Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sky above Clouds

Something happened to me when I turned 50 and it was just as significant as the change that happened on my 13th birthday when suddenly everything ... everything! ... irritated me.  The change at 50 was just as unexpected.  After a life-time of being fascinated by creativity ... other people's creativity ... but thinking it had nothing to do with me, it was like someone grabbed my ear and said, "You will listen to me ... now!"  I started taking workshops, writing poetry, making art and wondering if, just possibly, I really did have creativity within me.

I thought this was an unusual experience but I've been listening to a lecture by Dr. Gene Cohen (bio below) talking about aging and creativity and it probably isn't unusual at all.  He cites a lot of studies that show that under certain circumstances, the brain continues to grow and develop as we age.  The circumstances that turn on the brain's growth mechanism are having a stimulating challenge that requires learning in a social situation that is also fun.  But the part of his lecture that really struck me was his discussion about the "liberation phase" which shows up for most people around age 50.

This phase arrives after we have accumulated enough life experience, ideas, facts, concepts and mistakes to shift into a different way of looking at the world.  Cohen says that this phase is launched with "... friendly, inner metaphorical voices that are asking:  If not now, when?  Why not? and What can they do to me?  These are very empowering feelings.  They give people the comfort, confidence and courage to try something new."

He says we need new metaphors for aging and the possibilities that lie within us in the later stages of life.  He offers one from a story of Georgia O'Keeffe's life.  Apparently she had a strong fear of flying which she finally conquered in her 70s and it launched her into one of her most productive periods which included a series of paintings called "Sky above Clouds."  It is a powerful metaphor for me because I remember my first plane ride when we climbed through the clouds and I saw the floor of puffy white clouds and the blue sky and sunshine all around us.  It was a shock to realize that when we're on the ground experiencing a gray and dreary day that above the clouds there is a completely different world.

According to Cohen, the liberation phase and the surge of creativity that comes with it is a normal part of the aging process.  And, the process of exercising our creativity, stimulates brain growth.  So, paint, write, sing, play music, plant a garden, invent a new widget, improvise a new recipe, quilt, scrapbook, paint purple pansies in your kitchen ... or whatever your muse calls you to do.  The beauty of later life creativity is that there are fewer expectations so you get to just do it because it's fun. 

Plus, creativity is good for you ... and it's good for our world.  What metaphor do you have for the later stage of life?

Biography:  Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. is the first Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities (established 1994)at George Washington University (GW), where he also holds the positions of Professor of Health Care Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Author of The Mature Mind.  His lecture is at  It's long and a little slow but there is some very good material in it.


  1. I really like the image of head above the clouds.

    Excellent post, Joyce. I'm also fascinated by the research about the mind, aging, creativity.

    Thank you for the link to the program. I'll be sure to watch it.

  2. Hello lovely Joyce. Most of my life I said, I am a writer. I have no artistic ability. And then, in my mid 40s, my eldest daugther asked one day to go buy some canvas -- she's an amazing artist. we got home and I said, I think I'll paint with you -- and voila! My painting career began.

    What was so cool was to prove myself wrong about something I'd told on myself for most of my life.

    Very very powerful.

    What else, I wondered, do I tell myself about myself that isn't true?

    I too think this is an excellent post -- and I'm going to watch the video now!

    Thanks my friend for continuing to inspire me to expand.


  3. Oh..I can so relate to this whole turning 50-thing and being drawn to that inner voice that urges one to create!! Such fascinating research. Thank-you for this!!!