Thirty-Nine

I couldn’t sleep last night. Nathan and I are getting ready to release a new full-length album, one we’ve been working on for, oh, five years or so, and the title we chose for it is Thirty-Nine. The songs are records and reflections from my personal journey through faith and doubt, and our working title was “FaithedOut” or “Faith-Doubt” or – well, we couldn’t figure out how to spell it to make it work without being spoken, mute on an album cover. Faith and doubt, but also faithed out, as in worn out, churched out.

I’m turning thirty-nine this year, this month actually, and we decided, when the guy we hired to master the album asked us for the title last week, to call it Thirty-Nine, partly because of my age, partly because 1939 was a dark time in history (the Great Depression in the United States, Germany invades Poland and begins the second world war), and mainly because of the not-quite-fortiness of it, the almost-there-but-still-slogging feeling of thirty-nine, no milestone, just faded-ness. 

That was all rolling around in my head last night, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I wrote something and put it to rest. Below is what I wrote. Most of my thirty-nine years have not felt like this, of course, but a considerable portion of my recent years have come closer to a “dark night of the soul.” I share this mostly to introduce some of the sentiment behind our new album title. Yeah, it’s really my wordy and hype-aversive way of starting a “launch” for the new album – coming to you (for free through Noisetrade!) on October 26th.

Thirty-nine is an unholy number. Noah waited forty days and forty nights in the ark while it rained and everything outside drowned. Moses spent forty years in the desert, and only then began his long journey leading Israel to the promised land. Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness before he started his three years of work that changed the world.

On the thirty-ninth day, in the thirty-ninth year, nothing happened. In the wilderness, in the womb-like tomb-like ark, it was only one more of a long string of the same – wandering, hungry, lonely, in the land of unknowing, a heart forsaking and forsaken.

It’s the second-to-last year, or day, of the long dark nothing. I’ve been keeping count, and I know it, but another year, another wasteland of a day, awaits me after this one. Even as hope begins to germinate. Forty is the pattern I know from my thirty-nine-year history reading Bible stories. I know that after forty has passed, something new begins.

So in the dark, on yet another impenetrable night in year thirty-nine, I feel tiny cracks in my heart. Something new pushing inside. An olive branch and a rainbow, a burning bush, food, water and comforting angels might be in store, on the path up ahead.

The dark still whispers fears in my ears, still tries to dress me down, show me wrinkles and withering and death to all things. But I’m nearly thirty-nine now. I’ve nearly made my peace with the dark, count her among my acquaintances now, need not run.

This next year will be bittersweet. And then, who knows? Who knows?

There now, dark. There, I’ve written it, or something like it, or something anyway. Now may I sleep?

11 Comments

  1. Beautiful and it is spooky but it was actually the best birthday ever for me! I started a new journey to happiness and health and rebuilding a more solid foundation! Its beautiful embrace It😊

  2. My 59 was like your 39. At 39, I think I was not as spiritually-awake or worldly-wise as are you; too caught up in agendas and temporal pursuits. Perhaps there is joy ahead for you, simply by virtue of your having grappled with things many don’t ponder until many years later than have you.

    • That’s sort of what I’m hoping 🙂 Maybe at 59 I’ll be done facing the reality of impending death, and have moved on to feeling alive and exhilarated! My mother seems to have taken that angle with turning 60! (wink-wink) 🙂

  3. Yes the numbers in the Bible. 40 is a big one, as is 70, 3, 7, 10, 50 ( jubilee), occasionally 80, also there was an ideal lifespan for the ancient Israelites, something like 110, the Egyptians had an ideal lifespan as well, something like 120, seems like Moses and Joseph lived those ideals, respectively, can’t remember exactly. And of course there were other important numbers. Oooh, duh! 12!

    You could do what I do, and just understand each post-39 birthday as the anniversary of your 39th birthday…in a few weeks I will celebrate the 3rd anniversary of my 39th!

    You mention the dark. Over the last year, I have sort of revisited Christianity, read histories of the early church, read Augustine’s confessions (greatest autobiography I have ever read, bought “City of God” and intend to do it, someday, along with Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” this being the time when I am happily installed in an Earthship somewhere in the desert southwest, and no longer care about showering or paying bills), revisited Tielhard de Chardin but was still mostly stumped, went through Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” again as well as rereading my old love/nemesis Flannery O’Connor…and, most significantly, read Robert Alter’s translations and commentary of Old Testament books. Also spent hours watching youtube debates between William Lane Craig and various atheists, that not so interesting. And yes, I puttered around with the New Testament as well.

    I have emerged an unbeliever in the literal claims of christianity, but am thrilled and fascinated by these wonderful believers and the massive effect they, empowered by christianity, have had on the world. Christianity is truly some sort of historical reset. But anyway, you mention the dark, which put me in mind of a christian I intend on reading soon, wondering if you have read her, Barbara Brown Taylor. I read an article in Time magazine about her, and became very interested.

    From what I know of Taylor’s new book, she recommends Christians “embrace the dark.” I think, Julia, your awareness of darkness is hugely valuable, it is part of your place in the world. I can’t wait to hear your new record. If you and hubby every decide to make a record of covers, make it dark, please sing “Georgia Lee” by Tom Waits…I think of you every time I listen to it, partly because of the piano, but also because I think you could pull it off. You know, Augustine thought “catharsis” bad for the soul, I disagree, Waits’ song, the tragic and wonderful bridge, leaves me wrecked and sensitive every time, and, like I said, I think you possess the pathos to do it. Sorry to write so much, thanks for your blog.

    • Nnox – always so good to hear from you! Don’t apologize for writing any length; I always appreciate your writing. As usual you have provided some good additions to my reading/listening list.

      Thanks for what you said about my awareness of darkness being valuable. It’s always struck me as ironic, because my life is so storybook (A Series of Fortunate Events, really). But there you go, even some of us people flooded with light can feel the dark. I had a colleague once who nicknamed me “Piercing Moonbeam,” and I always liked the dark warmth of that image.

      Happy upcoming birthday to you. May it bring you happily closer to your Earthship years 🙂

  4. May your loneliness lead you to communion, may your fissures yield floods, may your bittersweet be beautiful.

  5. Aren’t you the young one? I’ve been on the other side of 39 for nearly eight months now, and it’s not so bad over here. Heck, I became a librarian the week of my 39th, which pretty much means I’ve arrived, right? I’ve been more dreading 40, but I’ve never thought of it from the perspective of a new phase. Good you pointed that out.

    On the subject of darkness, I think you shared this poem with me a few years ago and it clicked right into a spot where I needed it:

    Why Are Your Poems So Dark?
    BY LINDA PASTAN

    Isn’t the moon dark too,
    most of the time?

    And doesn’t the white page
    seem unfinished

    without the dark stain
    of alphabets?

    When God demanded light,
    he didn’t banish darkness.

    Instead he invented
    ebony and crows

    and that small mole
    on your left cheekbone.

    Or did you mean to ask
    “Why are you sad so often?”

    Ask the moon.
    Ask what it has witnessed.

    ***
    I’m very much looking forward to this new album. If you write some cello parts for your next one, you might convince me to move west.

    PS – I dreamed that I wanted a pen pal, so you started writing a blog called “Dear Jodi” and I started one called “Dear Julia.” We were famous.

    • Okay! Cello parts, not a problem! There are actually two songs on the new album with strings – viola, violin and cello – so we got some practice writing string parts and if that would bring you west, we’d be glad to do it again!

      Yes, I sent you that poem. Thanks for reminding me of it. Loved your dream!

      • I finally got a chance to give a solid listen to your album on my walk to work today. Boy howdy, did you ever get practice on writing for strings! It’s beautiful! Who’s you cellist? I’m going to try not to envy.

        • Thanks! Her name is Frances Linton, and we knew her through a church in Owatonna. Since then her family and ours have moved to different states, so we are really honored that we got to work with her when we did!

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