Birthday dinners are a really big deal in my family. Growing up, we always had the “family birthday” party, in which my sister and I mainlined Shirley Temples during the cocktail hour while the aunts and uncles drank scotch, and then we all sat around a big table to eat. My mom served everyone my favorite meal, which I ordered weeks in advance as part of the anticipation. Grandma Fogel brought the cake, a gorgeous stack of chocolate cake-and-buttercream layers complete with a dollop of her inimitable frosting flung on top for the birthday girl. Grandma Hughey brought the ice cream, meticulously crafted custard-style deliciousness with a vanilla bean galaxy in every scoop and the perfect consistency of a soft-serve machine. Birthday dinners were bliss.
Moving away from my big, beloved extended family meant reinventing my birthday. For the nine years I’ve spent living outside of Kansas City, I’ve always emphasized the importance of my birthday dinner, and a good cake. Under no small pressure of expectation, Brian has brought home some lovely cakes and devised some beautiful birthday dinners. Other years fall into a darker category. Take, for example, age 27, when we lived in Cabo and I willfully prepared a comfort-food birthday meal and baked my own birthday cake—specifically my recently deceased grandma’s recipe. Just before blowing out the candles, I crumbled into pieces upon noticing there were no aunts, moms, grandmas or sisters to slip their wedding rings over my burning candles in the Fogel-women birthday wish fashion. It was just Brian, a couple dogs, the sound of the sea and lonely little me. When I finally regrouped enough to blow out the candles, my eyes were sunken in a moat of mascara, Brian was flummoxed and my slice of cake tasted like sadness. At that time, and for years after, I defined my birthday by a special meal, the presence of adoring friends or family and, yes, bitchin’ cake and ice cream.
It’s hard to tell without a sample size of birthdays to prove it, but I think things are different now.
Today is my birthday. I did not have a party. I was not physically surrounded by throngs of friends or family (but high fives of thanks to all those wonderfuls who are with me in spirit.) I changed two poopy diapers, did laundry, got shot and eaten by two pretend-gun-wielding “mean turtles” (aka, Charlie and Kip), emptied and loaded the dishwasher and it rained all day. We had big plans for dinner, though, yes we did. Brian left work early only to get stuck in the traffic of a five-car accident on Lake Shore Drive. I was just finishing prep on the boys’ dinner when he walked in, apologetic, expecting an emotional wife and ready to whisk us off to my favorite Thai restaurant. “It’s ok, Babe,” I said. “Let’s just stay home and eat what we have here—we have lots of good food in the fridge. Really.”
Brian knows the phrase “it’s ok” rarely can be taken literally, but I was sincere. He studied my face and smiled. “No way, we’ll order in, then. It’s your birthday.” I insisted we hold off. He did not trust me. I insisted again. He watched me closely for the next 30 minutes. Just to be safe, I deployed my internal observer to sniff out any signs of martyrdom. My day-of-birth without a special dinner and birthday cake? Could it be that I was ok with this?
Admittedly, I’d been celebrated to excess all weekend, but I’m historically (and super embarrassingly) insatiable about these sorts of things. Friday Brian came home with fragrant lilies. Saturday, we went hiking and returned home to have a music-filled dinner, which Brian finished with a cake he couldn’t bear to leave in our fridge one moment longer, so he stuck some candles in it and endearingly looped his ring over a flame. Sunday morning, the boys watched me figure out how to stand-up paddleboard while they played on the beach. And Sunday night we went on a surprise “family date” at a fancy steakhouse. After a thorough search, my internal observer called back, “All clear!”
Evidently I was feted to capacity, a possibility I didn’t know existed for an affection-loving Leo girl like me, but there I was, declining my favorite meal, cake and candles in favor of putting the kids to bed and facing Brian on the couch just to chat. Turns out, it was a spectacular way to celebrate. In fact, it brought about the delivery of this year’s best birthday gift: a mini transformation.
I heeded my body: “Do you think we could hold off on rich food for a couple days, love?”
I paid attention to my heart: “Ah, do you feel all that love? What a blessed girl you are.”
I listened to my mind: “What a year. A proper birthday meal is rather inconsequential at this point, wouldn’t you say?”
And, eventually, during meditation, I felt my spirit speak, too: “Welcome to a new year, dear one. Endless blessings.”
It might seem precious in the grand scheme—come on, you’re talking about skipping a restaurant meal when people out there have real problems—but this little act of foregoing a special birthday dinner with intention was big for me. Instead of sticking to old patterns once deemed non-negotiable, I carved a new inner way. And, as I understand it, it takes little chisels to attain our highest design.
And now, an affirmation from “Spiritual Marriage,” a talk by Brother Anandamoy, one of my favorite monastics.
Chisel Thou my life
According to Thy highest design.