In My Thirties – Dante, Whitman, and Okkervil River

I busted my knee playing soccer recently, and the doctor said to wait and see how “loose” my knee was before deciding whether ACL surgery is necessary for me. I protested his use of the negative: “Why do we have to talk about my knee’s looseness; why not how tight it is?” He didn’t understand my question, and it didn’t really matter. He continued, “If you were a little older and living a certain lifestyle, I’d recommend against the surgery. People can walk just fine without an ACL especially if they’re not all that physically active. If you were younger—in your early twenties—then I’d be scheduling your surgery right now because at that age you just don’t know what your life is going to be like, so you should make sure your body can handle wherever your life takes you. Now you—you fall in-between. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe it’s not. That’s why we’re going wait to see how loose your knee is.”

Fair enough, doctor. I don’t mind my age, and on the whole, I embrace it. This is not a complaint about getting older; it’s about the feeling that has accompanied the shift into my late thirties. And yes, of course, the knee is part of the shift, and so is the birth of my first child. I’ve started to feel unsettled, but it’s different now. I used to think there was a big change coming, as if some kind of revolution would change me and my situation. I no longer believe in revolutions. Instead, I now feel like it’s time. The unsettling is about figuring out what exactly it’s time for. As is often the case, once you have a question, everywhere you turn, the world reinforces it.


Dante wrote the Divine Comedy toward the end of his life, but he set it in the year 1300, a jubilee year when forgiveness is possible. In 1300, Dante was 35. He begins the most beautiful of epics as follows:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

We are Dante. This is midway along the journey of our life. Only in the last few years do I know what the pilgrim, who is and is not Dante, must feel like. I don’t think I’m lost in a dark wood—spiritual or otherwise—but now I know the feeling of taking measure of one’s life. I can look back into the past and forward into the future in roughly equal measure. I understand how in this present, I could easily find myself having wandered far off the path I’d meant to be on. The Divine Comedy is anchored in a moment where change is possible, but it takes something special—a journey through the afterlife—to awake us.


In the first section of “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman announces, “I now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death.” I was teaching the poem earlier this year, and I read the passage out loud as I do every year. This time though I was temporarily struck dumb. I felt being 37 (which I am). I felt Whitman’s resolve to, at the age of 37, begin something that would define the rest of his life. For Whitman, it’s his poetic project, and for me, it’s. . .

Thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin. Begin what? Whitman’s project was epic, novel, and never repeated. I feel his conviction, but lack his vision.

What is the song of myself? That question is very different to me now. In my twenties, it was a question about basic identity. What kind of person do I want to be? What career should I pursue? What does it mean to be in relationship with others? At 37, these questions haven’t lost all their resonance to me, but my identity is not at stake in the same way anymore. I know what I value and the kind of person I want to be. So the question is now: What does it mean to be that person?

It’s easy to let the answer to these questions divide into two apparently distinct areas of life. You can focus on the everyday. Be generous toward the world, including yourself. Show gratitude. Be present. Here, you can daily reckon your successes and failures. It feels like keeping your house in order, and you too easily forget and start thinking that today is all there is.

However, these questions also demand a lifelong response. To put it in somewhat grand-sounding terms: How will the world remember me? It’s not really about the heroic, though—as with Dante and Whitman—that type of ambition is one possible answer to this question. It’s not mine. I tend to put it a little more practically: What are you going to build? This helps me bridge the everyday with the lifelong. I’m convinced that everyday efforts at being virtuously present, with a little vision, can be the foundation of what you build, what you leave for the world that has given you so much. This is what you’re supposed to begin when you reach Whitman’s thirty-seven.


Okkervil River released a song, “Okkervil River RIP,” (listen below) that has helped me set a boundary on these questions. Will Sheff, who is for all intents and purposes Okkervil River, released a note with the song that describes the last few years as ones of crisis—his band dissolved, his grandfather died, and he had to figure out what it all meant for him. The song is nearly seven minutes of navigating a midlife crisis. Again, the singer’s age struck me hard:

On the run now
Flip a couple hundred pages
I was turning thirty-eight
I was a horrible sight

The singer continues: he attended the funeral of his grandfather in a white suit and black sunglasses, but it could easily be the requiem for his band that had missed their “big chance” in the previous verse. The linking in the language is great. Traveling, he half-consciously reads a book (flip a couple hundred pages). The book that matters is his life; he turns, like a page, thirty-eight. I was a horrible sight.

The song is gorgeous. Okkervil River can (to great effect) get overwrought—this song hums with restraint. It builds, starting with only an acoustic guitar and Sheff’s voice. There’s a silence that hangs at the end of the first verse before the instrumentation fleshes out a little. The singer continues his decline until he gets to the funeral, for which he musters a resigned okay.

The piano kicks in. The singer begins to reflect on musical deaths—the Force MDs, whom fortune forsook; his grandfather, a music teacher, who died after a full life; and Judee Sill, whose lifetime of addiction caught up with her. These deaths intermix the mythical and personal. At the end of this reflection, the singer finds the spirit to resist the irresistible. In that space between verses, he reaffirms his purpose—I didn’t open up my mouth just to piss and moan—No Way! The building orchestral sounds fall into the back as the singer finds himself alone and desiring to hear music again.

I identify by age and imagination. The song pulls me into the space so well. I empathize with the singer, as I do with Dante’s pilgrim. You don’t have to be in the dark wood to understand. This is the time of life when, if you’ve been lucky to avoid it so far, loved ones begin to get old and die. It’s disorienting to realize that all your life, in known and unknown ways, the image you had of what the world is like had assumed that these people would live forever in perfect health. It’s impossible to know how to respond. When they’re gone, the world as you knew it is no more. The world still is, and you have to make sense of that jarring fact. You begin to appreciate more fully and more deeply what they have left the world, and out of respect and love, you assume the responsibility and ask yourself: So then, what will I leave this world that has given me so much?

*Image: Dante in the dark wood by Gustave Doré