“What’s becoming an important part of my life are voice lessons. I began the end of April, to see if I could learn to sing. Bad experiences in elementary school squelched something in me that wanted out. To my utter amazement I found that I could stay on pitch. If I didn’t already believe in miracles, this would have convinced me.”
That’s a quote from a Christmas letter written to family and friends by Miss Sarah Headsten, a silver-haired, retired social worker and cancer survivor. Not only did Sarah sing wildly off pitch when she began to study voice, she sang hymns so heartily that other church members made sure they sat at least three pews away from her. And yet, two years after she wrote that letter, she was singing programs of Gershwin and Ellington for residents of assisted-living facilities.
“Something in me wanted out,” Sarah wrote. That “something” was the creative spirit, which is inherent in humans.
Back in pre-recorded history, humans sang. We sang before we spoke. We told stories before we learned to write. We danced, tuning our bodies to the rhythms of the universe and our lives. We drew pictures in the sand and on our walls, decorated our cooking pots and our spears. We made totems to align us with nature and amulets to protect us.
The need for creative expression is secondary only to the need for survival. Every tribe, every civilization that has had enough food, shelter, and water to stay alive has felt the need to feed themselves spiritually as well as physically.
We still see this need in young children. A three-year-old sings a tune of her own as she watches trees move in the wind. She is exploring and learning with her body. If we asked her what she was doing, she would probably answer, “Nothing.” She was just being. Being human.
But do we expect the aging to live creative and productive lives? To develop and express freely their inherent human need?
The belief that we’re “over the hill” when we reach the age of 40 or 50 is pervasive in our culture. A “mid-life crisis” has become a meme. A nurse told me that when she walked into her office on her 50th birthday she suddenly broke into tears and couldn’t stop sobbing.
What if our culture expected that late-life meant the opportunity to set new goals, start new careers, give our imagination free rein? What if we expected the aging to search within themselves for submerged talents, as Sarah Headsten did?