Dancing with the Muse in Old Age
November 8, 2022 at 10:18 a.m.
Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer and teacher whose work includes science, poetry, fiction, nonfiction and history. She is the founding and consulting editor of HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history.
The book explores the lives of more than one hundred dynamic elders and suggests guidelines for planning a satisfying old age.
In the introduction to Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, Long discusses her purpose for writing the book and provides an overview of the lessons learned. Below are excerpts from Long’s introduction, reprinted with permission from the publisher, Epicenter Press.
Creating—making, inventing, imagining—is our human birthright, no matter our age. So why focus on old age? We are an aging society. We are all aging and in my own case it has gotten to the point of 79 years old. For me—for all of us—there couldn’t be a better time to consider how to approach our forthcoming or existing old age.
Dancing with the Muse in Old Age works against ageism and for creativity. It reflects the new ways of looking at old age: as a potentially dynamic and productive time full of connections to others and deeply satisfying work, whether paid or unpaid. It offers numerous models of people who grew to be very old while also living remarkably creative and productive lives. Some were able-bodied; others were disabled in one way or another.
There are any number of ways of being creative and productive in old age. Here I focus primarily—but not entirely—on the arts. This is because I have lived much of my life in the arts. But this book is for everyone who is aging. The lives of the dozens of vital, engaged, and even brilliant elders presented in this book model for us all how to grow old, no matter what our goals and endeavors. These aged persons—whether they play the piano or compose poems or dance or paint or write novels or memoirs or take photographs or design a garden or fight fires (yes), or begin college at age 94, or work for justice—keep on growing, learning, and creating. Even disability does not stop them.
Old age is in fact an excellent time to begin any new work, whether paid or volunteer, whether in the capacious world of the arts or in some other world. The elders presented in this book, who thrive in the face of ageism, are evidence.
Ageism poisons creativity. And ageism—the deep and often unconscious prejudice against old age and against the old—is, in our American society, rampant. We are saturated with it. Otherwise, why would people be so reluctant to state their age? Why is it the height of rudeness to ask? Because it’s bad to be old and the older you are, the worse it is! And you may very well face discrimination.
Ageism hurts us all. As we’ll see, it hurts the young. And self-inflicted or internalized ageism is an important cause of decline. Let me repeat that. Self-inflicted ageism is an important cause of decline.
Most of us harbor at least some negative attitudes toward aging. It’s hard to avoid considering how thoroughly ageism saturates our culture. It is a personal project of mine to thoroughly assimilate the notion that old age can bring with it advantages, privileges, and pleasures not afforded by the younger ages.
What about the issue of revealing one’s age? My identical twin sister was always a bear on the subject. Please do not reveal our age! Thank you! Then I wrote a creative nonfiction piece, an abecedarian, titled “O Is for Old.” This appeared in a literary journal. Trust me. You cannot write a piece titled “O Is for Old” without revealing your own age. But Pamela was okay with this, since it was a literary journal and “nobody will read it anyhow.” But then, guess what? She received the prestigious MacArthur genius award for her amazing scholarship on the history of technology. Our age, 71 at the time, was broadcast around the world. I think she was the oldest or one of the oldest to ever receive this honor. In any case all kinds of people wrote to me to say congratulations on my sister’s award. But they would add, as if it were a mistake to be corrected: “But...they said you were 71!” I have now begun the practice of stating my age whenever it comes up or is appropriate. Guess what? I am now 79, and guess what? I can still type!
In old age, creative work can thrive. And in doing creative work, the person in old age can thrive. In this book I explore old painters, old writers, old filmmakers, old poets, old composers, old choreographers, old dancers, old photographers, old musicians, old sculptors, old printmakers, old designers. I am interested in artists and in everyday creators who become productive or remain productive into very old age and who in old age produce beautiful and meaningful works, whether world-renowned or known only to a few friends.
The arts, of course, are not the only place where the very old have made very significant contributions.
These brilliant old creators for me serve as models of how to grow into old age if one should be so lucky as to get to old age. Their very lives pulverize the stereotype of old age as a time of decrepitude and decline.
Dancing with the Muse in Old Age considers aging (and ageism) in terms of demographics and resources in the United States and beyond; the current science on aging and the brain and on aging and happiness.
Whatever age we are, whatever our vocation or avocation, our understandings around aging can profoundly affect our own flourishing as persons and as creators. It is my hope that, within each of our lives, this book will help tilt the balance against ageism and toward creativity.
“In Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, Priscilla Long writes with the passion of a poet, the enthusiasm of a coach, and the inquiring mind of a scientist. Read this book for its vivacity, its anecdotes, and its insights.” –Laura Kalpakian, author of Memory Into Memoir.
There will be a virtual book launch at Elliott Bay Books November 15 at 6:00 PM: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/priscilla-long-dancing-with-the-muse-in-old-age-with-bethany-reid-tickets-429907824877