An occasion to practice the art of receiving

I love birthdays, and today, I’ll be celebrating mine.

It may seem like a given: Who wouldn’t bask in a day festooned in ribbons of love and appreciation waving only for them? A day when those we hold dear devote themselves to feeding our joy and holding up our future in the glow of their blessings and light?

Yet while I, and many others, may enter into every birthday with anticipation and gratitude — though this year’s will be tinged with sadness without my mom’s longtime companion, Lou, here to celebrate with us — I know some people struggle through the day. They’d rather hide than dance under the strobe light of festivity and shrink from every invitation that would honor them, preferring to spend the occasion in determined inconspicuousness.

Some of this striving for the ordinary on the one day we are encouraged to accept ourselves as anything but is driven, at least in this society, by a preoccupation with aging. We fear and resist the passing of time, worry about its toll on our appearance or our health and dwell on all we’ve yet to accomplish in its swift, inexorable grip. The older some get, the less they feel like celebrating.

For me, a birthday is not so much about marking the passing of time but allowing a suspension of it, the slowing down long enough to let myself be seen, be heard, be acknowledged in ways I don’t allow or make room for in the routine clip of my life.

Somehow, once that calendar date rolls around, I’m given permission to stop all the doing and fretting, the planning and tending, to stop pouring so much of myself into the lives and wants of others, and let my own cup be filled.

For women especially, this can be a challenge. If we are used to constantly giving, to supporting and taking care of all the people in our lives, it can be discomfiting to be on the receiving end of so much consideration and kindness. If we live amid a frenzy of doing, moving from one activity and project to the next, sitting still long enough to soak up the feeling of being loved and appreciated can strike too tender of a chord.

I know because I am a chronic giver in a recovery that has not been easy. For much of my life, I’ve been more comfortable rushing in to be the cheerleader or shoulder of support for others, ready with a word or gesture or block of time at the mere suspicion that all was not right in their world. Letting others be there for me, especially if I was going through a challenging time — that did not come so easily. While I offered them a safe and open space to share whatever was in their hearts, I didn’t want to burden them if what was in mine was anything less than happy, good news.

Even appreciation was something I’d deflect or feel compelled to respond to with a gesture in kind. Every now and then, my boyfriend Zane still has to encourage me to stop and take in a compliment, or to make sure his words or acts of affirmation, or those of another, have sunk in. And last year, one of my closest friends, Shannon, gave me great pause when she noted being unable to remember a time when I’d ever asked for anything. It made me sad to think how much I denied myself what I so effortlessly gave to those around me.

I’d like to believe I have gotten much better at being a recipient of others’ nurturing and generosity, thanks largely to certain loved ones who will never let me skim the surface of my life but are there to hold every sorrow with as much care as they do every joy. And on a day like today, when they revel in the opportunity to celebrate the occasion of my birth, I let them.

It’s almost as if the storm of well-wishes and positive thoughts the day brings relaxes the restraints that keep us from seeing the brightness of our own light, feeling the fullness of our worth. But I also know that to hold myself back from all my family and friends would bestow would be to rob them of their own joy in giving.

I was especially struck by that awareness last Sunday as we gathered to celebrate my mom’s birthday. I had a brunch in her honor with my brother and his family and her best friend Julie. Of course, being my mom — herself a natural caregiver and a woman of consummate thoughtfulness — she wanted to bring something. But I let her know her empty hands were a requirement, and it brought me great happiness to see her sit back and allow herself to be the center of attention.

Though my brother groaned slightly at getting up early on a Sunday to make the drive to my place, they all arrived ahead of schedule. My sister-in-law, who tends to shy away from culinary ambition beyond Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for such occasions, surprised us all by arriving with three dishes: a delicious tropical-inspired waffle casserole, lemon honey buns and a side of organic sausage because she knows nitrites give my mom migraines. My brother led a heartfelt prayer for my mom before we ate, while Josie, my niece, waited impatiently for her to open her presents, as excited to give them to her as if it were her own birthday.

After brunch, Julie and I whisked my mom off to New Hope for the rest of the day, where we leisurely strolled through the town, browsing its shops, and concluded our festivities with a wonderful dinner at Marsha Brown. My mom was incredibly appreciative of all we did to make her day so memorable, but I felt like we were the lucky ones, getting to come together to honor the blessing she is in our lives.

That’s the thing about giving and receiving: They are inextricably linked, each dependent on the other as part of a natural flow that, when balanced, enhances our relationships and even our well-being.

So as I usher in another year today, I will enjoy every moment of fanfare and savor the weight of every gift, tangible and otherwise, that fills my arms and my heart.

For it is in such receiving that we can find the reflection of who we are to the people who love us and a reminder of how much bigger and brighter our lives are with the light they shed on our path.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times