It's My Jesus Year

...this wouldn't be too much of a blog without completely defiling jesus in some way...

...my 33rd birthday created more of a stir in my life than i actually want to admit...instead, i wrote about it...and since i'm now over my jesus year--sans cross, martyrdom, and the founding of my very own religion--i'm posting this for all of the 33-year-olds in my life (yes, this is for my husband--insert sappy love music here)...
It's My Jesus Year

I asked my husband, “How do you cope with knowing your life is mediocre? That you’re not important? That you don’t matter?”
He was driving us home from work, where we both struggle to enlighten newly-free-of-parents college freshmen. The sun was in our eyes. Along the side of the highway the fields of dried corn turned golden in the glow. Adam glanced my way. “Jeez, thanks,” he said.

I looked out the passenger window toward the lilting corn, imagining life as the farmer who tilled the soil—who put food on the table—trying to figure out how I got where I am: the rural South, a college in the middle of nowhere. Ten years ago, I traded in the cement and glass of Southern California for this. Now I can’t remember why I did it. “That’s not what I meant,” I said.
He began to chuckle. “That’s a relief,” he said. The earnestness on my face stopped him from making a witty come back. “What’s going on?”
“My life is meaningless.”
“Jeez, thanks,” he said again.
“Not to you. To me. I feel worthless.”
“Bad class today?”
It’s natural for us to blame our moods on the general ennui and near insanity of trying to teach eighteen year olds to communicate in their native tongue. Because I couldn’t yet define what it was brewing under my skull, to give it a name and begin to solve it, I shrugged and said, “Yeah. Bad day.”
“It’ll get better,” he said, reaching for my hand and giving it a good squeeze.
I watched the corn, looking for the farmer on his tractor harvesting the ears that will eventually find their way to a table, or be turned into fuel for the car, syrup for the bad treats we no longer allow ourselves to eat. Here was a person whose life made a ripple in a great pool. If my life were plunked into water, it would sink like an Olympic diver—perfect form, no splash, no ripple.

***
I suffer from oldest child/only child syndrome—told I could be anything, everything. So because I became a professor in a small town, not the Speaker of the House, I feel like a failure where others might see a huge success. Apparently I’m not alone in my perceived shortcomings. In an attempt to educate parents about how children are molded based on birth order, the September 2010 issue of Parenting Magazine listed various personality categories for each sib. (I couldn’t help but notice—probably because I’m an eldest child and tend to be a bit anal-retentive—the magazine gave no advice about how to avoid labeling children.) Accordingly, I’m a perfectionist, alpha child. Bossy. But these omniscient editors also claim that I run the risk of being completely lazy, never achieving happiness because all of the hopes and expectations—all of the things I was told I could do while I was young—are slowly not being realized. These are the traits of only children as well, fostered by parents who falsely, although not intentionally, tell their one and only they are the center of the universe. When we find we’re not, we’re screwed.
Technically, I’m not an only child. But I lived apart from my siblings for the majority of our formative years. Instead of bossing them around or sharing my latest self-induced crisis as sisters might with one another, I treated them more like cousins. I love them, but when faced with a commitment of a holiday visit I feign a stomach virus or brain tumor scare. I live a safe plane-ride away, just far enough to be inconvenient. Which is perfect because I don’t need them to bear witness to my latest meltdown over—yet again—not being chosen for the cover of Rolling Stone.
So I’ve now sunk as low as blaming the cosmos, my birth order, on my general state of unrest. Next I might turn to the trees in my yard and blame them for the water shortage. Certainly, I need to blame someone. It’s not my fault my parents made me their first child, that my grandmother raised me with little contact with the outside world and an inflated sense of self.
This whole existential examination can’t be for nothing.
My life is on the tip of my tongue and I’m trying to squeeze it out between clenched teeth. I keep worrying it.
When I was young I spent time watching the sun set—actually watching it happen. Behind a mountain, under a haze, dipping below the water of the Pacific Ocean. Now, I live my hours in compartmentalized chunks—alarm and shower, off to work, work, back from work, writing, dinner, housework, laundry, bed. I’m lucky if I leave the house after sunset, if I even notice dusk, the smell of dew forming on the grass. I have to schedule the observance of the slow passage of time. And usually, there’s something more important to do.
When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get away from California, where I was never in step. Now, in my Jesus Year, I find myself trying to get back to the Left Coast. Not to my hometown, but a coastal one where I could watch the waves, breathe in some semblance of the air that once made me so restless, that I’m sure can now soothe my restless mind. I long to trace my tracks in the sand, to see where I’ve been and where I’m going. It’s impossible to do that here, what with the pesky oaks and the dips and peaks of southern hills. The closest thing to sand would be the muddy swamp. So consumed with tracing my footprints, I’d end up being eaten by an alligator.
***
Since the old adage about misery is right, I dive into a pile of philosophy and music that I haven’t visited in several years. I reread Kierkegaard, Jung, listen to Elliot Smith—the great minds of my twenties. I open Proust and Rand, reread my own marginalia, things like “Yes!” and “That is SO TRUE!” that are oh-so-helpful for understanding what it was I seemed to understand about the world just a handful of years ago.
A quick jaunt into the Internet reveals some startling facts about existential crises. The Daily Green reports that in June of 2007 the American lawn was suffering from this fight with self and identity brought on by one of the worst droughts in history. Both African American Futures and Truth Out examine the existential crisis being experienced by American capitalism. Yahoo! Answers offers a bulletin board with the heading “Am I Suffering from an Existential Crisis?” A responder in the blogosphere at MentalHelp.Net claims “there is no real existential crisis.” Meanwhile, writer Robert Kaplan disagrees by pointing out how many Americans are filling their time watching sports, following celebrities, and popping antidepressants all in the hope of finding meaning in their otherwise arbitrary lives.
Overwhelmingly, though, most pop culture do-it-yourself experts attach experiencing an existential crisis to depression. Depression stemming from boredom. Great. So some of the world’s most challenging philosophies have come from little more than overindulgence.Sorry, I’m not buying it. I could spend the next decade of my life under a mountain of literature devoted to the examination of self and still reach this conclusion: Thoreau didn’t write Walden because he was bored.
I may never find peace within myself. I may always feel as though my soul is humming, that I’m supposed to be doing something greater with my life. Last night I tried again to talk through some of this with Adam. I explained that I was raised to believe that if something was easy it was not valuable. That anything worth striving for is difficult. This is part of the reason contentment eludes me. I can teach with my eyes closed. I’m good at it. I’m a natural leader. Therefore, there is no value to what I do.
“You’re Faust,” Adam said.
“I’ve never read Faust,” I said.
“Faust makes a deal with the devil. Essentially he tells the devil that he can kill him only when he finds contentment in life. If he doesn’t, he goes on living. Faust wins the bet because he keeps searching for happiness.”
“So what you’re saying is that I can defeat evil? You know,” I said, “if I were a comic book hero, that would be my superpower. To defeat evil.”
“So this isn’t about you finding contentment so much as it’s about you being a fictional character.”
“I just want to feel like what I’m doing with my life is enough.”
“And being a superhero would do that?” I narrow my eyes and he get serious again.“Enough for what?”
I shrugged. “Just enough. To be happy. To be happy with myself.”
“You want to be famous. You want to be worshipped. You want celebrity.”
“I want my life to be more than a blip on the history of the world. And I don’t know how to make that happen.”
But maybe he’s right, I do want fame. I’m smack-dab in the middle of my Jesus Year and have decided that it will be a complete flop unless I’m martyred, crucified no less, and a religion is founded in my name. The Church of Joy. I’m tempted to ask for a cross and a few nails for Christmas, maybe a WWJD (What Would Joy Do?) wristband to remind me of my insignificance as I muddle through my thirties.
Narcissism. Pop culture, head shrinkers, and Dr Phil tell me that’s my trouble. I’d like the world to somehow rotate on my axis for a change. For people to adopt my agenda. For them to whisper my name in prayers before meals and sleep. Still, I don’t want to be a god, or worshipped.
Just mourned. What is the measure of a life if not the death? Recreationally, I fantasize about my deathbed. I’m old and dying and hooked up to machines. There’s a large group of people around me—how they all fit into my tiny HMO hospital room is irrelevant. I want them all to cry and believe the world would be worse off without me. I never know who these people are. They’re faceless, nameless. They feed my ego that wants—even in dying—to be important. To be remembered.
This is sick, sick, sick. I know. I can’t help it. I play this scene at least once a week.
Which means because the cosmos likes to fuck with me—and only me—I’ll die in an elevator. Alone.
***

Weekly I tell my students how much their self-centered, me-me-me attitudes scare me. For the future of our country, for the world. The other day, for the first time, one student looked at me and said, “Well look who raised us.”
It took me a moment to understand—he thought I was old enough to be his mother. “Not me,” I said. “Not my generation. I’m not old enough to have kids your age.” Technically, I could’ve had a kid at fourteen, but I don’t let on. This student looked at me as if he didn’t believe me, as if the knowledge I was loaning him over the course of the semester was something only a person his mother’s age could know. Like I was lying about being thirty-three. If I was going to lie, I thought, I’d tell you I’m twenty-eight.
I rail against my students’ selfishness, yet I’ve sat with my crisis for nearly a year. The fact that the world is not the sensible utopia I once imagined—where everyone votes for social change and rails against injustice and depravity, where every life makes a ripple in a large pool and so all make sure the ripple is a positive one—eats away at me, makes me restless. Makes me long for, at times, the mindless assurance of the raised-by-television generation. I’ve clung to the idea that if every person in the world were passionate, dedicated, the world would be a better place. As long as what they’re passionate about are the things that matter, namely the things that I find important—literature, animals, and gardening. Holding onto this notion, I’m slowly realizing, is asinine. Not everyone will use their superpowers for good. Marvel Comics taught me that.
I carve out a portion of the early evening to watch the little snippet of sky just above my house turn bright orange. The North Star is out, just over the shoulder of the maple tree in the front yard. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in months, and soon it will disappear behind a limb. When I was young, I used to track it across the sky on its nightly journey. I’d think, “Who’s looking at this night too? Who has already looked at it? Who will look at it?”
Cue music from An American Tale.
I’m constantly at odds with myself.
A couple walks their dog down my street—children in tow in a wagon—and they seem happy. They are no one, unimportant, miniscule footprints on a large landscape. Yet they’re smiling, laughing. The children tag each other, jump ship and run in circles around their dog. I would not smile and laugh. I would be worried about who was watching me as I passed. Wonder about the woman on the porch behind the maple tree, scribbling in a notebook.
I once watched a documentary about the age of the earth. A tire tread on a dirt road was used by a historian to illustrate the passage of time. Over the span of the track, over a mile long, humans took up a sliver of space at the end. All humans. In that sliver is all history as we know it—all people who’ve done anything to shape the course of humankind.Kierkegaard, Jung, Faust. Somewhere in there is me. A blur. A dot. Less than a second. I will one day disappear, no record except a name on paper in a language no one will understand in 2000 years. If I’m lucky, there will be a photograph—like the miners in the New Mexico ghost towns, their families scraped together a few extra dollars to have a sealed photo next to the etched name on their granite tombstones. That’s who they are to the world. Who I’ll be. I want contentment with the nothingness that is my life.
My mother says she knew I had an old soul the first time she looked into my infant eyes, that Shirley MacLaine would have a field day with me. I tell her I just got Elvis’ soul. His death triggered my birth and maybe he decided he wasn’t ready for heaven just yet. Maybe he sweet-talked his way to the front of the reincarnation line and the happy-go-lucky puppy who was finally going to be human—in my body, no less—was usurped. Instead, I’m stuck with an overweight, pill popping, aging rocker. This explains my love for peanut butter sandwiches and ill-fitting jumpsuits.
I have often felt uncomfortable with my peers, have always been darker and prone to depression. I’ve lived with an overall sense of foreboding. Perhaps my soul is just tired and has poked at my Faustian tendencies for far too long. I’m having these revelations because, instead of a reincarnated puppy, an old Polish immigrant, a man who longed for a better life in America, has taken up residence in my body. Who, in turn, had an ancient mystic Moor living inside him. Who, in turn, was filled with the spirit of a Sumerian mother-goddess.
I’m beginning to believe that my existential crisis is a last shot at enlightenment, Nirvana. If so, what I need to do is begin to forgive myself for not being all of the things I should have been, could have been. I need to embrace what I am—a lice-infested scalp huddled into an Ellis Island cell. A whirling Dervish. A woman who, although the fires of repentance rage around her, does not burn.

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