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I have been taking a hard look at my choices and obligations, at how my time is filled, and I am withdrawing. There are organizations that I would like to still be part of, but I know that if I appear, I will be asked to take on projects and make commitments. Belonging to them is now out. Making these decisions has been difficult, slow and emotional for me. I am letting go of social ties that I’ve had for years. As one discouraged nonagenarian said to me after another sermon on stewardship, “Is it never enough, Janet? Can I never rest?”
I know that I am missed, but at 70, if I am not for me, who is? What is it I want to do with the time I have left?
I remember myself at five, someone who really liked to draw pictures, read books and play outside with friends. I remember my slim father standing silhouetted in my bedroom door, arms crossed, leaning on the jamb, as we would have our nightly chat.
I tell my father that when I grow up I want to be an artist and in his melodious bass voice he delivers the stereotype of the starving artist living in an attic. My parents, born in rural Manitoba lived through the Great Depression. My parents, both of whom played the piano, want me to become a musician, someone who sings, teaches piano and plays a church organ.
So I go through childhood making music, playing the piano, singing solo and in choirs, eventually studying music at the University of Calgary, where I meet my husband in the concert choir. For a while I am a church organist and choir master in a small church.
I always hated piano practice. While the rest of the neighbourhood kids mastered team sports, I mastered the syllabus of the Western Board of Music.
As a child I won prizes in art as early as the third grade and my parents allowed me to attend Saturday morning art classes, but at home, drawing was seen as time wasting and even ridiculed. I had no real art supplies and the piano ruled. Sports were out because I might injure my fingers
What is it I want to do now? Write these words. Make art. Go outside and play with my friends. Be aware of the day, the weather and the seasons. When I taught school in Ottawa, I would emerge at the end of June and be surprised to find it was summer. Now, at last, I am as free as I choose to be.
As a senior in good health, there is an expectation that I will travel. But I am content in my home, in my yard, in my neighbourhood, in my city and in my country. I have travelled and as my husband says, “We were always looking for food when we were hungry and a bed when we were tired.” We are too old for that now and the idea of cruising the Danube with 100 people from Ontario has no appeal.
For the lifestyle I am after, I have role models in my head. They are mental postcards that I carry around in my head and their images uplift and inspire me.
Artist David Milne at a cottage painting and repainting the same simple objects on a rough table. Author Margaret Laurence at a cottage writing. Artist Emily Carr, a real favourite of mine, camping in her “Elephant” caravan in Goldstream Park, a large, sloppy-looking woman sitting on her folding canvas stool, enjoying a cigarette while she writes in her wee notebook, her canvas and oils at the ready, the mountain scenery surrounding her. She began to write at the age I am now, even winning The Governor-General’s Award for Literature. Author Diana Athill, who began to do her own writing in her 70s, rather than editing that of others’ – even taking sewing lessons at a local community centre when she could find nothing to fit her in the shops.
There are those who win recognition late in life for their life’s work and there are those who get started late in life and the possibility of recognition is tangential. I want to make art, write, read books and play with my friends because these things make me happy and fill me with peace; they centre me spiritually. Finally I am the person I wanted to be when I was five.
Carving out time to be creative takes discipline and careful calendar management. I remember an Aussie friend named Sharron from my days of being a young mother in Edmonton. One day she was standing at her kitchen wall calendar randomly penciling Xs through some of the days. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m crossing off some of the days on this month so that when people phone and ask me to do something, I can honestly tell them I’ve got ‘something on’ that day.” While I’ve not yet acquired Sharron’s devil-may-care attitude, I’ve held that image for 40 years.
Success for me is creating the time I crave to be artsy, bookish and playful. My success will be founded on making tough choices and setting hard boundaries, in simply being selfish – not at all the model of female subjugation I was born to. To those around me, I may seem a little grumpy or standoffish at times these days, but if I don’t do this now, I will have no one to blame but myself. At this age, postponement is misguided.
I am feeling happier – feeling pangs of emotion that delight me.
Someday the world will turn without me. With luck and effort, there will be things created by my mind and hands to admire, and my family and friends will feel free to make time for their own happiness, whatever that may be
Janet Marshall lives in Ottawa.