Art and aging – the painful truth

First you crawl and then you walk,
Pretty soon you start to talk,
Later on you start to stoop,
Getting old is pigeon poop.
~~ seen on a coffee mug

Aging seems to be the only available way to live a long time. ~~ Daniel-Francois- Esprit Auber, composer

No artist wants to retire (we may threaten to quit every other day, but that’s an entirely different matter).  It’s not as if we train for a job that we can work at for forty years so we can retire with a pension and a gold watch.  We do what we do because we love it, or because we’re compelled to, or because we’re not fit to do anything else.  But we do get old, and we do retire – in as many ways and for as many reasons as there are artists.

Some lose their powers.  Opera star Beverly Sills retired at fifty, still in her prime but increasingly aware that her voice was changing.  Knowing that the critics and her fans would soon realize it, too, she walked away at the height of a stellar career.  She went on to a second career as general manager of the New York City Opera, which thrived under her leadership.

Some grow weary of the life and its demands.  After publishing twenty-four novels, numerous non-fiction books, and receiving more awards than I have the space to list here, author Philip Roth retired from fiction writing.  He would still write non-fiction, but at seventy-nine he was unwilling to put himself through the ordeal of publishing another novel.

Some can’t bear the thought of stopping, and plug away despite diminished abilities.  In her eighties and even into her nineties, Georgia O’Keeffe dealt with her failing eye sight by working with an assistant.  There’s been ongoing controversy ever since over how much of her later works are actually hers.

Retirement is a tough call for any artist.  There’s no law that says we have to quit at a certain age.  We can keep working as long as our minds and bodies hold out.  A lot depends on one’s area of expertise.  Orchestra conductors are legendary for working into their nineties, but dancers are often washed up by the time they’re thirty.

Then there are those who stay in the field, but switch uniforms.  That’s me.  And I had to be forced to make the change.

When we’re young we can’t anticipate that what is so matter-of-factly there for us in life is just what we’ll have to struggle to hold on to as we grow older… ~~ E. L. Doctorow

I started my creative life as a classical singer, and I drew my first paycheck for singing at the tender age of sixteen.  I studied voice in college, started teaching privately, and later went back to school to add acting to my resume.  I couldn’t imagine life without singing, acting, and teaching.  I was working as much as was humanly possible, and I loved every minute of it.

Then menopause happened.

Some women breeze through it – but I wasn’t one of them.  Precocious in everything, I started down the road of diminishing hormones at forty-one, and was done by forty-eight.  You’d think it’d be a relief, and for most women it is, but mine was a value-added menopause – one that included disabling migraines.  Usually, migraines vanish with menopause.  But for a small number of us, they get worse.  Much, much worse.

I want to take a moment – for you lucky people who have never had a migraine, or who labor under the illusion that it’s “just a headache” – to paint a picture of a “typical” migraine.  First, think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had – the throbbing head; the super-sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells; the nausea; the pain so bad you can’t move.  Are you with me?  Now multiply that by a factor of ten.  Then add confusion, the inability to retrieve words, dizziness, prickling skin, chills, blurred vision, insomnia, and the disorienting sensation of being out of sync with everything around you.  Now have it last for three to five days – not hours, days.   That’s a migraine.

Migraines turned performing – which up to that point had been a source of satisfaction and joy in my life – into a bona-fide nightmare.  The chaos, the crazy hours, the adrenalin rush, the physical and mental demands – all of it fed the migraine monster.  I’m amazingly strong-willed, and I gutted it out for years, not realizing that this very behavior is what the migraine monster loves.  But what choice did I have?  It wasn’t like I could suddenly turn off the lights and lie down during a scene, or take a personal day during a run.  Performing is hard work, I knew that, and I’d always been able to push through no matter what.  I prided myself on my stamina.  Now suddenly it was gone.

Before you barrage me with emails telling me to try this therapy or that drug, let me assure you that I have tried – and still try – every preventive, preemptive, and prescriptive measure out there, short of brain surgery (and don’t think I haven’t considered that, too).  Most were ineffective, some were even counter-productive.  I saw the top neurologists, but the problem persisted.  Even when medication helped, the moment I stepped back onstage, the migraine monster chased me down again.  Teaching, which I loved, became impossible.  I could no longer tell a student I’d be available at a certain hour on a certain day.  I had become unreliable – something no performer/teacher can afford to be.

My body was telling me it was time to walk away.  It had been telling me for years, but I’d refused to listen, telling myself that it was temporary, that it was just this show, that the next one would be better.  I knew if I could find the right remedy, I’d be fine.  So I hung on, even though I’d always told myself I wasn’t going to be one of those sopranos – you know the type, the ones who sing long past their pull date.  But my voice was fine.  I still had the goods.  It was my central nervous system that was letting me down.  Besides, my entire identity was tied up in performing.  Who was I if I wasn’t onstage, or helping someone else get there?

Then, forty years after I drew that first paycheck, I walked away from singing.  I’d finally gotten it through my thick skull that there was no cure; that migraine is a neurological disease that can only be managed.  Sure, I had drugs I could take when I had an attack, but they wrecked my voice, so I couldn’t take them and perform – your classic Catch-22.  By then, I’d had it with performing through pain, not being able to trust my body to do what it needed to do, and putting all my energy and focus into getting by, with nothing left over for artistry or expression.  Not long after that, I let go of teaching.  Acting was the last to go, and the hardest to give up.  I tried keeping my hand in, taking small parts, doing shows in fits and starts.  But eventually I had to let that go, too.

The years teach much which the days never know. ~~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

There turned out to be a silver lining to all this, one I’d never noticed because I was too busy running around making myself sick.  All my life I’d toyed with writing.  I was the kid in school whose essays were always tacked up on the class bulletin board.  I especially loved creative writing – give me a subject, or a visual prompt, and I’d go to town.  My senior English teacher even gave me compositions from the other classes to grade.  But I never took it seriously.  As far as my family was concerned, my obsession with music was foolish enough.  When I mentioned offhandedly to my mother that I was thinking of double majoring in music and English in college – just testing the waters – her immediate reaction was, “Great, then you’ll have two useless degrees.”

Even so, I wrote secretly for years, mostly in journals, honing my craft without realizing it.  So, in the crazy events following my father’s death, when I saw that the universe had handed me an irresistible plot for a play, I couldn’t not write it.  The play did well, but not well enough, so I wrote more plays – and started winning contests and getting productions.  Then over the course of a year I dashed out a novel, promptly shoved it into a drawer, and headed back to the stage and more migraines.

But when that failed, as it was destined to do, and I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands, what else was there to do but pull that manuscript from where it had been languishing and start revising?  Five years later, with the help of a freelance editor, more drafts than I care to count, and simple bull-headedness, I’m self-publishing my first novel.

All one’s life as a young woman one is on show, a focus of attention, people notice you.  You set yourself up to be noticed and admired.  And then, not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous.  No one notices you.  You achieve a wonderful freedom.  It’s a positive thing.  You can move about unnoticed and invisible. ~~ Doris Lessing, novelist, poet, playwright, Nobel laureate

I’m now comfortable claiming writing as a second career.  I see what led me here, and I see that I wasn’t ready for it when I was younger.  I needed to understand that unless I chose a serene life, I would never be healthy, but I also needed to gather enough life experiences so I’d have something to say.  For a while, the isolation got to me.  I was used to having people around, used to seeing them as a matter of course as I went about my work.  The solitude of writing took some getting used to: it was just me and the page and all my uninvited insecurities camped out on my shoulder.  But the process has made me stronger.  It forces me to be my own best, most honest critic, and my own indefatigable cheerleader, without the crutch of relying on a director or an audience to shore up my confidence.

Then out of isolation grew the freedom to be authentic, to find out what I think, instead of internalizing someone else’s ideas.  Not having to memorize another’s words has freed up my own.  And as much as I loved performing, I’m grateful to be spared its emphasis on appearance, which has the advantage of helping me make peace with getting older.  Doris Lessing was right, it is a positive thing, this ability to pull one’s own strings, to “move about unnoticed and invisible.”  I’ve spent much of my life being on show.  It’s a blessing and a relief to step out of the spotlight.

I have no idea what the future holds, though I’m starting to accept that I won’t live long enough to finish all the projects I have in mind.  I may not be able to keep writing, though that’s my plan.  But if I can’t, I expect I’ll find something just as interesting to do.

As long as I don’t have to act my age.