Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
— Donald Justice
I am neither especially threatened nor particularly drawn to the idea of “milestone birthdays.” And yet just around the corner from turning a certain age later this month, I find myself unable to avoid being reflective about the shape of my story, thus far.
My friend Aaron Niequist shared the above poem with me, & I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. On the one hand, as life expectancy gets longer, the notion of having mortality dawn on you at 40 may seem almost quaint, especially for people well past that threshold. And yet, there is something about it that rings deeply true, somehow: that 40 is, if nothing else, about the time that you realize that you actually can’t just decide to be whatever you want you to be when you grow up. Constraints settle in. Don’t get me wrong — some of our finest actors and writers didn’t start their respective new careers until their 40’s and 50's. People reinvent themselves at any and all ages…to a point. But there is also a way in which the lane narrows. There are still possibilites, yes — but it’s not precisely an open table, anymore. I still think I could become, say, a novelist if I worked hard at it. I now have a 0% chance of, say, becoming an astronaut.
By 40, you’ve made just enough choices in your past, to already be heading in some very particular directions, and moving far, far away from some others. There is room for improvisation, but you find yourself increasingly beholden to a certain sense of inevitability. You learn to close softly/the doors to rooms you will not be/coming back to.This narrowing is by no means a bad thing. Knowing who you are, having some borders and boundaries and parameters, is good and right. All adventures are not born out of wanderlust. Sometimes, you actually do have some idea of where you are going, and where you ought to go, and that is not wrong.
With all of this in view, I’m sliding into the impending birthday from an odd place. Yes, I have and am closing some doors softly that I will not re-enter. Yet, my world is still considerably more open-ended that what I wanted or conceived it to be. Part of that for me is just the realilty of life after divorce. I still don’t feel comfortable getting those words out of my mouth. I was married for 16 years to my best friend, a good & lovely person I still think the world of. For all of our struggles. I miss so much of the life I once had. For whatever ways this wild journey with God has named me these last few years, I will forever limp from it, too. Some things about me that are the same — but God knows, so much has changed.
People who are tethered down tightly to their lives tend to envy those who have a certain kind of freedom. So perhaps it is fitting then that those that have a certain kind of freedom, envy those who are so tethered. I have never been a biological father. I wonder about the experience on its own terms, but I frankly envy most the way the experience has changed my friends. It is as if fathering someone gave them a sense of overarching purpose and meaning, that their lives are now inextricably bound to another creature in a way that transcends the self. I don’t know if I long for children or not. I know I long for that kind of transcendence, to be lost in some mystery big enough to escape from me.
But I do have a self, however much I might want to escape it, and have a tenuous relationship with it. The poem speaks achingly of “closing doors softly.” Of course in a way, the phrase intentionally conjures the sadness of missed opportunites. But if I’m honest, I kind of like the idea of closing doors softly. I like the idea of doing anything softly! I just don’t know how. When I try to close a door softly, I’m pretty sure it always sounds like a door being slammed to the people around me.
larger than life
Let me put it this way: however my friends might describe me, I doubt :”being at home in his skin” is something they would ever say, at least not historically. I’ve never felt particularly at home inside my body. You know those men who have delicate, willowy features — agile, thin, svelte, almost beautiful? I am the opposite of all of those things. I am 6'5" and 235, so I don’t do dainty, svelte or quiet, nor do I really get to sneak anywhere.
I always feel oversized. For people my size and larger, the world seems to be made by and for hobbits. Public transportation — flying in particular — is perpetually uncomfortable. The headrest is too low for my head, if I want to lean back. At my church, I can barely use the kneelers, because my size 14 shoes won’t fit under the seat behind me when I kneel. I would have to do extensive yoga training during the week in order to use them on Sundays.
When I fly, which is often now, I usually choose exit row or bulkhead. Or at least I did — I travel so much these days for work that I often now get upgraded to first class, though I’ve never once paid for a first class ticket. I’m not a high roller — I’m coming off the hardest year of my life financially, which is saying a hell of a lot considering the years prior. But when you are an itinerant speaker, the one currency in which you have no deficit is frequent flyer miles. I bring this up, because I’ve found that when I’m in first, I wear it like an apology. I feel the need to explain myself — even though in truth I am thrilled to have a little bit more room, and not feel quite as constricted in that seat as I do in all the others. (feeling the need to defend free upgrades to first class is very much a first world problem, I know)
But honestly, I have always felt the need to explain myself, no matter where I was sitting. I’m a product of a holiness Pentecostal tradition, but since I was very young (early 20’s) have ALWAYS had a theology that was too big and too inclusive for most of my peers. It was not because I wanted to rebel; in fact, I tried very hard to be respectful of the customs of the people around me. But I saw and grasped something of the wide mercy and unconditional love of God, and you can’t make yourself un-see such a thing. In the same spirit, I now seem to be the person who is too “Jesus-y” among more liberal friends, too fixed on the particularity of Christ and on the power of the resurrection. I do not feel especially smart or enlightned, nor claim access to any special revelation. I just see what I see — and even in that, can feel like another way of standing out, even when I’m trying to sit down.
It is hard to learn how to be at home yourself in the right ways, and yet stay open, teachable and changeable in others. We mostly want to be something other than what we are. I know a lot of smaller men who desperately wish they were bigger; I’ve spent much of my life wishing I could be a little bit smaller, a little bit less conspicuous. I love to read novels about quiet humble men who become local parish priests in a tiny town somewhere, and I romanticize the lives of writers who live in old houses in the northeastern quadrant of BFE. I would like to be quiet, reflective, literary, elegant; and wonder around a big writer’s house in a professorial brown sport coat that feels effortless, unpretentious.
But alas, none of that is meant to be. Sometimes I do want to sit comfortably in a normal chair. Somtimes I don’t want people to ask how tall I am. I want to be able to slide in, on the back row. Except, of course, when I don’t, which does happen from time to time. Either way, there is much I can’t help. My father and grandfather were both preachers with built-in microphones — men who never needed a PA system to be heard. My voice isn’t quite as big as theirs, but it is still pretty big. People tell me I don’t need to yell, or at least not talk so loud. What do you mean? This is my normal voice!
I’m not yelling. This is just what it sounds like when I talk.
I wish I could be cool, but my default is sweaty. I wish I could make jazz music, but I live my like an opera no matter what other sound I try to make. My hands and feet and heart and voice are all big, and when I try to pretend that they are smaller, I’m still just as oversized — only more awkward.
And then there are the people who are conscious of such things, that feel like it is their spiritual gift to make me smaller, to whittle me down to size. If they only knew just how much I want to live in the village with the hobbits — keeping the big feet, but scaling the rest down. To stand out, even when you don’t want to, is often to feel left out. Why can’t I be the little country priest, at home in his books and NPR and his small village? Even everything I FEEL seems so oversized. I don’t want to always live at a high volume, but my “normal” seems to be a lot of people’s loud.
The Human Torch
Earlier in my marriage, Amanda and I went out to eat with two of our friends. The other man is a great speaker/storyteller, and literally the biggest personality that I know. Endearing, to be sure, but like me…a lot. That night at dinner, he told what may well be to this day the funniest story I’ve ever heard. It was uncomfortable, uproarious, off-color, and also happened to be entirely true. I laughed myself nearly under the table. When things calmed down a bit, his wife said something off hand that I’ve never forgot. She said, “I wish that story would have happened to you, Jonathan, just because I’d love to hear him tell it.”
This one small remark landed like a revelation. For one small moment, I caught a glimpse of how people experience me from the outside, and it horrified me: this man has the biggest personality of anyone that I know, and his wife says I WISH THIS HAD HAPPENED TO YOU SO I COULD HEAR HOW YOU WOULD TELL IT? Yikes. I am so big, too big. Bigger than I want to be. Clumsy, noisy, inelegant…not at all cool.
I hug people often. As a big person, I try to err on the side of big and friendly. But the rage in me is strong, too, and only grows hotter not cooler with age, somehow. If I’m honest, I think trying to play small, smaller than I really am — trying to conform to outside expectations, is part of why I unintentionally blew my life up before. There is no passing the buck, here…it was nobody else’s fault but my own that I internalized everything I felt like people wanted from me, and couldn’t stop myself from bending and contorting to try to be things I could not be. That is a commentary on my insecurity, not anybody else’s pressure. I have just often had an uneasy relationship with the fire in me.
There is a flame inside I cannot keep down, at least not for long. I don’t think I’m a particularly angry person, but I have a way of turning into a thunderstorm before I realize it. When I was 28 and just ordained as a bishop in our denomination, I was on the floor with the bishops for our bi-annual general assembly for the first time. That day, they were debating about the role of women in ministry in the local church. Many of the things the men were saying about women were derogative and incendiary, and I sat and listened, I seethed. I was hearing people dismiss the contributions of women in ministry in the crassest of terms, as a person who has been largely shaped by women in ministry, such as my recently departed spiritual grandmother, Sister Margaret Gaines.
Like the Human Torch of Marvel Comics lore, I finally burst into flame. I went to a microphone, and pulled the little light on over the lectern. The General Overseer acknowledged me, and I started speaking…calmly. Slowly. Clearly. Intelligibly. I started with sincere self-deprication about my status as one of the youngest, most junior bishops on the floor. But as I began narrating all the things that women like Sister Margaret had done — like how she served as the Regional Overseer for the Church of God in the Middle East, because there was not a“qualified man” deemed worthy to do it — in contrast to the inane arguments I just heard about how women shouldn’t be allowed to serve on their local church councils?! I got hotter. The Pentecostal preacher in me started to take over. I felt myself building to a crescendo. At the end — THWACK! — I pounded the podium with my fist and said, “BROTHERS…THIS…IS…HYPOCRISY!!!”
And when I did, all hell broke loose. The men on the floor started shouting. One man a few rows away said, “SOMEBODY NEEDS TO HIT THAT GUY WITH A CHAIR!” Another preacher got up and interrupted my speech with a point of order. The Overseer acknowledged him, so he spoke: “Mister moderator, this young man has no right to impugn the character of this body by calling us hypocrites. It is not proper, and he owes this body an apology.” The General Overseer looked back at me, and gave me a chance to respond. The room fell quiet, and all of the sudden, I was living in slow motion — feeling the gravity of the moment, and the combustion happening in the room. I had pushed the argument, perhaps too hard.
Now I had a chance to be reasoned, calm, and conciliatory; maintain my position of course, but perhaps bring the temperature down in the room. I knew the right to say. In my brain I heard, “It was not my intention, Mr. Moderator. to call any of my esteemed elders here hypocrites — only to demonstrate why I believe this to be a hypocritical positon.” I collected myself, took a breath, and leaned back into the microphone, and what actually came out of my mouth was: “My brothers: lest there be any ambiguity whatsoever in what I said, or how I said it, let me be clear…BROTHERS! THIS! IS! HYPOCRISY!!!” And the room burst into flame, the biggest melee in modern times on that floor. A point of order was called again, and this time the moderator ruled that I should speak more respectfully. I took my seat, and when the session ended, had a line of angry preachers surrounding me before I got back to my feet, waiting to confront me.
I have stories like this for days. I won’t recount again here — because it has certainly been written about more than enough elsewhere — but what started off late last Fall as a little rant on twitter about Jerry Falwell Jr., quickly turned into me getting banned from the campus of Liberty University for life. I was in the center of the ring with Falwell Jr. for about a week, duking it out in the public square. When I am most myself, that is what happens, for better or worse. I get into these things, then remember that I am mostly Clark Kent and think to myself — how exactly did I get here?
In some ways, it is an odd dynamic. If I’m a little bit of a giant, I’m mostly a jolly one — but have a gift that goes crossways with my own nature. I see things I don’t necessarily want to see, and feel compelled to say things I don’t necessarily want to say. I know a lot of people this way, that know the blessing and the curse of having any sort of prophetic impulse. I’m still Pentecostal enough to believe that there are some things that just grab a hold of you, with or without your consent — what in my tradition we call, “the anointing.” The trouble is, as I told my friend Abner Ramirez the other day — the anointing can run off and kill you.
Annihilation and bunnies
To return to where I started: I am reflecting on all these things, soon before turning the corner at 40. In some ways, it can feel embarrassing not to have some of the things many of my friends have by this age: stability, security, a 401k, 2.5 kids, a life settled comfortably into some well-worn grooves. I am everywhere but nowhere in particular these days, unsure of where I belong in the world.
If there is any consolation, there is a sense that I do belong to the world, in the sense of my vocation. My life is not my own, but an offering meant to be poured out, as all of our lives are. I cannot make myself smaller, but if anything, I am perhaps lighter than I used to be — more flexible, more adaptable, less encumbered by the expectations of myself and others. I travel lighter than I used to. I can go almost anywhere, so it seems — except perhaps, backward.
New life is always equal parts giving birth and dying. Something is always going down into the grave, and something new is always rising up. This is the way of created things. I was confronted with this mystery again last night watching the film Annihilation alone in the theater: how things die and how people self-destruct, and in the reckoning, wild and terrible new things come into being. Some of them, beautiful, some of them frightening — with no rhyme nor reason to this primal rhythm. Things keep coming and going and shifting and colliding in the chaos — and out of the give and take of this, comes new possibilites. We rarely know what to make of it at the time, because it is all still happening to and through us.
Driving away from the theater, I felt the storm in me. The cocktail of aching and yearning and dying, the clearing space for something new; the yearning to make, to create, to become. I felt the familiar terror again of letting go of the old, and the seasick anticipation of what may yet come into being. I have, more than once, truly wanted to be over. I have, more than once, found myself being made new despite myself, largely against my own wishes. Because that is what God or the cosmos (or both) does, depending on your vantage point — always pulling us along, dragging something new out of the death of a thousand stars.
Driving back to my temporary perch at 1 in the morning, I saw a bunny start to run onto the road ahead of me. If a hillbilly Pentecostal is allowed to have a totem, bunnies are mine — I find them superflously, unnecessarily beautiful and a gift of grace; I mysteriously seem to start seeing them everywhere whenever there’s a major shift or transition in my life. The bunny ran into the road, but then ran off to safety just in time. She avoided doom, last night. Maybe I’ll make it yet, I thought.
I pulled into the driveway minutes later, and another bunny came running from the front yard, almost to my car, then froze in front of me. I stayed in my seat, very still, searching the rabbit’s face for answers, for meaning. I saw nothing in particular in his big black eyes. The bunny was just…there, which for me is a way of saying, there is grace here. I bit deeply into all my fear of more dying, and into my unintended hope for more living, and let the tears roll down.
I don’t know exactly where I am, or exactly where I’m going; or what it means for some doors to shut, and other doors to open.
The only thing I know, is that there is grace here.
As the bunny dove back into the night, I got out and closed the driver’s side door of my car, softly.