Making Art and Getting Old

This photo by my friend Sarah Bloom captures the mood of this post

This photo by my friend Sarah Bloom captures the mood of this post

I saw Boyhood over the weekend. At one point, toward the end of the film, the mother — played by Patricia Arquette — has a breakdown. “Is this all there is?” she wonders. “Is my life just a series of milestones, and then death?”

Lately I’ve been wondering the same thing. At the same time, I’ve been giving myself a pep talk: Each day is stitched together by moments, many of which are full of beauty and wonder and laughter. That is grand enough…at least, it should be. 

At the end of the film, the main character — Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, whose boyhood we’ve been watching unfold for the past 3 hours — has an interaction with a girl on his first day of college. She says something like, “People always say, ‘Seize the day.’ But what if it’s more like, the day seizes you?”

I’ve spent my adult life in a tumultuous search for meaning. Every time I’m content, I eventually find a reason that some variable is off, some problem needs to be solved. I’ve often attributed this existential restlessness to being an artist. The other day, I said to Jordan, “I feel like I need a big new creative project.” But at the same time, a different voice inside me wonders, “Am I just being a drama queen?” In other words, does true maturity come from accepting that life is about daily moments? That we don’t need a grand gesture, artistic or otherwise, to register with the universe and our fellow man? 

I have a feeling my fellow artists reading this will understand. And that my fellow yogis will understand in a different way my desire to be at peace with what is, instead of always stirring the pot. 

What is it I’m arguing for, exactly? Giving up on art-making? That seems ridiculous (why would I do that?), and yet lately, I just feel like a square peg, and the universe of art-making possibilities is a big fat circular hole. I know that’s silly — anyone can make any kind of art, anywhere — but my inspiration feels short-circuited, waylaid by my energy level. I find myself craving, not for the first or even the fiftieth time in my adult life, the feeling of being surrounded by a community of creative collaborators who will help lift me up and realize my full potential as an artist. Not to outsource the responsibility, just to take all the pressure off this one particular set of shoulders. I don’t know that we can truly make art alone.

Last week I went to a storytelling open mic. I told a story, in six minutes, of my journey from definitely not wanting to have children, to becoming a mom, emphasizing that I didn’t think parenthood was the only path to fulfillment. Afterward, the emcee, who had been making jokes after every other performer’s story, said, “Man, I don’t feel like I want to make a joke, I just want to figure out what fulfills me.” 

I felt like such a mom. 

My friend Lindsay was there with me — she’s 21, a remarkable young woman who gives me hope in the future of humankind. As we talked after the show, I said something offhand about how we all have a finite amount of energy — and how that pool of energy gets smaller as we get older. I think back to a time when I used to perform and practice improv multiple nights a week, and as much as my soul misses it, I can’t fathom finding the energy.

I caught Lindsay’s eye, and saw her looking at me with utmost seriousness. “I don’t think that’s true.”

“You don’t?”

“No,” she said. 

I can’t remember her ever disagreeing so adamantly with something I’ve said, so I paid attention. 

Maybe she’s right, I thought. Maybe the more I seek out activities and people that inspire and energize me, the more energy I can create for myself. 

Or maybe she’s a peppy 21-year-old who doesn’t know what it feels like to get old. 

I’m still not sure.

I know that I never felt old before I became a parent. (I’ve also never been 38 before.) I think of the wonderful documentary Lost in Living, about mothers who are artists, and I know I’m not the first to struggle to find enough inner resources for both. 

The bottom line is that I do need to learn to feel peace and fulfillment wherever I am. I have so many riches, that to focus only on the gnawing feeling of restlessness feels wholly narcissistic and small. Of course, just as I tried recently to double down on my commitment to yoga practice, I injured my lower back.

I always thought constraint breeded creativity, but maybe that’s not a universal truth.  

Or maybe I’m just in a funk, and this too shall pass. 

Photo above by Sarah Bloom, whom I interviewed here.

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12 thoughts on “Making Art and Getting Old

  1. Oh how I relate to this. :))Honestly, getting older is really hard. I think it is for everyone even though sometimes it feels as if I'm the only one who struggles so much. I am actually newly begun in a project (137 Days) run by Patti Digh (do you know of her? you should) and right away one of the directives to mediate on is about recognizing that it is the moments that stitch together our day that matter. She gave us this quote: "For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin– real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time to still be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life." –Alfred d'Souza (I have not looked up who that is yet). Then she prompted us to ask ourselves "what are you waiting for?" It made me see how much I am letting both little and big fears stop me from living my life fully. I'm now trying to figure out how to leap freely into doing instead of forever postponing. Anyway. You are not alone. And I love you.

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  2. Thanks, Sarah. I want to reflect on that idea of big and little fears. I think deep down I feel like I don't have the energy (creative and physical) to both run my own consulting business, pursue my art to its fullest and be the mother and wife that I want to be. I kind of want to experiment with taking a year off from consulting to really see what I'm capable of when I put my writing and performing center stage. But then, one must pay the bills. I used to think I could balance it all but the switching gears itself is just so exhausting. We're contemplating relocating from Brooklyn to Beacon, NY where things are a lot cheaper, and having more financial flexibility/freedom is definitely a factor in that decision.

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  3. While I don't dismiss the questions you're asking, I do think that you have to factor in the age of your child. Toddlers are amazing and thrilling but they also require so much energy. Don't discount the energy that being a present parent takes. I spent the weekend with friends who have a 5 yr old and the freedom they have, compared to our lives, was intoxicating. I really think it's less about age and more about stage of your life. Right now Ali is a huge scene stealer on your "energy stage". Which is how it should be. But before you know it she'll have her own stage and you can reclaim more of yours.

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  4. I'm not a parent, but I am 38, and I can definitely relate to the energy struggles. I think the restlessness you talk about is also part of the essential experience of being human — it's our capacity to long for something, to recognize incompleteness that can inspire our art, relationships, work, etc., and the blessing and curse of it is that, even as we fulfill different yearnings, we will never be finished, never be static. I recently was reading something from the Center for Contemplation and Action, which (paraphrased) said that unlike material gifts, which decrease with use, spiritual gifts increase with use. It's not the same as energy, but I know it's been true in my life that the more I am creating the more I create. Thanks for putting all of this out in the world, Amanda.

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  5. I am older than all of you and always was expected by others and myself to be headed toward a career as an artist of either the written word or graphics or fashion or a combination of those art forms. I ended up as a management consultant, where I use my talents in all of these areas to express myself. But most people would say I am a businesswoman and not an artist at all.My art as a professional is one that I created, one that combines my desire for financial independence with my need for intellectual stimulation and creative opportunities. I do it my way–a unique way that has gained acceptance from many "audiences"–clients, collaborators, and industry representatives. My art is also the way I express myself in the way I dress, the way I cook, the meals I put together, the causes and people I support, and the activities in which I choose to engage.. I believe that the way you do what you do in the real world–the world in which you must live and figure out a way to support yourself in all ways to a standard that feels right to you –is art. I am an artist, no matter what anyone else thinks.

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  6. So beautifully put. I relate to so much of it… the shrinking pot of energy as we age, feeling particularly old after becoming a parent, finding the balance between pursuing Meaning with a capital "M" and appreciating the many moments of joy and wonder in daily life. I think much of this applies to non-artists (like myself) as well, or at least non-artists who used to enjoy a creative endeavor now and then and have since let it all go! Thank you for putting a voice to this. Good to know the 37-38 age range affects so many of us similarly, even if our daily lives can look so different from one another's.

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  7. Hi Amanda, it’s Caren from Lost in Living. The tall ex painter. I enjoyed this post and I can relate. Art needs time. Adult responsibilities eat time. It’s vicious and definitely seems to get more intense with age. What I hate is getting so out of the practice of “practice” that I waste the little time I have. Part of the problem for me is that being a parent changes the story I tell myself. The story was a huge motivator. I had sort of a fantasy about the end game that kept me focused. So now the challenge is to keep the focus without needing the story. Somedays I can do it and some days I can’t (or more accurately, I don’t). Anyway, great blog post!

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  8. Caren, wow – I'm so glad to connect with you! I felt a real kinship with you watching the film. I'd be really curious to hear more about what you mean about the story you tell yourself. What was it before, and what is it now?Thanks so much for commenting (and reading).

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  9. Thank you Amanda. I am glad to connect with you too.The main story I was telling myself before I had a kid was that I was going to make it in the art world. So every time I set down to paint, I was one step closer to that imagined goal. It’s not that I needed the goal to want to paint. I liked painting a lot. But it gave a kind of legitimacy to the activity. It took care of the existential problem of why I was doing it, what it was for. It created a highway for me. I got in my art car, got on the making it in the art world super highway and did my work.Now I know longer tell myself I am going to “make it” anywhere. It doesn’t mean I don’t have ambitions, but they are much too modest to constitute a story. They just aren’t interesting enough. Without the story, when I get in the art car, it can feel as if I am just shambling down side streets, going to the same old places. I might feel like I don’t know what the art is for.I have successfully avoided this lost story dilemma by either being too busy to care, the method I employ the most, or by not needing to know what the point is until later. This second method actually is very productive for me. I am a big believer in work made is better than work not made. Once you have work made, it’s amazing how you can capitalize on it. I now just try to turn a few ideas intro projects and to get those projects started. Every time I have done that, I have been able to capitalize on it. There are many ideas I didn’t nurture and my sorrow for what could have been only makes me more grateful for the times I did act regardless of whether it made any sense to me at the time.I still feel like having the story was easier. I miss it. Not the specifics of the story, just the way it motivated and organized me. But I am committed to not needing a story and also to not stopping regardless of how slow I may be going on my little art back alley.

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  10. Thanks so much for sharing this, Caren. Sounds like "story" and "dream" have a lot in common in this case. It's an interesting point, that it can be harder to create when there isn't a clear end goal in mind. This observation really resonated: "Once you have work made, it’s amazing how you can capitalize on it." This is what I have to remind myself… my creative energy is so scattered these days that sometimes i have the time to write and I'm just not feeling it, but I have to just do it, otherwise, it won't get done… and who knows how you can use something you create today down the line, as uninspired as it might feel. It's harder to perform in these little pockets of stolen time, though, which is why that part of my art is on the back burner at the moment– well, who are we kidding… it's off the stove, in a Tupperware at the back of the fridge, growing mold. I do have faith it will come back at some point. But between that growing mold and the writing feeling like it only happens in stolen, usually uninspired moments, I just have this nagging sense of potential going unused, and that makes me very sad.

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