Thankful Tuesday: Birthdays
Yesterday was my 32nd birthday. After spending a wonderful day playing with the girls, I walked away feeling overwhelmed with gratitude. Not for any of the presents I received but for life itself. I spent half the day thinking about another birthday I had years and years ago, my nineteenth. When I turned nineteen, I lived in a dormitory at college with a roommate who was as different from me as night and day. She stayed out late to party, I only left the dorm to go to classes and to mentor to inner city kids. She barely studied. All I did was study. She didn’t work. I worked on campus. Needless to say, she and I didn’t have a lot to say to each other. We were nice to one another, and we liked one another, but we didn’t really communicate much. We weren’t really friends. Therefore, even though we shared the same living space, it would have been impossible to tell her anything about my personal life. Although there was much to tell.
That was the year when I would walk to the vending machines in the dormitory and stare at the food, deliberately having left any money I had back at the room so that I wouldn’t be able to buy any of it. I made a plan to only eat on the weekends, when I went home. Amazingly, I stuck to this plan. It wasn’t that I consciously thought about control—I was trying to just be invisible. While I wanted positive attention, I didn’t want to be “wanted.” While I wanted to fit in and have friends, I didn’t want to “date.” I wanted to be invisible. I worked myself into such a state of exhaustion that I could never really think about anything serious. When I fell asleep, I dreamed in color of nightmares. When I was by myself in the dorm, I would sit at the desk and write my last will and testament out. It always made me cry and I almost always tore them up, because I was afraid of someone finding them, or because I was afraid of creating a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” You see, I didn’t –really– want to die. I never sat down and said, “okay, so I’m done. I want out. I want to die, and how can I go about doing that.” I never really had any concrete plans to die. But, by the same token, I did not expect to live through college. When all was silent, deep down in the bottom of my gut, I knew I wouldn’t live long. I would never grow old. And because I sincerely believed that, I thought it important to live accordingly. I wasn’t going to have as long as everyone else, so I needed to make that last will and testament. I wasn’t going to live as long as everyone else, so I needed to think carefully about every decision I made. I wasn’t going to live as long as everyone else, so I needed to do things right the first time. When I was an early teenager, I had started taking hair brushes and slamming them repeatedly against my arms and legs. I would do this until dark bruises showed up. I kept this up in college. This is very shameful to me and it’s not something I talk a lot about. I don’t let many people know about it, because how can you rationalize away deliberately harming yourself? How can you make that make sense to others? And lots of people have terrible things happen to them but never resort to self-harm…. what was wrong with me that made me incapable of handling things “better.” I still don’t have those answers. All I know is that so much had been bottled up inside of me and it basically exploded. I couldn’t talk to others about it, but it had to come out, because it was killing me. To the world, I was this smiley, carefree volunteer and straight A student with an efficient writing capability. Happy. To the world, I was happy. But that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that I was hurting, hurting in a way that made waking up difficult, hurting in a way I could not bear to verbalize. Seeing the bruises, in some sort of twisted way, made the pain I felt inside real. I could point to it and say, “see? I am hurting. ” I couldn’t cry because I didn’t have anyone to cry to, so the bruises were my proof of the internal pain that was tearing me apart. In essence, I was walking on a tightrope, more terrified of how and when I was going to die than I was about actually living.
It took a very long time for that to stop. In fact, my oldest daughter was born before I would completely stop beating my arms and legs with brushes and anything else I could get ahold of. Color came back to the world, one month at a time, and that tunnel I was in slowly got bigger and bigger until I could see more of the universe. It wasn’t just me anymore that I had to think about. I still believed I was going to die early, but now I had a tangible reason for stepping cautiously outside my safety bubble. My daughter needed to learn to live. I wanted to teach them not to live inside a bubble of safety, but to take smart risks and enjoy the life they were given. I didn’t want them to learn that life was a hardship. I didn’t want them to be afraid of morning, or of breaking a rule. I wanted them to know that experimenting and trying new things was okay. I wanted them to be everything I was afraid of being. In order to do that, I had to show them by example. So I danced in the rain. I let us paint our skin. I deliberately made messes because I wanted them to know that it was okay to do so—sometimes life is a bit messy, but God can clean it up. I started focusing not only on the minute in which I was existing, but the week. I made weekly plans, and I had these lofty goals of creating an entire childhood for each of them that would be worthy of remembering and looking back on years and years from now. Going to church became mandatory, not only for the spiritual lessons it teaches but also for the socialization I wanted them to learn. Life became full and fear of death slowly began receding to the background. It was still there, when I was by myself and it was dark out and the stars were hard to find…. I could still sense the fear but it not longer controlled my every move. My daughters did. In the last eight years, since my girls have been born, I have stepped far enough outside of my comfort zone to see the small things that I had completely been missing before. A flower growing in concrete, a rainbow; the joys of coloring and early morning chats. Meaning. Purpose. They have been driven into my life now twofold. Every day, I wake up knowing that I have an opportunity, to experience surprises. I have the opportunity to express tears. I have the opportunity to dance for no reason in the living room floor and that playing a game of cards can bring my girls and I closer together emotionally.
Birthdays celebrate life. Birthdays celebrate the fact that we were given life. It isn’t really to celebrate who we are specifically because everyone on the planet has a birthday. Birthdays are about more than me. Birthdays are about the human being, about being able to breathe in and breathe out, about being able to make decisions and to impact each other. Birthdays are a chance to celebrate what we have accomplished each year, and what we might accomplish in the coming year. Birthdays are a chance to look back on the mountains we have climbed and to feel proud. Birthdays are a chance to say that despite the obstacles that have come our way, we are glad we are alive. There was a time when I did not believe that. There was a time when I couldn’t look in the mirror and say that I was glad I was here. I didn’t see the point. But if I treat life like it’s a hardship, then a hardship it will be. If I treat life like a gift, then the hardships are balanced with the indescribable hope that’s found in the small things: a peaceful lake, the laugh of your child, a beautiful flower, the chance to play and the gift of growth.
For my birthday, I told the girls that all I wanted was a hug and a kiss from each of them. They gave me those things as soon as they woke up and as I wrapped them in my arms, that was all I truly wanted or needed. Hugs make us feel safe and secure, and they remind us that we matter. Hugs offer warmth and peace and an anchor in the storm of life. Hugs remind us that we aren’t alone. This life is about more than me. It’s about more than any one person. This life is something greater and bigger than any of us put together can describe. It’s imperfect, but it’s beautiful. We went to the science center to play for my birthday and I bet I crawled up a dozen tiny, tiny tunnels that are most definitely not made for the human adult. It was a greater exercise than if I had done laps in a pool for two hours. But as I twisted my body into weird contortions in order to chase my kids down yet another itsy bitsy tunnel ladder, I started laughing. This is the memory I would have of my 32nd birthday — and what a greater memory it is than if I had been at a fancy restaurant eating an over-prized meal or simply blowing out candles on a birthday cake. You see, crawling through those tunnels was living, it was pushing myself to the limit, it was challenging me and my body to do more than I thought I could. It made my girls happy. And it made me happy. We can stand trapped in fear of anything. We can stand trapped in the past too. And we can paralyze ourselves with the idea that every move we make has to be absolutely perfect. Or we can step back and look at the world as a canvas and ourselves as a mere stroke of color on it. Einstein said one time, “The only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing.” There is so much to be learned, so much to be experienced, so much to be dreamed, so much to be felt, so much to be attempted. There is so much to see, so much to hear, and so much to taste. We can be so focused on the forest that we forget the trees — we can be so focused on making the most of our future that we forget to enjoy the moment. I can work myself to death trying to secure my daughters’ futures that I miss the chance to be a truly special part of their childhoods. I can be so wrapped up in trying to plan for the week that I forget to enjoy today. It’s a common lesson we’ve heard said a thousand different ways — and yet it is so true. This moment, this moment is full of such beauty. Have you really noticed what colors the leaves are today? Have you really stepped outside for no other reason than to let the fresh breeze waft over your skin? Have you? Have you got down in the floor and played with your children today? Have you stepped away from the phone or the computer long enough to remember that progress isn’t the only thing that matters—indeed, progress isn’t even the most important thing?
The truth is that I have many things in my life to be thankful for. My world is rich with people who take time out of their day to talk to me. My world is rich with people who call me just because it’s my birthday. My world is rich with color—beautiful flowers and oversized, shady trees under which I can rest. My world is rich with two little girls who giggle and play and run around every day. My world is rich with beautiful music that makes me smile every day. My world is rich with words that stir my soul and motivate my spirit. My world is rich with rainbows and water and ants and pesky flies that try to eat my picnics. My world is rich with wild animals that fascinate and awe me. My world is rich with incredible photography. My world is rich with warm hugs and the opportunity to serve others. My world is rich with prayers and the blessings they bring. My world is rich with soft pillows into which I can snuggle my head and ice that I chomp on like candy. My world is rich by being an American, even with all of our flaws. My world is rich. It rained today. That rain enriched my world. Tomorrow, I hope I wake to the sun shining through the clouds. That will make my world rich too. Simple things that I could not see when my heart was aching in pain make my world rich. The truth is I have far more over which to be grateful than I have to cry. Lemonade stands and puppet shows; visiting sick kids in the hospital and teaching Sunday School; listening to my daughter say grace before every meal. Chocolate makes my world rich. Blankets and tea parties and sleepovers make my world rich. I don’t have to have a ring, I don’t have to be rich, I don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize Novelist, I don’t have to have a thousand Facebook friends. Even with all my trust issues, I matter. I matter not because I am a mother but because I am a human being. I matter not because I am better than anyone else but because I am the same as everyone else. I matter because God saw fit for me to be born on Oct 1, 1980. That makes me smile. That overfills my heart with thanksgiving. The chance to live in stability and peace is enough.
Indeed, the chance to live is enough.