Having a birthday two months after Christmas is excellent in terms of asking for presents. What you weren’t audacious enough in requesting during the fall takes the top spot on the list. When I was in elementary school, I had a love/hate relationship with my birthday because I never felt like my birthday started until dinnertime. I would have a decent idea on what gifts I’d be receiving, but I couldn’t wear or bring them to school on my big day because I had yet to untie the ribbons. One year the anticipation of opening these gifts filled me with nervous energy as I waited for my dad to get home. My mother sent me up and down the stairs ten times to help pass the time; “Go all the way down and touch the dryer,” she’d say. When he finally did pull up the driveway, crunching along the snow-packed gravel, everything to complete my birthday meal happened all at once. The flounder fillets could be popped in the oven, the jam and butter for the popovers brought to the table, the cheese poured over the broccoli, the lemon meringue pie put out of reach of the cat.
The cats are home, dad is retired—so there is no reason to tap the dryer, which is on the main floor in this house we’re renting for the week—and I’ve opened my gifts before my birthday proper. Still, we enjoyed a fish dinner and a tart lemon meringue pie last night. My birthday has evolved over my decades of life, including the implications it brings each year. When I met Kevin, I was astonished at his low level of enthusiasm for celebrating his day. He finally shared that it was a harsh sense of personal judgment bringing him down on his birthday that caused his more reflective yearly experience. To counteract this, one year I purchased a cheap calendar with scenic black and white photos to record a daily accomplishment, so Kevin had 365 reasons to celebrate the previous year. Still, life creeps on, and, if we aren’t careful, it will creep in a way that might make us cringe in the future. There are lessons hidden in facets of everyday life; we need just to make the connections, so we will continually add to our stores of knowledge.
I wish I could say I am one of those people who is just bursting with self-confidence, and that I love the way I look. This, however, isn’t my reality, and I have no false hopes that it ever will be. About ten years ago, I undertook a drastic diet-lifestyle change, and the result was a drop of 25 pounds. I felt great, and lots of people commented on how good I looked. Somehow I don’t have many pictures to commemorate the feat; are you getting the right idea here… the results didn’t last. I’ve pretended to take up the challenge again over the past few years, but the initial exuberance always wears off. I just ate a piece of white toast with my breakfast this morning and that lemon pie doesn’t fit my diet parameters, so I’m on a hiatus yet again, but I know Tuesday will bring a renewed vigor. Our upcoming wedding is a motivational factor like no other, and the engagement pictures we posed for this weekend helped me to get to this point where I’ve lost 15 pounds in the past six months. Weight loss and fitness challenges are one of society’s unending obsessions. The problem is that we want a quick fix for a multitude of mistakes. A cookie there, pizza and beer here, even a glass of milk—even trying to be healthy can backfire on you. I didn’t realize how many carbs and grams of sugar are in a glass of milk until I actually looked at the nutrition facts and compared them to the suggestions I’ve been following for my height and weight. Challenges that I choose are fun for me, and so embarking on a new health quest has pumped me full of the energy required to pre-plan and say no (to most) tempting moments when they arrive. Each day is the result of previous days’ decisions. It is hard sometimes, however, to have a clear enough view of what you want the future to look like in order to make the right decisions that result in a future experience you enjoy.
Opinions are like (fill in the blank)—everyone has them. This is true, to some degree, but formulating and deciding on some things can be easier than doing the same with others. I’ve been looking at a lot of real estate listings with my parents this weekend—online, on paper and in person. The rate at which new properties are being listed and being put under contract is astonishing. We feel a bit like we’re stuck on an island watching boats pass us by, and when they do stop they’re pulling up to someone else’s dock. The skies are blue, the winds warm and light, but the laughing and music are coming from someone else’s party. It’s as if we need to fly a flag above us so that upriver boats can maneuver their way to our doc. The problem is that we don’t know which flag to raise.
Life seems to be about selecting which flags to fly so the right opportunities come your way. People fall into a few distinct camps on this idea: fate controls everything, human free will determines how the story plays out or humans can influence fate. Right now, I’m feeling strong about the third option. This tenet is a primary lesson in The Alchemist, the novel by Paulo Coelho I’m reading with my 9th grade English classes. If you are viewing the world through wide eyes searching for messages, then omens will appear brighter and easier to read. Opening yourself to following an illuminated path brings your interests and desires into the awareness of the universe, and the resulting path is formulated to reflect your dreams. The phrase Santiago issues many times resembles the idea that when you desire something and are working toward it, the universe conspires to help you achieve it.
These aren’t concepts that find themselves regularly volleyed around American breakfast tables. Many of us push through each day feeling somewhat free, but not realizing that we’ve hired the ropes to tie our hands behind our backs. Sometimes I get a lot of flack for having opinions. Yes, my communication of said opinions can sometimes use some refining, but the formulation and expressions of opinion that really mean something happens far less than it should. I’ve found that a lot of people have opinions about things they cannot change, but they forget to have opinions about the things they actually can control. Right now, this is is where we are with the house hunting. The vision of what my parents want life to look like in retirement is slowly coming into focus, and so flags can start to be selected, flown, and the universe can direct the traffic our way.
Thinking about the future and living in the present is a balancing act. This notion is the primary driver behind the character motivations in The Lion in Winter, the drama by James Goldman we enjoyed this weekend at the Black Hills Community Theatre. Set in twelfth century England, a king and queen plot and argue about the future of their realm as their three boys each position themselves to become heir to the throne. Since I’ve been watching The Game of Thrones, I’ve been reminded of how much time people of the past spent apart from one another, largely because travel before planes, trains and cars took so gosh darn long. This same struggle afflicts the royal family in The Lion in Winter—they simply don’t spend time together (there is a lot of awkward time spent with lovers who could be children), and so they are more like strangers than a family. They are brought together for Christmas, and a dance of egos waltz around a grand table that I couldn’t help but think would be great for board games.
I realize my ideas here have rambled a fair amount, bordering on contradiction at nearly every turn. There is, however, a message in this madness. Thinking about the future isn’t easy, and that difficulty can mean we procrastinate. If you’ve ever had a picture where you didn’t like the way you looked and thought you should have laid off the cream puffs for the past few months, you know what I mean. Making a plan requires opinions, but you can’t envisage all day long, for, if you do, you’re missing out on the present moment you planned for last month. The merry-go-round of planning and living can feel dizzying, but it is only in this way that you can fully experience and enjoy the whirlwind of colors and experiences life has to offer. There is always something coming up that you can anticipate with open arms, and this anticipation can help make the actual event the best it can be. If something doesn’t turn out that way you want, then you can propel yourself to look ahead but still stop to enjoy the moment as it stands.
So here I am, standing in the moccasins I forgot to add to my Christmas list, but happy that I asked for and received for my birthday, a little puffy-eyed from the frustration of navigating the future, but ready to enjoy the sunny day ahead. If there is a place to think about life and what it offers, the black hills of South Dakota is certainly a place to do it in, and the three people beside me are the ones to do it with. Soon enough, the frustration of house buying and epic travel days will seem a distant thorn; putting one step ahead of the other on a trail through fresh air and calming pines is a good start.