Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On My Birthday

I celebrated my 46th birthday two weeks ago. I haven’t celebrated my birthday on my birthday in over ten years. I usually have dinner with my family on the weekend. We’ll have a cake, and my niece and nephew will make me cards, but my birthday is folded in with Mother’s Day and I am resolutely not the center of attention. I usually spend a day with my friend Kerry some time in May. Our birthdays are both in May, and we use the occasion to slow down, hang out, and catch up. But nothing on the day itself.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, well-wishers inevitably ask me what I’m doing that day. I’ll deflect and say that I’m too old to celebrate my birthday, that getting one year older isn’t something that I want to celebrate. They’ll tell me that I’m being silly and that I should do something fun. I’ll smile and shake my head ruefully. But this year was a little different. Relatives flew into town for a graduation, and I don’t know if it’s because they grew up in Mississippi, but they were shockingly warm and caring. The number of people insisting that I do something special on my birthday doubled, and it must have had an impact on me because, when I went to bed the night before my birthday, I suddenly wanted to mark the occasion. How? I had no idea.

In the morning, I woke up to find a lengthy email from my sister Carol, and a half dozen birthday wishes posted on my Facebook wall. Over the course of the day, a few more emails and another half dozen Facebook posts came in. I also got a phone call from my parents. I had the second of two birthday cupcakes from my sister Lisa for breakfast. Then at around noon, I sat down to work at my computer. I had recently taken on two freelance projects, and both projects were coming down to the wire. Deadlines were tight and team members were depending on me. I worked until 7:50 PM, taking a few lengthy breaks for lunch, to go on a walk, and to clean my kitchen. After work, I had dinner, responded to everyone who had sent me birthday wishes, took a midnight stroll, and then wrote in my gratitude journal.

As I sat down to write in my gratitude journal, I felt a warm, radiating sensation in my body. I was glowing with happiness. When I tried to identify the source of my happiness, the first thought that popped into my head was that I felt “well-taken care of.” What did that even mean? As I probed deeper, a second thought popped into my head. This second thought was so far outside my normal way of being that I was reluctant to commit it to paper. But I did. I wrote that I felt “loved and well-connected.”

Let me tackle the second thought first. A few months ago, I reconnected with an old friend through Facebook. Zmira is Israeli. We worked together at the Jewish Community Day School and, even though she was the visitor in a foreign land, she sort of adopted me. The whole community at JCDS sort of adopted me. I was constantly being invited over to Shabbat dinner by people whom I barely even knew as work friends. But when Zmira returned to Israel and I left JCDS, we fell out of touch and I disconnected from the JCDS community. Reconnecting with Zmira through Facebook restored this old network. And this old network didn’t know or care that I had stopped celebrating my birthday. Old friends just posted birthday wishes on my wall. But here’s the weird thing. Current friends who had stopped trying to send me birthday wishes over the years were suddenly posting on my wall, too. It was this sudden and completely unexpected outpouring that made me feel incredibly loved and well-connected.

Now back to the first thought. It is hard to reconcile feeling “well-taken care of” while working on my birthday, going through my regular routine, and not speaking to a soul all day other than my parents. When I woke up that morning, I was concerned that my little voice was going to throw a tantrum because I decided to mark my birthday the night before, but I had already committed to a full day of work in my weekly plan. My little voice was going to be upset no matter what I chose to do. So, I woke up that morning determined to be extra kind and attentive to my little voice. I let him know that his needs took priority. I planned to work, but we would spend time together doing a few special things, and I was prepared to ditch work at a moment’s notice.

I am normally a bit dismissive and disdainful of my little voice. He shows up to nag me at the worst possible times. So, my concern and attentiveness must have been disarming because he agreed that working made sense as long as I took frequent breaks and promised to stop working by 8:00 PM. Together, we outlined some of the special things that we would do together. The top priority was responding to each birthday wish with warmth and gratitude. We really looked forward to it. We also planned an extra long midnight stroll and a special birthday dinner. My parents had given me spareribs and two beautiful fresh green peppers. I love green peppers, but hadn’t prepared them with black bean and garlic sauce in ages. It was the perfect comfort food for my birthday. With the day mapped out, my little voice was content, but I was still concerned. So I checked in on him constantly, maintaining a running dialogue with him as I worked. This made my little voice very happy. And I was happy, too. We both felt “well-taken care of.”

There are a few things that I took away from my birthday celebration. The first is that I’m rarely present with myself. I’m happiest and at my best when I’m present with other people, especially kids. But when I’m by myself, I associate being in the moment as getting lost in the moment and entering a flow state. When I started my midnight strolls, going for a walk at 3:00 AM on a warm summer night in a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals, I wrote about the serenity I feel as my senses open wide to take everything in. But I am there, too. Noting my own pleasure makes me smile and laugh inside. I need to be present with myself more often.

The second thing that I took away was the need to acknowledge the positive things that I have in my life. The love and connections represented by those birthday wishes didn’t just materialize out of thin air. They existed the day before my birthday, too. But I hadn’t acknowledge them until they manifested themselves in an unmistakable way on my birthday. What if I acknowledged and experienced that love and those connections on a daily basis?

My third takeaway is something that I’ve been working at for a long time, but I still have a long way to go. One of my daily practices is writing in my gratitude journal. For 15 minutes a day, I am present with myself as I acknowledge the things that make me grateful. I am grateful for many things, but I tend not to acknowledge the role that I play in any of it. I noticed that I was doing this again as I was writing the fifth paragraph of this blog post. I had a hand in creating those connections, too. Zmira and I adopted each other, and the JCDS community and I embraced each other. It wasn’t by accident that they decided to make the secular math teacher the 7th- and 8th-grade homeroom teacher for the school. I can be a bit odd, but I’m a good friend. Sometimes I need to acknowledge how awesome I am.

Happy birthday, kid! Be good to yourself and stop deflecting! :)

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