commented to his wife at his side, “This is what I like. I want to do this,” referring to a large, detailed woodcarving. And so began his long Vintage Years career as a woodcarver. Simple as that, he began taking classes at the retirement center where he lived in New Jersey.
West African traditional dance piqued Barbara’s interest, and she began taking classes at a local community center where drummers played the rhythm. Over time, her fascination with the rhythmic tempo and beat led her to playing drums in the style of central Africa.
“A friend told me about this drumming class. It was very focusing and when we got into the groove of the rhythm, I really liked it. I’ve stuck with it," she said. Barbara wasn’t even 60 at the time — the youngest of the “artists” featured in The Vintage Years. She is a psychologist and former dance therapist, perhaps explaining her love of dance and the pulse of drumming.
Wisdom Compensates for Aging
The artists I wrote about have a lifetime accumulation of knowledge and experience, with the added bonus of a calmer more focused brain. This leads to wisdom, a fitting compensation for aging!
Arriving later in life, wisdom enhances the art and the artist. The late-blooming artist could not possibly have blossomed earlier. And the continuous learning of a wise elder is the ultimate stimulant for the brain.