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  • Last week a friend of mine split up with his long-time girlfriend after several years of trying to make it work. When he wrote to tell me, he included part of a poem called Men at Forty by Donald Justice, which goes:

    Men at forty
    Learn to close softly
    The doors to rooms they will not be
    Coming back to.

    It is a beautiful poem that made me shudder, and it's been lurking in my head all week like a prophecy that came too early but that you know is true.

    I'm 30, not 40, and my poem would go more like this:

    Men at thirty
    Have many rooms
    They could go back into happily
    And live in till they die.

    At 30 you've come a long way, and you're standing on a landing surrounded by rooms with old bent doors swinging and banging in the breeze. Some of the rooms you can still see into, and you remember them perfectly because you think about them all the time anyway, especially at night.

    You remember how happy you were in each of the rooms and who was there and what you did and how you laughed and what you learned and how good it really was. You wonder how you ever left such a fine and happy room, and how stupid you were, though people say you only remember the good things.

    At 30 you're standing at the top of the stairs looking madly around at all of the doors, and you wonder if you should go back into one of the rooms and which one it would be, but it's so hard to decide because there are pieces of you in each of the rooms, and going into one would mean losing the parts of yourself that are in all the others and you wonder why you can't be in multiple rooms at the same time but you know it doesn't work that way.

    So you have to decide if you should keep climbing the stairs to look for a new and better room on some other higher floor, or if you should knock on a door you already know, where the chairs and tables know the feel of your body, and where walking through the door feels like coming home.

    The poem gets into me because I know I have to start closing doors but I don't like to be reminded, because it is very sad to think about closing the doors to such beautiful rooms — rooms that never really got a chance because there was always so much climbing to do.

    In ten years I know that most of the doors will be closed, and that the act of closing them softly will be a lot like gassing a faithful Labrador you used to love but just can't care for anymore, and this passive silent softness will somehow feel more violent than gorging out organs with a spoon.
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