Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Birthday Diairies

Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what happened. ~Jennifer Yane

December 4, 1965
What happened to me today? I was not supposed to arrive until after New Year's. But, all of a sudden, I was terrified I'd be late. I think I surprised my mom. No one really understood that being late was just not in my genetic code. Even at -1 day old, I have Allegrophobia. It's awful. I tried checking my watch a dozen times, only to discover that fetus' aren't given timepieces or day planners at conception. What was God thinking? I needed to know what time it was and what was on my calendar. I'll have to make a note to correct that during my lifetime. Even a fetus has places to go and people to meet. Lesson learned today? Better be early than late.

December 4, 1975
Double digits! The joy! The magic! The exceptional, numerological secrets that would be unfolded to me now that I have two numbers in my age, just like grown ups! I woke up, banged on my parents' door, shouting with glee at finally being 10. Ten! I sat and waited for the powers that would surely arrive any second to descend upon me. They never showed up. But, my mother did take my two close friends and me to Radio City Music Hall, to see the Rockettes Christmas show, and then, by my choice, we went to the Auto Pub after for a late lunch. The Auto Pub is certainly the most amazing restaurant in New York. There are antique cars in which you eat! They have taken out the bench seats and steering wheels to create booths. I'm sure it will be there forever. Maybe the runic forces of double digits didn't illuminate my day, but it was still awfully exciting. Lesson learned today? Appreciate things that are special to you at that very moment. Life does change around you.

December 4, 1981
I am sitting at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Santa Barbara, California. I'm home from prep school in New England and desperate to get my driver's license. I'm younger than everyone in my class, and feel like the only person without the badge of honor: a license. I want to drive more than anything. I can picture myself sailing down the Pacific Coast Highway, along the romantic curving roads in Newport, RI and navigating Boston's alphabetized cross street system. There is a woman to the left of me, smelling heavily of whiskey, cigarettes and cat urine, telling me to stay away from drugs, as the wafts of her alcoholic laden breath punctuate each syllable. I assure her that I will remain drug free. On my right side, is an old man, speaking with an undefinable European accent asking if I know his grand-nephew, who lives in Maryland. I try to explain, as patiently as I can, that Providence and Baltimore aren't near each other, but the gentleman continues rambling on about his nephew's stellar achievements and defining features. When at last my number is called, and I take both my written, and driving, tests, I feel as if I've been sprung from commuted sentence phoned in by the governor as a last minute reprieve. Lesson learned today? The DMV doesn't get any easier with age.

December 4,1983
I'm 18 today. So, why do I still feel like a kid? I half expected my appearance to change, my mind to be overflowing with maturity and perfection. Instead, I feel incredibly lonely. My then-boyfriend never called, and I was all by myself, waiting for the phone for much of the day. My new college friends didn't know it was my birthday. I felt bereft and forgotten. I sank into mutinous self-pity until I decided to take the T into Boston and walk around, looking at the Christmas decorations on Newbury Street and in Faneuil Hall. A light snow began to fall, and street performers put on stunning shows with little more than cardboard, paint tins and turned over garbage cans. I had a fabulous time, in spite of my internal drama, treating myself to a piece of cake and a coffee at Serendipity, just up the cobblestone alley from the performers. A dear older homeless man, with two precious dogs, waited by the subway entrance. I gave him the last of my spending money, and he said, "God Bless You". No one knew I had turned 18 that day. No one around me would have cared had they known. But, I knew. Lesson learned that day? Sometimes it's not what others do for you, but what you make of life yourself.

December 4, 1990
I can't believe I'm 25 today, and have been living in Europe for almost four years. I love it here beyond words. I love the beauty of West Germany,where my new husband and I live. I love the friends we've made. I love the two dogs we've adopted. I love our rented farmhouse. I love the holiday spirit that permeates the German country. It isn't the same as the plastic Santa's and gaudy tinsel at home. It's more elegantly and deeply felt. The Kristkindlmarkt's joy infuses my spirit. As much as I adore my husband of four years, I have come to learn that he's not a holiday enthusiast, as I am. He's a wonderful, intelligent and hard working Officer, but he's forgotten my birthday every year we've known each other, so I can't imagine that this year will be much different. I've prepared myself, and am planning to get together with some girlfriends the next day. When Jeff suggests that we go to dinner at the Texas style, German BBQ restaurant, I'm thrilled. I thought this was a grand gesture! As we walked into "die Gasthaus", our entire circle of friends met us there for a surprise party. Jeff had even bought a Baskin & Robbins ice cream cake, from our Army post, and we had the fun of sharing it with our German hosts, who'd never had one. Lesson learned today? People can surprise you.

December 4, 1994
Shhh...I'm holding my new daughter in my arms. She was born six days ago, and she's sound asleep. She has tiny perfect fingers and toes, and the most adorable dimples, set deeply in her cheeks. Her hair is downy soft and dark brown and when she opens her eyes, they look like tiny black coal lit fires. She makes eye contact with me and seems to already know much as she already seems to know all the wisdom of the ages. She turns to coo at her two year old brother and then cuddles back into me. This beautiful newborn will take a moment, pausing from nursing, to gaze up at the ceiling and smile. I'm convinced she sees angels. As I lay her down in her bassinet, late at night, I glance at the calendar and realize that, in my "baby honeymoon", I've forgotten my birthday. But, I could care less. I'm in love. Lesson learned today? Some things are far more important than a day on a schedule.

December 4, 2003
I'm sitting my oncologist's office at the Women's Center at Maine Medical Center in Portland. My husband and I are holding onto one another's hands like two survivors on a lifeboat. We have seen the ship go down. We have watched people around us slide under the waves. We have been through 3 of my surgeries, 2 hospitalizations in between because of complications, and batteries of tests. A national magazine told our story. My heart is pounding in my chest. I see spots before my eyes. I want the newest round of exam results right away. I don't want them....I don't want to know what they say. Sitting endlessly in the waiting around, surrounded by women who are suffering, I feel suffocated, claustrophobic. I want to leave, and just forget any further knowledge of my ridiculously unexpected condition. My husband keeps me tethered to my seat, so that I don't float away, like an errant birthday balloon. When my name is called by the nurse, I feel like a deer, caught in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck. My feet are stuck to the industrial carpet, with Oak tree roots reaching into the foundation below me. I have no memory of walking into my physician's office....only hearing the words, "You're clear...this time, you're clear. There is further sign of cancer." I asked her repeat the results a second, and then, a third time. She hugs me...and I know fully well that I'm one of her successes in a field that offers few. Lesson learned today? Miracles do happen.

December 4, 2009
"The rest is still unwritten"...and I like it that way. I've embraced surprises, the unknown, the unfolding of unexpected events. I've learned to navigate without a roadmap, to try restaurants for which I have no reviews, and to explore new places and make friends with new people. Lesson to be learned today? L' life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Full House Beats a Pair

There is an insightful Yiddish fable about a man whose family is honestly driving him crazy. His sons are running wild, breaking every object in their path. His daughters are yelling, whining and arguing. His wife is constantly nagging him about the state of their finances, the state of their farm, and even about their unruly children. Seeking advice from his Rabbi, the beleaguered farmer is shocked to discover that, during his weekly visits begging for help, the Rabbi first suggests bringing the cow into the house, followed by the horses, the chickens, the ducks and rest of the barn's menagerie. Every week another group of animals adds to the cacophony of the already burdened man's fragile nerves. Week after week, his tolerance becomes stretched even further beyond what he believed were his limits. Finally, after months of this jarring racket, the Rabbi tells the overwrought, agitated fellow to bring the cows, the chickens, the horses, the geese, the ducks, the goats and the rest of the animals back to the barn. It's then that the miracle of the fable occurs: the farmer, no longer finding his anxiety overwhelmed by his family alone, thanks the Rabbi for fixing the "problem".

In Margot Zemach's children's book, "It Could Always Be Worse", she explores this same folk tale in an entertaining and age appropriate manner. It's a delightful book...and is special
to me because it was one I read to my own children when they were younger. Although I'd grown up knowing this story, being able to share the ideas from the book gave me a jumping off point to begin discussion about problems and how they're solved. The question my son and daughter asked, as do most of us, is "Why doesn't the farmer see that nothing has really changed?". The answer, of course, is that one's perspective changes, based upon the situation at that very moment. When we're stressed or tired or nervous we have a hard time making choices. We also have a hard time separating real problems from those we imagine. Small matters can become looming mountains to us. Crowds seem unbearable. We seek solitude. We hoard our quiet moments and lose the ability to function in a group. When we change our perspective, the same issues that caused us despair become trivial.

My house felt a bit like that of the farmer this past week. During an average week, my home consists of my 17 year old son (who is rarely home, due to his hockey travel schedule), my husband, our two enormous dogs and our one dramatic bunny. We lead busy lives. Our work, school and volunteer commitments are exceptionally time consuming. There are far more projects and chores at home than we have time for. The bills mount, the obligations loom and the stress builds. Over Thanksgiving week, my daughter arrived home from her prep school in
Massachusetts. It was magical to see her. Her friends also arrived to welcome her home. My peppy mother came to spend the holiday week with us from Arizona. Her best friend also came for tea. My husband's parents drove here from New Hampshire. They're great fun and always have a lot to offer, both to conversation and to household projects. My son's hockey team won a major victory and his pals came for a sleepover to celebrate. It was marvelous to have everyone at the house, but I have to admit, it all felt more than a little bit out of my control. There were people everywhere! At one point we had 13 people sleeping here. The noise level, the chaos, the wild feeling of groups doing their own activities in various parts of my home all at once was a little staggering. There were moments I felt as if I was a German Shepherd, trying to keep my flock on track, as well as entertained. There were moments in which I experienced a sense of running around in circles, accomplishing little but exhausting myself. I admit that there were instances during the week in which I felt completely incompetent as a hostess.

Yet, now that the guests have returned to their homes, and my precious girl is back at her school, the house feels far too quiet. There is no one to sit and coffee with. There isn't someone's 'little job' to oversee. There isn't a soul to joke with, argue with or talk with. There is no one to aggravate me or make me laugh until I cry. The silence is deafening. As much as my son's hockey teammates resemble the horses in the farmer's fable, coming into the house and stamping their hooves, I miss their presence. As much as my mom undoes everything I've done and redoes it her way, like a Mother Hen, I find that I'm now second guessing my own methods of housekeeping. While my daughter rolls her eyes at me and has to redress me, duck clucking as my outfits don't pass her fashion muster, I find myself stymied for what to wear today. My house may have felt like a barn this past week, but now it feels like a museum. There aren't four televisions blaring with four different shows competing with one another for aural superiority. There aren't hordes to feed. There is no one saying "Maaaaa....." in an exasperated voice...and with multiple generations using the same intonation. There is no foot stamping, door slamming or conflicting opinions. There is no raucous laughter and loud joke telling. The house is just the way it was just over a week ago....and yet it feels far more indistinct.

I have learned how much I appreciate both clamor and hush. I have discovered that I crave times of extroversion and times of inner contemplation. I have learned that I can love someone more than anything and be completely annoyed by them. I have found that, despite my shepherding tendencies towards control and direction, I'm able to let go and allow evenings to unfold on their own. I have observed that I can be a mother, a daughter, a hostess, a mere participant, a cook, an eater, a pesky badger and the harassed all at the same moment.

And, there is only three and a half weeks until Christmas.

A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.

~Herm Albright