June 12, 2010


I had coffee with a woman last week whose friendship I’ve enjoyed for years.  Spending time with her is like playing in a room full of champagne bubbles. She makes me laugh and so it’s hard to believe that in a week she turns 80. Good genes are one explanation for her energy; but her interest in all things creative is another. That’s why I shouldn’t have been surprised that she handed me a gift when we met, though it wasn’t my birthday.

She’d made a box — not an ordinary box, but one she’d fashioned from scraps of magazine pages. She’d rolled them into pencil sized tubes and glued them together to form a colorful container. Today it sits on my coffee table and holds my remote controls: TV, DVD and videos (Yes, I still have videos). In thanking her for the gift, I remarked on how creative it was, an observation she dismissed: “I needed something to do with my hands.”

People often react like my friend when I compliment them on their talents, whether it’s the ability to arrange flowers or make a buttery pie crust. “Oh, I’m not the least bit artistic. I could never write the way you do,” they demur.

I always take umbrage at that sort of protest. Everyone has at least one aptitude and oddly enough writing is the easiest to perfect. Language is our birthright, part of the homo sapien brain. If we are honest with ourselves, we all engage in the guilty pleasure of putting our thoughts to paper. We write diaries, send angry letters to newspaper editors, or complain to a manufacturer about a faulty product. Occasionally, we even write thank you notes.   

Last Friday, I visited my 94 year-old-mother at her assisted living facility. We sat outdoors in a lovely garden where petunias and geraniums and roses tumbled in riotous abundance. Not far away sat an old man confined to his wheel chair and bent with age. He didn’t look up when we entered the garden nor the entire time my mother and I sat talking. He was writing in a spiral binder, working his way slowly across the page. Twice I had to pass him on an errand and each time, I noted his progress. Eventually, he filled one sheet and was about to turn another. What thoughts had so transported him that he was oblivious to the external world, I wondered. Was it a love letter, a protest against too much broccoli on the menu, or a memoir for his descendants? It little mattered. The depth of his concentration made him a writer.

That ability to be carried away, to be so engaged in the act of creating that the world falls from view, is the basis of all art. The end product, whether it is good or bad is not the sole measure of the project’s worth. The old man in the garden, Betty at her work table, Tolstoy in his library, or the Beatles in their recording studio, they have this in common: they loved what they were doing.