I used to wonder how it would feel to be old

Emily Carr with Woo, Adolphus & two Griffons, c.1930, by John Delisle Parker
Royal BC Museum / BC Archives, G-00414

When she wrote this entry, Canadian icon Emily Carr was 68. For much of her adult life she had worked as an artist, creating beautiful and now cherished paintings that captured the essence of the Pacific Northwest, her work often inspired by the First Nations people and their culture, as well as the natural landscapes of British Columbia. But she wrote, too: from 1927 she kept a journal, posthumously published, and following two heart attacks in the late-1930s her focus shifted from the canvas to the written page. A year after this entry, the first of a series of autobiographical story collections—the critically acclaimed Klee Wyck—was published. She died in 1945 after a fourth heart attack. She continued writing until the end.

The Diary Entry

March 6th

I used to wonder what it would feel like to be sixty-eight. I have seen four sisters reach sixty-eight and pass, but only by a few years. My father set three score years and ten as his limit, reached it and died. I, too, said that after the age of seventy a painter probably becomes poor and had better quit, but I wanted to work till I was seventy. At sixty-four my heart gave out but I was able to paint still and I learned to write. At sixty-eight I had a stroke. Three months later I am thinking that I may work on perhaps to seventy after all. I do not feel dead, and already I am writing again a little.

I used to wonder how it would feel to be old. As a child I was very devoted to old ladies. They seemed to me to have faded like flowers. I am not half as patient with old women now that I am one. I am impatient of their stupidity and their selfishness. They want still to occupy the centre of the picture. They have had their day but they won’t give place. They grudge giving up. They won’t face up to old age and accept its slowing down of energy and strength. Some people call this sporty and think it wonderful for Grannie to be as bobbish as a girl. There are plenty of girls to act the part. Why can’t the old lady pass grandly and not grudgingly on, an example, not a rival? Old age without religion must be ghastly, looking forward only to dust and extinction. I do not call myself religious. I do not picture after-life in detail. I am content with “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard.” Perhaps it is faith, perhaps indolence, but I cannot imagine anything more hideous than feeling life decay, hurrying into a dark shut-off.

The days fill out. They are happy, contented days. I am nearer sixty-nine than sixty-eight now, and a long way recovered from my stroke. There is a lot of life in me yet. Maybe I shall go out into the woods sketching again, who knows? I have got the sketches out that I did on the trip just before my stroke. They are very full of spring joy, high in key, with lots of light and tenderness of spring. How did I do these joyous things when I was so torn up over the war?

They were done in Dunkirk days when we were holding our breath wondering if those trapped men were going to get out. We did not know the full awfulness of it then; we were guessing. Yet when I went into the woods I could rise and skip with the spring and forget my bad heart. Doesn’t it show that the good and beautiful and lovely and inspiring will of nature is stronger than evil and cruelty? Life is bigger than war and the tremendousness of spring can wash out the dirt of war. The terrific thing that is working over the nations is quite beyond the human. It is no good being dismayed. It is as inevitable as night. Tomorrow can’t come till the night has finished today. Nature finishes off one season’s growth and begins all over again. Her worn-out cast-offs contentedly flutter down to the honourable joy of fertilizing the soil so that the new growth may better thrive from their richness. It is not dismayed when it turns yellow and sere, when it shrivels and falls.

Further Reading

Emily Carr’s journals are held at the Royal BC Museum in what is the world’s largest collection of her work and papers, and a good amount of that collection can be seen on their website. Elsewhere, there are two books of note: in 1966, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr was published; and in 2004, Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings arrived, containing, amongst other things, entries that were cut from the earlier book.

Diary entry excerpted from Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr by Emily Carr, 2006, Douglas and McIntyre. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

One response to “I used to wonder how it would feel to be old”

  1. Shaun, thank you, thank you for Diaries of Note. What a wonderful idea you had.

    I love this entry. I am 69 soon to be 70. I am looking forward to this next decade of my life with anticipation. Old but not too old. Slow but not too slow. Quietly from the background I can observe unnoticed.

    Of course I also know, because I am 69, that all my anticipation could come crashing into bewilderment. But I don’t dwell on that.

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