Staying Healthy and Creative as I Age by Joan Z. Rough

In my thirties I was busy raising two kids, being a housewife, and a fiber artist. Cleaning toilets, doing laundry, and cooking meals were all part of the job. I also cared for a small flock of sheep and Angora goats. A dozen hens kept us supplied with fresh eggs all year round. I learned how to spin yarn from the fleeces my sheep and goats provided, then dyed those yarns with plants gathered from my garden and the roadsides of Northern Vermont, where I lived at the time. After weaving those yarns into a variety of goods, I went to craft fairs where I sold my finished products … pillows, bags, ponchos, and scarves. Amidst all of that I found time to go cross-country skiing most days in winter, sit in the shade and read a good book in summer, and spent lots of time with family and friends. Sure I was tired at the end of each day, but I rarely felt as overwhelmed as I feel these days.

I’m seventy-five years old now and live with my husband, two dogs, and a cat. I have a housekeeper and help in the garden when I need it. No I don’t have the energy I had way back when, but I’m an active walker, take classes in Yoga, and Pilates every week. My book, Scattering Ashes, A Memoir of Letting Go, was published in September. In addition, I publish a weekly blog post and a newsletter on the first of every month. I rise at dawn and by the time 9 PM rolls around I’m ready for a good night’s sleep.

But I’m frustrated and overwhelmed by all that I have to do.

I simply want to have more time in my studio for free writing, painting, keeping a visual journal, and making all kinds of visual art. Add to that, time for reading and puttering in the garden. You’d think that without all the responsibilities I used to have I’d be sitting pretty with all sorts of time to spare. But along with my age, and my energy levels, times have changed. We live in a culture driven by the rush, rush,woman-with-a-cup-of-tea-picjumbo-com rush of technology. Speed limits on Virginia roadways, where I now live, have been raised. A peaceful, 55 MPH drive to Washington, DC, ten years ago, is now an anxiety riddled, 65 MPH race to the finish line. Even if I wanted to drive more slowly, it’s impossible because like everyone else, I get caught up in the pace of today’s timetable.

What ever happened to the old rumor that once computers came into their own, work weeks would become shorter and we’d all have leisure time for whatever it is we love doing most?

I heard a statistic that the average American checks his or her email eleven times an hour. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Using a cell phone, we can connect to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Maybe we do have fewer absolutely necessary things to do in physical time. But now we’re expected to fit more into our days. Stress levels are higher than ever and we all suffer from the new ailment, FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. Regardless of bumper to bumper, fast-moving traffic, too many of us make calls and answer our cell phones when we’re behind the wheel, causing accidents. We’re a high-speed, be there first, crazy society that is on it’s way to causing it’s own destruction. And we’re moving so fast we’re not paying attention to how we feel and what this craziness is doing to us.

It’s taken me a long time to notice that my body tells me when I’m moving too fast, tired, about to get sick, am anxious about some world crisis, or trying to make important decisions. Until the past year or so I didn’t connect my sudden, painful but brief headaches with the fact that I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off and stressed beyond reason. Naturally, when they hit, I would sit down. Once my body relaxed and my heart rate slowed down, the headaches magically disappeared. I think it’s something all of us need to pay attention to.

When I’m tired and must keep moving because of an approaching deadline, I often notice that my vision isn’t as acute as it usually is, my energy level starts lagging, and my body feels heavy. If I take a breather from my work, take a short walk around the block, do some much-needed stretching, or take a twenty-minute nap, my energy bounces back and I can easily pick up where I left off. But being an unreasonable citizen of this crazed time, I often don’t do those things because I feel I’m too far behind. My weekly Pilates sessions are late on Monday afternoons, about the time I’m dragging and wanting to crash and burn. I force myself to go, but once I’m there and start moving my body, a new energy kicks in. I always feel like a new person afterwards and I’m good for the rest of the day and into the evening.

Making decisions has always been messy for me. Being somewhat lazy and a people pleaser, I’ve found myself just going along with whatever someone else wanted to do, even though all I wanted was to stay home, have a big bowl of homemade chicken soup, and read a good book. (A typical sign of FOMA.) But after years of wondering what was wrong with me, I finally accepted the fact that I’m an introvert and always will be. In order to feel happy and healthy I need to be careful about what I agree to do, keeping in mind that the big event a friend or family member wants me to attend with them is not my cup of tea.

So I’ve come up with a way to make decision and keep myself on an even keel. I consciously invite my body, mind and spirit to help me figure out what I want and/or need. We’re all one, after all. Not separate entities. If I feel especially excited about going to an event and can’t wait to go, there is not doubt that I’ll be there regardless of what it takes. If I feel only somewhat interested in attending, I take extra time to think about what I really want. If I push myself to give in to things I feel so-so about, I’m usually sorry later. I like to sleep on those items until all the pros and cons come to the surface, even if it takes a few days. If nothing arises to peak my interest, it’s a no go.

I’ve also discovered that sometimes it’s a good idea to procrastinate about deciding what to do. More often than not, something else arises to let me know that I don’t need to worry about it. I’ll suddenly remember a forgotten promise I made to be somewhere else, or something even more interesting and exciting comes along. And at my age, it’s okay to change my mind if I realize at the last-minute that I need to stay home and take care of myself.

When I feel the need to do that, it usually means I’m noticing that I’m exhausted, need to slow down, landscape-690617_1280meditate, take a walk or a nap, or simply sit and stare into space. On cold nights in the winter it helps to soak in a tub of steaming hot water, laced with Epsom salts and a few drops of lavender oil. Sipping a cup a hot tea while reading with feet up is also one of the most relaxing things I can do, as well as writing in my journal. I’ve learned that being able to say NO isn’t really a big deal and that setting aside an afternoon to throw paint around in my studio is one of the best medicines out there. And nothing beats laughter to get back on the map. I often see life as a slap stick, comedy of errors. Why not laugh about it? What else can we do?

I’ve been stuck on a treadmill of SHOULDS, needing to keep up with the world in order to be successful. I’m finally letting go of that idea. Unless I do so, there will be no time for a new story or poem to blossom. The pages of my visual journal will remain blank. And like my mind and spirit, the pots of paint waiting for me on my worktable will dry out and harden. My curiosity will die.

These days I’m not measuring my success by how many books I sell or whether or not I’m at the top of the heap. Noticing the changing of the seasons, cutting back, and replanting overgrowth in my garden, noticing an unusual birdsong, and spending quality time with myself, my family, and my friends are the things that fill me with joy. It always beats feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxiety ridden by a long shot. And it’s how I keep my creative mind at work.

About the Author: Joan Z.Rough

joanauthorbioimageJoan Z. Rough is a visual artist and writer. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, and is included in Mariflo Stephens’ anthology, Some Say Tomato. Her first book, AUSTRALIAN LOCKER HOOKING: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, was published in 1980. SCATTERING ASHES, A Memoir of Letting Go, was recently published by She Writes Press. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband, Bill, her two dogs, Sam and Max, and crazy cat Lilliput. You can follow Joan on Facebook and Twitter.