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Sarah Vowell

A heart's breath
For my birthday this year, God gave me the gift of grace.

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BY ANNE LAMOTT

April 29, 1999 | If our lives are made up of a string of a thousand moments, at some of those moments we look a lot more spiritually evolved than at others. This is a story about the latter.

The worst part about celebrating another birthday is the shock that you're only as well as you are. You'd have thought you'd be cooked to perfection by now, a font of wisdom and patience, one homogenized you instead of a chain gang of incarnations: your current condition, then your last, your inner Slobodan two people back, connected by shackles to Cindy Lou Who. The weeks before my birthday happen to be my most bereft and neurotic, although I love the big day itself, so what I started doing some time ago was to pump myself up out of the doldrums by campaigning for more acknowledgments and bigger gifts.




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Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott's column appears on the Mothers Who Think site every other Thursday.

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I tell everyone. You really have to if you want people to come through. Some people won't go the extra mile, and then on their birthday, when no one makes a fuss, they feel neglected and bitter. So I start calling people about a month before the actual day. Presents can make up for some of the disappointments that life doles out, such as it makes almost no sense and is coming to an end more quickly than ever. One can't help but remember the joke that Woody Allen used to tell, about the man at the Catskills resort complaining that the food is so terrible, and the portions so small. Still, I'm not as bad as I used to be. You add alcohol to this level of narcissism and greed, you've got a real problem on your hands. Fifteen years ago I had a birthday reminder on my answering machine for weeks, and then, the day after, changed it to include an alphabetized and frequently updated list of family and friends who had neglected to send anything. There were fewer people every day, until one week later, when the message said, "This is an updated and alphabetized list of people who have forgotten my birthday: Evan Connell."

Sam and I were in Hawaii for my 45th birthday not long ago. I had been given a vacation on Lanai in exchange for a speech, and this would have been perfect without this one pesky fly in the ointment -- America had gone to war. So I swam with Sam all day in the warm surf and then watched the news from Kosovo on CNN every night. It was utterly schizophrenic: the tropical beauty filling the windows, the pounding of war on TV. There I was telling everyone I met that my birthday was coming up, and then donating by phone to relief organizations.

Sam kept promising me that he was really on top of my birthday this year, although he was having cash flow problems. So the day before, I gave him money with which to buy me a present at the gift shop. Still, it felt pretty nuts, ordering room service fruit platters to eat while watching the ghastly news at dinner. But what are you supposed to do, call off your life until things improve in most parts of the world? Does common decency dictate that you not play while others are suffering so? I don't know the answer, only that one moment I'd find myself wanting to volunteer in the refugee camps, and then, a minute later, worrying about my thighs. I'd imagine feeding soup tenderly to little children and then I'd berate myself for having forgotten the self-tanning cream. I'd think about going to Montenegro to be Jesus' love there, his hands and his heart, and then I'd obsess about how much better tan fat looks than pale fat.

I got up at dawn on my birthday to watch the sunrise -- golds, roses, many many blues. There was coffee and the New York Times waiting outside my door from the room service staff, who had wrapped up some bright blue fanny packs for Sam and me. I took a cup of coffee out to the balcony and sat there quietly. The balcony was my cathedral. Little birds sang, unseen. I did not understand why I was on vacation in the tropics, with a healthy boy safe and asleep inside, while much of the world was caught in an ugly dream. But I tell you, Fun means Finally Understanding Nothing. And e.e. cummings sang backup to the morning,

I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love andwings;and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

And then, the wailing began from the bedroom.

I went to investigate. Sam lay in bed, red-faced, weeping, clutching at his eye like the Cyclops in the "Odyssey."

"Honey, what's the matter?" I cried out in alarm.

"My eye is totally scratchy," he cried. "As if you even care."

It seemed likely that he had a grain of sand in his eye. I couldn't see anything there, but I know how painful it can be, so I took him to the bathroom and tried to flush it out with cool water. When this didn't work, I put him in a lukewarm shower and had him stare up into the spray with his eyes open, so he alternately looked demented and dead. But whatever it was did not dislodge. I cooed and patted him a lot, and he cried and blamed me and rubbed his eyes no matter how many times I said not to, and he said mean things about my ineptitude. But still, somehow, I felt huge and nursey, like John Lithgow's Roberta Muldoon in "The World According to Garp": God as transsexual nurse.

"I think I've torn my cornea," he wailed.

"You have a bit of sand in your eye," I said.

 Next page | Only well-behaved children go to heaven, right?



Illustration by Zach Trenholm


 

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