Making Time for What Matters

Fulfilling an old vow to herself, Caitlin Flanagan finally stops procrastinating and gets serious about giving back

by Caitlin Flanagan
woman clock illustration
Emiliano Ponzi

I was sitting in the probation department in Downey, California, waiting to get fingerprinted, when it occurred to me that I was having the worst midlife crisis on record. It had begun the previous fall, when I went to New York to give a talk. I suddenly realized I was 51. Fifty-one years old! When, I asked myself, exactly when was I going to do those big, scary, important things I had always assumed would be part of my adult life? When was I going to teach writing to prisoners, when was I going to work with extremely poor children, when was I going to make myself of service to people who have almost nothing at all? When I was 81? Ninety-one? Dead?

At the time, I had been reading a lot of Dorothy Day: “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” I had also been reading a lot of my own press. Look, I’ll never get over the thrill of being named Bitch magazine’s first All-Star Douchebag (for such thought crimes as suggesting it was kind of nice to stay home with your children if you had the chance), but some of my other honors and encomia haven’t been as emotionally fulfilling. Maybe it was time for a change.

That night in New York, I had a hotel room, Wi-Fi and minibar Chardonnay. I certainly wouldn’t be the last person to get into a lot of trouble with that particular combination of resources, but—in a frenzy of Jerry Maguire–style late-night typing and one-with-the-universe total understanding—I sent out queries to half a dozen pretty hard-core service organizations. Some of these outfits required background checks and security clearances; my turn in the Downey probation department was my third fingerprinting in as many months. Others have asked of me only a certain level of physical bravery and a willingness to follow this midlife impulse wherever it takes me. I spent a week on both sides of the Mexico-Arizona border with a group of Christian aid workers. In Arizona we bounced around the desert looking for lost migrants who were in need of food, water and medical attention; in Nogales, Mexico, I tried to persuade deportees not to give the murderous crossing another chance, and handed out food and shoes to those who would not be convinced.

I have no idea how much good I am doing with any of this, although I’m sure I’m not doing any harm, and I think I’m doing myself, at least, a favor. A couple of months ago, I was in my car with a lovely young woman—delightful company in every way—driving around to visit some of the “felon friendly” employers who, according to her parole officer, might be willing to give her a job. We were eating Jack in the Box tacos and talking about life very intensely, and I realized that, at least from the perspective of any outsider, we had both put ourselves in a bit of danger. I was driving around with an ex-con, and she was locked in a car with an All-Star Douchebag. But there was something moving back and forth between us very freely in that Volkswagen, and I am certain it was grace.

God willing, in November I will wake up on my birthday and realize that I am 52—52!—and have never stayed in, or even had a drink at, the George V. But for now I’m making good on this year’s revelation.

Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at the Atlantic. Her most recent book is Girl Land.

Next: Where I Find Comfort in a Scary World

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First published in the September 2013 issue

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