Double Nickels

 Today is my birthday.

I’m 55. Double nickels.

Birthdays naturally call us to reflection, to assessment, to accounting. “What, I wonder, should I celebrate on this birthday – a life well spent or a future where more needs to be done?”(Doug Thompson’s 2002 article, “Dealing with the Double-Nickel“)

I could focus on the past, where there have been adventures and loves and moments of “glad grace.” I could spy, scattered among the litter of years left behind, all of my greatest experiences and best impulses. It seems only yesterday…there was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I could shine (see poem, below).

Or, for a different take on the past, I could remember the first time I gambled, at a casino in Colorado. I played the nickel slots all night, plugging my winnings back in, over and over. The coins turned my fingers gray, then black. When I left hours later, they poured all those shiny silver nickels into a counting machine – and handed back to me the same ten dollar bill I started the evening with. Sometimes my life, on reflection, feels like that night – plugging my nickels in over and over only to end in the same place I started. Breaking even; a lot of change with the only visible difference being the grime left on my fingers.

Or I can forget about both sorrow and cynicism, and instead of parsing the past look to the future as if there is much yet to be lived and gained and created; as if my life has been neither gloriously squandered nor tediously labored at with little to show – but instead spent (nickel after nickel) preparing for this day. And the next, if I am lucky.

Ah, birthday angst. What are you good for, huh? Perhaps a little perspective?

Last night, discussing the annual birthday funk, a friend shared the Billy Collins poem, below. The ten year old narrator in the poem laments the loss of his single-digit years, remembering their magic while recognizing that the sad realities of adult consciousness are upon him. The poem points to both the pathos we feel at the passage of time AND the absurdity of lamenting it at each mile-marker.

Last night also brought lessons in how to approach looking forward on the eve of another birthday. President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was moving and inspiring – reminding me that hope is never wasted. We – every single day – get to choose our stance. In the minutes immediately after the speech I thought of Viktor Frankl, whose words have so often pointed me in a positive direction: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. And into that moment of profound reflection, my dear friend Molly tweeted this: “Emotional re-set. Let’s all wake up tomorrow and be better. Do better. Lead better. Speak better. #goals”

So, that’s where I’ve landed this morning, smack dab on my double-nickels birthday: with perspective on the past and goals for the future. That feels about right. Here’s to believing that 55 is my lucky year – because that’s how I plan on using my personal power to choose.

On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

 

 

 

 

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Un-guard!

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I stumbled yet again. In the murky half-light just before dawn, I had only been able to see a few feet in any direction. Now that day was fully upon me, I could make out dry, furrowed and rocky terrain stretching to every horizon. I saw no distinguishing features, just the promise of further punishment on my bare feet and the continued threat that they would see me. I clutched the vessel to my body, attempting to shield it from both the sun (lest its radiance betray my location) and from splintering on the unforgiving landscape. When I glanced behind me, I did not see them, but I could feel their pursuit.
 
My one protection was the long cloak I clutched about me, woven of thread which so closely matched the featureless plain that is served as a form of camouflage. Because my hands were not free to assist me in remaining upright, I often stumbled. And the length of the cloak caused me to step on it with regularity, tripping myself when the stony ground did not…I know not how long I toiled to carry the vessel. Time became meaningless on that journey.
 
Eventually, however, I saw a small something on the horizon, which turned out to be a simple square building, open on two sides. I approached it warily, fearful of what or whom I might encounter, but desperate for rest and water. I entered what could only be described as a temple. The room, open to the land on two sides, contained a simple pedestal in the center, on which nothing resided.
 
“Welcome. We have been waiting for you.” I turned toward the voice, to see a man and a woman, each garbed in simple white robes.
 
“Please,” said the woman. “We have prepared a place for your burden. Don’t you wish to rest? It will be safe here.” She indicated the empty pedestal, and gestured toward the vessel I carried.
 
It seemed like forever since I had been wishing to set the heavy vessel down. But now that it came to it, I was loathe to do so. It was my burden, entrusted to me. Yet, these two looked at me with compassion. They made no move to take the vessel from me, simply waited patiently for me to choose.
 
Carefully, I unwrapped the vase from the folds of my torn and weathered cloak and placed it on the pedestal. At first, it appeared a small and unlovely thing. And then a shaft of sunlight found it, and everything changed. It lit up the room with its brilliance, a myriad of colors in its ingeniously worked glass. I was overcome by its beauty.
 
“But it shines so!” I cried. “They will find it and destroy it!”
 
“I promise you,” replied the man, “its light is meant to be seen. For this it was created.”

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When I woke from the dream recounted above, I couldn’t shake it. The haunting quality of it, the visceral emotional impact of it. Most especially, I couldn’t shake the truth of the dream.

I say truth because I knew immediately upon waking what the dream intended me to learn: that the vessel I had so carefully protected and shielded from the eyes of others was my self. The vulnerable, beautiful, shy, powerful, loving, shining self that I was born to be. That I had worked so hard to protect from hurt. That with my misguided efforts and protective coping mechanisms I had hidden not only from the world, but also from me.

There is a quote, often attributed to George Eliot, which says, “It is never too late to become what you might have been.” I love that quote, but it is about what we do with our lives. What my dream showed me was a slightly different truth:

It is never too late to be who you ARE.

You have journeyed in silence, fear, and discomfort long enough.

Come out of hiding. Let your true self be in the light, instead of shrouded in secrecy and webs of self-preservation.

Will everyone love the true self you reveal? No. Will their rejection, if and when it comes, hurt? Probably. But not as much as the self-rejection implied by staying hidden. By keeping yourself small and unobtrusive. By pretending that you are not who and what you are.

This last bit I didn’t learn from the dream. I learned from practicing the lessons of the dream: by opening myself to vulnerability; by painstakingly making the conscious choice to stand in my own center when outside forces (often people I love) buffet me; by allowing a moment to pass so I can respond from my truth instead of knee-jerk react. I learned by trusting others. And I learned by trusting myself.

Have I learned these lessons perfectly? No way! Each day has its own set of conundrums, of tests and trials. That said, letting my true self live in the light of day has been significantly more fulfilling than keeping myself hidden. Shame and Guilt, who were my frequent companions, have mostly disappeared. They don’t thrive in the light.  They have been replaced by Acceptance and Grace – companions who encourage me to grow into my best self. And my self, who I am, is a gift to the world.

If you recognize yourself in my dream, or know in your heart that you have been guarding your true self from the light, I encourage you to take the steps necessary to let the you that is unique and beautiful and essential come out. Take tiny steps forward, if you must. But don’t deprive the world any longer of the gift that is you. It is never too late to be who you are – who you are shines, and is worthy of love.

From my journal, after waking from the dream.
From my journal, after waking from the dream.