Saturday, April 18, 2009
I’ve had at least a hundred birthdays since that first early May 14. No, I’m not one hundred years old yet, but my birthdays have changed and become something different from what they once were.
My mother always said I was so thoughtful to wait until eight fifty-five a.m., giving my Dad enough time that Saturday to have some breakfast before returning to continue wearing a path in the linoleum floor of the waiting room. Those were the days before dads were allowed into the delivery room. The nurses had barely finished giving me my first bath, when I earned the title of “apple-cheeks” and “pork-chop”, due to my plump red cheeks and rather noisy appreciation of baby formula. Years later my face would glow in the same apple-red shades, when my mother giggled while sharing my prior nicknames with one or more of my teenaged friends!
As a child, weeks before my birthday, I’d sit down and write out party invitations to my little friends. When the day arrived, eight or so girls all dressed in their best dresses with crinolines underneath, would file into our house. Each one carried brightly wrapped gifts in all shapes and sizes and my eyes bulged as I wondered what treasures might be hidden inside them. We played games like, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Pins in a bottle, and had scavenger hunts. There were the usual birthday cakes, balloons, candles, and not-so-usual absence of ice cream. My mother believed that canned fruit embalmed in sugary syrup, then embedded in Jello was a healthier choice than ice cream – another cause for my apple-red cheeks to return when I saw the looks on the faces of my half-dozen or so disappointed friends. Each year I would beg to have ice cream and each year my mother would insist that fruited Jello was the next best thing to a fresh picked apple.
Not long before my twelfth birthday, I fell under the spell of peer pressure and was compelled to give up asking for dolls as birthday gifts. When one by one I put the many dolls already in my possession up on high shelves and hid them in closets, I secretly felt I was betraying some of my best friends. I could barely look into their blue glass eyes without my own eyes tearing up.
After the last of the dolls was safely tucked away I told my mother I wanted to invite boys as well as girls to my birthday party. On the school bus, my girlfriends and I plotted how we would instigate a game of Spin-the-Bottle. Somehow word got out and it seemed the boys looked forward to it as much as the girls. I invited Bill, one of my first pre-teenage crushes.
Bill had a big inviting smile and was my height, a plus for a shy girl who was often taunted with nicknames like “Jolly Green Giant” or “Tree”. A girl who had not yet learned to appreciate what it means to be “looked up to”. Bill had a medium blond brush cut and I remember he wore a green plaid shirt that set off his blue eyes. Somehow the sparkle in those blue eyes suddenly seemed a bit more enticing than looking into the eyes of my dolls.
My twelfth May 14th finally came and for the first time I shared cake and fruity Jello with the small crowd of girls and boys. When it was my turn to spin the bottle I made my birthday wish, and hope of all hopes, my wish was granted. The bottle pointed toward Bill! When our soft young lips met I thought there would never be a birthday so sweet as that one.
Once I was grown, the date of May 14 still held an air of celebration, although usually without all the fanfare. I had accompanied many of my friends on their twenty-first birthdays as they proudly showed their I.D. and purchased their first six-packs of beer and quart bottles of Boone’s Farm. In case you’ve never heard of it, Boone’s Farm was the fruited Jello of wines back then. And cheap enough that those making minimum wage could afford it. When my day finally rolled around I went to the store by myself. I walked down the chilly isle until I found just the right thing to christen my coming of age…a whole half-gallon of mint chocolate-chip ice cream! Jello no more! Crossing over the threshold into the infinite wisdom of adulthood, I knew that traditional birthday “food”, while maybe not so good for the body, is essential nourishment for the soul. Now that was a birth day!
As soon as possible, not long after my official birthing into adulthood, I broke the barbaric, peer-driven spell of my childhood. It was September. I was twenty-six, newly married, and stood in the midst of the cardboard boxes I’d carried with me into my new home. I picked through those boxes looking for long buried treasure. Finally I found the one marked “dolls”. I gave each long, lost friend a hug, as I pulled him or her one by one from their hiding place. Ceremoniously, I bathed each one and gave them all fresh new clothes and hair-dos. They were officially dubbed my doll “collection”. Their pink painted smiles gleamed and I swore I saw one or two of those blue glass eyes wink at me. That was a birth day!
After a few dozen May 14ths had passed, my soul longed for that air of celebration to permeate my life, to stay with me for more than just one day a year. What was it that made that one day on the calendar so special? Yes, it was fun to have others celebrate the event of my birth with special festivities. But I wanted to capture that same special feeling so that it lingered long after the birthday candles had been blown out and the friends had gone home.
One August, during the period when my marriage was dissolving and I had no idea what my future held, I kneeled on the couch staring out into the chaos of a gushing rainstorm. My mood inside matched the chaos of the storm outside. Suddenly I was flooded with the inspiration to do something I’d never allowed myself to do before. I kicked off my shoes, ran out, and launched myself feet first into a large puddle that was forming in the yard. I tilted my head back to let the drops pour over me. I jumped up and down, laughing and splashing in that puddle as the stormy mood dissolved into that puddle. That was a birth day!
Early on another September morning I decided to take a drive to the ocean shore. As I walked solo to my car, the fall chill reminded me of my recent breakup. The sun peeked through the clouds now and then along the way and by the time I arrived at Bradley Beach it was a balmy sixty-eight degrees. I padded through the warm sand, dipping my feet in the surf and mindlessly scanning for shells and other gifts from the sea. I felt the power of the ocean inside of me, rising, swelling, full, and ever changing. Then I was like the sand being endlessly washed over and marveling at what was uncovered or let go of with each wave of tears. The breeze brushed and tousled my hair, kissed my cheeks, and brought the taste of salt to my lips. For a glorious three hours I left footprints in the sand to be sent back to sea in the rolling waves. The most precious treasure I unearthed that day was a deep sense of being present, being really there without my head swimming in worrisome thoughts of the past or the future and I found a deeper connection to some unnamable, invisible companion, who I realized was always with me. Even though my official birth date was in May and this was September, I was fully in the experience of another birth day.
The following year, I was immersed in a training that involved digging around inside myself to find more of the inner gifts that no May 14th, up to that point, had revealed. It was March and I arrived at the training center in Canada to find Lake Simcoe solidly frozen. On the second day I could see from the main conference room, that a crack had opened up across the smooth surface of the ice-covered lake. As each of the eight days passed and the temperature rose, more cracks appeared and opened the lake to the sun's warmth, mirroring the way that I and my classmates were cracking open to the long-hidden aspects of our true selves. On the last unusually warm day, I knelt by the lakeshore in the sunshine, holding my hands in the water...a baptism of sorts for a heart that was continuously rebirthing itself. As the ripples calmed and the water returned to stillness, I leaned over and saw my reflection, backed by a clear blue sky, there in the completely thawed lake. That was a birth day!
Thanks to all who have celebrated May 14ths and my other birth days with me. I wish everyone I know, and everyone I will never meet, many, many birth days!