Monday, August 24, 2009

A pirate looks at 39

In about six more hours, the sun will set on my 39th birthday.

As milemarkers go, 39 isn't one of the big ones. For one thing, it doesn't end in zero like many landmark ages and anniversaries. And while it does lie at the very cusp of middle age, it's not an age particularly noted for anything.

At 16, I got my first driver's license. At 18, I received legal recognition as an adult. When she was 25, Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne and ultimately became one of the best-loved and most powerful monarchs of England. At the age of 33, Alexander the Great had lain the foundations for what eventually would become modern Western civilization. But 39? That one's noteworthy only for being a year short of 40.

And that's essentially how I feel right now: that I'm staring down the barrel of 40 years old, and in another year it's going to blow my head off.

Six years ago, when I turned 33, I observed how nice it would be on my deathbed to quip that I had missed the best years of my career because I had spent them all with my children. Well, mission accomplished: Five years ago, I grabbed my career by its halter and led it to a place behind the stable, where I shot and killed it. Only, recently, I woke up and found its head on the pillow next to me.

Looking back I don't feel that I have much cause for regret. The past five years have been spent almost exclusively in the company of two children whom I have taught to read, whose scraped knees I have kissed, whose laughter has given me wings and whose razor-sharp tears have stripped me to the bone. I have sung with them, danced in their company, delighted in their artwork, and learned some of the most poignant and important lessons of love and life at their feet.

For their sake, I have served three years on the school board. For love of them, I have walked around in public with bows in my hair. I have scheduled my days around taking them to school, to the doctor's office, to friends' houses, and to art and ballet lessons. I have carried them on my shoulders, in my arms, and upon my back. Most of all I have carried them in my heart with such an earnestness that it has hurt.

I've received no salary for this new career, save in the only currency my children know: the tireless love and affection that they shower upon me.

It has been almost enough.

I only started to appreciate how much my career change to stay-at-home dad has cost me last Thursday, when I was talking to a friend. Only a few years older than I, Sonja is in the midst of a mid-life career change, to art history. She had just been offered an entry-level position, and she was thrilled. As she put it, it was difficult enough to compete with twentysomethings while she was in her 40s. There would be no way to start over again in her 50s.

There was a time when the world was an oyster with unlimited potential that I could crack with my good right hand. Now I am uncomfortably aware that a crocodile has eaten my right hand, and if I listen, I can hear the ticking of the clock that tells me the crocodile is coming back for the rest.

I have at most five, maybe six, years to begin my next career in earnest. Anything beyond that, and the odds stacked against my success will increase steadily with each year. So what's it going to be? Will I return to teaching? Will I return to writing news and feature stories, to magazines, or to editing and teaching other writers their wordcraft? I've done all of those, and I've done them well. On days when my neck doesn't feel the pinch of the blue monster, I am confident I can do them again.

Or maybe I should do something new. I could turn my blog into something with meaning and purpose that stretches beyond my fancy of the day, I could found an arts magazine with the local focus that I understand so well, or I could turn my full attention to my fledgling public relations business and make a living on that.

Whatever it is, I had better decide soon. That crocodile loved the taste of my hand, and he's definitely coming back for more.

What I really want, my driving passion, is not just to be a writer, but to be an author as well. The stories I can tell, the stories I need to tell, are stories that can inspire laughter, tears, longing and regret. Stories are the vehicle I use to teach the great truths that I have learned, and I want desperately to do nothing more than to take the sacred space at the head of my classroom and begin to teach.

Now, nearly five years after I left the workforce to spend more time with my children and complete the great novel that has been my ambition since middle school, I can safely say that I have spent more time with my children. The great novel, like many of my other children, lies gasping for breath in a pauper's field while I concoct excuse after excuse for not working to save it.

Three years ago, I wrote about my experience with cancer and the uncomfortable reminder it brought of my own mortality and how badly I had done on completing my life's most important work. Now three years later, I am shamed once again by how little I have changed. Age, like cancer once did, is awakening me to how briefly the candle flickers upon the stage before it disappears in a wisp of smoke.

If God is gracious, and if I am wise enough to accept that grace, I know that I can write and publish a few books in the years that lie before me, and I can give birth to many of the stories that have gestated within my mind all these years. I may even enjoy that moderate success that other writers have found, where they are not really household names, but they do enjoy a loyal following.

Whether I succeed or fail as a writer in large part depends on forces that are hardly mine to command, but I have seen the past 39 years that God prefers it when we give him something – anything – to work with.

In another 30 years, or 40 if I am lucky, I will ring down the curtain as everyone before me has done, and will exit the stage while younger performers put on their shows. When that day comes and the critics take stock of my life's work, I want to stand behind all my children and proudly say, “See what I have done with what I was given. I have been here, and I have mattered; not a thing has been wasted.”

That would be a good life.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.