An essay from my Live Journal Days, dated 29 Aug 2004, my 40th Birthday. I called it the beginning of midlife. I’m kinda past that now a few years away from Officially Old. So, reposting.
- New two-wheeled vehicle that goes faster than anything I’ve owned previously… Check.
- Vehicle painted red… Check.
- Ditched previous friends, jobs, home and relocated… Check.
- Dated person(s) between half and two-thirds current age… Check (I’ve done that so many times I feel like Tom Sellick in Friends)
- Consumed with thoughts about the meaning of life, mortality and lack of impact on the surrounding world… Check.
Let Midlife BEGIN!
Ten years ago I was trapped on Fire Island. T was sitting in a hot tub looking off into space like someone who had just died and gone to limbo while we missed ferry after ferry back to Long Island, thus missing train after train back to the City. When I arrived finally, at the class I was to teach that afternoon – nearly 2 hours late (class was two hours long) I slammed open the door, stomped up the stairs and found my co-teacher standing in the middle of the room wearing a face that, well, only J could wear. I started to apologize and, in the long dressing mirror over her shoulder, I saw a gang of people jammed into the corner of the kitchen with flowers and glasses of champagne. They were giggling in the way that people do just before they all yell SURPRISE.
And so, there I was in my first ever surprise party at the age of 30. I had asked for one. I had given my roomie a list of invitees and left it to him. How was I to know that he would conspire with nearly everyone to pull it off?
And here I am, ten years later.
Oddly enough none of the people at that party are still in my life other than the occasional email. I’ve moved from that apartment in Richmond Hill – to a house in Astoria and thence to San Francisco from whence I most recently hied to here, Asheville, NC, CSA. I’ve lost my dwarves and my wizard…
I was thinking of profound things to write here, having reached half of my fourscore (if in strength), and so I was ruminating through my past: famous people I have known or touched or with whom I have otherwise congressed; events and actions that made me happy or sad, proud or ashamed; places I’ve gone, things I’ve seen. I stumbled on a pattern that, perhaps, is what I need to work on over the next decade, insh’Allah.
Most of the things of which I am proud are really silly – they are not lasting things but rather only things that made me look important in the eyes of other people. Most of the things of which I’m ashamed are things that really only damaged my standing in the eyes of other people: even the things that now make my stomach churn and my heart drop into my feet are only things that any socially inept person would do. They too are of no lasting value – outside my own ego. The things, however, that I did but would no longer do – the debauchery, the libertinism – of those the only sentiment (for that is all it is) that comes to mind is “they made me what I am today…”
For all that I’m sure that I do not want to “go back there”, I can’t seem bring myself to honestly admit (in my heart of hearts) that it was wrong to have been there in the first place. My pride steps in and demands to know “who would we be without our past?” I suddenly know the meaning of the Prophet’s words, “I acknowledge my sin and my sin is ever before me.” Yes, I can admit I was wrong… but I can’t go on as if it never happened.
Who would our fallen first father have been without the fall? Well, we can imagine, we can theorize, but really all we can say is “he’d have been who God created him to be.” We can’t know what that was to have been like for it never happened until Christ.
Who would I have been – who would I be – if I hadn’t been the me I became? Well, as much as I’d like to be that me, I won’t know. The best I can hope for is for that me to finally grow up in God’s time from the grace given in Baptism and the holy Mysteries.
Ten years ago this Autumn I and five friends moved into a house on Ditmars Blvd in Astoria, NY: we called the house Castle Ebola. In organizing that community, I set in motion events that would carry me through that decade: one of the persons I met there was to become my boss in San Francisco, which position would eventually lead me to finishing my BA, going into my vocational discernment process, and in ways that are very difficult to explain, eventually my conversion to Orthodoxy. Yet it was not my *doing* of that all that brought me here, but rather, as Vladyka SERAPHIM noted to me once, “there is grace before and behind”. God’s grace tracked me down; the hound of heaven would not let me go.
We were discussing, yesterday at work, the process by which one moves through the various Twelve Steps to recovery. The more I learn about the Twelve Steps, the more I realize how well they fit with the Orthodox Christian understanding of sin: sin is not a legalistic mumbo jumbo of lawbreaking. It is a sickness we all have. We need to work, to struggle, to pray, to daily strike out against the sickness. But the victory doesn’t come all at once, indeed, it never comes in this life, at least in the sense of getting Olympic Gold. No one will stand me up and raise a flag high while the world looks on. Rather the victory is in the daily on-going struggle to “run the race set before me” as St Paul saith.
When a person enters a Twelve Step meeting and announces that he is an addict and desires to live life clean and sober, he gets what is called a White Chip. He may get different chips of different colours for a week of sobriety, a month, a year. But if he falls, and gets back up again, it all starts over with the White Chip.
When you stretch a look back over decades of addiction, when you stretch a look forward over hypothetic days as yet unnumbered, it can all be very overwhelming. Sobriety stretching into a mythical eternity seems silly and impossible compared to a literal, physical past of addiction and a present of craving. As I said to the community at work today – paraphrasing a sermon Fr J gave a few months ago – Every day, in some way, you pick up a white chip.
Perhaps therein lies the best grace of all, the most joyful birthday gift: I can never know what life would have been like without the last ten – without the last forty – years. I can not know the me that could have been without the sin, without the ego, without the pride, without the mess I made of my life. I can not and I bless God for that grace: without knowing how truly far I have fallen I can not see how far I have yet to climb. I only know I’m not where I should be. I can only see the next step in the race.
I’ve lost my dwarves and my wizard, but I’ve found the Way. On my fortieth birthday, again, I’m given only the grace to pick up my white chip.
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