Let’s begin with a story. In this story, somewhere around the Year of the Consulship of Caesar and Paullus, a child is born who will be the promised messiah, king of kings, god incarnate, saviour of men. Three wise men, kings of the orient, visit to pay tribute to this excellent gift from heaven… and then… let him be. Wait, what? No offer of tutors? No insistence upon leaving a scribe to follow him as he grows, to record his every action that all may learn from this god-man that they recognize him to be? Well, so it goes, and so the child gets a happy, private, humble childhood, living a nondescript life as a carpenter before he’s baptized near the year when a Jewish man can become a rabbi, and then begins his ministry at 30, ending in his death at 33.
It’s the kind of story that could only happen before cellphones. Can you imagine the scrutiny that would be put upon a child-god today? Heaven forfend that they’re ever seen with their finger up their nose, or checking their nappy by a park bench while the mother of serenity asks if they’ve made a poopy, or getting less than perfect on a spelling quiz: instant memes would ensue, travelling the internet for use in political satire, ending in outrage, possibly violence, and definitely changes to the dictionary.
Let’s for a moment imagine, too, that the conveniently lost years between 12 and 30–the zenith of youthful exploits in any human experience!–were in fact perfectly chaste for this new, digital-era god incarnate. Even then, you’d still have the media exploiting his classmates for gossip: the interviews with girls and boys who think he’s creepy; the awkward shots of him being goaded into performing divine parlour tricks at houseparties; the one unfortunate concert video of him having a good time that leads to a million think pieces about what the child-god thinks of music And What You Should Too.
I wish I were being glib, but a common complaint about the secular world is that it lacks magic and mystery. Certainly, our culture of “hot takes” and relentless scrutiny of personal and collective failure lends itself well to that impression. And so, while I remain gobsmacked that many people at every stage of life defer to the words associated with three years of early-30s ministry from the character of Christ… I do wonder if there’s a lesson for secular folk in that practice of selectivity, too.
The Benchmarks of Other Lives
Today I am 33 years old–in my “Jesus” year, as I have playfully called it for everyone else reaching that milestone.
I’m not in the camp that laments growing older: I find myself, rather, astonished and grateful to continue to exist. When I was in my late teens and twenties, the desire to end my life came on in agonizingly intense waves–later identified as bipolar-2, a label that gave me access to the tools I needed to “reboot”–and I genuinely did not expect to make it to 30. In one of my worst downswings, at 28, I was in so much physical pain that I had ceased to see colour vividly, and even music was excruciating (every song, with words or not, somehow attesting to the fundamental futility of existence). Suicide, I was certain, would be a mercy killing, but I wanted my nephews to know that I had tried everything I could before leaving them. So, I waited on an outpatient program’s admittance, and… after three months of it, followed by three months of day hospital, all while working three part-time jobs and surviving as a doctoral student (gaining candidacy at the end of that summer!)… well, I got better. Colour returned. Music, too. And my overall joy and gratitude at simply breathing.
When I turned 30, I hosted a movie-theatre party in way of thanks for this new lease on life, and as a celebration of my community. Every day after that point, that moment I thought I’d never live to see, was to be treated as a gift. (And I still believe that, even if today’s birthday has been a little stranger.)
I am also not of the camp that laments death unto itself. I have a family member who reliably informs me that they themself is still alive by sending me the obits of famous people who have lately died. It’s a practice I sometimes respond to with a gentle “Congrats, you outlived this one too!” but it baffles me. These are the people who excelled–if we grieve them, instead of celebrating their accomplishments, what are we saying about the value of any life? Are there no “win” conditions for atheists?
The dead I grieve are the children I learn have died–whether trapped in a landslide of the garbage dump that was their home, or from easily treatable diseases, or in flight from horrific circumstances with their families–before they ever had a chance to make their mark. To be known for their distinct gifts, or the love they gave to those around them.
I grieve, too, the people whose lives were relentlessly hard–the people at any stage in life whom I can only hope had their small moments of joy and wonder, however they knew how, when living in cramped quarters with nine others before dying on an illegal worksite; or as a teen-bride at the hands of a husband who wants to marry a younger woman in a culture where murder’s almost as easy as divorce; or in jail or prison for a minor offense, left to slowly asphyxiate from a mix of allergies and callously inattentive guards; or at the hands of abusive offspring in their frailest, final years.
Suffice it to say, there are plenty of ways that death can make one more grateful for life.
But there is also life, and its brilliant ongoing opportunities, to learn from, too.
The Benchmarks We Make for Ourselves
Last year, I gave myself a birthday gift to be re-opened as a memory every birthday after, because my 32nd birthday was also my first day in Colombia, part of a two-week immersion trip before I committed to making this country my new home. I was alone for the first time on another continent, with incredibly poor Spanish, and so dizzyingly swept up in my first, seven-hour wander through the streets of Bogotá that I forgot to eat until returning to the hostel that night.
I saw… so many affecting things that day: the men with no legs crawling on their hands in the heat of the street; the mountains of garbage scattered by vultures and human scavengers alike; the roofless poverty of an Estrato-Uno barrio; the brutal wounds on half-wild dogs in the streets… and also the smiles on people’s faces. Their warmth and patience with my nervous tongue. The music in all quarters. The warm waft of baked goods and street meat. The striking architecture in the old Spanish colonial quarter. The graffiti and related markers crying out in solidarity for peace and an end to violence against women. The museums and the trees and the mountain, oh! The bright light of that relentless sun filtered through the clouds passing over Mount Monserrate!
This year, my present to myself is the completion of a novel that means the world to me. I have to admit, though, that this is still a complicated joy. For one, I felt rather poorly over how long the text was taking, especially nearest the end. I had promised you readers, after all, to produce a four-part essay on speculative fiction as a measure of secular storytelling during my final, pre-pitch revisions. And I did have those drafted! I simply… couldn’t split my focus effectively between my novel revisions long enough to attend to the final polish each one required. Mea culpa. I will have those essays for you this week!
For another, though, I realized why the text was taking so long as I neared the end of it. It’s all well and good, after all, to talk about a dramatic, exciting adventure like uprooting from one country to another… but there were painful reasons that I could no longer stay in Canada, and learning how to thrive in Colombia has involved a whirlwind of isolation and disappointment, too. Nevertheless, while I was struggling in those last months in Canada… and during many a low spell here, too… I had one thing that I had promised myself had to be completed, before I could entertain a certain kind of despair again.Why run away and start over? Why not just run away and… stop?
Because I still have the novel to finish, silly.
Why keep struggling to fit in here? You’re never going to fit in here, just like you never fit in there.
Because I still have the novel to finish, silly.
A Muddled Start to My “Jesus Year”
Yesterday I printed out my completed novel for final revisions prior to the long and quite possibly fruitless process of pitching my book to agents. Who knows if the damned thing will ever be published? I don’t. And it’s not the end of the world if it isn’t–because I know that far too many far better writers went their entire lives without seeing their now-greatest works acclaimed. For this reason, the epigraph on my novel draws from Solzhenitsyn, and reads:
The manuscripts lay there like the burial mound of some interred human spirit, its conical top rearing higher than the interrogator’s desk, almost blocking me from his view. And brotherly pity ached in me for the labor of that unknown person who had been arrested the previous night, these spoils from the search of his premises having been dumped that very morning on the parquet floor of the torture chamber, at the feet of that thirteen-foot Stalin. I sat there and I wondered: Whose extraordinary life had they brought in for torment, for dismemberment, and then for burning? Oh, how many ideas and works had perished in that building – a whole lost culture? Oh, soot, soot, from the Lubyanka chimneys!
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Part I
…Because no doubt for every “greatest work” we mark as a triumph of human spirit, there are countless more we will never get to read, that would just as readily have made us laugh and weep and grow as human beings, and be labelled “genius!” for it, too. As most artists will tell you, even if they’re only telling you this because they think they have to, we create what we do because we must. Because it is simply in us to build outward from our personal experiences of being human, in whatever form suits each of us best, for as long as we are able.
And yet, for all this lofty thinking…
On a personal level, though, knowing that the novel was more or less finished left me feeling uneasy. I kept thinking back on all the sadnesses that I’d pushed aside with thought of the novel. I kept thinking ahead, too, to the sort of purposelessness that creeps up even for human beings at their most ambitious. I kept thinking about how tired I was, and how alone I had made myself during the last weeks of revisions. So, I contrived to use a birthday celebration proposed by a friend to make the book feel more like a beginning, not an end, to any useful contributions in my life going forward.
Unfortunately, this friend is not the most… attentive or thoughtful, though I know he tries, so while I had literally brought my freshly printed book to show him my birthday triumph… somehow the conversation continued to revolve around the woman half his age he’d had a grand time with not two hours’ prior.
Well, we all fight the frightening fury of time’s passage differently, don’t we?
I had a good laugh at the disconnect in our maturity levels after–but also, a very thorough cry, which continued when I ran up my mountain this morning, and was so emotional that I burst into tears at a bit of friendly conversation with the woman I know who keeps the tienda at the summit.
It was just… the silliest sight to behold, I imagine–this weeping white person in their broken Spanish, trying to explain that they were overwhelmed with emotion because it was their first birthday away from all friends and family in Canada, with no clear sense now of what the future might hold, and that exercise had a tendency to bring that sort of emotion to the surface… while all around the two of us were horses and donkeys resting in the brilliant wash of early sun, and young people working out to dance-club music on an array of metal equipment, and families and lovers holding hands while they looked out on the city, and the grotto of the Virgin, and the three crosses for which the hill is named, keeping silent vigil over all.
Marta is a lovely human being and I am sure a saint of an abuela, because she just took my hands in hers and gave me birthday blessings, which did nothing at all to stop the silly run of tears, but definitely changed their flavour!
And reminded me, again, of a lesson secular folk can draw from the shape of Christ’s tale.
A Kinder Path to Setting Benchmarks for Ourselves
The character of Christ, after all, is given immense freedom from scrutiny during his younger years, right up until the burst of active practice that comes to define, for billions, his contribution to the human experience.
We who walk in our own lives often don’t have that luxury (though I do routinely find myself enamoured by Kazantzakis’s “God, make me God!” pleading in The Last Temptation of Christ, which gives the same doubts to its Christ-character).
We have, for one, family and friends who have known us for a long time, but who maybe are not as charitable in forgiving and forgetting our weakest moments.
And maybe not always as present in our triumphs as we would like them to be.
We have ourselves, too, and are routinely our worst critics–waking at 3 a.m. to replay something we said years ago; or looking upon the grand sweep of our achievements (with all the dopamine rushes that their production gave us) and thinking them the utter trash.
But also… we have moments–if we select for them; if we are willing to give our secular stories the same grace that Christians and Muslims lend to their reading of Christ’s personal biography–when it is possible to remember that our presence is enough. That every precious moment when we still draw breath, we are either still approaching or (if fortunate indeed!) at the height of our contribution to the human experience.
Today it was an abuela atop my little mountain who reminded me of this. (And Mary Oliver, if I’m to be perfectly frank, because I recited “Wild Geese” to myself after, to help slow my breathing–and even though the “geese” from my current vantage point were turkey-vultures circling in the distance… it still worked!)
Yesterday it wasn’t my friend who reminded me of this, much as I had expected it would be. Instead, it was the abuelo who saw me reading a book in the bright light of a beautiful Medellín afternoon, and asked about it, and told me his favourite author was Dostoevsky–at which point, delighted to discover that we had the same preferences, we discussed in my faltering second language all the characters in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov that had taught us both how to live more deeply in the world.
Because there are ever so many stories, aren’t there, that we can draw from?
And ever so many more for us to live out, and to share, until our truly “Jesus” year–the year, that is, in which each of us comes to the end of the privilege of existing… and time begins its own, fickle reckoning of our triumphs.
May there be time enough for each of us–no matter how flawed the roads behind us–to leave a multitude in our wakes.