Originally featured on Dumbofeather.com
Anna Ashton is my 64-year-old grandmother.
She’s also a felt maker, musician, welder, milliner, builder, architect, seamstress, woodworker, artist, potter and a rather serious cyclist.
Stubborn to a fault, I grew up watching her repeatedly find a challenge, put her mind to it and overcome it in new imaginative ways. She’s never stopped hunting for answers to problems, and I doubt she ever will.
Anna moved from Edinburgh to Melbourne with her family at 10 years old, and one of her first triumphs was mastering an Aussie accent (until she starts hanging around with other Scots and the lilt returns).
She and my grandfather Philip have had their fair share of grand adventures, cycling around the UK and kayaking to Turkey (all after hitting 50), as well as raising three children and designing and building their own beautiful three-storey house. There’s always something to be learned or created.
In Anna’s eyes, learning has never had anything to do with expensive pieces of paper and qualifications. Instead, she builds on her ever-growing skill set by interacting with people willing to share what they know.
She also simply refuses to give up in the face of difficulties. She has always taught me that if I want to do something, “just bloody well do it.” (Not always the best words for an equally stubborn 13-year-old, but inspiring nonetheless.)
That quote was definitely the philosophy behind the wagon trip of ‘83 when Anna and Philip packed up their three kids (aged 11, nine and three), learned everything they needed about caring for Clydesdale horses, built a wagon and set off on an adventure up the east coast of Australia. Anna and Philip supported the family by selling handmade pottery and doing odd jobs, as well as busking along the way for ice-cream money.
Anna thinks that anyone can do anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. She tells me, “I meet people who say ‘Oh, I’d like to be able to paint, but I don’t want to be bad at it. I’ve never done it before—but I’d like to paint like Van Gogh.’”
The truth is, learning anything involves jumping hurdles and a risk of failure. Everyone starts at the beginning and works their way up from there.
Lifelong learning means never sitting back and saying “that’s it, I know it all”.
On a daily basis there are things to learn, unless you’re a second away from death. But then you’re still learning what that’s like! Our brains are always working, and half of the time our learning is just passively picking up skills and knowledge that may help us later down the line.
Building a desk at the age of 15 gave Anna the knowledge that helped her build a house. Sewing her own clothing helped her understand how patterns fit together. Knowledge she picked up forty years ago still helps her everyday, even high school maths, as much as teenagers like to say they’ll never use it again.
Anna has taught me that learning is a gradual process, and that nothing that happens in life is completely useless.
Not even the really crappy stuff—losing something makes you appreciate what you still have, failing at something gives you drive to succeed—everything you overcome makes you a stronger person in the long run.
Everything is an opportunity for you to grow, and as long as your heart’s still beating, you’ve got something else to learn.
Feature image of the famous wagon trip by Philip Ashton.
In the latest issue of Dumbo Feather, we profile educational revolutionary John Dewey who believed that the experience of living was an ongoing education, and approached each new day with the spirit of an eager student on their first day of school.