upside-of-70

The Upside of 70

 

“This may be something of a new approach to growing older. It’s certainly a healthy alternative to an extended life of consumerism: cruises that pamper, prepackaged experiences or the promise of a soft landing in a retirement village with endless rod iron railings.”

What am I supposed to accomplish in my act three? On stage, it’s the most exciting act, so why not in life. Is there something I may be better at now that wasn’t my forte in the past?

The answer, I’ve discovered, is yes. 

I’ve been making television commercials for the past 46 years and films on assignment for 30, but the idea of being an artist responsible to no client—responsible only to my inner sense of what’s pleasing, distinctive and works—has called to me for as long as I can remember. And this, the last third of life, may be a good time to be one. If I have improved in anything over the past 50 years, it is temperament. Balance and good heartedness are well suited to the creative process. And the elder brain, I’ve learned, if prodded to be playful, can still make the sparks that lead to breakthroughs.

At the age of 70 my brain and my elder self may be well suited to a kind of creative process that it balked at in my younger years. I can grasp the bigger picture more quickly now and I have the patience to take the many small steps to bring that picture to life. Because I know myself better, know my strengths and weaknesses, any journey I take will have fewer false starts and fewer dead ends.

My journey is to be a journey into the mysteries of art and the creative process. By art I don’t mean a million dollar museum-mounted masterpiece. I mean something original. I mean something driven by an irrational vision. I mean something almost nuts—but that works. Something aesthetically pleasing and created with an audience in mind but, crucially, that audience is not a marketplace or client.

Years of Possibility Ahead

So it is that I’ve begun to ply a craft I know well,  documentary filmmaking, in order to see if I might push it to a higher, dare I say celestial orbit. I will become an artist. Not a dabbler. Not a Sunday painter. Not a journal or letter writer. Not a whittler and passer of time , but a died in the wool capitol “A” Artist and seeker of truth. I doubt that I’ve made this mark in my decades of work for clients, and now I wonder if I can make it for myself.

It’s likely that I’ll have a lot of time.

Healthy Baby Boomers today can expect to live another 20 to 30 years, a lifetime in a previous age. Data suggests that only four percent of those now over 65 will ever be housed in the kind of nursing facility where we visited our parents and our grandparents. Only seven percent of those now between 75 and 85 will need any kind of assistance whatsoever for many years in the daily tasks of life. Disease will come and parts go, something will always be chasing you, but you might have a bigger lead than you think.

In “The Art of Aging,” Sherwin B. Nuland, MD tells us that the brain never stops growing in key areas of thinking. The number of brain cells in healthy older people decreases just slightly. The aging brain, he says, “may have decreased numbers of synapses in some areas, but this is compensated for by such factors as plasticity: the ability of the synapses to become stronger and therefore more effective.”

That’s interesting. Something actually improves. I can see it in myself. There is less spinning of the wheels, a talent develops for quickly seeing the gestalt, the big picture. Experience counts. Time and energy are saved. Perspective leads to proportionate response. Patience excels, and a lot gets done.

Older is better for being unruffled. Little things don’t bother me so much. The world goes its crazy way. I’m not buffeted.

I’m an American. I have food on the table, a roof over my head and a backyard. I’m the luckiest person on earth.

And I have all this old information. Good. New information is almost instantly obsolete. A grounding in old information drives most things anyway, even new technology.

And I can still think straight. At 70, I’ve learned, there is more than enough space left on the cerebral hard drive to accumulate more and distill what we have into original thinking. The vast superstructure of my 70-year-old brain, Dr. Nuland tells us, “contains increasing numbers of reference points to which incoming new material can be quickly categorized and stored.” Conceptual thinking. I may not remember my neighbor’s phone number or the name of the film student I just met, but a bit of short-term memory loss should not, I’ve discovered, slow down my journey into the mysterious land of art and artistry.

The Aging Brain and the Creative Process

The creative process is not solely a function of brainpower, anyway. It’s an emotional process supported by technique and craft, things that only experience can teach. When you’re older, god willing, your judgment is better; your discernment, critical in the creative process, may be better. You trust yourself more. And then there’s that matter of play, critical to the creative process—it’s uniquely accessible only to the old and the young.

Maybe, in fact, the last third of life is a bit like the first. There was no plan for those early chapters. You were simply plopped down, given some parameters, told to work within them and figure it out. Your brain cells and neural pathways grew by leaps and bounds as you backed into your future blindly or played at what you had a knack for until a path opened up and you found your way. “Play” is the operative word here — meaning risk without consequences, delight in the unexpected and a happy attachment to the here and now.

In youth the road is wide open, anything is possible — the job at hand is to poke and prod, test the equipment and strut your stuff. It was those intervening years with kids and careers that were more or less prescribed: food, clothing, cars, schools, flights. If you were white, male and ambitious — and, as I say, lucky — you rode the whirlwind as far as you could in a field where you staked your claim.

Now at age 70, I find once again there is no plan, there are no rules and no need to strut my stuff. I’ve staked a claim in my field and maybe even attained a bit of control — and I have nothing to prove anymore. Face to face with my certain demise, it seems I have plenty of fuel still in my tank, and once again there’s time to play.

Starting Down the Path to “Artist”

So off I go.

If you’re going to die anyway, maybe the third act is a great place to throw caution to the wind. Why not pursue that unicorn called Art? Spending less energy on the busyness of life, I can spend more energy at its edges, the place where eccentrics, fringe thinkers and artists reside.

With a knee replacement, a bit of hearing loss, a new pair of glasses and a layman’s understanding of the aging process, I’ve begun my journey into artistry by learning as much as I can about artists, especially the older ones. What is art and who is an artist are questions best answered by history. So I’ve started moving forward by looking back at those who history has accepted as artists. I’ve looked at how they lived their older lives and what they accomplished in their later, sometimes last years.

Here, by way of anecdotal evidence and a little help from the library, especially Nicholas Delbonco’s wonderful book “Lastingness,” is some of what I’ve learned:

  • Melville wrote his second masterpiece “Billy Budd” when he was an all but forgotten man in the final years of his life.
  • Thomas Mann completed what would be one of his greatest works, “Confessions of Felix Krull,” the year he died at 80.
  • In his 80s Peter Mathieson won the National Book Award.
  • Dorris Lessing, still writing, won the Nobel Prize for Literature at 88.
  • Ragtime pianist Eubie Blake was still at the ivories at 100.
  • Pablo Casals practiced every day and still played brilliantly at 96.
  • The painter Titan died, painting, at 99.
  • Picasso at age 87 produced 347 masterpieces of erotic imagination, nearly 50 pieces a month for seven months.
  • Carmen Herrera didn’t even sell her first work until age 89.
  • Georgia O’Keefe, though mostly blind, was still at work at 95, having moved from painting to sculpture, which she produced with assistance and by feel.
  • Matisse created an entirely new medium of expression, decoupage, at the age of 75, which he was still producing when he died at age 84.
  • Tolstoy gave up writing novels at 70, but the creative fervor carried on. He became a fierce revolutionary and then a peasant/recluse, but he was causing trouble until the day he died.

These and countless other tales of aging artists have been inspiring, and science is on my side. With a bit of good fortune, attention to self-maintenance (goodbye Jim Beam) and a little less exuberance, I’m continuing as a filmmaker down the rabbit hole called art.

Play—a New Approach to Aging

Initially, I gave myself a six-month window in which to produce an original work that satisfied my inner vision as well as others in my field.

I embraced the concept of process and play — “being” instead of “producing”—and worked to shed the lifelong ingrained idea of delivering a fixed product according to proposal and plan.

Going from product to process and play is a giant leap, but it’s not life threatening, as long as you’re comfortable with chaos. And chaos is welcome in the world of artmaking because, ideally, you should have no idea of what you’re doing—at least, no way of explaining it to anyone else. “It” doesn’t exist yet. “It” is a process.

So, in dramatic pursuit of my “art project,” I went into something of an undisciplined frenzy. I would make a film, I decided, by myself. I wrote and shot scenes. I went deep instead of broad. And not having to deliver a product or fulfill expectations, I was not afraid to play.

For many, this may be something of a new approach to growing older. It is certainly a healthy alternative to an extended life of consumerism: cruises that pamper, prepackaged experiences or the promise of a soft landing in a retirement village with endless rod iron railings.

The fact is that fully functional life may be twice as long as we thought it was. The whole field of gerontology is only 50 years old, and most of that was time spent studying disease and decay. Nobody studied the upside of age. People simply didn’t live long enough to make the case. The idea of living an original life at 70—or creating original work — was not a broadly accepted option.

At 70 I may be better suited to expressing my artistic sensibility than I was at 20, when I wanted to be another Ernest Hemingway. Will I now produce art? I have no idea. But this I do know. Moving into my 70s, I shouldn’t be limited by age from trying, and if art was ever your calling, neither should you.

bob-belinoffBob Belinoff is a filmmaker as well as a writer and speaker on creativity and aging. His first narrative fiction film, “Seventy,” opens at the Taos Shortz Film Fest on March 31You can reach him at bob@digitalwkshop.com. Visit Bob Belinoff on Facebook.

This story was first published as “The Upside of Seventy: How Brains Get Better with Age and My Journey Into Art” on Medium.com.

Top photo: Bob Belinoff

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19 comments
  • Annarose Ingarra-Milch
    REPLY

    Bob – glorious article! Several years ago I wrote a book, “Lunch with Lucille” that speaks to the value of age. The mantra “age is an asset.” So often we are bombarded with hide the gray, get ride of the wrinkles – our age is deemed to be a liability. But as you know, and write, that is not true. As I travel around the country speaking on positive aging, I am met with people such as yourself that are living examples of the power of age. Thank you for the article. Would love to see “Seventy” and it’s follow-up. I shall follow it’s progress. Salute!

  • William Seavey
    REPLY

    Hi Bob, just published, at 70, a serious book on how Americans can understand Canadians better.
    See Americanada.us. Problem is, such an exalted age gets me nowhere in the world of academia and social media and the effort, despite years of research and a journalistic background, is being ignored. Maybe a little realism is required at this age, but I’m definitely not ready for the golf links yet…several of the those commenting suggest they are working on artistic projects that perhaps deserve wider attention. But ageism, if not aging itself, is pretty entrenched in society and the expectation of fame if not fortune is a bit of a pipe dream, I think in retrospect. But it doesn’t hurt to try, I suppose, because any attention you might get is certainly well deserved when the competition from younger folk, and peers, is severe.

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Fascinating and true. I think with the exception of a small handful of
      very public figures…when you age you just disappear. You almost become a ghost,
      you don’t count. Interesting the way obituaries, even of luminaries do not show an
      older picture of the deceased, but a younger one, like they kind of stopped at a certain age.
      I think you have to form a new relationship with your self first and let the world do what
      it may. I love your comment and look forward to
      checking out Americandida. Thank you! rb

  • Kelly vela
    REPLY

    Loved your article! Although, I am “only” 60, I realize the value of what you have written. I left my cubicle job 2 years ago to pursue my passion of photography. That has grown into a new world for me. For the last 5 years I have been donating my time to local animal shelters to create glamour photos for their adoption portraits. In 2014 I left my day job to do this full time. It is so rewarding and great networking friendships have come from this. I have grown artiscally more than ever. My signature on my portraits is whimsy. So I encourage everyone to go out and be artistic and play! Let your mind go wild with ideas. Have fun. Be you! Be young at heart and mind.
    Kelly vela
    Dos velas images

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Whimsey! A magic word. Love it…and your photographs. Thanks so much Kelly for your comments on my article, feedback as you no doubt know, means a lot…keep smiling and go wild till the cows come home..best to you, bob.

  • Sally
    REPLY

    I thank you for this article I too am 70 and in pretty good health, nothing gone but teeth as of right now and I’m waiting on new ones (smile) But I did get my BA just last year and I’m thinking of working towards a BFA in October. More and more I don’t think the degree is so important. I am a visual artist, self taught since I was 12 or so but then I thought I needed credentials. HA! They didn’t know me then and they still don’t know me. But that’s alright. Its my gift to do and work with as I please. It is play as you say and I can now have some fun. Sometimes I get lost in the pity world but thanks to you, at least for a little while, I can straighten up and just be. Being 70 is an accomplishment, it is a place in time we get too if we have taken care of ourselves up to this point. (something like that) Its having a mindset that was developed early and it has helped maintain the way you see the world, the way you see yourself. We are going to die, that’s a given but I say don’t go to it, let it come to you or something like that.

    Anyway, I love your attitude and I wish you look on becoming an artist. Do play, do have fun with it.

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Sally, thanks for your note…I just now saw it and realized I can reply …feedback means a lot and I appreciate yours. About dying…your so right; don’t go to it, forget it…let it come to you…meanwhile…we play! My best to you…bob.

  • Julia Wolfe (Muncy)
    REPLY

    I really like your article! I myself am 70, and I do have some health issues which limit some of what I can do. However, my brain is still in great shape and I’m in the process of writing the huge multi-volume novel I started some 10 years ago! I also am making notes of things to add to my autobiography that I wrote an overview of some years ago. I’ve published nothing and maybe never will, but I enjoy writing; in fact, I can’t seem to not write. Thank you for the inspiration! I keep telling myself about the now-famous people who created great works in their older years. Now I have more info to add to those reminders.

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Julie, thanks for your comments…I think the limiting issues you talk about are at the heart of the creative process…its the limitations that drive the process, create the frame, define the work we do…they aren’t limitations, they’re the changing rules of the game…be wonderful…bob.

  • Bud Weneck
    REPLY

    When you are in your 70’s, it is possible to draw on your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. These decades of the “Younger you,” show themselves at the most opportune moments. I often recognize these special years as I socialize, exercise and laugh and cry. I am thoroughly amazed at how wonder my 70’s have been.
    I am a 72 year old male enjoying the moment!

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Totally agree Bud, amazing that we have to wait so long to appreciate the moment…love being receptive to my younger self, as you say…some kind of blueprint which we need to honor always…appreciate your thoughts…best. bob

  • Mary Gluck
    REPLY

    Very nice article. I wish I could focus on a hobby or even being more creative. However, I am more concern d with our country, the direction and the casting aside of climate change even though science says FACT. We need to think of our children and grandchildren over and above profit. Become an activist!

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Mary, I don’t know that you can get more creative than being an activist…activist writer, activist film maker, activist poet, activist change agent…all putting your powers to work…..bob

  • Melinda tremaglio
    REPLY

    This inspired me I am having issues with writing my memoir- from 1986-1990 I helped produce and host about 85 thirty minute tv shows and 10 one hour documentaries about lgbt history. Lots of celebrities the beginning of aids parades parties etc the two men I created with died from aids in the late 80s it’s a great story I am writing my story then I want to make a documentary I am 75 and I get stuck lost but reading your story inspires me thank you

  • Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com
    REPLY

    Hi Bob! I loved this article because you have expressed so clearly what many of us think and know. I may only be 61 but I suspect there is so much more to the remainder of my life than settling for a “Sun City” experience of growing older and playing golf for as long as my legs will carry me. I too want to go deep instead of long. Good luck with your project and I look forward to experiencing your coming work. ~Kathy

    • bob belinoff
      REPLY

      Thank you Kathy….my sort film “Seventy” just went to the Taos Film Festival and I’m hard at work on its allow up “Georgia O’Keefe and Me”…follow its progress on my Facebook page “Seventy” bob belinoffand I look forward to checking out Smart Living 365…be wonderful…bob

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