MY soul, sit thou a patient looker-on;
Judge not the play before the play is done:
Her plot hath many changes; every day
Speaks a new day; the last act crowns the play.
From the first moment that I met Margaret, I was blown away. It was my first day of watercolor class in college and I was anxious, frightened and fidgeting with all of my shiny new supplies while waiting for students and the teacher to arrive. One glance around the room had already told me that I was in over my head, that there was much more talent surrounding me than I had bargained for. The class was a combination class. Newbies like me jumped in at the beginning and tried to keep up as more accomplished artists painted around them. The theory was that by observing others, there would be more growth.
Yeah right, I was going to look like a preschooler with finger-paint.
I began re-packing my things. With five minutes to spare, I figured I could withdraw from the class, no harm done and go sign up at the local park district where I belonged, before anyone had even realized I was in the room.
Then she burst in.
She was tall and rim-rod straight, with perfect posture that a soldier would pay good money for. She pulled behind her a cart with three large cases filled, presumably, with art supplies and canvases. “Good MORNING everybody,” she boomed in a huge strong voice. “IT is a BeaUTiful day.” She marched over to a table, bustling about in a flurry of energy and began unpacking everything from the cases.
I tried to keep my mouth from hanging open.
Margaret’s hair was silver-gray, piled high on top of her head, wound in a long braided bun. Her face wore the road map of many years and many troubles, with lines upon lines intersecting with each other. My brain struggled to keep up with the information it was receiving. The hair, the wrinkles, the thin blue skin with whispers of veins running through it, all spoke of a woman at the end of her life. She had to be in her nineties. But the voice, the posture, the energy, the vibrancy which radiated out of her being screamed No way. This is youth, not age, she can’t be as old as she looks.
I was wrong. She was 93 years old.
The story of Margaret unfolded bit by bit that semester. I learned more about the illusion of age then I did about how to be a great painter in those 16 weeks. I was grateful for the lesson. Margaret was an amazing artist. What she could do with a little brush and pots of paint was astounding. Her paintings were hanging in galleries and selling for $4000.00 each for an original. She came to paint in class with us just for the fun of being around people. She had never even picked up a paintbrush until her late 70’s after her beloved husband had passed away. Then, with her children grown and no one at home, she decided to go to college and get a degree. A random art class had led to painting and she never stopped.
I asked her what her secret to long life was.
“Never stop learning,” she said. “Keep trying something new. You have to make mistakes and figure things out. Oh, and be stubborn. I’m very stubborn. Oh..and don’t forget to walk. I walk every day.” Margaret was big on walking. Every day, she hauled in twice as much stuff as the rest of us. She parked at the far end of the parking lot and walked briskly to the room. She had two big dogs at home that she claimed to walk every day after her morning meditations.
If you asked her if she wanted help with something, you could expect a glare. She may have been a sweet, old lady, but she was unwaveringly independent. She didn’t believe in being beholden to anyone, for anything. She was proud, strong and fiercely young at heart.
I lost contact with Margaret after that semester. I finished the class and moved on with my life. Margaret stayed in school for another 4 years, painting in that same room and making a decent living from selling her art. I was saddened to open the local newspaper one morning to see the headline begin with “Oldest College Student has Died…” with a picture of Margaret and one of my personal favorite paintings of hers on the front page. She had still been in school at 97 years old.
There are so many lessons I have learned from Margaret. It’s never too late to begin, never too late to let creativity shine. But the most important lessons she taught me are about self-discipline. About the daily rituals and practices that kept her going. Her stubborn refusal to back down from her practices. She meditated and walked EVERY DAY. She painted EVERY DAY. She carried her load. She didn’t make excuses. She didn’t resist the hard work. And she was grateful for the BEAUTIFUL day, and reminded us all the time to remember the precious good moments.
Never stop learning. Try something new. Make mistakes. Figure things out. Don’t forget to walk. Be stubborn about what is important. Meditate. Do your Work and do your Art. And whatever you do…don’t stop.
The legacy of an Artist.