I have now lived fifty years on the one planet in the universe that we know has life on it. In that time, the sun has dawned and set 18,262 times; I have slept under 650 full moons and under the same number of new moons; I have seen the first crocus of the spring and winter’s first snowflake fall on green, autumn grass fifty times. I gave birth to an entire human being; danced in my kitchen, onstage, and in more rock-and-roll clubs than I can recall; and I have tasted fruits from Tibet, Australia, and my own backyard.
Rather than mark my birthday in a way that is expected, it is time to truly celebrate that I am a living being on this Earth, gifted with the past and a creator of the future.
This revelation came upon me when I found a burgundy velvet jacket in a consignment store. It is the color of blood, the most sacred substance in human history. While our violent society relegates blood to the realm of death, our earliest ancestors revered it for its role in carrying the soul into life.
The jacket is my ticket off the straight road from birth to death, with each age delineated by what I should do, wear, and how I should behave, into the wild landscape beyond. The shocks and the poetry of everyday life have loosened gravity’s hold on my assumptions about who I am. I have become a spiral, circling around a center that is “me,” both eternal and changing. I am always moving higher into the future but also returning to my beginnings, time and again. I have decided that, no matter when they may fall on the calendar, my birthdays will be when I am again in alignment with who I was in the past, times when I feel connected to elements of my younger self that express something I need to understand.
I will spend time around this year’s actual birth anniversary in New York City, where I lived in my twenties. It was there that my life was most mythical, where I most felt that I belonged. I often walked alone in the most dangerous neighborhoods at four a.m., sure of my safety because I knew that I was meant to be there at that moment in my life. When I left, at age thirty, I was newly married, with thoughts of starting the family, education, and career I had planned.
I had crossed a threshold between the first quarter-century of my life, years spent unfolding my self as a strong, smart, energetic, brilliant woman, and the second quarter-century of my life that, like that of many women, was an exhausting and often disheartening time spent in service to family and an increasingly demanding job.
For this birthday, I will be my own magician, holding in one hand the woman I am now, with more realistic expectations of life and myself, while gathering the fragments of the woman I was, with her spirited self-confidence, endless creativity, and infectious, easy laughter. I will put all these into an alchemical crucible and meld them together so that I can enter the third quarter-century of my life with the wisdom and enthusiasm I will need as I offer up to myself, my family, and my community the fruits of my experience and deep understanding as an “elder.”
I will walk on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, a street I trod at least once a day for eight years. Maybe it has an outdoor café now where, while wearing the Jacket, I can have a cappuccino and pretend I see myself as I was when I lived there. I will look closely at my imaginary, younger self, at her expressions and facial lines and the way she holds her hands. What will I see in her eyes that I need for myself now? What things will be better left behind? Perhaps I will beckon some of her back inside and fondly kiss the rest goodbye.
I will enjoy doing nothing for the afternoon and remember that many poems and stories were born on similar afternoons. Then I will wander into Soho, into the art galleries, go back uptown and see a play or ballet, stroll down a dark street just to see who lives there. I will stay out later than ten and will forget how tired I am. I will capture every moment of each of these experiences so that I can remember what it is to simply “be” rather than always progressing down a “to do list.”
I will choose one object to bring back as a talisman, to make my two selves—younger and older—into one again. It might be a piece of clothing like I used to wear, or some music I once loved, or maybe a leaf or a stone to hold the voice of the land where I once belonged so that I will now belong wherever I am.
Even more, now that I have begun, I believe that every year all human beings on Earth should gather and celebrate our communal birthday. What if we took one day when we cast aside assumptions and expectations about who we should be, and instead pondered our lives, our world and ourselves as if we were making it anew? We could gaze back at those ancient cultures with the thousands of goddess figures in grain bins and no weapons in their graves, and millennia after millennia of beautiful, reverent art made in the midst of both joy and catastrophe. We could remember the many, many everyday and renowned people who have envisioned a peaceful, kind world and spent their lives to bring it into being. We could invite them into our midst to join with the best of who we are now. If each of us did this individually, then as families, communities, and nations, what kind of a future could we create? Perhaps it would truly be our “birth day.”
Note on photo: When I got to NYC, it was too hot to wear the jacket. But, here I am at my old apartment!