Birthday Ambivalence and Other Super Powers
Learning to abide in the tension between what we wish for and what is. Cuz if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need...
The work of spiritual integration is essential. And it is exhausting.
One of the gifts of walking the way of contemplation these last few years has been learning that nothing—and no one—is wholly one thing or the other. Such duality is a falsehood. In fact, the secret sauce of life is realizing that experiences and people can be many things at the same time.
Horrible and wonderful. Loving and withholding. Magical and menacing. Terrifying and terrified.
Last weekend, I spent many hours sorting through boxes of my mother’s belongings. Ephemera from 87 years of living. Some of it precious, some of it crap. Some integral, some trivial. I had to decide what to keep and what to jettison.
Among the precious discoveries were photo albums that belonged to my paternal grandmother, Aida Falsani—I’ve taken to calling the collection, simply, The Italians!—with 100-year-old images of my great grandparents, my beloved father as a child and an awkward teen, my aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, some faces I recognized, some I didn’t. The Italians I kept along with thousands of other photographs of my Irish and Italian and Irish-Italian family members from the late 1800s through late summer 2019, when Mom died.
Most of the photos conjured memories, some specific and some vague. Some triggered joy. While others rekindled traumas I’d rather have kept in their locked Pandora’s box. The most unwieldy, though, were the memories that were laced with joy and trauma.
Case in point: Birthday party pictures.
If you know me well, you likely know that I don’t love my birthday. There have been long stretches of my young adult (and adult adult) life when I would have said I hated my birthday. When someone would ask why, sometimes I’d begin to explain but give up, offering instead a true, if woefully simplistic, answer: “It’s complicated.”
Over the years, I’ve taken different approaches to dealing with my deep ambivalence about celebrating my birthday. I’ve ignored it. I’ve thrown my own parties. I’ve planned special trips or experiences to distract myself — I turned 45 in New York City covering Pope Francis’ apostolic visit for Sojourners with my precious friend Sissi in tow with her special press badge that allowed her to take photos on the floor of Madison Square Garden while I wrote in the press box during the papal mass. We had a late lunch at the Plaza and demolished a seafood tower that I recall being named “The Fitzgerald “while sipping Sancerre. That was a good one.
Last year, I took a solo trip to Big Sur, hanging out with my beloved New Camaldolese monks at their hermitage, hiking, watching the fog roll in from an Adirondack chair on a cliff’s edge, and reading the first edition of Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence my husband had given me for the occasion. Another good one.
When I was a child, like most little kids, I looked forward to my birthday and the ensuing fuss that was made over me to mark the occasion. Presents. Family. Chocolate cake. But as I entered adolescence, things at home were difficult. Tension and anxiety hung in the air like the smell of burnt popcorn. Elaborate birthday parties were planned and then, sometimes a few days before, sometimes on the day itself, my mother would threaten to cancel them for alleged transgressions I could not understand.
Once, when I was in junior high, she cancelled my party while we drove to school. The party was supposed to be that night. Everyone was asking about it. And I spent the day with a knot of uncertainty in my stomach, crying and dry-heaving in a bathroom stall. Thinking of that tension even now makes me want to wretch. Of course, when I got home from school, the party was back on, but she had let me go all day thinking it wasn’t. Because I had been … what? “Ungrateful” was an oft-repeated accusation, although I didn’t understand what I had done, polite and dutiful kid that I was.
With the benefit of hindsight and age, I now know I hadn’t done anything wrong. My mother was anxious about money and expectations, about appearances and wanting to impress the other parents. She was always worried about “doing it wrong” and what others might think of her. Projecting her anxiety onto me was what she did because she didn’t have the emotional tools to deal with what she was feeling in a healthier way. Was it traumatizing for me? Yes. Do I understand why she behaved as she did? Sure. Do the days before my birthday bring waves of sadness, anger, and anxiety even now? Sometimes. This year, they did.
Do I forgive her? I’m trying.
My mother was exceedingly generous. With her time, money, talents, prayers, and heart. She was also emotionally abusive, narcissistic, argumentative, judgmental, and cruel. She could be loving and she could be violent. She was endearing and maddening. She could be wonderfully adventurous and paralyzed by fear.
Her own mother died when she was three years old and, while my grandfather was a loving, tender-hearted, and devoted parent, Mom had no memory of unconditional maternal love. When she became a mother—something she insisted she wanted and was a gift from God—she did her best with what she had.
I have compassion for her. I am angry at her, though not to the degree I once was.
I love her and I miss her.
A few days ago, when I opened a small duffle bag that contained a couple of sweaters and a blanket that had been in high-rotation use the last weeks of her life, her scent—Chanel, Clinique moisturizer, Neutrogena Rain Bath, and talc—wafted up and immediately brought tears to my eyes. Your mother’s smell is primal. I wonder if she would have recognized her mother’s scent. The thought that she might not have is heartbreaking.
So, my birthday is Sunday. This year I am in the high desert of Joshua Tree (one of my happy places) with my sweet lifemate, the dog, the bird, and an inspiring vista. A few friends are on the way to help me mark the day—friends who understand that for me, it is at once happy and sad, and that that’s not something that needs to be “fixed.”
On my birthday this year, I am more grateful for my life and my wondrously resilient, strong body; for my family (“biological and logical”, to borrow a line from Armistead Maupin), my tribe of anam cara who lift my spirits and make me belly laugh when things are at their shittiest and in the rapture of boundless joy.
I am grateful to be alive even in these terrible times. I am delighted by the desert light, by the book of nature that teaches us all we need to know about its author and how to be who we are meant to be in relation to it and each other if we pay close enough attention.
I am grateful for personal evolution, the gift of curiosity, the ability to learn new things that are true and life-giving, and to unlearn that which is not.
I am grateful to understand that if hurt people hurt people, and traumatized people traumatize people, perhaps healed (or healing) people heal people, too. That last part is why I’m sharing some of my story today.
I am grateful to know that ambivalence is neither a bad thing nor a shortcoming.
It’s a superpower.
Ambivalence means I am able to abide seemingly incongruous or conflicting feelings and ideas. It means I can be fully present in that tension, without judging myself or others. That is liberation. And that is also grace.
This morning, I finally watched Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Jenny Slate, who is one of my favorite creators creating today, has given us such a gift in this wholly unique film about family, community, and love conquering fear.
The live-action film, which, as advertised, is in fact about a shell named Marcel (voiced by Slate) who wears shoes and lives with his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini), in an Airbnb alongside a family of spiders, a ladybug, and a documentary filmmaker named Dean (played by Dean Fleischer Camp, who, with Slate, co-created Marcel).
You will not have seen anything like it.
The film is happy and sad. It’s about hope and loss in equal parts. One of my favorite scenes (of many) between Nana Connie and Marcel (whom she calls Marcello because she is originally from the garage, not the house, which is why she speaks with an Italian accent) takes place on a dusty shelf.
Marcel has the opportunity to do something life-changing, but it involves risk, as all such things do. He is afraid of change, that in taking a chance he will lose what he has, that he will lose her. She’s not having any of it.
“Marcello,” Nana Connie says, “let’s forget about being afraid.”
In an earlier scene, Nana Connie tells Marcel and Dean who are about to undertake a quest together, “I like you brave.”
I like me brave, too.
On this my birthday weekend, as I begin a new lap around the sun, I’m re-upping my commitment to be brave, as well as kind; to be curious, forgiving, open to the universe and others, to make as many decisions for love as I can. And to hold the rest of it—good and bad, hard and easy, the pain, the joy, the sorrow, and the wonder—loosely, rather than clenched in white-knuckled fists.
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well, you might find
You get what you need
—The Rolling Stones