It is highly unusual to lack parents, a partner and kids at my age. But what I am trying to embrace at 40 is this sense of being radically free
I turn 40 years old today. If I live about as long as my relatives have, this means my life is probably more than half over. Theres nothing unusual about turning 40; people do it all the time. But unlike many of my friends, I lack three things at this stage of my life: parents, a partner and children.
That my mom, dad and stepmother all died when I was in my twenties doesnt exactly make me a helpless orphan. Still, I was much younger than almost anyone I know to lose all of my parents. It still makes me a little weird even at 40 to be nobodys child. But I am certainly not unusual in being single; most adults in the US now are not married. And not having kids isnt so odd considering my sexual history as a gay man.
But it is highly unusual to lack parents and a partner and kids at my age.
Judging from Facebook, I am also lacking a lot of other things people 40 years old are supposed to have most notably a home mortgage, a car loan and pictures of my kids accomplishments. I have none of these things.
Having moved to New York City when I was 17, I have never owned a house or a car. Not having financial dependents, and not owning big things, makes me relatively financially unattached, though not rich. (As an unmarried person and as a renter, I pay higher taxes; and as most American households need two incomes to get by, I have to work both of those jobs myself.)
Yet lacking all these things, I am not unhappy far from it even though being unattached from the financial and relational expectations so many have makes me suspect.
Leading my unusual life at 40 has its perks. My life is interesting. I travel the world. I read, write, teach and think for a living. I get to meet people in jails, at academic conferences and in classrooms. Ive experienced the uprising and the teargas of the Black Lives Matter in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York. I went to the White House correspondents dinner with Gary the dog and his human, Carrie Fisher. Ive hiked the Rockies, the Alps and the Himalayas and have backpacked in pre-dawn darkness to watch the sunrise on Angkor Wat and Taj Mahal.
I even got to start a PhD when I was 37, which has let me head into middle age as a college student and to do so with all the knowledge I wish Id had 20 years ago during my first time on campus.
My life is often fun, but Im aware of how transient it is. Everyones life is fleeting, but I feel that I might be more aware of the liminal state of life than some of my more stable peers.
Still, I am far from alone. I have beautiful, close friends. Lacking certain relationships allows me to be flexible and available. I can show up for my friends when they need someone especially when they are getting divorced and need a place to crash, or when they enter hospice. (Ive gone through hospice with so many people now, the end of life doesnt frighten me.)
I have lovers, meeting men in the far-flung reaches of the planet wherever our paths intersect. Sometimes I only know lovers briefly, but sometimes theres a spark to an emotional or intellectual relationship which lasts for the rest of our days.
I have great relationships with readers and with other writers and with my teachers and students.
Friends confide in me sometimes about things they cant talk to their own spouses about. And despite not having my own kids, I have relationships with lots of kids. (Everyone is always having kids, so there are always babies and kids around to befriend.) Sometimes these kids can talk to Uncle Steven about things they cant talk to their parents about.
I get to commune with my siblings, and I got to be with my sister Sharron (who did not have a parent, partner or children either) in her final weeks of life.
And I have gotten to be deeply involved with religious, intellectual, spiritual and intentional communities including a monastic Christian commune in France, those dusty Burners in Nevada, an annual retreat of queer people of color in California and the American Sociological Association.
The depth of many of these relationships wouldnt be as possible if I was in more traditional relationships. But many of the ways I relate to others arent highly valued by the society.
This is bizarre considering that, as we hit 40, many of my single friends seem much happier and fulfilled than most of my married friends. Many (not all) of my married friends, gay and straight, seem like they are stuck in a script they had to follow. Many seem to feel regret or wonder about what might have been.
This isnt true for most of my single friends or me. We are largely still seeking and exploring (and often improvising) what the story of the script is. Opportunity still feels before us. We get to discover new authors and look at new art. And when Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or Hurricane Sandy relief or the Trump resistance need our help, we have more space to dedicate to loving one another, ourselves and our community than many of my married friends.
This freedom can create a sense of being unmoored, but it contains great potential. We get to dream big, radical political dreams and work toward making them real without worrying about a mortgage. We get to risk loving in many ways, getting hurt and loving again.
I do miss my parents and wish they were still around, though I am lucky that I get to write about them often. But since I cant wish them back, I celebrate the freedom I have.
I love that there will be new first kisses, and that Ill get to experience the thrill of touching someones hand (or waking up next to them) for the first time. I love that I am radically free to spend time with friends in the hospital, and that Ill perhaps get to reunite with old lovers as friends or lovers once more.
And this is what I am trying to embrace at 40 this sense of being radically free.