Gathering Rosebuds: A Backward Glance
September 4, 2013
Is art making, in whatever form, merely leisure?
For me, even though I have made a career of teaching art—whether writing or visual, critiquing or producing—I have yet to approach my own artistic practice with serious dedication.
I took my first few faltering steps toward formal higher education entering the college classroom as an under-confident, non-traditional, full-time mother who had just recovered from an emotional, spiritual and intellectual crash.
I had been pregnant and or nursing for five straight years, and the hormones had taken a toll on me, rendering me to a non-verbal state from which I slowly emerged with the aid of medication, exercise, and therapy, an intensive program that included close analysis through journaling my reaction to works by noted theorists ranging from Freud to Maslow to Schopenhauer to Hegel.
It isn’t surprising, then, that for me the best form of therapy ultimately came not from any of the aforementioned treatments, but through education.
Even before entering my first literature class, my therapist had trained me well for my profession as literature, theory and art critic.
What I wasn’t expecting, though, as I entered the classroom, was the day in which I confronted myself on the other side of my career facing the same dilemma that challenged one of the literary characters I had encountered in my first literature class. I have been forced to take a backward glance at what once was my career.
My dearest professor, mentor, and later friend, himself at the time nearing the age of Arthur Miller’s protagonist, assigned his class Death of a Salesman. The tragic hero is not an aristocrat as Aristotle dictates, but a commoner, as reflected by his name Loman. He has lived his life comfortably, his children are grown, and he is now faced with the crisis of being fired from his life-long career by a younger man, Howard Wagner, who just happens to have been given his name by Willy Loman, a subtle indication that Loman once had held a position of not just secure employment but also friendship with the former corporation owner, Wagner senior, who is now deceased.
The tale is tragic, yet true. Especially in America, the younger generation quickly supplants the older one, often forcing the aging population into early retirement.
Yet it is the natural cycle of life. After all, we train our young children in the ways we believe they need to go, equipping them with tools to live a life better than what we ourselves have lived, never quite taking into consideration that as we do we are training what will eventually be our own competitors in the job market.
As campuses across America are filled with freshman who have only known the digital age, the process seems particularly logical, especially since all too often among peers my own age I hear them freely admit they haven’t the least bit interest in establishing or maintaining a presence on the social media scene and disparage those who do.
As we face our self-trained competitors, how do we react? Criticism in a number of forms seems to be all too common.
“Kids these days are so fucking disrespectful,” one senior noted as he pushed his way through the door ahead of an older woman sporting her way down the hall with a walker in tow.
“Most of the young people today have no work ethic,” she said from her chair as she handed me her plate, unaware that I was only a few years younger than she was, adding disdainfully, “They are lazy,” even though she had been served dinner by a twenty-something volunteer who not only had served her food but would later stay an extra hour after lunch to clean up the trail of food she had left on the table and floor.
“The latest training module I attended indicated age discrimination begins as early as 40,” she informed me when I told her I am struggling to find a job.
“You look young for your age,” my daughter told me, believing that it shouldn’t matter that I am “over the hill.” She added, “You could easily pass for a woman in her thirties.”
Whether or not this is true, each time I am asked to include my birthdate on an application (“That isn’t legal,” my daughter noted), I know I am at risk of having my resume placed at the bottom of the pile—or, more than likely, deleted with a quick, sharp, distinctive click of a computer key.
Recreating oneself is not just a dilemma facing the aged or aging, but every human being who, for whatever reason, is confronted with the necessity of redirecting his or her life, whether it be the result of a failing relationship, a shift in health, unemployment or underemployment—or even just the inherent dissatisfaction with who or what one has become.
While criticism of the situation may be the first reaction, the choice of how one reacts to the obstacles one encounters always remains with the person encountering them. As for me, I have spent my career training up the next generation, and I love watching my former students’ individual successes.
I may be “over the hill,” but as I have learned on my journey, the quick descent that comes following the summit may be remarkably invigorating, and the speed is heady. As college classrooms fill this fall with children of the digital age, I know, for my part at least, I have the leisure to create whomever or whatever I will now become.
Photo courtesy Stephanie Davis, August 3, 2013