I am 67, retired and have a loving husband but little enthusiasm for anything. I went to art school in the 1960s, which were the best years of my life. I tried to qualify but two attempts at degrees failed due to problems with grants. I ended up working in the NHS for over 20 years. I could join an art group, but so many paint kittens and harbour scenes – not for me! I have good art knowledge. I volunteer at a nationally recognised gallery as a room steward once a week. I also have fibromyalgia and wear hearing aids which make me feel quite isolated.
This problem first appeared in The Observer
This probably isn’t your whole letter, but it is nonetheless fascinating that you have written this to a newspaper advice columnist. At first glance it is very difficult to know what you are asking, or what you are asking for. Are you asking for permission to paint freely? For praise for your hard work and achievements? For pity for your ‘failed’ attempts at a degree? Or admonishment for same?
You list your achievements and failures in a dismissive way, as though you feel there’s nothing to be done. It feels less like a plea for help than an announcement that there is no help to be had. You anticipate what the columnist might suggest and dismiss her as yet unspoken platitudes out of hand. You imagine that any advice will, so to speak, fall on deaf ears.
And it is your last sentence that I think contains the plea for help. You feel isolated. It seems you’ve felt isolated since leaving art school without a degree. Your husband’s love, your 20 year career, your volunteering and your ‘good art knowledge’ have not penetrated your sense of isolation. If I suggested, as you suspect your reader will, that you ‘join an art group’ you would not be able to hear that as encouragement or as support. You would hear it as criticism and denigration. You would hear; ‘Your painting is so rubbish that you should join some crap art group.’ You can’t imagine someone valuing you enough to suggest you do a degree now or, really, enough to hear what you’re trying to say at all. You yourself refuse to hear it, refuse to have any sympathy for your sense of pointlessness and isolation.
There is anger in your letter. Anger at the grants system that failed you, at the fools who paint kittens, at those who fail to recognise your knowledge and qualifications. You seem angry too that you ‘ended up’ working in the NHS, as though someone made you do it against your will, you were powerless to resist. You want to blame someone else, to shirk responsibility for your own life. There is a sense that things are unfair, that you’ve been hard done by. It’s interesting that you work as a room steward – a job that requires you to be vigilant, to make sure others obey the rules. It sounds as though you feel you have obeyed the rules all your life, only to find that nobody is going to reward you (or nationally recognise you) for it. Perhaps you were brought up to believe that obedience would be rewarded and you are finding that to have been a cruel lie.
Your whole letter sounds like a response to someone saying; ‘What have you ever really done? You’re such a failure! You should join some old ladies’ art group.’ You then reply with what is almost a demand for recognition, a defence against perceived attack. You project all your negative feeling about yourself into others, assume it to be there in reality and then defend yourself against all your own slights by saying; ‘It’s not my fault!’
There is a feeling that you are waiting for this national recognition to come to you, but you feel that making an effort to find it might be construed as weak or needy. Perhaps enthusiasm itself, which you say you lack, might be weak and needy, linked to the kitten painters.
All the anger and bluster is a fairly flimsy defence against helplessness. Your short life summary is perhaps a kind of ‘was that it?’ question – an acknowledgement that you are coming to the end of your life and a rage against inevitable annihilation. The idea that someone might say; ‘But that doesn’t have to be it! You can join an art group!’ is, of course, utterly absurd in the face of mortality. This anger and disappointment that you obeyed the rules as your parents required but have not been granted immortality is overwhelming.
I suspect that the feelings of isolation and being cut off from the rest of the world, the art students who qualified, the people visiting the gallery, the art group members, are feelings you have always lived with, perhaps as a result of not being the preferred sibling, of not receiving deserved praise, or of not truly being heard (re. now not hearing). You have therefore isolated yourself with a superior stance whilst on some level longing to be allowed to be ordinary.
It is allowing yourself to be an ordinary woman of 67, with the achievements and failures you have had, the life you chose of your own free will, that is now your task – one you are loathe to take on. But you’ve written, and you’ve wondered (albeit very defensively) if you might reach out into the unknown, allow yourself to be helped with this transition, break your isolation. You have taken the first step and I bet it took some courage. You’ll need more.
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