On Turning 39 and Looking Up


It’s always a bit of an ordeal, getting all six of us arranged in the small pew (Leo stays in the nursery during the service). Sam needs to be beside an adult and not beside Cade. Cade wants to sit at the inside edge so he can see. Lucy usually wants to sit beside Cade. Abra gets a little wiggly and needs an adult’s calming influence. It’s kind of like turning a Rubik’s cube. One that you have to shush every so often.

But yesterday Abra clambered into the pew with a big grin on her face. She scooched right up against me, as if was her favorite person in the world, and she handed me a birthday card she had made during her class. On the inside it said:

“Happy 49th Birthday, Daddy!”

Lest you think I am nearing the half-century mark, let’s halt this train right now. Because even though I went to bed last night with a hot water bottle under my lower back and an ice pack on my hip, and even though my beard is more white than brown, I assure you I am only 39. Not 49.

We had a good laugh about it, and later I took the card out of my pocket and stared at it again. Where will I be when I’m 49, I wondered? What will I be doing? My kids will be 22, 21, 17, 16, and 11, and this caused the most difficult realization fell into place.

Dear Lord.

Sammy will have his license.

* * * * *

Abra’s card makes me wonder, though. Ten years. The last ten went by in a blink. Ten years ago Maile and I were moving back from a four-year stint in England with only our oldest two children. The hard work of building a business overseas had worn us out. We had been married for only six years at that point and were like babies just learning to swim…paddle, paddle, paddle, mouth drops below the water’s edge, cough and sputter, paddle harder, rise up a bit, paddle, paddle paddle. Sink, rise, swim.

Sometimes it still feels that way. Sometimes we still take on a mouthful of water.

Also, we could never have imagined the heartache waiting for us in those next ten years. A failed business, near financial ruin, two miscarriages, leaving a community we loved. We could never have imagined the glorious things either: three more children, a cross-country trip, success at living a writing life, and finding another community we loved in the heart of a wonderful, small city.

If a lot can happen in a year, then ten years is like a lifetime. What can happen in ten years?

None of us have any idea what can happen in ten years. That’s the answer. We don’t really have a clue.

* * * * *

John Irving says that “If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it,” and for the last five years I thought for me that meant writing. I had found a way of life I loved. I realized I could help people tell their life stories, and I loved it. I still do. I’m working with three people right now, writing their stories, and when I hand them the book at the end, it’s more than a feeling of accomplishment. It’s like I’ve been able to bottle their story. When their kids read those books and send me emails thanking me for showing them sides of their parents they never knew…and then I think about how lucky I am to make a living doing this…wow.

So that’s what I’ve thought for quite some time now. That is the way of life I love: writing. During the last five years, I have had to find the courage to live that writing life.

But as I think about Abra’s card, and as I look ahead to the next ten years, I’m not so sure. Maybe I will keep writing people’s stories for the next ten years. But maybe, just maybe, the way of life I love isn’t specifically writing. Maybe the way of life I love is this constant upward and onward, like when the Pevensey kids in the Narnia Chronicles finally end up in Real Narnia, and Aslan keeps shouting, “Further up and further in!”

Maybe the way of life I love is this idea that something else is next, something even more adventurous, something even more exhilarating.

Something that will bring me even closer to the heart of God.

* * * * *

This Sunday after church, three wise and gracious people spent about thirty minutes of their time listening to me. We will continue to do this for three or four more weeks, and then, if we think it worth continuing,  we will keep on in some regular way for the foreseeable future. I call them generous because they are there for me, and me alone. They expect nothing from me, other than that I show up, am honest, and join them in this process of seeking.

Specifically, they are there to help me grasp for a greater discernment of where God is leading me. Might God, at the end of a few months, help us to see that I am exactly where I should be, that storytelling and story-gathering is what I have been created to continue doing? That’s a possibility.

But might God also reveal something about me that has, until now, been murky? Might God bring additional clarity to the cloudy corners of my existence?

That’s also likely. More than likely, I’d think, as it always is for those of us who stop and listen.

* * * * *

I’ll end this rather long and rambling post with a question, for you.

Yes, you.

If you opened yourself up, if you honestly set everything else aside and sat quietly in the presence of God, would God say, “Keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing. Stay the course”?

Or would God say, “Okay now. Time to move. Onward and upward! Further up and further in!”

Please don’t let something like expected career path determine your answer. For heaven’s sake, don’t let your age define whether you should stay put or hike further on. Don’t let critical voices or the perceived expectations of others provide you with the answer. Lack of schooling, lack of resources, lack of experience…these things should never have the final word.

Which is it for you? “Keep doing what you’re doing,” or “Further up and further in?”

You can only know the answer to this question if you stop, if you listen.

6 Replies to “On Turning 39 and Looking Up”

  1. Shawn, Great I needed this, this morning. I have had and am having a wonderful life at 73 I’m still expecting more. God bless you for writing. If you think 10 years pass by with no speed limit, how about 73! The older I get the years gain more speed. It is a great life though.

  2. More than needed, your words are a gift. I’m a 55 yr old single Mama, daughter in college & one getting ready to graduate. I’ve allowed fear of the future & every other factor you mentioned, to paralyze me & fill me with doubt…about myself, God, life. Thank you for your simple, non-formulaic words of hope. Your courage has given me courage. A gift under my Christmas tree! Merry Christmas to you & your tribe :)

  3. Shawn, I actually do wrestle the question you asked fairly regularly. I think it comes with the territory of my calling of cross-cultural worker. Sometimes I try to talk God out of this calling… “Are you sure I’m doing the right thing, God? You know, our support isn’t quite there yet and our next departure is only months away!”

    Sometimes I imagine what I would do and where I would go if the support isn’t there in time. But what I’m continuing to learn is, that’s MY time, not His. In my heart, I know I’m on the road He has set me on even though it frightens me…or because it frightens me. Thanks for this post.

    Happy birthday, Shawn, and Happy new year!

  4. This post is thought-provoking. Thank you. Looking forward to hearing about where this discernment process takes you…perhaps another blog post in the future??

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