A street festival took over my town’s downtown this weekend. I met up with a friend yesterday afternoon to wander around and soak up the sights.
We strolled past booths of paintings, exquisitely crafted wooden toys, jewelry, gourmet olive oils, hammock chairs — the usual fare. We stopped for a full ten minutes to watch kids (and the occasional adult) tumble around in human hamster balls inside an enormous, inflatable pool of water.
And of course there was live music — the requisite, loud, rock & roll cover band on the main stage, plus smaller groups scattered every block or so.
We noticed a crowd gathered at one corner where a band was cranking out a blend of Caribbean-influenced blues, jazz, soul and funk. The music was good, but when we got close enough to see through the mass of people it became clear that it wasn’t just the music that had attracted their attention.
It was also the fact that there was a six-year-old at the drums, banging away quite expertly.
The six-year-old, whose name is Eagan, has been playing since he was three. He clearly has a gift, and a passion for the instrument, and crowd could not get enough.
I was as fascinated as the rest. One simply doesn’t expect a six-year-old to have these kind of music chops. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Oh, how we love our prodigies!
In fact, sometimes it seems like the very young are the only ones that we (as a culture) love.
The Problem with Prodigies…
When this kid grows up, when he gets into his 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, should he maintain his passion for the drums (which I hope he does!), he’ll find it harder and harder to capture the attention of a wandering crowd. For his sake, I hope he keeps his focus on his passion for his instrument, rather than the attention he’s getting now, for being a prodigy. Otherwise it could do a number on his head.
Any woman growing up in Western culture understands this concept on a visceral level. The older we get, the more “invisible” we become, as attention stays firmly focused on the young and firmly toned.
I pretty much summed it up in the bridge of my song, The Last Five Pounds (jump to 39 seconds in to go straight to the bridge):
If your sense of your own value is tied to your youth, what happens when that youth is gone?
Nobody really cares about another drummer. But show us a six-year-old drummer and we ooh and ahh. It’s not really his musical chops, it’s the fact that he has musical chops at six that grabs our attention.
I’m as googly-eyed over prodigious youthful skill as anyone else — face it, it’s just plain fascinating! — but there’s also something about it that bugs me. Prodigies fascinate me, but they can’t ever really inspire me, because being a young prodigy is not something I can personally aspire to.
In fact, prodigies often have the opposite effect from inspiring us.
The truth is you don’t have to be a “natural,” or a “born genius,” in order to start up a creative pursuit, take on a creative challenge, or even to achieve mastery. Nor do you have to be young. But our cultural obsession with young prodigies has a way of distorting this fact.
I wonder how things might have been different if we paid as much attention to our older folks as we do to our youth.
I’m not saying we should diss the young — every age is a wonderful age to be and should be honored — but how about a little balance?
How about some Grandmother Power?
I think of someone like Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, whose name you may never have heard, but whose work might very well touch your life on a daily basis.
Zapf von Hesse is calligrapher, teacher, lettering artist, and bookbinder. She’s also the designer of several fonts, three of which (Alcuin, Christiana, Colombine) she designed in her 70s, and the most recent of which (Diotima Classic) she created at 90.
Now that’s the kind of role model I want more of in my own life! A woman creating amazing work well into her “grandmother years.”
My mom’s another model of Grandmother Power, picking up the harp in her 50s. That inspired my dad to pick up the flute, and now, in their 70s, they perform together all over the San Francisco Peninsula.
Take that, oh gremlin that tells me “Your only value is in your youth and appearance!”
For more stories of inspiring grandmothers, check out Tara Mohr’s Grandmother Power blogging campaign this week. While you’re there, sign up to share your own!
Let’s bring a little more balance to our youth-obsessed culture, please! I’m sure my head will always be turned by young prodigies, but I want more stories of older women making amazing things happen, older women creating, older women changing the world.
After all, I’m never going to be six again, but I sure hope to be an old woman someday! And I hope that the work I contribute to the world keeps evolving and blossoming as I grow older.
Will I turn heads in my (child-free) “grandmother years”? Probably not. But I hope I’ll open some hearts, which feels a lot more important in the long run.
PS – Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!