Men At Forty (Happy Birthday To Me)

Men At Forty” by Donald Justice is printed out, framed, and hanging in my closet. I’ve been glancing at it off and on for the last year or so. This post isn’t a critique, but it is my 40th birthday reflection on it. Pardon the self-indulgence, but it felt important to put this down.

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors they will not be
Coming back to.

You start off and all of the doors are open. “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up.” I thought a rockstar/professional soccer player/scientist sounded good. Then I started to pick. To prioritize. In high school, I dropped sports for more time making music. Science fell off when I saw the math. I got increasingly brazen for a while. I damned the notion of Plan B’s. I slammed some doors, jumped out some windows, let some bridges burn from a sheer lack of energy or self-worth.

If time isn’t infinite, you have to close some doors. I’m learning, slowly, how to close them softly. I’m learning, slowly, how it’s not only OK to not go back, but essential. Because if time isn’t infinite, we have to carefully choose how we spend it. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot on my 39th turn.

At rest on a stair landing
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

This verse gives me two thoughts. The first is of my brother who couldn’t sit still when we watched movies. The more exciting the movie, the more he’d be bouncing up and down and getting so animated that we’d have to put him in the penalty box called the stair landing. To be fair, it was directly across from the TV, so he didn’t miss anything. But, it did temporarily keep him from creeping into the rest of our line of sight. He was simultaneously on the stairs, but partway up and partway down, with a distant view of the action.

40, as a number, feels similar. It’s partway up and partway down. There’s something to look at with a bit more perspective, but still more to gain. And the action is still where I want to be focused. So maybe it’s not so much a penalty box, but a perspective box.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret,

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people older than me say they get surprised by the person in the mirror looking back at them. I get it, I get it, I get it. We turn into “them.” The older ones. And we wonder how they do it. We keep practicing, imitating, wondering how they did it and if we’ll ever figure it out too.

I’ve got a whole collection of ties now. I mostly hate wearing them. I get the fashion sense/status -signaling of their existence. I even get how I appreciate choosing not to wear one increasingly often. But from the memory of the clip-on tie metal against my neck, to the silkier noose with a starched liner I’ve aged into, it’s all just a part of growing into obligations. Obligations practiced to someday be accepted. With a little rebellion along the way for good measure, but first, always first, practiced in wonder.

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them. Something

Talk about practice, I remember practicing shaving too. My dad gave me a disposable razor with the blade popped out. The plastic would scrape the Barbasol off my hairless face. Once, out of sheer curiosity, I took one of his real razors out from behind the mirror, put the shaving cream on the only facial hair I had (my eyebrows), and shaved one of them clean off. Yeah. Just one of them.

It was like I couldn’t believe it would work until I tried for myself. I sheepishly walked downstairs to say “what did I do” and “what have I done” and “what do I do?” Mom or Dad (or maybe it was both of them) looked shocked, then tried not to laugh, and finally said something to the effect of, “well, it will grow back.”

I’ve been learning to accept my own curiosity. I’ve been learning to accept I sometimes have to try something obviously stupid for it to sink all the way in. I’ve been learning how to find and foster these feelings in others too. It’s terrifying and rewarding all at once.

If it doesn’t kill, if you learn something, if you have a laugh – I don’t know if it gets any better. It seems like the best hits from our worst moments usually seem to include both a lesson and a laugh. It’s the type of perspective that only comes with time. I’m looking for these moments more and more, ahead of me and behind me.

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

The last bit here starts at least a line before. I love the connection across the stanzas. I love the ending on the vastness of the dark with the debts we owe to our futures. I love how he blurs the spiritual and the practical in perfect suburban backyard harmony.

I know all of the feelings in this poem. Sitting with it for the past year, looking at it often, I’m ready. I’m good with 40. I’m good with being halfway(-ish, hopefully less) up or down the stairs. Eyes on the action. In my perspective box. Closing some doors and opening others. Taking in the crickets behind the mortgaged houses.

Thanks for being here with me.

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