The coming of cold weather, my birthday: both can render me barely eligible to participate in society. “My neurosis levels are high,” I warned my friend. Dying plants! Cold feet! Darkness!
At my writing retreat last weekend, I spent a good part of the time staring, wandering around, reading, and moping about how I could not possibly bother with another chapter of my book, how useless the whole thing was, how it didn’t interest me as much as sitting on the floor looking through a 1984 med school yearbook.
I was in quite a lovely place to mope, a huge house full of art and mementoes, so I stared at rainy trees, little brass deer, wooden masks, and a big acrylic sculpture shaped like a 1980s office building. I was also wearing my Luke Skywalker all black, via a Mexican dress and pants that are like pajamas. Cozy.
Later, at home, I did some ass-kicking yoga (more literal than I intended it to be– I felt thoroughly kicked the next day). The disembodied voice that led me through it also talked me through the Buddhist metta phrases. May I be happy. May I be safe. Then you try to wish those things on neutral people, then, on your enemies. I gave it a shot.
On my last visit to the monastery, we were working on forgiveness. “It’s a spiral,” the nun said. “Like the stairs in a silo. When you look down, you feel like you’re falling to the bottom, but you’ve actually made progress. You’ve made progress in forgiving.” I was alarmed to learn there could be stairs inside those things.
I spiraled around to consider that people who had hurt me maybe didn’t mean to, and maybe it was over and it was no one’s fault. Which, actually, in my case, is true. Maybe I already did feel better about them, and the fact that when I see them, I merely wince, is good progress.
When it is appropriate to space out and calm yourself down, and when it is right to feel and face up to your discomfort, remained an open question. My Buddhist impulse seemed to argue for facing up. The nun seemed to argue for going to your happy place.
Legitimate suffering at birthdays for a year being gone. Legitimate suffering at the finite choices and finite time one is given. I was so preemptively guilty about being sad at my birthday (how dare you feel sorry for yourself!) that I didn’t legitimately suffer. Thus legitimate suffering turns into a lot of nonsense that echoes Mrs. C, the elementary school teacher I hated most.
Why do you have to be so weird? Why can’t you do regular things like regular people?
Why aren’t you married already? There must be a reason. Life is your oyster. You run your own show.
You know, you’re almost too old to have kids. But then, could you really stop sleeping in on weekends? You? Even to spare your poor mother from going without grandchildren? Could you really spend your money on clothes for someone else?
If you were a better person, a man would buy you dinner and roses on your birthday. If you were less uptight, you would have a rock star boyfriend, and if you weren’t so rebellious, you’d have a boyfriend who had a real job.
Remember: the number of people who come to your birthday party reflects your value as a human being. I wonder how many people will come. Yes, that is what we learned from the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s all about the numbers.
School never went fast enough for me. I always felt two steps ahead of the teacher, and it encouraged impatience and dismissiveness in me. (Never say never: calculus was too fast. And I had no experience in getting up to speed, so I failed.) Mrs. C was annoyed that I finished my work so fast. She was annoyed that I wrote in class instead of listening to her, but I was so, so bored.
I wanted her to accept who I was: a girl with too-short pants and lots of curiosity, frustrated by details and small talk and passionate about big ideas, wary of people because changes at home had shaken me. She channeled all my fears into a few dismissive looks, a few disapproving remarks, a lot of ignoring.
Legitimate, like babies used to be (or not be). Official. Recorded. Claimed. It’s great to have autumn and winter, natural changes to mark seasons and time to wear my beret and my sweaters.
Mostly my birthday is celebrating being lucky enough to have had this last year, but birthdays are important because you know you have a limited amount of them. I am very lucky, but my grief is legitimate. When I don’t claim them, they will show up at inconvenient times, like illegitimate children, yelling my name and crashing parties.