It was my dream to stay 39 forever. But in case that wasn’t possible, it was my dream to celebrate my 40th birthday by having the Tandem bus come serve birthday cake crepes and coffee by the lake. I invited a bunch of friends. Everyone got babysitters. We had a party, starting with time on the lake. I gave a birthday speech. We prayed the most beautiful prayer called “A Liturgy for Feasting with Friends.” We had a BBQ dinner catered by Meat and Tree, with Providence Farm pork shoulder. We had drinks. We ate birthday cake crepes and drank hot coffee and cold brew.
The weather was perfect. The people were perfect. The food was perfect. The day was everything I dreamed it would be. A few of my favorite people were missing, but it was still a foretaste of things to come. It was worth turning 40 for, and I didn’t want the night to end.
The liturgy we used as our blessing before dinner spoke exactly to what I felt, and continue to feel, as I think back on this beautiful evening.
I wanted to include on my blog, as a way to mark the occasion and give some finality to the words, the speech that I shared:
July 20, 2019
A couple months ago, I got a feeling of wanting to write something to share at my birthday party. So at the beginning of June, I sat down and started working on what I referred to as my birthday speech. TJ laughed out loud when I told him I wanted to write a birthday speech, but he’s a 9 on the Enneagram, so I knew he would go along with it.
For one thing, I like to write and this idea of a speech gave me something specific to work on in my writing time. Also, I may or may not ever have the chance to do a real book reading, like published authors do, so why not use this opportunity to enjoy reading my work to all the people who showed up, especially when it’s 50 of my favorite people?
So here goes:
If you know me well, or even not-quite-as-well, you know my favorite writer of all time is Anne Lamott. Of course, I’m going to start, and end, and put in the middle of, my speech some things Annie said:
Annie told a story in her book Small Victories about her friend Carol who got leukemia. Carol did all the treatments and would start to get better for a while, then things would get bad again. Eventually, Carol got a bone marrow transplant that ended up not working, and at that point the doctors said there was nothing else to do. Some friends started talking to Carol about planning her memorial service, and as it turned out, Carol’s main wish was to be there for her own service - before she died.
Annie describes in detail what the memorial service was like for everyone. Here’s what Annie wrote about it, “It was a party and also a service, because we had come with dedication, with loving intention and attention, which is what makes something sacred. The atmosphere was somehow both festive and sad, heartbreaking really, giddy, and warm….Everything was so ethereal and familiar that it felt as if we were all moving through one another’s dream.”
My favorite part of the story is at the end. Carol says to Annie, “I don’t hate dying of cancer - it’s better than dying in other ways, because it’s giving me time.” “Time for what?” Annie asks, to which Carol replies, “Time to repair, time to tell everyone how much I love them.”
And then Annie concludes - “It is so lovely to celebrate the life of a person who is still here.” I think about this often now, the idea that we should have people’s funerals while they are still alive so they can be with us to celebrate and remember them.
You are probably thinking at this point - why is Ginger talking about a funeral when we are here to celebrate her birthday?
Here’s the connection for me.
Recently my friend Missy told me about the singer/songwriter Christa Wells. Missy sent me a link to Christa’s song, “Velveteen,” and right away, this line from the song jumped out at me:
“Coming alive feels a lot like dying.”
That’s the funeral connection for me. If it’s true that becoming more alive feels like dying in other ways, then I wanted this birthday celebration to acknowledge that. I’ve had 40 years of life, but I know I can be more alive, more free, more open and aware of what’s on offer - namely that “We are all pre-approved,” as Annie likes to say. As a 1 on the Enneagram, it feels like part of my nature is to strive for control and perfectionism, and to demand the same of life and others. But I am learning as I grow up that such a way of life feels too small, too cramped. I want to be born at 40, to say YES all over again to life, to love, and to losing myself inside this soft world, as Mary Oliver put it in her poem “Mindful.”
I thought I’d share one story of my own, about mothering, because that is the place where I am being forced to live out this death and life, this burial and resurrection that is the only true story.
A few weeks ago, our family was getting ready to leave the house, and TJ made Story our daughter stop playing a game to get ready. Next thing I knew, Story was in the kitchen, crying dramatically and saying Dad made her stop playing the game. It is not uncommon for Story to have a big emotional response like this to something that causes pain or disappointment. It is also not uncommon that I get frustrated and say something like “You’re fine,” and then just send her off to deal with the emotion on her own.
But what I’ve been working on lately is being aware of Story’s emotion and just letting it exist in the room with us. Not fix the feeling, not shut it down, not ignore it. Just let it be there. I am practicing using the line, “I can see that you are disappointed.” Period. That has been a big step for me, to allow space for the emotion to be there and not be afraid of it, instead of getting angry or withdrawing when I feel triggered by big emotion.
Story and I stood in the kitchen that day, and we just talked and I stayed calm. She kept crying and repeating her disappointment for a while, and yet, I didn’t shut that down. I just let it be there with us. Since then, I’ve reflected a lot on that moment with Story, and it feels significant because I think I was living this dichotomy of both coming alive and dying at the same time. The usual anger/withdrawal response was shut out that day by a wiser, kinder, gentler approach that I can only attribute to the work of the Spirit. I was being gifted, like an actual present, the opportunity to show up for Story and for myself as a mom.
I had this feeling of, wow, I finally did it. I got it right. I remembered. And then do you want to know what happened? Just a couple days later, I had another chance to show up for Story in a similar emotional moment she was having, and I failed. I forgot to stay calm. I responded with exasperation and frustration. I did not walk in tandem with the Spirit.
And then a couple more days after that, I went to my counselor and we talked about the success and also about the failure. And as she usually does, she talked about awareness and compassion and what she calls “the canopy of grace.” We tried to language the emotions I feel in the difficult moments and to honor this process of coming alive that feels a lot like dying.
And even though I have now turned 40, which sounds old enough to have a lot about life figured out, the good news is that I don’t have to have any of this figured out. I just get to keep trying and messing up and getting up and showing up. Being a good mom is the hardest work I know. And it’s also beautiful. And sometimes it feels hopeless, and traumatic, and other times it feels promising and surprising.
Now I’d like to read you the chorus of “Velveteen,” that same song by Christa Wells. As you listen I think you will figure out why it’s called “Velveteen.” The chorus is this:
“So if my beauty starts to fade
Well, I’ve been held in a thousand ways
If my heart looks broken in
Then I’ve been brave enough to live
If perfect turns to perfect mess
And all your love is all that’s left
Then I’m as real as real can be
Call me Velveteen.”
I feel so grateful for all of you that are here because it is YOUR love, coupled with God’s love, that will be enough when I get old, when I fail as a mom, when beauty fades, when things that appear “perfect” for a season turn to “perfect mess.” This is as real as it gets, this living and dying wrapped up together - and I want to be brave enough to keep showing up so I can live into this next stage of life well.
In Anne Lamott’s most recent book Almost Everything, she said this:
“While people in…pain of any kind may long for the solace of a divine continuing manifestation, what we can offer is to stay with them faithfully. This may not seem like a lot until we show up for you, which we will.”
I love that because it highlights the commitment we have to those who have been given to us, and those to whom we have been given. You are some of those people for me, and how lucky we are to be on this earth at the same time in history. We get to grow up and grow old together.
In the same book, Annie wrote a chapter on aging and said this:
“As soon as you get used to being some extremely advanced age that you used to think of as ancient…you will get even older, God willing….You will rarely feel as old as you are, except when you have just returned from traveling overseas or are in line at the DMV.”
To me, 40 doesn’t sound all that old, unless I stop to think about having a heart that’s 40 years old, and 40-year old hands and 40-year old eyes, and a 40-year old brain. I know cells regenerate or whatever, so technically I probably don’t have the same cells anywhere in my body that I had when I was born in 1979. But think about a 40-year old car or appliance…old and old!
On the other hand, If I think of 40 as being the beginning of the second half of my life, then I’m really just a baby, starting all over again. A baby with some gray hair, wrinkles, and sun spots, but still it’s an encouraging thought. It feels good to feel like I’m settling into life more, with a deeper awareness of where I’ve come from, and where I’m heading. I’m a mom who’s still becoming a mom. I’m a writer who has to write. I have a community and a church I love. I have a history and a family and a story, with good parts and bad parts, but I know that Jesus is making all things new. This life is so much, but it is really only the beginning.
I want to end with one final Annie quote that I think sums up the living and dying that are woven together in our humanness. I just can’t think of a better way to say how perfect the imperfections actually are than to say it in her words:
Annie says this: “I am mortal, impermanent, imperfect, scared, often uptight and even petty, but wow, what a beautiful sunset.”
For me, today, it’s “Wow, what a beautiful party. What beautiful friends. What beautiful weather. What beautiful food. What a beautiful memory happening right now.”
I have a few thank yous to give, and then I’m done and we can pray and eat!
To TJ, of course: Thank you for making so many of my dreams come true, especially for getting us out of Chicago and cold weather, and onto the lake, for helping me plan this party (and doing most of the work), and for loving our family so well.
Thank you, Donald and Colleen Snow who own Providence Farm, for raising happy pigs and providing the meat for this occasion.
To Jeff Hall of Meat & Tree, for smoking the meat and cooking sides I know are amazing.
To Tandem, for crepes and coffee, tonight and forever.
To Sarah Fink, for being here on her own birthday.
To Kristy and Jeremy Smith, for being here on their son’s birthday.
To my sister Holly, for coming with her family all the way from Boston.
To my parents, for having me and loving me unconditionally.
To All of You, my favorite people, for being here to celebrate my life tonight. Thank you for getting babysitters and for listening to me talk for this long. This morning I sat with the list of names of all the people coming to my party and thought about how the most exciting part of today for me is that I get to have so many people I genuinely like and love all together at the same time.
And finally to God, for letting me be born, for letting Anne Lamott be born, and for all the hope and gratitude I feel.