The ineffable pull of direction as I grow into middle age is harder to manage. It’s not demands on my time that I mind, it is demands on my personality and my sense of self. Until suddenly, I awake with that very feeling I didn’t expect–the one I should have dealt with many years ago, but did not: I don’t know who I am…
Definitions by career are specious because careers don’t last forever and they tend to be narrowly focused. Definitions by family stick, but sometimes I don’t want them to. I’m not who my father was and I’m not who my brothers are. My wife and daughter define me very much so–but in the dark, at moments of quiet, that still small voice whispers and the message is clear: “I am I. Who are you?” I think I’m supposed to answer, but I haven’t. I don’t. I dare not.
It is not jitters, per se. It isn’t queasiness or loneliness. I’m not uneasy about being alone and at times I find myself very focused, very intent and in a state of being with which I am very comfortable. But it is process, not definition. It is evolving each time and there is no fixed place for it: A page to turn, words to write or read, good food and wine, laughter with friends or family, a walk with my dog and a cool breeze heralding a change of seasons.
And it is these moments when I ask myself what I need–what I want–and the answers can be hollow and shallow, filled with material possessions like the car I crave or the computer I want. But I know that as surely as I begin to obtain those things, that voice will be back and it will ask me, “what now?” and I won’t have an answer for it except to stare with vacant expression at the treasures I’ve amassed, the money I’ve spent.
So, I wander back into the classroom for the very narrow sense of career definition and I pull myself up to the desk and pick up a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I begin to vibrate with the book’s energy. It is at once language that is ethereal and gorgeous and also, stilted and lacking energy–its characters caught in a tragedy of their own making, seeking fame, fortune and eternal salvation because they drove harder than the person before them. It reeks and drips with images of power misused and love malformed and it haunts me even as I begin to decide how to bring it to life for students.
I’m captured now and I see a moment, a well-spring of ideas and I get to put them in motion, slowly and carefully so that the students I manage can see them and decide which one is theirs. When they do-inexorably, they link to a moment, a passage, a piece of lilting language that lifts them to something they barely recognized while reading Shakespeare previously-but it’s theirs now. They get it, they feel it and understand it and it both thrills and frightens them. They are being warned-they are being told and they are being disciplined and they are drawn to it, though they do not want to be.
I’m breathless. It’s exhausting, but in the way that good exercise is. I find myself ensconced in their world and sensing all of their insecurities come to life in a sterile and ugly classroom where they’re wrestling with things they thought they wouldn’t have to wrestle with: “My life isn’t supposed to happen in an English class,” they say. But it is happening and they have to deal with it.
When I leave to go home for the day, I’m wrestling too. I’m back in the moment of seeing myself in their young eyes and feeling the tapped energy of a cycle that is, in essence, the journey of self–of learning who I am by learning about who other people are. It is beautiful in its own way but I remain detached, a little stand-offish and I wonder how I can embrace it even closer to me and the answer comes in the form of poetry and of words, yes–and of time with people I love and a good bottle of wine and it comes in the cool breeze of a late afternoon walk and the sweat built from climbing hills and moving faster with each pace.
And I look skyward to a God who I know, above all other things, I love and I get misty-eyed for my creator who put me in this position–this delicate, dangerous struggle that I have fallen in love with again and that I wait for every morning with the sun like a hungry child at the breakfast table.