On the Verge of Turning 40

I teach high schoolers
On the verge of graduation
So-called “seniors”
Who were children just the other day.
Intoxicated with the weightless gravity
Of their newfound independence,
They drive, and vote,
And use the restroom
Without taking the hall pass with them.

Can you remember?
What it was like
For that fleeting moment,
The sensation you were standing on top of the whole world
The universe stretched before you, full of
Endless possibility
You could do anything, be anything
You could get a tattoo of your favorite internet meme
Immortalized on your backside
Without parental permission.

“Tell us a story,” they beg me,
Desperate to escape for even five minutes
The drudgery of introductory statistics.
Occasionally I indulge them-
After all, the guidebook says I should
“Build rapport” with my class.
I regale them with a carefully curated collection
Of tales of my own youth-
Adventure and mis-adventure,
Hard-earned victories, bitter defeat,
Blossoming romances and unrequited love.

But with each year that passes, the chasm of time between
Those days and now yawns wider,
As does the gulf between my students and me.
They literally can’t imagine adolescence without a cell phone;
I can’t imagine surviving adolescence in the world of social media.
Their athletic bodies, quick reflexes,
Contrast with my walking embodiment of the passage in Proverbs-
To put it less metaphorically, I can’t get off the floor
And can’t remember a lot of words,
The students discover this early in the semester, when
I explain that it will take me “a really long time”
To learn all 63 of their names.
Incredulous, they tilt their heads in bewilderment as March
Rolls around and I am still fumbling my way
Through calling roll.
“Harlee, Hayley, Karlie, and Kayley…”
I smile apologetically and reassure them that
I truly don’t know my own kids’ names,
I wouldn’t remember my own if it weren’t on my driver’s license.
I use my age as a joke,
“Early-onset Failure” I call it, when laughing with my husband over
My faltering sentences, sketchy memories.
With the students, completely straight-faced I begin
“It was the early 90’s, so you know
We didn’t have electricity or running water or the internet back then…”
I can remember being eighteen,
But don’t know if they can imagine being
Forty.

The grinding mill of daily life has dulled me, worn me out,
Long days stretching into long years- or sometimes short years-
But most significantly, insignificant years,
Anonymous and interchangeable. I realize that this is the greatest
Difference between the seniors and myself:
They are living what may prove to be the most Memorable year of their lives,
Whether good or bad, challenging or easy, fun or heartbreaking,
While I am drifting gently in that vast expanse of time
We call “middle age.”
Most people I know are able in an instant
To tell you about their senior year of high school.
But what of 26? Or 37?
With some mental strain I can calculate the years my children were born,
The years we moved,
But- let’s face it- the vast majority of adult life
Involves trying to remember your PIN,
Paying your mortgage, buying groceries,
And scheduling your spouse’s first colonoscopy.
These are not the moments you tell stories about,
The stuff of legends to be passed down through the years
In ever-growing hyperbole.

I don’t have the heart to tell my seniors
That the “little ditty about Jack and Diane” is spot-on;
Life really does go on long after the thrill
Has dissipated into an amorphous trek
Of responsible, mundane adult behavior.

And what I’m supposed to tell you now
Is that, while the excitement has died down,
My life on the verge of turning 40 is better than ever,
That the rarefied exuberance of youth and promise has given way
To a more stately and dignified life of decisions made and promises kept.
That just as the giddy feeling of being “in love” slowly sweetens
Into the truer, richer, deeper love of long years and shared life,
So does the fiery blaze of life when you’re young
Fade with age into glowing embers of stable warmth and light.

I mean it’s all true, of course.
But that’s not what I’m going to tell you.

What I’m here to say is this-
Grace grows with us and takes on a thousand new shades of meaning,
Violet and amethyst and sometimes turquoise,
(Assuming words really do come in color),
and this is what it means to me at Forty:

God is under no obligation in this life to surprise us, entertain us,
Stimulate our imaginations or ignite our creative sparks.
However, those of us who know Him, know
That He is a God of shocking abundance, that His grace shows up
In ways and means we least expect.

And I believe it’s possible, in His grace,
That at forty, I might take a road trip with my friends-
Or maybe by myself-
And I will run into the ocean fully clothed,
With no sunscreen!, no towel waiting on the sand.
That I will get back in the car
And drive, with no particular destination in mind
Stopping wherever I arrive in the moment.
Drinking the good coffee or wine of that land,
My friend [/my podcast] joyfully by my side.

I believe it’s possible, that at forty,
I will find some hidden corner of my mind
That has not rotted away with years and worries and care
That can still solve mathematics problems
Using all the strength I built up when I was young
And that, like an athlete dusting off the pads in the garage,
I will return to my event and discover I’m stronger than ever.

I believe it’s possible, that at forty,
I will stay up all night with you on the back porch,
Because that conversation will be, in that moment,
The beginning and end of all human discourse;
That we will watch the sun rise, so grateful,
So very grateful, just for having lived.

I believe it’s possible, that at eighty,
I’ll still look back at the whole of my life
And think high school (or college) was the most exciting part,
BUT,
I will realize,

That it was when I was FORTY,
That I wrote this poem that made my friend cry
The tears she had been holding onto since she was three years old.
And it was when I was FORTY,
That my therapist died
And as I mourned I discovered what he had been trying to tell me all along.
And it was when I was FORTY,
That I held my daughter to my chest
As she whispered a secret in my ear
A secret about being young
And in that moment, I was 18 AND 40, I was both at once.
(When I was 18, I could only be 18.)

And this is all I can pray:
Make me Your servant- even when servanthood looks dull.
Redeem the gem inside my heart that’s pure, a splinter of your Heart as Creator,
And refine all the selfishness of flesh around it.

God save all of us adrenaline junkies,
The ones always looking for the madly bright shooting stars;
But if it’s true that He takes our greatest weaknesses, our shallowest points
And uses them for His glory,
I pray that He will take my desire to ride life like it’s the wind
And send me into His world in goodness, so very high.

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