I’m halfway through being 35 and ever since the calendar turned the page to a new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my age. A lot, a lot. Multiple times a day.
I’m 35. Fully grown. I’m, like, totally an adult or something. But am I where I’m supposed to be? And to that end, what exactly is my life supposed to look like at this point? I mean, I’m 35 years old so why don’t I feel like it?
Anne Lamott says, “Our true person is outside of time and space,” meaning the age we feel and the number of tree trunk rings in our body don’t necessarily line up. Our inside self doesn’t have an age. “I’m every age I’ve ever been and so are you,” Lamott says. That isn’t some sort of hippie nonsense. What she means is we carry our thoughts, feelings, memories and experiences with us into each next year—those things simultaneously rooted in the past and alive within us in the present—and that’s why our age doesn’t always line up with how we feel.
But even knowing that, there’s no getting around the fact I’m 35 years old—there are photobooth pictures from my party to prove it—and there’s also no getting around the fact 35 doesn’t feel the way I imagined it would. Not that I had a concrete idea about what certain ages would or should look like, but this isn’t it. I knew what it looked like for my parents but as much as I love them, I’ve never tried to be my parents or do things in the timing that worked for them. It worked for them and for that, I’m grateful (it’s how I’m here so hello, grateful), but we aren’t the same. My twisty journey wasn’t the same as theirs and thus far, each has turned out quite alright. Luckily, they’ve never pressured me to follow in their imprint.
I’ve watched as people I went to college with have followed the plotline their parents and the culture around them have dictated and in doing so, have hit “age appropriate” milestones. Some milestones include being married by a certain age or having kids in a certain timespan while others are less interpersonal: owning a certain size of house, a specific make of car, or the right pair of khakis in order to look the part of who they think they have to be. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of that—it’s wonderful to be loved, to create a family, and to feel the mental buttressing of financial security—but if you’re constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses, you’re living someone else’s version of what your life should look like. That doesn’t appeal to me.
On one level this doesn’t appeal to me because I’m a writer. When I decided putting words on a page was what I’m meant to do with my life, I also had to accept the question marks I’d endure as pertains to my future. It’s all part and parcel of the whole writing gig—not knowing what’s next or if it will ever happen in the way we dream is part of the gamble—so because of that, I never had any delusion my life would look like anyone else’s. Not only that but the inauthenticity of trying to achieve someone else’s version of a successful life doesn’t lend itself to my writing being honest. So, as an adult, I’ve never really paid attention to that all-consuming pull to be, act, or present myself in a certain way.
This is, in large part, thanks to a man named Dave.
When I was young in the church, I had the impression I was expected to act, pray, walk, talk, and worship a certain way and only by doing so would I be privy to God’s cell phone number. The ideology of “we’re Pentecostal, our way is the right way, and this is how it’s done” bogarted most of the church-going narrative and as such, I followed even if it was uncomfortable or didn’t feel genuine. This was reinforced through our weekly services to the point it felt radical to have someone afford us permission to interact with God in a different way. A guest pastor or missionary might say something akin to “now I know this isn’t the way you’re used to doing it but…” and the congregation would chuckle and oblige politely in this outsider’s way of communicating with God. I always thought that was fun because something in me connected with the newness and interruption of it, but come next Sunday morning, it was back to the way we did it.
I didn’t think anything of this because it was all I’d ever known, but after I graduated from high school, that would change. I took part in a year-long discipleship program run by Dave, a new pastor at the church, and we spent nearly every day for a year together. Among our daily activities and studies, the members of our group convened every morning to pray.
We met in the large meeting room in the youth center and spent time praying separately before ending the hour together. There wasn’t anything specific for us to pray for or about, it was just meant to be an intentional hour of talking to God and listening for the talkback. This probably sounds foreign to many, a bunch of garbled Christianese from some Bible Belt Super-Christians, but hey, we were Pentecostal; we prayed a lot. That’s how we holy-rolled. To frame it in a different context, us spending time in prayer wasn’t that unlike people who spend an hour in meditation except rather than being still and quiet, we were very much the opposite.
People of the Pentecostal persuasion have a reputation for loudly communing with God. Beyond the dancing in the aisles and jumping up and down, there’s plenty of speaking in tongues, lots of shaking and falling backward as people were overcome by the spirit, and much prayer-crying. Basically everything you’ve ever seen on religious TV that’s made you go …huh? That was us.
So, for the first few weeks, that’s how my cohorts and I talked to God during our morning prayer time because that’s the example we’d seen illustrated around us. But after many days of this, the routine started to feel somewhat repetitive and forced. Our hearts were in the right place but we were also running out of steam trying to be and act the way we thought we had to. One morning, Dave stopped us mid-prayer and said something that literally changed my life.
“I know this is what you’ve been told powerful prayer looks like, but you’re all different and so is how God’s power manifests within you. I’m not interested in you doing the thing you think you’re supposed to do in order to communicate with God. I’m interested in you talking to God in the way you were meant to.”
He then went down a list of ways people in the Bible heard from and talked to God, one of which was writing. I didn’t even hear the rest of the ways. I didn’t need to. It was an a-ha moment; a fire alarm of the spirit not unlike the moment when Dr. Strange is first sent rocketing through dimension after dimension as his mind opened to the scope of all he didn’t know.
The next morning, I brought a journal with me and found a comfortable corner off to the left of the stage where the sunlight shone through an exit door window. There, I began writing my prayer instead of verbalizing it. Line-by-line, I talked to God and line-by-line, the layers of my onion heart opened. I wrote earnestly and honestly, saying things on the page I’d never said aloud. Things that frustrated me, the areas of my life that embarrassed me, thanks for a kind email from a friend—it all spilled out onto the lined pages of my notebook. It felt communal, it felt sacred, and it felt right.
You know the part in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Schroeder is playing the various versions of “Jingle Bells” for Lucy and upon playing the song at its most basic, elementary incarnation—just one finger plunking on the keys of the little toy piano—Lucy shouts “That’s it!” and it sends him spinning? Well I was Schroeder, spinning after hearing a very loud “That’s it!” from above and within me.
The next day I woke up excited to do the same thing, only this time, what ended up on the page wasn’t so much “dear diary” as it was reflections on what I’d written the day before. That’s the thing about written prayers, you’re unable to forget about them when they’re answered. Sometimes prayers are answered in big obvious ways, but mostly prayers are answered in the quiet nooks of life, the moments some call happenstance. So when God shows up in the seemingly inaudible, credit-less moments, it can’t go unnoticed because the proof is spelled out in the pages of that journal.
When Dave gave me permission to sit and write my prayers down, he was charging me to do it my way and at my pace. It was a radical idea—to think outside the prescribed box of what faith-communication looked like—but it broke down a wall I’d been leaning on. I had no idea that behind that wall, there was an entire switchboard of ways to plug into God. I told my mother about this personal revelation and she said she wrote some of her prayers down as well. I guess she’d already unlocked that mode of communion for herself and it was now my turn.
Okay wait. Didn’t you start this thing by talking about being 35? Why are we going so deep about prayer?
Because that moment taught me about more than just communication with God. Beyond illuminating how writing would be the key to my own authenticity, it taught me I didn’t have to do things a certain way just because the culture around me said that’s how it was done. That morning in a prayer room opened me up to the fact that my process and my pace are mine alone and not only is that okay, but it’s a beautiful part of my story.
Your story is the birthright of your being. Birthrights were a big deal in the Bible, the weight of which was perhaps most literally explained in the story of brothers Jacob and Esau. Esau got home from working all day in the fields and begged his brother Jacob to give him some food because he was tired and sweaty and sunburned and super hangry. Jacob offered him a bowl of lentil soup but only in exchange for his birthright. Esau’s birthright as the firstborn son meant when his father passed away, he would take over as the authority in the family yet he was so hungry and stupid that he agreed to Jacob’s deal. Esau got a boring temporary bowl of soup and his brother got all of the permanent familial authority.
Your birthright—your life—is yours. It’s more valuable than a bowl of soup, than the insecurities you’ve tied to your back or the doubts you have about its appraisal value. In that same regard, your pace, your process and your progress are yours alone too; not to be compared with where anyone else thinks you should be at any given point in your life.
One of the things I was taught in my youth was that God knows the individual strands of hairs on our heads. That’s mentioned twice in Jesus’ teachings and I imagine God getting a Google alert each time one of my hairs jumps ship from stress or age. I also imagine when some of us take hair from one part of our body and implant it into our bald spots, God just smirks. “Clever, but I still know.” That the God of the universe—the God who went bang and all things were created—keeps track of the numbers of hairs on my head, well it was an eye-popping notion to me. I mean, if that’s not an individualized feature startling in its specificity then I don’t know what is. My life and the way it’s unfolding is just as individualized and unique.
At the end of the Jacob and Esau story, after Jacob had received his father’s blessing, Esau went to his father and pleaded with him to undo what he’d done. His father’s response was he only had one sacred blessing to give and he couldn’t reverse it. In a way, that’s what Dave was telling us too. It’s our sacred blessing to be here and we owe it to ourselves not just to be who we were created to be, but to commune with God, others, and ourselves in the way that’s authentic to us. And what about the questions regarding how our lives are supposed to look at any given age? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that when we’re doing the thing that makes us hear “That’s it!” from above and within, we’re right where we need to be.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.