There’s a lovely anecdote about Pablo Casals, the cellist, that I hope is based in reality, but that I love has taken on a life of its own, because I think it says something beautiful about humanity that we keep wanting to hear it. The first version I saw was on Pinterest, a photograph of a newspaper clipping, unattributed in the clipping, and unattributed on the meme. (Oh, the joys of the Internet—my inner English major cringes.) But it was small and maybe not worth chasing down: “The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90. ‘Because I think I’m making progress,’ he replied.”
I repinned this. I love it.
Like Michelangelo’s famous “Ancora imparo” I am still learning, it gives us hope. If the masters of this caliber still have things to learn, we, in our significantly lesser states of grace can rest easy. It’s a process, and maybe we’re never done. Ideally we’re never done, in fact; that way we can continue to learn and improve all our lives and nod at other people at their various places in this journey. Some are ahead of us, some behind, but as long as we all keep moving, we’re all right where we should be.
This particular anecdote is even more charming to me because when I chose to write about it, the first thing I did (being such a responsible English major) was to try and track down that source. Who had interviewed the master? When? What I found was a preponderance of reprinted vignettes, and a meme tradition. The quote I offered is presented on the internet (and running with abandon all over Pinterest) in the same format as I found it—the newspaper clipping image—but also reprinted on lovely backgrounds with no regard for who said it, when, or in fact, who Casals is. For the internet, this quote has become its own entity, and Casals needn’t even have existed, he makes such a good story.
But lots of people had realized he was a good story. My search took me to QuoteInvestigator.com. (These people must have endless business, given the Internet’s slipshod handling of text.) They found this quote in several places, actually, and even in several renditions. First, it seems the artist may have said something similar in more than one interview. The Quote Investigator team reports, “there is substantive evidence that Casals made a remark about making progress in 1944 when he was 67 or 68 years old as indicated by the 1946 citation. There is also good evidence that he made a similar remark circa 1957 when he was 80 years old” (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/02/12/casals-progress/). Then he may even have kept talking, or perhaps by then the charm of this story may have just taken on a life of its own. In the quote I found, he was supposed to be 90. It’s certainly possible he said it again. He lived to be 97; the last account of this quote puts him still saying the same thing at 95. Either he continued to feel optimistic about his ability to learn and improve, or we can’t let the idea go, and keep telling the story, like a fish tale, with an older and older man.
Why? We want to believe that the master can continue to improve, no matter how old. We need to. Not only does it give us hope that even someone such as he has more to learn, so we (who have so much more to learn) are not alone, but the fact that he keeps getting older and older seems to suggest there is no end to this potential progress. In an age of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, some manage not only to age well, but to keep improving, right in to extreme old age. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests that continuing to learn, for instance a foreign language, or to play an instrument, is one of the best ways to stave off dementia (http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_stay_mentally_active.asp).
Pablo Casals has become a little Internet legend, popping up here and there, borrowed by various groups and websites to embody the possibility of perpetual improvement—a model of aging not just gracefully, but exceptionally, so that old age is no less pleasurable and satisfying than any other age; in fact, it may hold the deepest pleasures because we weren’t able to experience them before. This is definitely a comfort, and a gift.
“I am getting better” is practically a mantra for me at this point, and a manifesto of optimism. But the most important thing the Casals quote teaches me is the importance of the moments along the way. Casals is quoted saying he is improving with practice at 67, 81, 83, 90, and 95. He is improving at all those points. But at all those points he is also already a master. What he knows is enough to impress everyone but himself. They are all points of success, not just transitions to the next, better phase of himself. The life of this quote is the satisfaction and happiness that come from the moments where we pause and take stock not of the motion of where we are going, but the stasis of where we are. Right now. Still. (And still improving.)