Recently I interviewed the artist, writer and a wonderful human being, Petrus Spronk. The Dutch born Australian celebrated his 80th birthday with a gathering of 150 friends and family at a local music venue and bar here in the town where nearly everyone knows him. Petrus gave a speech to those gathered to celebrate his birthday. It’s a wonderful insight into how one man in his ” later years” sees life and ageing; with a vitality, sense of humour and freedom. His insights into purpose, dealing with illness and the world of ageing is inspirational, funny and heart warming. Petrus is a great storyteller and I thank him for allowing me to publish his speech……a precious gift from a generous man.
I recently went on a journey to Melbourne. I drove to the Ballan station where I hopped on the train. The train was chock-a-block, yet, when I entered someone stood up for me. “Fuck off” I thought, ”Thank you” I said, and accepted the offer.
Old age comes as a surprise.
But first before I get lost in my thoughts, I would like to issue a warning to all of my friends gathered here:
The artist is a story teller.
All artists and story tellers, make stuff up.
Not only do they make stuff up. They make up their whole life.
Are they therefore living lies? Are they maybe living truths?
It could be, that everything I tell you today are made up stories, are lies. But then, maybe they could well be truths.
The interesting thing here is that the area where the truth and lies overlap is where art and poetry exists.
One thing is true though we are all born with the gift of creativity, where our first creative act occurred, when we took our first breath
Since this has set the tone and before I go on I first must thank you all for being here. I so appreciate this,
(Petrus thanks specific family and friends here)
I am standing here as the result of the love, care and support of my family and friends and my friends who are my family, for without them there wouldn’t be much point.
I’d like to dedicate this talk to all who cared.
So, in order to thank you for your attendance and to share this event with me I will present you with a speech.
This speech has taken me 80 years to write.
So, get comfortable, it may take some time.
So, I was born….., no just kidding……….
When earlier this year I woke up with the thought oh shit, I am turning eighty this year, and I am about to enter the death decade
I never imagined myself at 80
So, while I am standing on the edge of old age I am still struggling with the following question:
When will I ever feel that I have grown up?
Most probably this is now never going to happen.
What else is never going to happen after walking and seeking on this earth for 80 years, is to find an answer to the meaning of all of this; find an answer to the meaning of life.
But to that conundrum I will return a little later.
Is 80 old?
Not necessarily, 80 just sounds old and turning 80 is just dumb luck! While in the here and now I have started to wonder how long I will still be relevant.
And the answer I have come up with is as long as I can share the products from my creative spirit.
However, I do get some inspiration from writers.
For instance, something I read by one of my favourite writers, Henry Miller, who in his wisdom is able to give one some ideas on how to deal with the ageing beast….
He wrote when he was about to turn 80: “If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half licked.”
Or this special piece from the philosopher Bertrand Russell who with wisdom wrote this insight at the age of 80:
An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.
And now I have joined that group of old bastards who reminisce on their lives.
And as far as I am concerned, I have lived in the best time of history. With a strict but loving upbringing in the 40’s and 50’s and then being liberated when I went to art school in the 60’s.
Plus I was able to continue my life on the same wavelength as that experience and that now I can say in all honesty that I have lived a charmed life with few regrets.
The strange thing is though is that I don’t feel old. I feel about 46….. and have, ever since I was 46.
And I reckon, that with the availability of hip replacements plus a shot of Viagra, I think I could still have a go at being a porn star.
Seriously though, at this moment in time I have lived for 29,240 days.
So, I have had plenty of time to accept that this is the day I have actually arrived at 80 years and that this is also not the time to think about what I can’t do anymore. But it’s better to think about that which I still can do
Besides, that’s a lot less work.
So what can I share with you in terms of where I have come from, and where I think I am going?
In relation to where I think I am going I have always applied the following thought:
“If you don’t know where you are going……… it doesn’t matter how you get there”
I have never aspired to be a leader, nor have I been interested in being a follower and I live, and have lived, by the following edicts which have given me support, strength and the courage to go on.
I would like to present these also for everyone in the room in the hope that they work for you as well as they have for me:
Start with this one, and apply it for your general well being:
Water the seeds of joy first
then there is this:
Follow your passion, it gives your life its true direction
and I also offer you this general thought:
The poet and the baker both nourish the world
then there is this
Trade the concept of pride for that of delight and see your world change
then I applied this as a warning
The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat!
and this is also for the artist in all of you
If they give you lined paper, write the other way
and this for when you are struggling with all kinds of stuff
Learning is the best healer
plus this: also for those who like a really useful thought which I received from a zen monk
Outside your own head Petrus, he said nothing much is happening
Think about it, this truly is a great and helpful thought.
and lastly: for all of those who are having a bad time of it
It’s never ever too late to have a happy childhood.
With these ideas to guide me, all I had to do, was to just live and be creative because basically I did, and do not know, what else to do.
In that role I also hope that in some way, I have been able to make a contribution.
And here is a totally different part of my journey, a warning if you like, from the beginning of my time on this earth.
A specific type of thinking. It is based on this line I found somewhere during my travels: with a warning also for the artist in you….
Reality is the invention of unimaginative people
This is what happened to my parents when they went to their first teacher/parent evening at the Roman Catholic primary school I was forced to attend:
My father: “How is Petrus progressing at school?”
The teacher: “Petrus has a bit too much imagination for his own good, but don’t worry, we’ll help him get rid of that problem”
I also came across this kind of thinking a little later in life. when, as part of a conversation, I told a business man that I was creating a series of ephemeral art works in the forest.
He said, and I quote: “Mate, you must have too much time on your hands”
and, as a total surprise, I came across it again, when creating one of my ephemeral sand works as part of the Melbourne art festival. While working, with total attention, I was approached by a guy who asked me what would happen to my work when I finished it. I told him that it would be removed by the council that evening. He said “What a fucking waste of time!”
I couldn’t help but ask, by something mean in me, “and what you do?”
He answered with some pride “I work for the council”
What could I not say but: “What a fucking waste of time”
which in relation to that kind of thinking brings me to the following thought,
Imagine life without art and poetry….
the art of cooking, the art of dancing, the art of teaching, the art of everything.
Who creates the magic in an otherwise ordinary existence?
Who changes the ordinary into the extraordinaire?
Who provides the colour into our daily life?
Who provides the inspiring stories?
Who has the magic touch to turn on the light in the dark?
Who colours in the black and white?
Who lifts the mundane into the majestic?
The poet does – the poet who resides in the artist
This is what the artist and poet do.
They awaken in us a sense of wonder, which is the driver of a creative life.
They take us on a journey, a special journey in a world where we are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.
Something else, or here is my last thought on the topic to take home with you.
Art exists to disturb the sleep of the world
I was recently asked why I had become an artist in the first place
The reasons are simple
Firstly, what else is there?
And secondly, as an artist you can get away with more than a teacher, a cook, a priest, a policeman etc.
As an artist you are close to being free.
Now for something even more serious, something for the here and now and because I cannot deny that I am standing on the edge of it – a thought about old age.
Old age is a queer way of being. It is an event for which you don’t get time to practice.
I have never been old before.
But this is the first in real time that I have ever been anywhere near what we consider old.
It sort of crept up on me.
There were signs though- forgetfulness for starters, especially names, and more often than not of people I know very well.
So embarrassing but now at least I understand why old people call everyone love, or darl or mate.
Or when going on a journey and instead of designing the journey around the curiosities to be seen or the amazing experiences to be had I now have to design the journey from where the toilets are.
Yes folks, old age, a journey from toilet to toilet.
It’s enough to piss you off.
But, this reminds me of something related.
When you are a young man your entire life is controlled by this area. (holding his crotch)
All your major decisions are made from this area.
Then you become an old man and your entire life is controlled by this area.
All your major decisions are made from this area, but for a completely different reason.
When you are a young men it is the bedroom and when you are an old man it is the bathroom.
So, as a precaution, I have just downloaded the “Where is the closest toilet? app. for my iPhone
When I was about to turn 60 I noticed that at the entrance to every town there was a sign to remind me of the fact.
In fact one sign on both sides of the road. 60, 60……… as if to really rub it in.
I took notice though and knowing what was coming, I set out to make a plan to deal with it.
However, at this point I remembered, that famous line:
If you want to make God laugh, make a plan!
So I took notice of that and instead of making a plan, I prepared.
I prepared by employing my creative spirit and started a project which I titled: Strong old age.
I kept it to five components. Because I have five fingers on my hand which by now helps me to remember them.
One, two, three, four, five.
- Good Work
If you do work which doesn’t have a creative aspect, it becomes work, is dull, mind numbing and hard to maintain enthusiasm – in actual fact a waste of your precious time
2. Good Food
As part of that I started a veggie garden and the way to do that for me was follow the advice of Vera Howell, my garden guru, now passed on.
“Petrus”, she said, “The way to start a veggie garden is to plant one herb near the backdoor and to tend it.” Great advice, It worked for me, and besides providing veggies, it also provides visual pleasure, plus exercise.
3. Good Exercise
A walk around the block daily is great but a walk in the forest where the air is fresh and the mind can roam is even better.
4. Good Friends
This is so obvious that there is no need to elaborate on it and
5. Good Thoughts
The understanding that ‘thought is a positive force’, is helpful for this one. However, taking off on this project I had overlooked one thing…. I had forgotten that life trips us up and puts various tests into our way and the older you get the more intense these tests seem to become.
My first test was 11 years ago with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease which by way of a celebration of the tenth year of this damn event, I re-titled as Parkinson’s Gift, because it turned something around.
It made me look at it differently.
While the concept of disease makes you automatically a victim, a gift has more positive connotations.
You are able to do something with a gift.
And, as a result, I have also discovered that every situation contains the concept of a gift.
Sometimes hidden, sometimes quite clear.
However, not to go too much into it.
Parkinson’s is a pain. Everything you do is difficult. Everything.
Then a couple of years later I was further tested by being diagnosed with cancer.
If you look up petrusspronk.com/abcopen, you will find the story of this event which the ABC had invited me to write about as a guest blogger.
During these blogs, I explain how I employed the creative spirit to make the cancer event into an art project and, as a consequence help me cope with it.
At the end I presented this project as part of the Words in Winter festival.
I don’t ever complain. There is no point to it.
I have found that a way of coping is to say to myself, “this moment is alright” and it almost always is
Try it……. in fact this moment is pretty fantastic!…….don’t you think?
Another way of coping with all these situations lies in acceptance.
Once you accept a situation you have the beginnings of a way of dealing with it (within the concept of acceptance exists the doorway to freedom)
As long as you are able to keep the fear out of your life since fear creates a terrible amount of stress and stress is the poison, it’s the real killer.
So, I keep traveling along my created path and I trust that that which has placed me on this earth will also have provided that which I need to cope with this journey.
This brings me to the other important bit.
That in order to survive anything you need to employ your creative spirit, even if you are not old, or ill or in normal everyday life.
It has always helped, and is still helping, me through the tough stuff.
And then, all of a sudden I noticed that upon entering a city the signs on both sides of the road are now also showing, and reminding me, a clear 80!
Fun stuff is about to happen. Or is it the un-fun stuff which is just about to happen?
Who knows. We’ll wait and see.
Getting old is a queer adventure.
It takes years to get old and when you get there it is a bummer.
You cannot plan for it, but you can prepare for it by taking a stand.
I started with my 5 points, and that is working for me.
If it speaks to you, you are welcome to use it.
Here I will interrupt myself to pause for yet another thought. The conundrum of the meaning of all this.
After 80 years of trying to find the meaning of life I have come to the conclusion that life inherently has no meaning at all.
To make this easier to understand I’ll try to visualise this thought, this is how I see it.
So imagine this:
When I step into my studio in the morning and I am faced with an empty canvas. This for me represents the meaning of my life.
But that in the evening, after I have created a painting on that canvas this represents the meaning I have given to my life.
Thus I think we create our own meaning for our lives and this makes the meaning of life different for everyone.
I know, as we all do, that in the shadows of old age, death lingers.
That’s a given, but the point is, regardless of your age, how we spend the time from this moment to then.
My thought on that and everything else is: to be fearless.
In terms of my life and work, I’ll continue with my endless journey along the rim of the bowl or, I’ll keep going around in circles
which is like dancing the dance of life – the only dance there is.
Please join me in this dance. (Zorba’s Dance)
Please enjoy our party and thank you for your attention and for being here.
13th of October 2019