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Planting Seeds in September

This year, I can hardly wait to start my vegetable garden. It will be my first spring in a new house, and I finally have plenty of space. There’s already lettuce, spinach, and even tomatoes sprouting in the windowsill, possibly way too soon.

It’s one kind of hope to start planting seeds when the winter isn’t over yet – it’s an easy hope, because you know spring is coming.

But I can’t help thinking about a couple of years ago, when for various reasons I got a very late start on planting. Seeds didn’t make it into the ground until the end of summer, and there was hardly any place to put them where they would get enough sun. I made a tiny little garden in a corner of the front yard, and put a few things in pots, and crossed my fingers.

It takes a different kind of hope to try anyway, when time is short and there doesn’t seem like much chance.

I turned 56 a few months ago, and the notion of collecting Social Security is starting to feel real. But in some ways I feel like I’m just getting started in life. I still want to finish a novel and get it published. I still want to learn to paint, and get good at dancing.

I’m surely not the only person who’s felt this way.

Claude Monet, the French painter famous for his water lilies, didn’t start painting seriously until his forties, and he produced his amazing lily paintings when he was in his seventies.

Annie Proulx, who wrote The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, published her first novel at 57, and Brokeback Mountain – one of my favorite stories – came out when she was 62. Proulx’s late start didn’t keep her from winning a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and numerous other accolades.

Anita Brookner was an art historian who wrote novels on the side. She published her first book at the age of 53, and after that, she wrote a novel almost every year. She won the prestigious Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, her fourth novel, when she was 56, and her last book came out in 2011, when she was 82. In her 29-year career, Brookner wrote 25 novels.  

And of course, there’s Anna Mary Robinson Moses – better known as Grandma Moses, and possibly the most famous example of a late bloomer. Moses began making her stunning primitive paintings at the age of 78, fulfilling a childhood dream. She painted until she was 101, right up to her death, and now her paintings hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and many other museums across the country.

Closer to home, my brother was 28 when he decided he didn’t want to work as a security guard for the rest of his life. He went back to school, finished an associate’s degree, started medical school at 33, and became a doctor at 37. Today he’s a general surgeon and a specialist in bariatric surgery at a regional hospital in New Hampshire.

It isn’t just the lateness of their starts that make these people heroes to me. It’s that they had a love for their work – and their life itself, I think – that energized them to start and to keep going, regardless of what might have seemed a small potential for success.

The kind of love that kept Paul Cézanne painting right up to his last days – although he had been rejected by the art world throughout his life. Cézanne contracted pneumonia while painting outdoors, at the age of 67, and collapsed on the way home. The next day, he worked on a portrait but collapsed again. He finished the painting just before he died, six days later.

Auguste Renoir, another French painter, famous for his graceful ballerinas, suffered from terrible arthritis in his later years but continued to work. On his own deathbed, with his family gathered around, he begged them to give him a pencil so he could keep sketching. (They said they couldn’t find one.)

The artist Georgia O’Keeffe lost her eyesight in her eighties – so she switched to sculpture and kept working for another fourteen years, even after she’d become almost blind, until she died at the age of 98.

And Michelangelo, the sculptor of the David, was still chiseling away at blocks of marble when he was 88. His heartbreaking last work, the Rondanini Pietà, now stands in a special museum in the Sforza Castle in Milan. Michelangelo was still working on it three days before he died.

Or Johnny Cash touring at the age of 71, frail but defiant, just nine weeks before his death from complications of diabetes.

Or Chadwick Boseman continuing to act on the sets of seven movies, including Black Panther, during the four years he was receiving treatment for the cancer that ultimately took his life.

I’m not putting these examples forward as models of toughness or stoicism – although that might apply, too. What impresses me most is their motivation. When you’re 83 or 99 or lying on your deathbed, knowing you don’t have much time (or any time at all), clearly your motivation isn’t to win a prize or make a name for yourself – especially if you’ve already built a celebrated career.

There’s nothing left to prove or achieve at that point. The motivation can’t be anything but love of the activity. A love that’s been nurtured and cultivated and preserved so that when the opportunity finally arises – no matter how long it takes – that love bursts forth and continues to flourish for as long as it possibly can.

There’s something in humans that just wants to live and create, regardless. And it doesn’t have to be in art. Artists just offer such clear examples of a drive that I believe exists deep in every human.

Time doesn’t matter, success doesn’t matter, and even whether the work is any “good” or not doesn’t matter.

All that matters is doing the work, for the love of it.

So now I understand why I was planting seeds in September. Not because I really expected to get a harvest. Just because I love putting seeds in the ground.

I did get to enjoy some homegrown parsley, in the end, but that was just a bonus. The real reward was doing something I love to do, and knowing it’s never too late.

Because there’s no such thing as late – only right now.

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