It shouldn’t have been a good day.
Birthdays (post children) have been a little difficult in the past for me. No matter how I frame the day – trying to have zero expectations of magical behaviour from the children – there is inevitably one point at which it crumbles. There was the birthday spent in the Children’s Ward with a very sick four-week old Eli, the one where Hudson cried for the entire day, and the year that he came down with Tonsillitis and I was stuck in the doctor’s waiting room with two miserable boys for an hour. Last year was surprisingly free of chaos and I was able to enjoy the celebrations and mark the occasion with joy.
Monday dawned and with it came a pimple which seemed large enough to warrant its own solar system, right in the center of my chin. Dave and I had a miscommunication about our schedules in the morning and struggled to figure out who would do what task and when. I went to the Club for a birthday coffee with Fiza (a new friend from our estate who happened to be born on the exact same day and year that I was) and left in defeat half an hour later, my coffee only half consumed, a screaming toddler in one arm and a defiant pre-schooler attached to the other. We recovered only to discover that Eli had gotten mixed up in some trouble at Kinder and he was emotionally distraught – crying hysterically for over half an hour after we left the building. Dave’s meeting ran late and he was supposed to pick up dinner, which meant tired and hungry kids having to wait until after 6pm for food.
The circumstances alone clearly did little to redeem the experience, yet my overwhelming perception of the day is one of meaning, happiness and exhilaration. For the first time – and this is a recent thing – my reflection upon my existence has begun to derive meaning not from the actual circumstances, but from the ability to process them and find happiness anyway. I’ve discovered the principle of synthetic happiness – the extraordinary capacity of the human brain to manufacture a positive framing story for events that didn’t go to plan by cultivating a thriving psychological immune system. Dan Gilbert’s TED talk ‘The Surprising Science of Happiness‘ presents this epiphany in an engaging way with stories of what enhances and destroys our ability to create contentment. Let’s face it, it is generally pretty easy to be elated when things ‘go our way’ but being able to find happiness when they don’t – that’s where the real magic is.
In spite of all the chaos – or maybe because of it – I was able to have some great experiences with those around me. Fiza dropped around during crazy hour and we shared a birthday glass of wine together while discussing the depth of life – philosophy, the Enneagram, On Being, Oprah and Friends. The Kinder dramas led to a great chat with Tara about parenting and responding to our kids when they get in trouble. Pat and John dropped over with a beautiful Winter Rose plant and some cupcakes and candles so that we could celebrate together. Eli now knows firsthand that making mistakes is part of life and that he can learn so much from this situation. Maybe the gateway to depth of life resides in the moments when it all falls apart.
In the lead up to our night away in the city, I found myself remarkably detached from the coming event. In prior years, I have vivid memories of being almost desperate to reach the point where it would all be peaceful and in control again, away from chaos and sickness and disappointment. Hours before preparing to celebrate with a group of close friends in Fitzroy for my 30th birthday, I remember sitting with Dave at a cafe table at Laurent Patisserie with a vague sense of shell shock. Upon reaching the ‘future’ I had no idea how to enjoy the moment because I had failed to cultivate a practice of savouring it in the mundane spaces. Eckhart Tolle speaks of this epiphany with eloquence in his interview with Krista Tippett: “When people value the next moment more than they value what is, they are dissatisfied with what is but they are hoping some other future moment is going to free them from this dissatisfaction. But the other moment never actually comes because when the so-called future comes, it appears again as the unsatisfying present.”
This year was the first time in memory that I was not seeking to ‘escape’ something but merely continuing to appreciate the fullness of life in all its glorious forms. And enjoy it we did. We took in the mundane moments – walking to the European Night Market in Madame Brussels Lane, struggling not to tear up when we saw homeless figures huddling against the cold. Savouring pierogi and flammkuchen from street stalls while watching people interact and wondering what stories lay behind animated faces. We spent the entire time in the queue at Cumulus Inc. talking philosophy, Dave reading out lines that inspired him from his most recent discovery ‘Authentic Cosmopolitanism’. The fast-moving clouds above our heads gave a fascinating contrast to the anchored buildings and we paused to contemplate the universe in the wooden pews at the Cathedral. It was a restful and amazing experience, but we were also ready to return to the sticky, enthusiastic arms of our children the next day. After all, what forges us more than these slightly calamitous interactions that envelop our waking moments.
If anything, birthdays become a ‘thin place’, a space from which to contemplate the passing of time and the creation of ‘self’ in the midst of the scaffolding that surrounds us. This year has been one of awakening – of realising the utter miracle of existence and responding in complete wonder. Thirty-two years of living – that is something to celebrate indeed.