Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Happy Birthday

I don’t believe in astrology, but I like reading my horoscope in the Willamette Week. Rob Breszny, who writes Free Will Astrology, is a fount of interesting quotes and references and I often glean something relevant or useful. A couple of weeks ago, he advised those of us born in April to stop being such impatient control freaks. Good advice for the week, though I feel like it could be my horoscope the other 51 weeks of the year as well. I should probably get it tattooed on my arm as a prompt: impatient control freak with a big red slash through it, like a road sign.

I have always been a planner. I make checklists, I make one-year plans and five-year plans. I’ve always wanted to map the future. More than wanted; I believed that my chosen destination would be only slightly harder to reach than Bend or Corvallis. The future was like Breitenbush Hot Springs, maybe: on a small, unpaved road that was still easily plottable on Mapquest.

When Balthazar died, without warning I found myself at the end of the known world. At the place where my life ended. Where the future no longer existed. A place without maps.

Of course I knew that I wouldn’t die. That my life would go on. But I was acutely aware, from the first moment, that I would be someone else. Who, I had no idea. Everything except the fact of being Jasper’s mother was up for negotiation. Writer, wife, Portlander, financial underachiever, introvert, yogi, redhead; I could change it all. It wasn’t time, though, not yet. My body was battered; my heart was broken. I read and I cried and I wrote thank you notes. I waited to see what would happen.

And now it’s two years later. What, exactly, has happened?

I rode a horse in Kauai. Ran a mile in 7:32. Got a cat. Started proofreading again. Wrote a blog that became a memoir. Went to Italy. Got cranky in the Colosseum. Made new friends. Bought a car. Started volunteering at Write Around Portland. Did a deadhang pull up. Read a lot of books. Separated from my husband of fourteen years. Read to five-year-olds. Spent more time with my brother. Ate a lot of French fries.

In the last two years I’ve done a lot of things I never dreamed that I’d do. But there are also other ways to measure change.

In the last month I have reconnected with three of the fairly sizable collection of people I haven’t seen in two years. One reunion was deliberate: I emailed my friend and we went out for drinks. One was completely serendipitous: as a couple of friends and I pulled up to the Starvation Creek trailhead one Saturday, we couldn’t help oohing and aahing over a gorgeous blue-eyed toddler in a pink hat. Then I looked at the woman attached to the toddler. “Let me out!” I cried. “I know her!” The third I happened to run into at Write Around Portland, where he now works and where I recently started volunteering.

I felt a surprisingly uncomplicated happiness at seeing these people again, which is a milestone of some sort. People get a wary look when they see me after a long time. They’re waiting for me to set the tone. So I hugged all three of them. I’ve never been a hugger, but what the hell. Maybe I am one now. Who knows?


I recently told a friend at the gym who is in a place of transition in her life that the crossroads is where the possibility is.

“Are you writing self-help now?” she asked dryly.

I’m really not. One of my favorite books of the past year was Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the self-help industry. And I don’t believe in the life-expanding opportunity created by wrenching change every single day. But when I said it to her, I believed it. Some days, I believe it.

For awhile I was writing ‘Alive to the possibility of happiness’ on the inside of my left wrist. I took the phrase from a book review in which the reviewer used it to describe a character’s transformation. I couldn’t tell you what the title of the book was, or what it was about, or whether the reviewer liked it or not. But the phrase stuck with me. Each day it washed off and each day I wrote it back on. Happiness, if not a reality, is now a possibility.

‘Surrender to chaos’ might be another good reminder for a control freak to tattoo somewhere on her body.


I don’t have a list anymore. Obviously there are things I want to do: refinance my house, get a roommate, get a full time staff writing position, fall in love. Do a chest to bar pull up. Get my heart broken. Fall in love again anyway. Rock climb. Go to a music festival. Dance and sing and take Jasper to Mammoth Cave. I’ve got plans, but I don’t have A Plan. Am I done with Plans forever? Maybe.

“There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one,” Kazuo Ishiguro wrote, which might make me sound literary until I tell you that I picked it up from Free Will Astrology, too.

It’s true for everyone, but it’s something I feel acutely.  Would I be here, doing this? I ask myself sometimes. Would I have met him? Would I have become friends with her? The answer is always ‘probably not.’ But I’m going to stop asking if I would rather have this than that, because that question is moot. I am here. This is where I am. It couldn’t be stopped, it can’t be changed. And so.

If Balthazar’s short, almost life was a beginning that was also an end, the end of my life has afforded the possibility of rebirth. Birth is never easy. There is pain, and rupture. But the only way through is to push on, and at the end is something miraculous that wasn’t there before. Isaiah 43:19 was always one of my favorite Bible verses: “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

To me, that’s not the voice of God, it’s the voice of life itself.  

This is the season of my birth, and Balthazar’s also. Two years ago today I watched Kentucky beat Kansas in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, and, although I did and didn’t know it, Balthazar was dead. One year ago today I canceled my birthday and proofread a preschool curriculum all day. Today is different than both of those days.

I used to think that my birthday would forever be a day of horror. Now I wonder if the opposite will come to be true. Not that there won’t be sadness or tears; that would be impossible. But maybe I will be able to feel the rhythm of Easter and the vernal equinox, the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, instead of getting stuck on Good Friday. Instead of hanging back in the bleak midwinter.

Sons die. They don’t come back. And yet…