I celebrated my birthday recently. We didn’t celebrate with quite as much verve as last year. And by that I mean there was no pie in my face.
Prior to my birthday last year, I had been telling some friends about how all my life I had wanted to have a pie fight on my birthday, like that amazing pie fight from Blake Edwards’ 1965 classic “The Great Race.” Friends of mine in college obliged me of this bizarre wish at least twice during those four years. The first time this happened, they snuck up on me and hit me in the face with a huge strawberry pie with whipped cream topping. Then they poured a bunch of mashed potato flakes on me, presumably because I had a habit of singing the line “His name is Bobby, he looks like a potato” from the Frank Zappa song “San Ber’dino” that I had put on our basketball team’s warm-up soundtrack. The mashed potato flakes soaked up enough moisture from the pie filling that they hardened and formed a starchy shell all over my clothes, face, and hair. If you’ve ever stood in a shower with overalls on, trying to scrape strawberry pie filling, whipped cream, and hardened mashed potato flakes off yourself, well, then you know what a pain in the ass it can be. Or maybe I’m the only person who has ever done this.
Since PW is deliciously inclined to help make my dreams come true, last year she enlisted a dear friend of mine (who was a perpetrator in one of my college birthday pie fights) to sneak up on me at my party and nail me in the kisser with a whipped cream pie. I don’t think TK anticipated my taking the pie pan and shoving the remainder of it back in her face, but she took it like a champ.
This year’s birthday was considerably quieter. PW and I went on a picnic, got ice cream, went out for $1 oysters at one of our favorite restaurants, and then headed off to prison where we volunteer once a week. PW asked me if I wanted to do something other than go to prison on my birthday, but it seemed to me to be a perfect way to celebrate. The women that we sit and color greeting cards with are so grateful that we show up. Some are incredulous that we do it without being paid or somehow forced into being there. One of them asked a volunteer recently, “So, are you ladies still nuns?” We all had a good chuckle over that one.
I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate how precious time is than to sit and color greeting cards with women who are “doing time.” One of the women I sat with told me that she writes “Jailmark” on the backs of all the cards that she makes. That cracked me up, and when I couldn’t stop giggling, she added, “Hey, you gotta make your own fun in here.” That’s the understatement of a lifetime.
The air in prison is oppressively dry and stale. It’s a wonder to me that more people — prisoners or staff — aren’t freaking out a whole lot more often. I find it takes almost all my reserves to make it through the two hours that we’re there. My eyes burn, and I feel like all the water, the life, in my body is being sucked out. I can’t imagine having to live or work there daily. So at the end of the evening when we step through the front door to walk to our cars, I’m reminded of how good freedom TASTES. I’m a Taurus, remember, so freedom is a sensory experience for me, not an abstract concept.
The next morning, bright and early, we got together at church for what I half-jokingly call “Heretic School,” a.k.a. Early Morning Skeptics, a.k.a. Early Morning Bible Study. I love meeting with this little group of people every other month, once a week, for an hour in the early morning. We number as high as 11 on some mornings. This week there were seven of us. We’ve been plowing through what’s known as “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse” in John. I find it mind-numbingly repetitive, ridiculously long, and annoyingly sexist and exclusive in its images of the divine. In short, it’s my least favorite part of my least favorite gospel. Once again, though, I came away in awe of my fellow skeptics who always seem to find gold in their pans after we spend an hour swirling this stuff around.
Our approach is to read the text three times, with a different person reading each time. After each reading, we have a question to reflect on. The first question is “What do you notice?” The second question is, “What is speaking to you?” And the question at the end of the hour, almost always the hardest question to answer is, “How will your week be different as a result of this encounter?” One of the men in the group talked about how each time someone reads a text, it is as though he is hearing it anew. Another man picked up on that and said that he has been going back to read some of the classic literature that was required in his high school English classes. I don’t know exactly how old he is, but I know he hasn’t been in high school for some time. He talked about reading “Jane Eyre” again recently and being so transfixed by it and wondering, “Where was I when we read this in high school? Why didn’t I remember how extraordinary this book is?”
You know how publishers often release a “New, Revised Edition!” of a book? Sometimes they’ll re-release a book with an updated foreword, or with an appendix of questions for book groups to reflect on, or they’ll add new illustrations, or they’ll release it to coincide with a movie version of the book, with a new cover featuring actors or scenes from the movie. As I was sitting in Heretic School this week, it occurred to me that a birthday can be a way to celebrate a New, Revised Edition! of our selves. I certainly felt like a New, Revised Edition! of myself that morning, drinking my caffeinated coffee (which I only started doing in the last year), sitting in a cozy little circle with five people I didn’t even know three years ago, starting the day in a group with whom my skeptical self feels not only comfortable, but welcome and deeply cared for. Listening to this man talk about re-engaging with “Jane Eyre,” it occurred to me that maybe the New, Revised Edition! of himself was resonating with it in a way that his earlier editions couldn’t.
On my birthday this year, my mom told me that I must come by my love of oysters from her father, who used to harvest and shuck them by the dozens, leaving a big pile of bleached, dried oyster shells in the back field of my mom’s childhood home. The oyster shell pile was where my mom and her siblings were sent to sit when they had misbehaved. As I think about the ways in which I am a New, Revised Edition! of myself this year, I know that a big part of it comes from inviting the writer in me to get off the pile of oyster shells in the back field and come home to me. It’s not that my writer self misbehaved, it’s more like she kept getting underfoot and I had put her in time out because I couldn’t figure out how to include her in all the other stuff of my day-to-day life. We’re becoming reacquainted now, and I’m reminded yet again of how good freedom TASTES.
Pie fight, anyone?