Rita has long declared that her birthday is the entire month of April. I believe she originally came to this thinking many years ago, to allow her mother more time to get a birthday card sent to her for a timely arrival on her actual birthday. My gift from Rita, for the May 8th birthday this year, was to arrive home from a night in Spokane to find my kitchen window box filled with flowers for the summer days to come. Don said, “I think this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done,” and I reminded him that, “no, she did this for me in 2005 when I arrived home from cancer treatment in Denver, to recover in the remains of summer.” Rita knows how to do birthdays.
It was a grand birthday celebration in Spokane, with an afternoon beer and lunch at a new downtown brewery, sitting by open garage doors on a sunny spring afternoon, people-watching safely distanced customers. Dinner, at our very favorite fine dining bistro, also felt safe in a newly constructed booth with our waiter masked. I never choked on my food–which had been a big concern of mine, even though I was discharged from swallowing therapy–and I had two glasses of champagne, and a fabulous coconut cake. After over a year, it felt like our Covid PTSD stayed in the shadows. This year’s birthday was not guaranteed, after my stroke in March, and the beautiful cards, calls, and texts from family and friends could not have been more loving, and I think I cried with each of them.
May is a huge birthday month in our circle. Don’s and Rich’s are May 11th, then two grandsons celebrate later in the week, and John finishes off the month with his. As the first to come along, and as the elder in the family, I always get the best and brightest celebration. Don spent his special day by driving into town at 6:00 a.m. to attend to his volunteer bookkeeping job, then coming back home to pick me up for a trip back into town for a visit to the orthopedic surgeon. While I spent two hours in the clinic getting a steroid injection into my troublesome right hip, he slept in the car, gathering his energy for a day of various chores near and far from the house. Everybody has to find celebration in their own way, and it is definitely tricky as we age. “At least it’s not the alternative” has ceased to be humorous for a long time now.
I had hoped to bake a cake for Don, but with the pain in my right hip, the best I could do was to make his favorite peanut butter cookies, so I could sit down and ice it during the 14 minutes each cookie sheet was in the oven. I’d missed my David Whyte webinar, with our trip to Spokane, so I tuned into the recording while I iced my hip. His series began back in May 2020 with the title of Vulnerability and Courage, and I’ve participated every month since then, always moved deeply by him reading his poems, which I never truly understand, but it doesn’t matter that I do. As he has said, poetry is not about some thing–it is the thing itself.
This May’s series is entitled Self Compassion. He tells the story of hiking in the Himalayas, alone, as a young man, and being paralyzed by fear to cross a rickety wooden bridge across a deep ravine at 11,000 feet, and how an old woman with a basket of Yak dung on her back, gives him a namaste greeting, then confidently crosses over to the other side. He followed her to safety, and then she seemed to vanish, just disappeared altogether from the trail. Soon, he came to the oldest monastery on the Annapurna Circuit, in the little village of Braga, and upon entering, was terrified by the ancient wooden Buddha statue guarding the door, threatening and beckoning the traveler to enter. He finished the webinar by reading a poem he wrote after this experience at Braga. I thought it was a lovely way to think about birthdays and getting old, and the self-compassion we need at this time in life.
The Faces at Braga, by David Whyte
In monastery darkness
by the light of one flashlight,
the old shrine room waits in silence.
While beside the door
we see the terrible figure,
fierce eyes demanding, “Will you step through?”
And the old monk leads us,
bent back nudging blackness
prayer beads in the hand that beckons.
We light the butter lamps
and bow, eyes blinking in the
pungent smoke, look up without a word,
see faces in meditation,
a hundred faces carved above,
eye lines wrinkled in the handheld light.
Such love in solid wood—
taken from the hillsides and carved in silence,
they have the vibrant stillness of those who made them.
Engulfed by the past
they have been neglected, but through
smoke and darkness they are like the flowers
we have seen growing
through the dust of eroded slopes,
their slowly opening faces turned toward the mountain.
Carved in devotion
their eyes have softened through age
and their mouths curve through delight of the carver’s hand.
If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.
If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,
we would smile too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.
When we fight with our failing
we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself
and wrestle with the guardian, fierce figure on the side of good.
And as we fight
our eyes are hooded with grief
and our mouths are dry with pain.
If only we could give ourselves
to the blows of the carver’s hands,
the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers
feeding the sea
where voices meet, praising the features
of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.
Our faces would fall away
until we, growing younger toward death
everyday, would gather all our flaws in celebration
to merge with them perfectly,
impossibly, wedded to our essence,
full of silence from the carver’s hands.