Today is my birthday. No big party. No candles. No friends to come over to celebrate. I’m in a quiet place, in a reflective state of mind. One friend came by with a gift and stayed a while. She’s vaccinated and it was the first hug I’ve had in so long I can’t remember. I wanted to hug her forever. Another friend snuck by and dropped off a gift bag filled with goodies. Cupcakes and chocolate covered strawberries, pink tulips and a gift card to my favorite pizza joint. And a birthday card that artfully has a hand giving the middle finger. Which is my favorite kind of card. This is definitely a kind of fuck you birthday. It’s a ‘whatever’ birthday. The number is inconsequential. I’m firmly in my 50s. It’s no longer new. I’m not doing anything. Everyone is in their pod, masked up. My pod is small. Very small. I’ll probably watch costume dramas on Prime and go to bed early, reading the novel I’m slowly crawling through. I wrote a song yesterday and finished it this morning. I wrote a song last week. I wrote another the week before. In this reflective time, I’m writing my way to making sense of things, as we are all experiencing the exhaustion of isolation.
It was magical, back then on my 50th birthday. Surrounded by my friends, 9 months pregnant, my husband and I joyfully anticipating the change that would come in our lives. I felt alive and beautiful and grateful for all the blessings.
It’s now my 53rd birthday. My son will be 3 next month. I haven’t really seen much of my friends in almost a year. Some have drifted. I’m knee deep in the work of relationships and love and being the mother of a toddler. I’m no less grateful, but this has been the most challenging 18 months of my life. My father’s death. Voice loss. Tornado. Pandemic. And, to be honest, pretty much a full fledged nervous breakdown, which I like to say because it sort of makes light of a trauma meltdown that shook me and then shook the people I love and uncovered depression I didn’t know I had been living with my whole life. And, as all of this was coming down, I had no place to run, as everyone was on lockdown, so I was forced to run straight in a circle back into myself and face it. Head on. And I have. I have been now since July. Almost 9 months. I could have carried a child during this time. Instead I carried my past and the consequences of my trauma. And it’s time to stop carrying the cross and give birth. Mixed metaphor though that is.
It’s no less magical than the previous birthdays. Just not obvious magic. It’s the kind of magic like something cracking apart, painful and unexpected without having any idea what the thing inside will look like. Will it be a beautiful butterfly or just a bug? Will the pain be worth the transforming?
I was walking in the woods last week, hiking a 6 mile trail that winds up and down a part of Nashville where you forget you’re anywhere near the city. Deep woods. I saw only 3 people on that 4 hour hike. My legs burned, it was 35 degrees and even just breathing in and out burned my chest. My face was cold. My heart was warm. I went hiking to talk to God. I really did. I had things to say, grievances to air, questions to ask, answers to demand. And sitting at home meditating in lotus was not getting me anywhere and prayer felt like asking the void. So I was going to walk it out. Alone.
One mile of silence in and I started talking out loud to myself. Stating the facts, who had done what, who had said what. What I judged, all the anger and sadness and the misunderstandings of the world. My years of living a reckless, selfish life hurting others only to stop dead in my tracks in a kind of metaphoric suicidal dark night of the soul, the last long night of red wine and whining about the same damn unmanageability and the same unavailable man, one prototype after another. I whisper-screamed to the bare branches. Then something inside told me I was doing it all wrong. As I descended to the creek, icy cold, I put my hands in the water and started to weep. I brought one finger, my index, up to my forehead and unconsciously made the sign of the cross dripping with creek water. Then I stood up, and walked the rest of the miles in silence.
The voice inside told me to listen. And I did. And no answers came. The questions, the complaints, the judgements, the fear of being abandoned by everyone roiled up inside me like a lion but I stayed silent and kept my breathing in time with my feet. One step at a time. One breath at a time. The noise in my head was a contrast to the miles of silence outside of it. And though I struggled, I stayed silent. I just walked.
At the end of the trail, it occurred to me that, although during the entire hike I raged inside and thought I’d failed to meditate or get any kind of inspiration or insight, I had actually succeeded in discovering what true meditation is. Maybe I read this in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart , but I recall learning that meditation is not about achieving some static point of bliss where everything is wonderful and full of peace and the world is a steady place. No, quite the contrary. Meditation is allowing the chaos to swirl in your head and practicing just staying with it. Not reacting. Not trying to change it. Just staying on the trail. Accepting the IS of the what is, rather than hoping it should be different. Not even looking for the meaning of the moment. Rather, experiencing the moment and allowing. Radical acceptance. That’s meditation. And in my 6 mile wandering in the wilderness of my hurting soul, I learned how to meditate.
So, this morning, I woke to another day. My birthday.
One last story, before I sleep.
When I was 7 and my family was moving from Baltimore to Minneapolis, away from my most beloved grandmother Roro, for my birthday she gave me this little stuffed elephant. Grey with pink ears, a pink tongue and a pink little tail. I named it Bumbo (a mispronunciation of Dumbo, but it stuck). Bumbo was with me my whole life. He came to every summer camp, every sleepover, I carried him in my backpacks to school. He slept next to me every night. I took Bumbo to college and held him when I was homesick. I took Bumbo to Morrocco and Spain and then to New York City and finally to New Jersey. I was 29 years old and I was moving to a loft in Hoboken and, as usually happens in moves, one box got lost. In that box were a few pieces of jewelry that my grandmother had given me, a gold bracelet that my father had given me for my 16th birthday, a few journals from my childhood and Bumbo. Gone. I went back to find the box but it was long gone. Vanished. It made no sense because I would have been very careful about that box. But nonetheless, it was gone. I grieved for Bumbo. The rest of the items I let go, just things. But Bumbo was more than a stuffed animal. For years, I’d had dreams of Bumbo, convinced I would find him in some suitcase long forgotten. When my son was born and we’d go shopping for toys, I’d always look in the stuffed animal section, wondering if some day I’d see a modern version of Bumbo.
Last week, I was in a particularly vulnerable space and it led me to google search “small stuffed elephant pink ears pink tongue”. I had no hope. Needle in a haystack.
The first hit on the search engine was Ebay. I clicked.
“Vintage 1970s Gund Elephant.” There was a photo.
And I gasped. There he was. Bumbo. Not just a kind of facsimile. But the exact stuffed toy my grandmother had given to me on my 7th birthday, 46 years ago. $14.00. I bought it.
And today, the package came. On my 53rd birthday. As I tore open the packaging, I still was full of doubt and prepared myself for a close replica but not the real thing.
And then, there was Dumbo. A little grey stuffed elephant, pink ears, pink felt tongue, pink felt tail. Like new. Not worn in like my Dumbo right before he got lost. But new like the Dumbo I opened on my 7th birthday, right before we moved away from Roro.
I called my mother, who is always praying for me, as I’m convinced she has a direct red phone line to Jesus. I told her. Bumbo came back. She said, “Well, it must be Roro’s doing. She’s looking after you.”
Roro died at 103 many years ago and she’s come back to talk to me a few times, on the wind, in a meditation. She comes as a cardinal. She comes to comfort. She sits next to me smelling of talcum and rosewater and rubs my back and calls me Princess and asks me if I have ‘many engagements’ and reminds me to be a lady.
Tonight, when I opened the package and found my lost toy, I believed that Roro was behind this. That Roro gave me my birthday present this year. It’s not just the elephant, it’s the childlike belief in the magic of life, the resurrection of things lost, the forgiveness of past transgressions, the chrysalis transformation of humans from failed and flawed to beautiful and blessed. Second chances. Second acts of life. And I knew that my birthday present to myself this year was to be thankful for the tulips, go to bed early and take a small stuffed animal with me. And rather than demand answers, be grateful for these 53 whirlwind, tumultuous, failing, flailing, flawed but honest years that I’ve had the pleasure of walking these trails alone and together, under the sunshine of a God I sometimes believe in but always hope is there somewhere.