Never too late to dream, discover a gift
Three times she almost quit. The inspiration wasn't there. Unlike the others in the class, she had never painted, and the challenge of creating something worthy seemed quite overwhelming.
In all her 94 years, Jean Barron hadn't even picked up a paintbrush. She knew nothing about art, didn't much care for it, had determinedly avoided art museums.
But that was before Cézanne's "The Blue Vase."
And a teacher who broke the work into manageable, unintimidating parts that seamlessly fit together, like pieces of a puzzle. When Jean was done replicating the masterpiece, she looked at her canvas with the blue vase and flowers, fruit scattered on the table.
"Did I really paint that?" she thought. "It was just amazing."
Three years later, Jean is passionate about painting. Her work is so good that local TV and newspapers are telling her story. She understands the reason they're interested is because she discovered this talent so late in life.
But then, "to be learning something new,'" she says, "that's what keeps us young."
Jean, who celebrated her 97th birthday March 18, will tell you she feels quite young. She's in total agreement with the popular notion that 60 today is the new 40.
"I am so blessed with health and, usually, a fairly sound mind," she says with a slight smile. "I don't know where the time has gone. I can't believe I'm as old as I am, and I never expected to be around at this age. ... But I don't feel like I'm older than 60. I don't feel like I'm 97, my goodness."
That self-appraisal is encouraging. I, too, recently celebrated a birthday. And like, Jean, I also feel much younger than my 54 years.
It turns out that impression isn't unusual.
The older people get, the younger they feel, according to a Pew Research survey. "Moreover," the report said, "the gap in years between actual age and 'felt age' widens as people grow older." Nearly half of survey respondents 50 and older said they felt at least 10 years younger, but among those between 65 and 74, one-third felt 10 to 19 years younger and one in six said they felt at least 20 years younger than their age.
A New York Times blog in 2008 talked about a study that found people 70 and older generally thought of themselves as 13 years younger. "This concept of how you feel about your age is so important and defines, in a way, how we act," said Jacqui Smith, a psychologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, who was interviewed in the story by Tara Parker-Pope. "If you self-define yourself as someone who is old, then you probably act that way."
Another Pew study found more than two-thirds of Americans would like to live to between 79 and 100 years old, with the median desired life span being 90 years - about 11 years longer than the U.S. life expectancy of 78.7 years.
And statistics show, adults 60 and older - because they are healthier and more active - are living longer.
So: We want to live longer. We are living longer. We are living longer better.
I like that prognosis, that extended lease on life, because I worry about not having enough time to fulfill my constantly renewing pot of dreams. I hope to be like Jean - healthy, creative, still learning, still looking for new experiences.
On this afternoon, she walks slowly, steadily, down the hall to her apartment. She has just returned from a bus trip to the Mayan exhibit at the Museum of Nature and Science. She sits on her sofa, slightly out of breath, but soon recovers.
She moved to Colorado from Ohio seven years ago, 21 years after the death of her husband, to be near her two daughters. The days go fast: Exercise and yoga three to four mornings a week, art class every Thursday afternoon, other activities and excursions interspersed.
Depending on the week, she spends two to three afternoons painting at the easel she sets up at her kitchen counter. She prefers oils to watercolors because she can more easily correct mistakes.
The time she spends coaxing the canvas to life seems almost to stand still. "I get so absorbed. ... I lose all track of time - almost a sense of wonder. I guess it's the creativity and appreciation for the gift that God has given me."
Since she began, Jean has completed 39 paintings, mostly landscapes, some for her daughters, a handful for friends, many of the Scottish countryside that links her to her heritage. Many hang on the walls throughout her apartment.
"I look at my work and I can't believe I did it, but, well, I didn't do it," she says. "The Lord and I did it together. I kept asking the Lord how I could glorify him more in my life, and this was His answer."
That faith, which takes away her worries and stress, is key to her longevity, she believes. "That's the biggest secret of a contented, healthy, long life."
Needless to say, Jean looks at art differently these days. She enjoys art museums, is curious about the masters and their styles, is fascinated by their different brushstrokes.
In her bedroom hang two paintings she did of Monet landscapes, one of a boat on water, the other of a landscape, also with water in it.
"I learned he painted on water," she says, with a touch of wonderment. "He had a boat and he just floated around and did his painting."
That, she says, would be difficult to do.
But then, she only has to paint at the easel in her kitchen to find herself transported to a place where there is just the brush and the canvas - and the miracle that comes with it.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.