December, my favorite month of the year. Usually. For most of my forty years, it has represented a time of sighing relief that another year was about to pass, another twelve months of imperfection gone, a chance to reconfigure and gain momentum to have a better next year. But Decembers at the end of decades have been of even more significance for me, because they represent the precipice of the start of a new decade not only on the calendar, but for my own life. Turning ten, twenty and thirty gave me more food for thought than I would normally have in a typical twelfth month. Now it’s happening again, as I officially turn forty (most of this year, I’ve forgotten that I’m still technically thirty-nine).
Ten years ago, I realized that I hadn’t planned to live past thirty when I was a teenager. I saw my life as such a tragic and fragile one when I was fourteen that the idea that marriage and parenting would be anywhere in my future would’ve been about the only thing to make me laugh out loud back then. My aim in life from about twelve and a half and twenty was to finish college, and from twenty to twenty-six was to go to grad school, finish those degrees, and publish my first book. Cars, houses, specific career aspirations, a wife and a son, none of those were in my plans. Heck, I didn’t even know who my true friends were until a December contemplation session in December ’89, much less love and marriage.
The sad truth is, I’ve achieved just about everything I intended to achieve ten and twenty Decembers ago. That’s good, but it also shows how limited the first visions for myself were. Being an assistant director of a social justice fellowship program and publishing a book on multiculturalism shouldn’t have been the only things that I hoped to achieve in the first seven years after finishing my doctorate. Getting married in ’00 was a major achievement, considering how many folks I grew up with thought of me as “asexual.” But staying married and making the marriage work is the real achievement and the real work, something I’ve learned this decade. Having Noah around is both a labor of love and really hard work, but actually not as hard as watching after my four younger siblings would’ve been twenty Decembers ago.
Even putting the finishing touches on Boy @ The Window, finding an agent and publisher, and then getting it published, as great an achievement as that will be, is a limited one in the end. Even in the worst case, the manuscript’s published before I hit my mid-forties. Even if the book hits the bestseller list, what do I do after that? Write more books about the imperial narcissism of everyday Americans, about the need for universal postsecondary education, about the lives of other, not-so-famous people? I know I’ll keep on writing, but that’s about all I know for sure.
So what will my life look like as I prepare for decade number five? Where do I want to be by December ’19? For starters, steadier and better paying employment would be a goal. Making sure that Noah’s education and quality of life stays on track so that he can get — but doesn’t necessarily need — an academic or athletic scholarship for college. Supporting Angelia as she finishes her master’s degree in interactive journalism, and in moving from there into a career of her own choosing and making. Freeing ourselves once and for all from debt. Those are goals, most or all of which should be met long before I can no longer jump high enough to dunk a basketball.
But what I really want in the end is a sense of happiness and peace that I’ve experienced only on rare occasions in my life to date. Some of that will come as some of the near-future goals get met. Still, I know even with a great job, an enviable savings account, a great kid and a wonderful wife that happiness and peace are forces that come from within. No amount of money, financial stability or independence can give me or anyone else real happiness and a sense that, no matter whatever else is going on, I’ll be fine. Some would say, only God can give us that.
I would say in response that this isn’t completely accurate, because we have to be willing to be happy, to be at peace, to be successful at not creating drama for ourselves and others. Or we could do what Bruce Springsteen says in his introspective “Tunnel of Love.” We’ve “got to learn to live with what [we] can’t rise above,” not only in marriage, but in all of our lives, for we aren’t perfect, and not every imperfection has a permanent cure. Maybe this is the thing I need to remember as I go through this end-of-the-decade December.