Tag Archives: birthday

Breathing in the Basement

Flowers on the table.  And two envelopes.  The first was a list of memories, from my dad, and the second was a story, from my mom.  Neither she nor I had been very comfortable on the day in question, but she remembers it— vividly— and I do not.

My birthday.IMG_7773

Friends in the Middle East had contacted my family in Maine, to get suggestions on how to celebrate this day’s anniversary with me.  They had taken responsibility for delivering the flowers and notes from my parents.  Later, they pulled out a cake glowing with candles— trick candles, a couple dozen of them, plus extra until they achieved the correct number.

How did you know?  I asked, when the smoke had cleared and I could see the cake itself.

It was a household favorite, only eaten on birthdays.  But I hadn’t thought of one, much less mentioned it to them, in time within memory.

My friends shrugged in a downplay of their own thoughtfulness. But I learned later, the “favorite cake” tip had been sought out, arranged after advice from my family.

A fresh perspective welcomed my thirty-second year.  Those who helped me to celebrate were mostly unknown to me six months earlier, and the view they gave me was definitely “second story,” and beautiful.  A midnight picnic at the Red Sea with international coworkers.  Sweet gifts from the hearts of the ones I love.  A surprise scuba diving trip– first time!– from one of the teachers at our community center.  More flowers, and a heavily accented rendition “Happy Birthday,” from sixty students in Young Leaders.

But sometimes returning to the basement is the only way to put the panorama in context.

I say basement— my housemate (a former real estate agent, and who’s family is among the few I have known for some time) says “garden level apartment.”  It is underground on three sides.  But no matter what he calls it, when the conversation is over, I descend the stairs down, down to the home’s foundation.  To a place both close and cozy.

Sometimes, as I sit in this basement, I simply feel closed in and limited in perspective.  I want the breathing room of the second story.  I want to peel back layers of soil until I reach it, but the result would only be dirty hands.  Exhaustion.

I cannot change this.  

—–

My mother’s life verse to me, which she told me two decades ago, comes from the exclamation of an impossibly pregnant old woman to an impossibly pregnant young woman.  I love the promise it holds.  “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”  It rings in my mind often as I hold out for promises made that are yet to be fulfilled.

A couple of days after birthday celebrations, I felt drawn to read the beginning of this story, to go down, down to its foundations.  Earlier in the chapter, before she got any affirmation from a human voice, Mary listened to heaven make a promise of something unexpected.

Something scandalous.  Something impossible.  Something desperately needed by the whole world.  Her question in reply: How?

—–

Sometimes I fight to see promises fulfilled: for the area in which I live now, for my beloved family and friends, for my life.  Work harder, perform higher, plan with more discernment.  Love more, listen more, speak less and with more discernment.  Have more friends, since many of those who were here this year may not be next year, and choose who from your local and foreign community to spend time with… with more discernment.  

But trying to fulfill promises through these mean efforts only results in a mess.  In exhaustion.

I cannot control this.

Then I think about how the promise given to Mary was fulfilled, not because of her capability, but because of the power of the One Most High, who overshadows the limitations of the ones like me.  So I return to the foundations.

Like on my birth day, I could not cry until I could breathe.  And I could not breathe until I got released from the cord around my neck.  My mother recalls her own breathlessness in waiting for this, her joy when I finally let out a wail.

Sometimes when we go to the basement (or garden-level apartment) of the soul, to remember the promises we have been given and the foundational identity upon which our lives are built, there are tears as well as laughs.  And that is okay.  We can relax our hands and renew our hopes, because He is the one who is powerful, and the basement perspective is limited but the promises still hold on.  We are, crying or laughing, still taking breaths.

So I cannot keep from hoping.  

Because the promises in the basement– even the ones yet unfulfilled– are sweeter than a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.
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Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

Vulnerable

I sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room.  My friend Sammi’s mother and sister had kissed my cheeks in greeting, and then withdrawn to the kitchen, oddly quiet.  They drew the curtain closed behind them.

I was not invited to follow.

Alone, I looked at the green balloons strewn across the floor.  The family had intended to surprise me with a birthday party, but things had fallen apart, to a certain extent due to me not getting it and having earlier plans.  I knew they were frustrated.  I wondered if that was the reason for Sammi’s absence, or for the silence.

Breathing out slowly, I reminded myself that misunderstandings are part of life– especially living in a different culture.  And that I really love this family.  I hoped they knew that.

Earlier this week I moved out of my basement, to a second-story bedroom… which I am borrowing from my housemates’ children.  Someone else is borrowing my space for several weeks, and the kids are sharing rooms.   As I packed up to move, I read a post from my friends Andrew & Becca’s “Radical Hospitality” series on this blog, about the vulnerability that exists within relationships.

As I read their words on open hands and homes and hearts, and prepared to move to the second floor, I once again felt the vulnerability of receiving.  Am I thankful enough?  Present enough?  Helpful, honest, flexible, strong, funny enough?

My friends would tell me to relax.  But the fact is, at some point, we’ll note each others’ uneven edges and wish the other was… smoother.  Or maybe more edgy.  I know that when I see others’ frailties, I want to love well.  The question is, when my own vulnerability is exposed– when I make cultural mistakes, when I am angry, when I am not flexible or present or strong or courageous enough– will I still receive the love that is offered me?

In the Poetry class this week, each student had to give a metaphor for themselves.  “I am a seed,” one said.  “I have a world inside that no one can see.  I go deep, and I will change.”  Another said she was a smile, something so simple but with “deep feeling,” meaning the most to people in their hardest times.  A third was iron.  “I carry many responsibilities at home and with family and with schoolwork.  I must be strong.”

Students, via their metaphors, demonstrated higher degrees of honesty than people tend to use with everyday statements.  In a few words, they expressed being incompletely understood, trying to support others in difficulty, and experiencing the weight of responsibilities… as well as what they hoped for themselves: change, joyfulness, strength.

Something in our class shifted as students exposed pieces of their souls.  And then, together, we read “If.”

This poem tells the reader to be uncomplaining, uncompromising, and unstoppable by setbacks… or by successes.  My students embraced the challenge not to let circumstances transform them.  But, vulnerably, they questioned the advice to guard against any emotion.  If “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,” and if you respond the same way to triumph or disaster, Rudyard Kipling says “you’ll be a Man, my son!”

But I wonder, in the absence of celebration or of grief, would we still be human?

Thirty was a rich year.  Rich with friendships, love, experiences, loss, travel, grieving, celebrating… I think that if 31 is going to be what I dream, I will need an even greater degree of openness/vulnerability in it.  But strength in vulnerability comes from knowing, at the core of who I am, that I am approved by the One who matters most.

And as I told my students, I am a tree.  My roots are deep.  If days are dry or storms shake my branches, I am still deeply connected to the Source of all I need.

Back at Sammi’s house, the silence was interrupted by her mom coming into the room and turning off the lights.  Then her sister held back the curtain.  Sammi walked in with a smile, carrying a brightly-lit, beautifully decorated birthday cake.

The quietness was preparation. And I was surprised.

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