Twenty Something

Jerry Hackett

I submitted two articles tonight, and moments after I hit send, I was struck by the parallel.

Sure, they both involved retired Catholics. But, in my focus on the specifics of their work – the intricate toothpick sculptures of a Minnesota grandpa, the winsome travel guide written by a New Mexico single – I’d nearly missed how their paths mirrored each other.

Both had discovered a round-about way to fulfill their lifelong dreams.

Jerry Hackett always wanted to be an architect but opted for a practical path and worked as an accountant. He quietly provided for his six children. Then one day in retirement, the 70-something recalled a school project his child had done back in the ’80s: toothpick assembly

Soon Jerry was looking up the dimensions of the Eiffel Tower and squirting Elmer’s Glue-All. Now 81, he’s created dozens of toothpick sculptures – bridges, windmills, churches – and generated a good deal of press. He works in his porch while listening to polka music, and he creates each sculpture to scale. There is a great deal of measuring: one inch of toothpick represents four feet.

Turns out he became an architect after all – a toothpick architect.

“I’ll wake up at night thinking about how to do this part of the church, and I can’t go back to sleep,” said Jerry, a member of St. Mark’s in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Marion Amberg, meanwhile, harbored starry-eyed ambitions of being a detective. She planned to study law enforcement. There was just one problem: She couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

Instead, she began writing for her local newspaper. The work entailed plenty of sleuthing. “Part of reporting is connecting the dots,” she said. “You see patterns.”

Her latest book, “Monuments, Marvels, and Miracles: A Traveler’s Guide to Catholic America,” delivers a national tour of religious sites based on meticulous research.

“Even if it’s on a church website, you can’t take it as Gospel truth,” said Marion, a member of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. “I tried to verify every single fact.”

Lo and behold, this 60-something is now a detective – and no blood is involved.

“Your dreams may change as you get older, but they don’t end,” she said. “I feel like the 60s are just the beginning of my life.”

Immediately I thought of my late grandpa, who started writing an autobiography he’d titled “Life Begins At 70.”

At 73, he taught himself to play clarinet, putting numbered tape on keys to correspond with his fingering chart. Weeks later, he was playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.

Then I recalled an amusing story a Jesuit priest recently told me. Fr. Chris Collins was reading a program and saw his name listed as a jubilarian. He assumed it was a mistake. How could it possibly be 25 years of priesthood already?

“I can’t believe I’m almost 50,” he said, “because it feels like I’m just getting going.”

These Catholics demonstrate that our Creator is a God of surprises. We may resuscitate a long-lost dream – as an architect or detective, as a photographer or a florist. We can start in one direction and circle back. We might face a closed door and then discover: There is another way.

Our options do not narrow with the ticking clock. We may find a new passion – or a new version of an old one that doubles the joy. Talents coalesce and converge in unpredictable ways. God is good.

He wants us to be happy and hopeful, to possess the “joyful optimism” named as a virtue in Salesian Spirituality. And in pursuing our passions, we make a sacred offering. As St. Augustine wrote: “The desire of your heart is itself your prayer.”

That prayer keeps pulsing – at 50, 60 and 70. It whispers: I’m just getting going.