May 7, 2004
Learning for Life
by Trudy Boyle
Not long ago an acquaintance and I were discussing the art of aging gracefully or living well at any age. She told me that her biggest fear was that she might
become like her mother. Although I didn't say so at the time, I thought how my
fear would be that I might not become like mine.
What is it that is so admirable about my mother? She is not wealthy nor famous, hasn't written a book, nor run a marathon and her name won't be included in the book of "who's who." Yet, my mother is an inspiration to me and many other people. Just one of the many reasons her family admires her is due to the practice she began on her 65th birthday, which was to learn something new every year.
For example, at the age of seventy-five she announced that she would learn to swim. Considering she had nearly drowned as a child and been terrified of water ever since, we were obviously surprised. It took persistence and effort for mom to learn how to swim. Almost two years went by, before she started to have any ease in the pool. Tempted to give up many times, she kept splashing along because what she discovered is that even while swimming unskillfully she felt better, looked better and had more energy. We had fun in those early days as she kept track of the laps and converted them into kilometers. I once asked her at what point she had lost her fear of the water. "I haven't lost it," she said. "I'm still afraid of the water but I have discovered I can swim anyway."
As she kept track of the distance she swam, she translated it into a goal of swimming the distance to the next town. Then we would meet in that town for lunch to celebrate as she achieved her goal. As time went on she gave up those goals and swam for the sake of swimming. Now, for the past three years,my friend and I join her early in the morning, three times a week, to swim laps at the local aquatic centre. We make sure to show up since, rain or shine, my 84 year-old Mother is waiting for us as we walk off the ferry car warmed up, and ready to go.
When my stepbrother died suddenly from cancer the year that she turned 80, it was painful for us all. Mother found her own way to cope with the terrible loss that year by picking up a brush for the first time and beginning and read the books, she learned how to paint. Now my sister and I and all the grandchildren have original watercolors on our walls. She painted place cards for the table for all fourteen of us spring flowers for Easter and winter scenes for Christmas. Of course, she gave me a few extras for unexpected guests. As my artist friend says, "all of her paintings and sketches contain something that most amateur art does not spirit, generosity and attention to detail."
In her 70's, when many of her friends turned over the programming of electronic equipment to their grandchildren things like VCR's, movie cameras, televisions she got out the directions and learned to do things herself. From filming and editing movies of trips with her husband, to taping TV programs she might be interested in later, she simply took the time to learn how to operate equipment. When her husband's eyes deteriorated with the onset of macular degeneration, she suddenly found herself in the position of being the head driver at age 77. For twenty five years, she had been the passenger when they drove together. Driving meant more than going to the store or to the doctor's office. Now it meant helping with the drive to Arizona and back, where she and my stepfather spent the four months of winter. Once again, she demonstrated her ongoing ability to stay open to learning new things.
Whether it is putting up the Christmas lights on her balcony, doing her taxes, or travelling across the continent to see her sick brother she simply sees what needs doing and if she can do it she does, and if not, she gets the help she needs. Learning and being realistic is part of who she is. Being a beginner is always difficult and is made no easier when you are 80. We all seem to want to be smarter, more talented and a bit more clever than we really are. But what she has come to see is that you don't know what you can do until you've done it. "Paint, swim, use a movie camera why I have no idea how," she used to say. After learning and practicing she looks at her work and thinks, "who did that?"
Learning was not exercised by my mother through some kind of discipline and will power, although to a degree they were present in the beginning. Her approach to learning was more about curiosity and wonder, with a good measure of perseverance added to the mix. Let's see how it goes. What happens next? "Isn't this exciting when you mix this color with that one. And look at how you make snow?" This year it is rug hooking, along with more classes in watercolor, not to mention the peripheral pleasure and joy that comes from all this creativity and learning. "Look at the way It's never too late to learn. I see people's faces light up in surprise when they hear that my mother learned to swim at age 75, or when they look at the first watercolor she did at 80. "Maybe it's not too late for me," they exclaim. They see that she is just an ordinary woman, but with an extraordinary talent for living and learning and loving. (that's another story)
Trudy Boyle is the Assistant Editor of Thirty Thousand Days and lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada. Her primary work is presenting principles of Constructive Living to organizations. She is a ToDo Institute alumni and former President of the Board of Directors.Posted on May 7, 2004 9:15 PM