This post is by regular contributing writer, John P. Weiss. John is an artist and writer living in Northern California. He studied landscape painting extensively with Scott L. Christensen and served as editorial cartoonist with several newspapers. John is also a retired police chief with over 26 years of law enforcement experience.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
- Dylan Thomas
When Bob Lee called me several years ago, I figured it was just another work related matter. As Chief of Police in my community, I was accustomed to calls from the District Attorney.
“Hi Bob, I hope we didn’t mess up an investigation or something,” I said over the phone with a chuckle.
“Nope, not at all,” Bob answered. Then there was a pause. Pauses always make me uncomfortable. Especially from the District Attorney.
“John, you’re one of the most creative, artistic guys I know.” Bob paused again, clearly buttering me up.
“The County Treasurer just backed out and you’re the perfect guy to bail me out,” Bob continued. He added, “It’s a silly little thing, really, but something to cross off your bucket list.”
I didn’t have a bucket list. Bucket lists are about achieving life goals before you kick the bucket. I didn’t plan on kicking the bucket anytime soon, so I figured not having a bucket list insulated me from the inevitable.
“So Bob, what’s this ‘silly little thing’ you want me to do?” I asked warily.
“I want you to dance in the Nutcracker with me this Christmas,” Bob answered.
“Dance in the Nutcracker? Like…ballet?” I said.
“It’s a silly little thing, really,” Bob replied.
A wakening experience
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal chronicled how “retirement communities and colleges are teaming up so older learners can audit classes.”
The article introduces Henry Nusbaum, who will soon be turning 103 years old. Henry is taking a college class on Medieval history. He wears a head set to hear the instructor better and keeps extra pens in a pocket on his walker.
What struck me in the article is what Henry had to say about his intellectual curiosity:
“This, to me, is a wakening experience. I find the way to continue to enjoy life is to live it, to be involved, to participate in as many programs as I could gracefully, without interfering.”
Henry lives in a retirement community where he and several other residents in their late 80’s and older can audit classes for free at the adjacent college.
The article noted the “popularity of higher education in the later decades of life. The National Center for Education Statistics counted more than 66,000 people over the age of 64 enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2013, the most recent year for which the figures were available.”
There are similar arrangements around the country, whereby older folks can audit college classes for free. They don’t have to take the tests or do the homework, but some do.
Beyond the enrichment and intellectual stimulation these classes provide for the elderly, another plus are the cross generational conversations that occur with the younger students.
Clearly, the zest for life and intellectual engagement doesn’t have to evaporate in old age. Some make the decision that they’re simply not done yet. There is more to learn and experience.
I’ve seen two kinds of spirits in the assisted living community where my mother lives. The first are the ones who have given up. There’s no more fight left in them.
The second group are the spirited ones. Often they’re angry. They’ve still got things they want to do. Stuff they want to say and learn.
They’re the ones that “refuse to go gentle into that good night.” They’ve decided to tap into their anger and use it as fuel to move forward.
Weekends with Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy
The last thing I wanted to do was perform in the County’s Nutcracker production. My job left precious free time for family, exercise and artwork. Bob told me that that there would be several rehearsals each month leading up to the big production.
I liked Bob and didn’t want to disappoint him. I also knew it was important to have good relations with the District Attorney’s Office. Begrudgingly, I agreed.
It wasn’t long before I regretted it. The rehearsals turned out to be every weekend leading up to the big night. Every Saturday for a few hours, I had to go to rehearsal.
I got to know the performers playing Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy. They taught us how to apply stage make up and dance. The teasing from the guys at the police department was relentless. Here’s a photo of me in character.
I started to resent the commitment that I had signed on to. I quickly got tired of the grief I received from my coworkers. Even my family started to complain about the time away.
The experience was making me grumpy and angry. I felt a bit put upon and irritated that I had no time left for my painting and writing. But then I decided to channel my anger. I decided that I’d show everyone, by willing myself to do a great performance. “Like it or not, I’m going to make this a positive experience,” I told myself.
Keeping PACE with my artwork
I retired from my law enforcement career last December. Finally, I’d have the time to start painting more. Sometimes, however, things don’t go as planned.
My writing schedule for my blog, newsletter subscribers and other websites had increased substantially. To support my wife (a hospice nurse) I took over more household duties like laundry, vacuuming and making dinner. I was also exercising more. But I wasn’t painting much.
I adjusted my morning schedule and finally started painting, but the work was rusty. Stale. I could tell I wanted to change things up and develop a new direction for my art. Unfortunately, I was in an artistic funk.
A reader of my blog was kind enough to send me a discount coupon for the upcoming Plein Air Convention and Expo (PACE 2017) this April in San Diego. And you know what? I considered not going.
I was angry that my painting was not further along. I thought maybe I should just use the time in April to do a ton of studies.
But then I started to channel my anger. “If you’re unhappy about your work, do something about it. Stop making excuses. Go the convention, get re-inspired and stop this whining,” I told myself.
So, I’m signed up to attend the convention and excited to invest in my artistic growth. All because my anger motivated me to take action. I guess sometimes the best way to keep “pace” with your artistic growth is to channel your anger and frustration into something productive.
The surprising value of anger
Here’s the thing about anger. It can be destructive. I read somewhere that “anger is a hot coal you throw at the person you’re angry with. But you still burn your hand.”
Unresolved anger can lead to health problems and endless unhappiness. But the reality is that we’re all human. Sometimes we get angry. At ourselves, other people or circumstances. What matters is what we do with that anger.
The surprising value of anger is that, when properly channeled, it can fuel positive action and solutions.
Remember my district attorney friend, Bob Lee? He died two years later, in his early fifties, of cancer. Looking back, I was so glad I channeled my anger about those weekend Nutcracker rehearsals into seeing my commitment through.
After opening night at the Nutcracker, the entire cast celebrated backstage with champagne. I remember Bob was beaming as he looked at me and said, “Wasn’t that great! Cross it off your bucket list, John!”
It might have been a “silly little thing,” but fortunately I was able to channel my anger. I stayed the course and danced in the Nutcracker. It’s something that I’ll always cherish.
I suspect my experience at the Plein Air Convention and Expo this April will also be a positive experience. Much like taking college classes is for a 103 year old gentleman who still wants to learn.
So, whatever you’re angry about, channel it into something productive. Work toward that solution, and I think you’ll be surprised and happy with the results.
Have you channeled anger in a positive way? Share a comment below.
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