On June 18th, I turned 45 years old. Most of the big birthdays have not been a problem for me (18, 25, 30, 40)…but I wonder a little about this one. It’s been making me think about a song by John Mellencamp from his 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee entitled “The Real Life.” I used to play it as one of my Kairos Retreat songs for high school students in the mid-1990s when I was around 30. Here are the lyrics I’m thinking of:
I guess it don’t matter how old you are
Or how old one lives to be
I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives
And how we deal with our own destinies
But something happens
When you reach a certain age
Particularly to those ones that are young at heart
It’s a lonely proposition when you realize
That’s there’s less days in front of the horse
Than riding in the back of this cart…
Well, there now might be less days in front of my horse and it makes one really start to think about your life. I keep thinking “Don’t worry-you have a good chance to live to a 100-in which case, you’re NOT halfway through your life yet…” but I’m still scared. How can I live this life “close to the bone” as Mellencamp sings? So much time seemed to be wasted in the last 45 years. Maybe not. My perspective is that in all the moments of my life, I was usually doing something-but then when I don’t have a relic or symbol of the work, I wonder what I did with the time. But does it really matter that I was “doing something” or not? Is it more about my inner disposition, my fundamental stance toward life? Ah, the struggle between the active and the contemplative…
Is there something wrong with not achieving something more than trying to be a good husband to Lisa and a good teacher with my students? What has my life really meant? Am I really living up to what God would expect from someone with my personality/talents/gifts? What is really authentic for me in terms of these questions? I feel like I’ve been true to myself but our feelings can delude us. Have I rationalized on these questions?
I started writing this around the time of my birthday (June 18) but still felt like thinking about it more. Now, it’s November. In August, my Aunt Lois, who was 90, died after living a very full life. My great nephew Noah was born in October. So…we have a continuum: Aunt Lois, who just ended her earthly life, myself-right in the middle, and Noah, who has just started his life outside the womb. And it makes me reflect…
Lois Levin was someone who was what you might call “a pistol.” A rebel from an earlier generation, she forged a path for herself as a strong, independent woman. Earthy, open and honest, caring yet passionate, she lived a life that was filled with challenges: World War II nurse, at times living from check to check with my Uncle Ed, raising five children, and trying to carry out her Catholicism in an ecumenical marriage (Uncle Ed is Lutheran). She was from Chicago, but except for her accent that morphed into a southern/Chicago sound once she settled in Kentucky, you would never guess it. Up to the day she died, she was “with it”-giving advice and loving her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She liked to read good novels and party with the best of them. One of her favorite expressions was “If someone doesn’t like it, piss on ’em!” Named for my grandpa, Aunt Lois was a force to be reckoned with.
Noah. We know nothing about Noah now except that he struggles to sleep through the night. Everything is before him. The little babe in Carbondale, Illinois has a certain genetic program but will be influenced by so much outside of him. What will he want to do with his “one and only precious life?” How will he “self-actualize” as psychologist Abraham Maslow would say? What kind of books, music, and art will he identify with? How will I see my brother-in-law Vern, his grandfather, who died in 2006, in Noah? How will my sister Jane come out in his life? Joseph and Nikki, his parents, will obviously help him on his journey but his life is basically a total mystery to be made, and made again.
John. I’ve lived half of my life, probably. If you read my Facebook page, you’ll see what’s important to me and what has shaped my life. Family, friends, theology and ideology, Jesus, The Beatles, Wilco, great social activists like Dorothy Day, and big questions of all stripes. But now what? I will continue to enjoy living this wonderful life-I know this. But the vocation, the constant call from the Divine, continues to call out to me, like Yoko calling out to John Lennon in the song, “#9 Dream”: John, John, John…
This of course reminds me of the fact we just remembered John Lennon’s birthday on October 9-he would have been 70. He accomplished so much in a life that was cut short-and he had major family issues to deal with at the beginning (see the recently released movie Nowhere Boy). And then I think, why can’t I be more? And that, I know, doesn’t necessarily mean “accomplish more.” But I am haunted. When the movie of my life is shown on the other side, what will I think? And what will the saints in heaven think? And what will Jesus say? What will people think of my “real life?”