With age comes wisdom
Sylvia Shorto joined the Lifelong Learning Centre as its director 11 days ago.
She’s likely still figuring out how the coffee pot works. But when the dust settles, she has some plans. High on the list is eliminating “concepts of ageism” from the Bermuda College programme that offers enrichment courses to people aged 55 and older.
Dr Shorto believes that as people get older they become privy to some of life’s “well-kept” secrets.
“You cease to be afraid of death,” she said. “When you are young you are made anxious by the fact that eventually you will die. When you become older, you know of course you will die, so you take advantage of every second that you have got.”
Getting older also works against you, said Dr Shorto who refused to give her own age. She believes people often make blanket assumptions — such as whether you are capable of doing a part-time job.
“You are able to continue as long as you feel you are able to continue and able to contribute,” she said.
Born in a military family, she lived all over the world as a child.
On her 19th birthday she came to Bermuda to visit her aunt, Frances Frith. She intended to stay for six months but, at a wedding, met Gavin Shorto.
They married and had a son, Hamish.
“Focus began to come to me in my mid-30s,” she said. “Once you have become focused, you are more and more able to take a path that suits you, and see the path that you are on, then continue to pursue what you find valuable and important.”
Furniture, and by extension, architecture were her focal points.
As a child she’d loved watching her grandfather doing woodwork.
“He would sit at the kitchen table with his fret saw and cut things out,” she said. “My grandmother used to be bustling around with a dustpan and brush cleaning up the sawdust.”
In boarding school in Devon, England, she took lessons with a group of younger boys.
“There was a substitute teacher who cut one of his fingers off on a band saw. I had to deal with it because, at 16, I was the oldest in the room.”
Next came a class in furniture making, but her appetite for power tools was soured.
“I suspect that led to a greater interest in hand tools and how things were made by hand before the invention of power tools,” Dr Shorto said.
In Bermuda, she took a class in furniture restoration.
“I am very interested in how objects reveal history,” said Dr Shorto. “You just have to interrogate them and look at them closely and try and figure out what is going on with them, what their function was. You can do this with furniture and paintings, and anything man-made.”
Her interest led her to a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Toronto, then a master’s and a PhD from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
She wrote her doctoral dissertation based on a study of five homes in 19th-century Delhi, India. Her research took her in and out of the South Asian country for more than a year in the 1990s.
“I was physically nervous of it to begin with,” said Dr Shorto, the author of Bermuda: Gardens and Houses and British Houses in Late Mughal Delhi and several other books and scholarly articles.
“I didn’t know what to expect. India then was very shabby and it was hard to distinguish what was shabby and dangerous and what was shabby and perfectly safe. It was a question of adjustment. I went on a fellowship from an organisation called the American Institute of Indian Studies. They had a guesthouse, so I had booked a room there. The first thing that happened was I met a mongoose in the garden. I thought, ‘How lovely. It has whiskers.’”
As the mongoose is known for killing poisonous snakes she worried that there might be a cobra in the garden.
But she grew to love India.
Research grants such as the National Endowment for the Arts Award for curatorial studies and the Acheson Wallace Fellowship helped her studies.
After getting her PhD, she taught in the art and design school at the American University of Beirut.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “It was never a negative experience. Beirut was sophisticated. It was like most places that have a great deal of history. It was many, many things all bunched together. Because of the political history of Beirut, it has tensions and conflicts, but somehow people manage to find a way to balance things together and live together in relative unity.”
It also helped to extend her view of history.
“I had been to Rome and Athens, but when you go to the Middle East, you go back 3,000 to 4,000 more years to visible material culture,” she said. “You can look back into Iron Age settlements and see excavations that take you back 7,000 years BC.”
While there she also volunteered with a programme similar to the one offered by the LLC.
“One year I took undergraduate students and senior students to Spain,” she said. “They had a great time together. The older people went clubbing with the young ones. The undergraduates were mindful of the seniors and helpful. It was wonderful. We started in southern Spain and went up to Toledo.”
Two years ago, she left the job and returned to the home she and her husband share in St George’s.
“The first little while I was back was spent really getting to know St George’s,” she said. “Although I was always home for at least four months of every year — sometimes for years off when I had research grants — it was necessary to relearn the place.
“When you go away for a long period of time and come back sporadically, you think it is the same but don’t have time to really catch up. I was assuming Bermuda hadn’t changed, but, of course, Bermuda had changed enormously over the years. I think I see that people are becoming better and better informed all the time. Bermuda is becoming less isolated because of the internet.”
Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or firstname.lastname@example.org with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them
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