Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Thing About Birthdays

Sam says, "When you think about it, birthdays are a really arbitrary way of tracking the passage of our lives."

We are sitting across from each other in a restaurant booth just large enough that we can't quite lean across the table and kiss, which we know because we tried, awkwardly, after he made a toast to celebrate my 35th birthday.  There is a plate of bacon-wrapped quail legs in between us, and I keep looking at it and thinking that it seems vaguely out of place.  We aren't the fig-stuffed, bacon-wrapped quail type most days.  But, here we are talking about how Sam has never had a wedge salad before and how the tiny quail bones make me almost sad enough to not eat them.  Not quite, mind you, but almost.

And it feels strange not to have the kids there with us because we travel in a pack these days, but at the same time it's always been second nature for me to sit across from this man and tell him everything in one long, filter-less outpouring.  We are one big parents-out-on-a-date cliche because I can't keep myself from telling the waitress that we are out because we have a babysitter, with a giddy emphasis on those important words, and Sam can't help but tell her that we are celebrating my birthday, though really we are just saying these things for ourselves, for the sheer joy of announcing our own personal celebration.

It's not until the quail plate is cleared, with those tiny bones heaped up like some macabre miniature graveyard scene, that I fully recover the memory that had been stirring as I watched that plate sit between us.

Fifteen years ago, we somehow ended up with a gift certificate to Chili's, and as we were sitting across from each other in that restaurant booth eating our free meal, we realized that it was our first real date.  We were already inseparable by then, already talking about marriage, and yet our entire relationship had occurred as whispered conversations in crowded parties and late night talks in each others' cars and on each others' couches.  We lived in a kind of pack back then, too, barely out of our teenage years, mostly renting cheap apartments with roommates, a group of friends all sort of living on top of each other.  It seemed the natural reaction to the loneliness of outgrowing the family of your childhood and not yet having the family of your adulthood; I think we all tried to douse that loneliness a little by not ever really letting ourselves be alone.

So, Sam and I fell in love in a crowd, fell in love in stops and starts that made us the train wreck that everyone couldn't help but watch for a while.  We stumbled through one messy transition after another, from friends to dating, from dating to engaged, from engaged to married. Not one second was picture perfect; not one milestone failed to trip us up.  At Chili's, on our first real date, Sam said, "Well, if I had realized this was our first date, I would have ordered something nicer than a burger."

But I didn't care, really, because when I was with Sam, I had always kind of felt like we were the only people in the room.  What did I care if there were other people around us all of the time?  When he looked at me, I couldn't see those other people anyway.

If you think about it, celebrating the same day each year is a bit arbitrary.  We might just as easily measure our lives by the meals we've shared or by the restaurant booths we've sat in.  Fifteen years ago, my boyfriend and I ate a free meal in a Chili's booth.  Fourteen years ago, my fiance and I designed our wedding rings at a different restaurant booth, sketching out our ideas on a cocktail napkin that I still have tucked into the pages of a scrapbook that I never got around to finishing.  Today we sit together, grinning at the novelty of a dinner out without the kids.

It's funny how all of those memories come back like a faucet turned on full force.  In this one moment, the waitress is removing our plate and I am remembering all the booths we've sat across in the last decade and a half.

Crystals of salt from my empty margarita glass keep getting stuck to my elbow.  You'd think that might motivate me to sit up straight, but even after 35 years of trying, I have never managed to learn to eat without leaning on the table.  My belly is full, and I am tempted to walk around to Sam's side of the booth and lean, warm and sated, against his side.  Sam says, "When you think about it, birthdays are a really arbitrary way of tracking the passage of our lives."

And I answer, distracted from my reverie, "Yes, but this is the calendar we have adopted, and this calendar lends itself to a repetitive, annual schedule."

But that's not what I mean, because celebrating another year of this life has little to do with the calendar and more to do with being able to celebrate each day as it passes so that, at the end of a year, I have spent my time soaking up the particular marvel that is my own meager existence.  The thing about birthdays is that they really are arbitrary, in a way, and if everything about our growth is hung on that one day each year, then the celebration is just some robotic kind of ritual we keep up as a matter of habit.

The thing about birthdays, though, is that they magnify who you have been all year, that they become this vivid slideshow of how far you have (or have not) come.  And as arbitrary as it may be, I can't help but wonder if this is why we become less and less enthralled with our birthdays over time, that as each year shows less and less growth than the year before, these slideshows of another year past can become increasingly painful to watch.  I look across the table at Sam, and I can't help but see all those years, all those meals, all those tables.  I can't help but mention our two lost pregnancies and how much of the last year was mired by my frantic desire to get pregnant again, to hold one last baby in my arms before I hit the too-old-for-procreation age of 35.  Birthdays can leave you feeling misshapen like a candle still soft from burning, but that's the thing about birthdays, we get to watch the shape that we've become from all this use and all this life and all this trial by fire.

I am halfway to 70, and who knows, maybe my child-bearing years are over, though I hardly feel different than that girl who sat at Chili's on a belated first date 15 years ago.  I am drinking a toast to the end of my 35th year, and the thing about birthdays is that they should be a look ahead just as much as they are a look back.  I am wiping margarita salt off my elbows and realizing I have never ordered quail for myself in a restaurant and thinking how far we've come, this husband and I.  And through all of it, I am thinking that this coming year is going to be the best one yet.  I am sad and happy and still messy in my transitions, and I am just so glad to have another year to get it right and mess it up and eat cake and make toasts and introduce Sam to wedge salads.

That salt follows me, like confetti, all the way home, and boy am I glad for its persistence, just another souvenir of a life well lived.

Image credit, used under Creative Commons License

Friday, July 19, 2013

Of Pink Shoes on the Senate Floor

This morning I put on my pink running shoes and my new pink running shirt, snapped the leash on the dog, and hit the sidewalks of the suburbs.  The sun was just coming up over the rows of nearly identical houses with proud stone and brick facades, though I was looking at their peeling wood-clad backsides, and the sunrise sweeping across the horizon was pink, too.  Pink and purple swirled like the colors of fairy wings and princess dresses we love to put on little girls.

I realize sometimes that I talk about running like one of those wiry, sports-bra-and-bike-short wearing devotees of the pavement, one of those people who talk about their mileage as if they were cars. But I am just a faithfully chugging little engine that could, someone who is daunted by every hill, someone who has to worry about things like chafing and whether I should try and tuck my inhaler into the strange little pocket in my running pants.  As I love to tell people, I run because it doesn't come naturally to me, because it is a hard thing for me to accomplish.  Every single time I step out the door and break into a jog, it hurts; my muscles scream and my lungs burn.  I do it because I have a perverse need to prove to myself that I can.

I run (and sometimes walk and often hobble home in exhaustion) because I don't want to live a life focused on what I can't do.  I run to remind myself that I am more than my fears, more than my habits, more than my dress size.  I run to remind myself that I am strong, powerful, resilient, brave.  I run because it feels good to do more than you are entirely sure you can do.

~     ~     ~

Half a decade ago, the morning after Hillary Clinton dropped her bid to become the democratic nominee for president, I heard on the radio, "Now we can finally get down to figuring out who is the best man for the job."  I don't think the radio personality who so casually let those words slip meant that he was happy the race was finally down to what was familiar, that he was thrilled to report that, like every presidential election in our country's history, sifting through the frontrunners would mean choosing the best man for the job.  I think he honestly meant that the world could stop focusing on this distracting sideshow and start focusing on the main stage.

It's just that, for those of us who have never had a chance of reaching the main stage, his words stung.  They reeked of privilege, of the comfort of being able to choose between two men, of the familiarity of arguing over the color of the debaters' ties and the comparison of the candidates' wives as potential first ladies.

I don't in any way mean to downplay the significance of choosing a president who does not look like every other president we have had before that.  Believe me, I celebrated the landmark nature of our president's victory both times he was elected to office, but there is part of me that can't forget that we still only had the option of choosing the best man for the job.  When I think about that comment I heard on the radio, it reminds me of a quote I heard recently: "Privilege is invisible to those who have it."  The man who so casually told a national radio audience that we could calm down and choose the best man for the job said those words because it did not occur to him that always only having two men to choose from was a deep, ingrained, systemic problem.

~     ~     ~

I watched people talk about standing with Wendy in retrospect.  One of the survival mechanisms I have evolved is only taking in bite size chunks of social media and not feeling like I have to keep up with it all at all times.  It's been a steep learning curve for me, and I especially wish I could handle it all in large chunks like others seem to be able to do when I see a movement like this hit the internet.

But for me, it was the next morning when I realized what had happened.

My first thought when I started seeing the pictures and videos of the crowd at the Texas Capitol that night was how my husband, Sam, loves to show the capitol building off to visitors, how he has often been teased for showing it over and over to the same people as we drive around town, not unlike the "Look, kids, it's Big Ben!" scene in the European Vacation movie.  I thought about how Sam takes our boys to visit the capitol on Texas Independence Day and how I have run down the steps of the UT Tower early in the morning and looked out at the capitol's stone facade all lit up and gleaming from a distance.

The day after Wendy Davis' now famous filibuster, I stood on the steps of the tower and looked out at the capitol again, thinking of those pink running shoes and how tired her feet must have been.  For some reason, I couldn't get the image of those shoes out of my mind.

I know for so many of the people who went to the capitol that night, it was about the bill in question.  I know the abortion debate is pretty much the divisive political issue of our generation and that many people vote for candidates or entire parties who match their stance on the issue.  And yes, of course, I have my own strong (though often muddied and not yet fully cemented) opinions about the issue.  It wasn't the debate itself that hooked me, I guess is what I am trying to say.

For me, the reason I found those pink shoes on the senate floor so iconic was because it was just such a powerful image of a woman making a stand for what she believes is right.  For me, I could not help but feel a surge of pride at watching a female senator stage a filibuster to argue for the rights of the women in her state.  I couldn't help but feel that constriction in my chest, the tightness in my throat that precedes tears, when I saw the footage of the crowd taking over the filibuster with a roar of protest.

Because, not only does it feel good to do something you are not entirely sure you can do; it also feels good to watch someone else do it.  It feels good to watch a woman put on her pink running shoes and face the world as a strong, powerful, brave person.  It feels good to watch someone stand, watch someone rise.  We rise with them, when we see it, just as we break apart a little, too, when we watch others cower and hide and believe the lies that tell them they don't deserve to stand themselves, that they don't deserve to rise.

I can't help but think about those pink shoes on the senate floor every time I pull on my own pink running shoes these days.  I'm no Wendy Davis, certainly, but I do know what it feels like to grow tired of standing up for something, to wear your feet down just trying to stay upright some days, to wonder if you can hold your own against the barrage of criticism and the endless work of pushing against the tide.  I know how hard it can be just to stand up in the first place, to trust your own weight to the strength of your convictions, never knowing if they will buckle beneath you.

But one other thing I've learned the past few years: when you stand, you carry me, and when I stand, I carry you.  So, I'll keep strapping on my shoes, keep saying the hard things that need to be said, and keep watching for you to put your shoes on.  And I'll be cheering when you rise, because I'll rise, too.

Image credit 1 & Image credit 2, both used under Creative Commons License