In this issue ~~
Creativity is often perceived as something that "happens" to young people but dwindles as we get older. It saddens me to see people give up on life when they retire, feeling useless and bored. Unfortunately, our society has lauded the benefits of youth, diminishing the time of old age in the process. But each passage of life brings different lessons and different strengths, and we stand to benefit from paying attention to the wisdom of those older than us and using their experiences to open our vision for our own lives.
Creativity can not only continue throughout our lives, but deepen as we get older. There is much in life to explore at any age. Rather than seeing things through the eyes of our youth and mourning what we can no longer do, we can shift our focus and pursue the things we may not have had the time or patience for when we were younger. We can always learn something new.
Recently, I have become aware of two very special people who we would classify as senior citizens. One is my former singing teacher. The other is the father of a neighbor. What caught my attention was the level of creativity at which these two people are functioning. Both have been creative throughout their lives and are continuing to try new things, rather than resting on the laurels of age. In this issue, I am pleased to profile these two inspiring people.
Joyce Suskind's youthful vigor and appearance belie her 70 years. During the several years that Joyce was my singing teacher, my favorite picture portrayed her in the summer of 1947 as a student at Tanglewood. On the day the picture was taken, her "lunch club" had the good fortune to be joined for spaghetti on the grass by an also-young Leonard Bernstein. That summer, they had the privilege of participating in the U.S. premiere of Mozart's "Idomeneo." Joyce, playing oboe in the orchestra, sat in the pit during the daily rehearsals and "died of ecstasy."
Joyce had the good fortune to grow up with parents who believed in her and had a vision. Her mother always urged her to have a profession and not be dependent, and Joyce found herself espousing feminist principles at the tender age of 9, long before the word was even invented. She inherited her father's love of medicine and planned to be a doctor until the age of 13, when her passion for music prevailed. Having studied piano from the age of 7, she entered the High School of Music and Art as one of its highest rated entrants, took up the oboe and became the best oboist in the school. After entering Juilliard on an oboe scholarship, she changed her major to singing. In studying to improve her English diction, she became so good at it that she later went on to teach speech and public speaking.
After Juilliard, Joyce specialized in contemporary music. Along with singing, she began teaching singers, as well as playing piano in nightclubs and accompanying modern dance and ballet classes. The need to make up her own music for the modern classes led her to composing when a friend challenged her to write music for a lyric he had written, and everyone loved what she wrote. She has since composed numerous pieces. As her former singing student, I can testify that she is equally adept at handling classical, jazz and contemporary music.
Although music became Joyce's primary focus, she did not give up her healing aspirations entirely. At the age of 16, she began learning the Alexander Technique to heal a back problem and went on to teach it, along with stress management techniques and Neurolinguistic Programming. She learned to appreciate the beauty of sexuality and childbirth from her father, who would say that childbirth was a natural phenomenon and should be painless. Years later, when she learned of the Lamaze Technique, she trained with Mrs. Bing, the only physiotherapist teaching the method in New York at the time. Joyce became the first lay teacher of Lamaze in the United States and is a founder of the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstretrics, as well as the American Center for the Alexander Technique.
Currently, Joyce has taken on the daunting task of learning orchestration. She composed a piece for a singer that she felt should be performed with an orchestra. Since hiring an orchestrator who was up to her standards of excellence was prohibitively expensive, she decided to do it herself. She began teaching herself from books, but realized that she could only get the feedback that she needed from a teacher and began taking private lessons. She feels that this pursuit is bringing her deeper into music than ever before in her life.
Joyce compares learning orchestration with climbing Mt. Everest. Along with the challenges and hazards comes a certain excitement. Orchestration, Joyce says, "poses an interesting problem to you. The thrill that comes with it; that's why you do it. It gives you back something. If you go out just to have a good time, you have a good time and feel good. But that's not enough for me. That's what you call a creative person. For the creative person, if they're not creating, they feel that their life ... that there's a gap in their life. You can fill it up, but it doesn't get ful-filled."
Joyce is married to photographer Olaf Ringdahl, and they've been "having a marvelous time together" for 40 years. She advocates marrying someone you love and have lived with for at least two years. As for the future, the study of music continues to be her life's work. Along with that, she would love to live in foreign countries and study languages. She is continually working on her French and has made frequent visits to Paris, and she would love to learn other languages as well.
When I asked what advice she would give, Joyce suggested finding some kind of balance in your life. Find out who you are beyond the external pressures of family or society to be or do something, to have children. Examine your life, examine your choices. Discover what really drives you, rather than just doing what's expected of you. How would you live your life? If there's something that you have to do, are you willing to take the risk?
The word "old" has taken on a stigma in our society, but our later years can be a rich time of life. With aging and a waning libido, there are fewer distractions, and it's a great time to focus on things of the mind. Joyce Suskind is living proof that creativity doesn't have to diminish as you grow older, but can build on a lifetime of knowledge and experience, with a deeper sense of appreciation for all that life offers.
Mardo Williams was born in 1905 in an historic Ohio farmhouse. He began his writing career in 1927 as the only reporter at the Kenton, Ohio daily, the News-Republican, covering everything from sports events to major tragedies. He moved in 1945 to the copy desk of the Columbus Dispatch, becoming first a travel writer and later going on to write a daily business column with his byline. After mandatory retirement in 1970, he continued to write for a PR firm and edited a weekly trade paper.
When Mardo's wife of 65 years died in 1992, his daughters urged him to keep busy by writing down some of the family stories they had heard as children, drawing on a treasure trove of photos, letters, notes and newspaper clippings his mother had saved. At the age of 88, he bought a computer and learned to use it. (So much for excuses about being too old to learn computers!) What began as a 50-page memoir about his mother's 110 years that his children and grandchildren could enjoy and learn from blossomed over the next two years into a 335-page book paralleling his mother's life with the emergence of modernized America. Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up With The Country was published by Calliope Press in 1996. And then at the age of 91, Mardo gathered his courage and, accompanied by his daughters, found himself on the road doing book signings, talks at libraries and senior complexes, and radio and TV interviews, along with writing a children's book patterned after the adventures of his four great-grandchildren.
In his travels, Mardo has run into old friends and lost relatives, as well as meeting many new people. Last year, he autographed a book for Ann Davis, a former co-worker from the Columbus Dispatch who saw him on television and tracked him down at his daughter's house to buy the book. She became his biggest fan and has personally promoted his book, carrying a copy with her wherever she goes. They started going out dining and dancing and now share a home in Florida. Together, they are writing a novel about a romance between two 80-year-olds that they hope will inspire others to find the happiness that they have.
Mardo wrote his book as a tribute to his mother, and it has changed his life. He urges people not to sit home alone, but to use their talents. "If you can sing, then sing. If you can write, then write. Volunteer. Find new experiences. Commit yourself to a new interest." But then this is a man whose mother, upon moving into a retirement center at the age of 106, first asked, "Do you have an exercise program?" and then, without waiting for a reply, added, "Well, I'm sure if you don't, you'll set one up for me, because I have a lot of living to do yet."
What more can I say.
You're never too old to start something new. And with all the breakthroughs in health and longevity, many of us will be living longer, healthier lives. According to Dr. Richard Restak, the brain can actually expand the connections between neurons if we continue to be intellectually stimulated and curious. And we can even push the physical barriers. A friend of mine performs with a group of dancers over 40, and the video Age Is No Barrierfeatures a team of gymnasts aged 55 to 77.
While you may not be starting your ballet or baseball career at the age of 75, there are many things you can do that are suitable for any age. Dreams have no age limit. And when the kids are grown and you don't have to be concerned about going to a job every day, you can take the time to savor your new studies and accomplishments. Personally, I'm looking forward to taking piano lessons and learning to speak Italian. And who knows . . . maybe I'll finally get to perform on Broadway!
The latest research shows that staying physically active can prevent a lot of the diseases and deterioration we traditionally associate with old age. Create a strategy for keeping physically fit throughout your life. Choose forms of exercise that are appropriate for your abilities at different times in your life. If the sport or practice you've been doing since your teens is starting to get too strenuous, look for other forms you can begin to learn now -- like tai chi, yoga or ballroom dancing -- that you can do indefinitely. And walking is always beneficial at any age.
"Life is not a 'brief candle.' It is a splendid torch that I want to make burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
(click on the book or tape graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)
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