In T’s advice column, Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. Is it true that if a woman hasn’t achieved her highest good by age 55 she never will? Do you have any books or films you’d recommend about women yearning for more creatively? I have loved celebrating the work of others and wonder what my best work is or if it has been done yet.
Kamala Harris turned 56 last October, shortly before she was elected vice president of the United States; the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature at age 57, while she was working on two new books. So 55 is hardly a border beyond which all is shadow. True, in the middle of adulthood it’s easy to envy those merely on the brink of it, with their imagined freedom to wander and aspire and their seemingly endless (and endlessly squandered) free time — forgetting how much of those rootless years were eaten up by uncertainty and fear. I, too, would love to be 20 once more, however miserable I actually was back then.
But surely the word “best” is no more useful for comparing early and late work than for defining the different times of your life. Watch the Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung’s cinematic debut at age 23 as a provincial girl turned housemaid then femme fatale in the acclaimed 1971 psycho-horror film “Hwanyeo” (“Woman of Fire”), directed by Kim Ki-young, and then see her Oscar-winning performance, nearly half a century later, as a wily grandmother in “Minari” (2020). In both she commands the eye, even defies the limits of it. Her response to aging was to stop compromising, whatever the cost: “Since I turned 65, I decided to be extravagant,” she declared at a press conference last year. “I just wanted to work with people I like and people who want me, regardless of money or fame.”
Every age has its grandeur and despair, every age its promise. At 28, the American champion endurance swimmer Diana Nyad tried to swim from Cuba to Key West, Fla., a distance of around 110 miles, and after nearly 42 hours was pulled out of the water, still far from her destination. Thirty-three years later, after decades of not swimming at all, she tried again, in a quixotic quest chronicled in the documentary “The Other Shore” (2013), which follows her year after year as her attempts are derailed — by box jellyfish whose stings nearly shut down her lungs, by winds that sweep her miles off-course and by the weaknesses of her body, with its old pains and remembered failures — until her swimming becomes a kind of performance art, a protest on behalf of human possibility, making suffering its own vindication.
There is a quiet ferocity to continuing, a force captured in the Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas’s 2012 short film, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” which offers a portrait of her mother, Sandra Bush, a statuesque former model and, before she fell ill with kidney disease, the glamorous subject of a number of Thomas’s paintings. Here Thomas interrogates her own framing of her mother’s beauty, as Bush speaks to the tumult of her past, answering intimate questions about her difficult marriage to Thomas’s father and her drug addiction, while maintaining an armor of elegance — rich dark lipstick, light glancing off her jewelry — and regal to the end. (She died shortly after the film premiered.)
In “The Summer Book” (1972), the Finnish writer Tove Jansson chronicles the relationship of an older woman and her 6-year-old grandchild, the two of them startlingly alike in mercurialness and jags of imagination. The grandmother carves wooden animals and scatters them around the forest, to be absorbed into its dark corners, and leads her young charge on an expedition to snoop around a neighbor’s ungainly new house, which blocks their view of the horizon. When the duo fight, the elder tries to recall her own rebellious childhood and remembers only docility, but, “wise as she was, she realized that people can postpone their rebellious phases until they’re eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.”
So: Rebel. On a practical note, consider consulting Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” (1992), a book of gentle proddings and a 12-week plan of exercises to help you stop derailing yourself. Parts of it may make you feel silly or uncomfortable, but it will force you to set aside time for your creative work — which at first might mean simply doing nothing at all. “Because of the compulsion of work and production, we are losing the capacity to play,” the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in “The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present” (2020). Dare to dawdle; to create without purpose; to be mediocre, even outright bad, at whatever it is you want to try.
In short, let yourself waste time, as if you were young again and too immortal to know any better. Yes, this can and will be terrifying. But when you waver, give heed to the great Cuban-born salsa singer Celia Cruz, who, at 73, recorded a cover of the disco anthem “I Will Survive” and, utterly undiminished by age, made it her own, insisting, “Yo Viviré.”