Once a year in November people begin asking me the silly question, “What do you want…?” The question is not silly because they only ask me once a year. The question is silly – no, more appropriately put, ironic – for the following: What I want more than anything on my birthday is some ‘space to think’. A space away from the ubiquitous cheers, stammers and cries to recede long enough that I can remember, perhaps even curate a bit, this old soul behind the birthday suit. In less congenial terms this could be set forth as: “to be left well enough alone”. Alone. The word inspires horror in many of the circles I roll about in. The general remedy for ‘loneliness’ seems to be the stacking of several souls beside one another, assumption on the label being, that the thing will just work itself out. But, irony of ironies, loneliness does not just ‘work itself out’ in the company of others. No, it is far more complicated an internal arithmetic than that. Many does not always equal more. We are an alien-nation – estranged not only from one another – but, principally, from ourselves … from that which constitutes us, or should.
It is not at all that I spurn the fellowship of others – far from it. I prize it above all else. But, it must retain it’s power, it’s capacity to catch me off guard, to bring light to my eyes. And I, to be truly myself, cannot always be in public. In order for the ‘thing to rise’ – the oven must be prepped & the ingredients mixed – then the yeast can work it’s magic in the heat. If I am estranged from myself and my God — I am of no benefit whatsoever to any of you. If I have not looked into that celestial pool from which I am but a meager cups full brought forth by grace — how can I ever be poured out upon the parched? It is true that I myself am the parched party at countless junctures. In that moment, I am infinitely grateful that you were drawn up from the cool stream and poured upon me.
I cannot assume that in every such case you (or I for that matter) have retired from the company of others, regained strength and balance – perspective and spiritual power. That would be to assume too much about the workings of the creator and to limit Him. Yet, the conviction that our assumptions at present can be likened to a man who gathers hot boulders together under the sun to make an oasis, is not easily shirked.
What I do ‘get’ on my birthday is another matter entirely. Herein lies the lesson. I can count on two cards arriving most years. The first from my nana – who though I am in my mid-thirties still dotes on me as if I were six and sprawled upon her couch in Lombard, my fat feet in her loving paws while she coos, “my little porkchop!” The second card is of greater interest. It is from a brother currently residing in the state prison at Corcoran. He and I have very little correspondence throughout the year. I, shamed, admit that in the last year I haven’t written him at all. Yet, here it was: a beautiful handmade card with calligraphic letters and balloons in colored pencil against sky blue with a heartfelt note of gratitude and prayer inside.
My wife asked me a dozen times over the course of the last week, “What do you want for your birthday?” … “What do you want to do for your birthday?” I was honest with her, which is always difficult. “Some time alone in the morning to write”. A real charmer I am. Yet, I exploit my birthday for moments like these. They are few and must be grasped at, lunged for and clung to! And my wife understands me, for which I am ever grateful.
What I truly want for my birthday is to tell you about my birthday card from Shane Vicars (Given the man’s faithfulness I would not doubt his clerical ancestry). His hand crafted birthday cards from prison always get me to thinking:
I think of Shane looking down the wrong end of a 27 year sentence. I think about the friends that have turned their back on him and how that must make him feel. I think about the toenails he’s had pulled out in prison. About the cockroaches. About the insane inmates he’s had as cell mates. I think about the years he spent not being able to touch his newly married wife. I think of the distance she drives to see him now. I think about how she’s never given up on him…and I wonder how many women have the fibre, the gut, the resistance, the winsomeness to weather that storm without withering. I think of the groups of men that Shane has worked with, studied with, preached to, encouraged in some of the darkest corners of California.
Then I think about this birthday card from prison.
I think about the choices Shane has to make on the daily. To succumb to bitterness, to drown in depression? To be completely absorbed in himself and his own plight, or to, somehow, still live life. To be defined by this prison – or to break free from it? You say what you like, a card like this…is Shane breaking free.
And me? I can hardly remember my closest family member’s birthdays, let alone my friends’. In part, here’s why:
People ask me what I want on my birthday. I begin thinking about all the possibilities. Where would I like to go? How best to amuse myself? What sort of food would I like to eat? I stretch to get there (winking to all of you now): Who might I like to be surrounded by? Endless opportunity costs causing anxieties to stack! Too many possibilities. I console myself with the previously stated knowledge of my own introversion – read a book for several hours late into the night – and wake up a few hours later to some unidentified moron calling me at 7am (I don’t care who you are – be ashamed of yourself!). I sit down to a champion’s breakfast that my wife has made for me – replete with her homemade crumb-topped banana muffins – my back licked by the suns beams. I open the card from my nana…then slowly pull out the card from Shane.
It dawns on me: who’s really in the cell here? Surely Shane is surrounded by what must be the only too real and depressing state prison walls. I imagine it cramps in on him, suffocates the life out of him, that he feels he is in a coffin for the living dead. I don’t mean to minimize the man or lose him in the metaphor. I am ever grateful for the jolting sobriety of his candy-colored balloon card. I grope for their strings and am pulled up and out of my own state…my own prison.
Each day I am urged to throw up another block in the cell of my own self-centrism. Perhaps I have been lured into using mirrors – when I love my own reflection. Perhaps I hate it and use screens to build. It matters not: Self-centeredness is the kind of cell that can’t divide. Yet, it’s confines being unlimited in a geo-physical sense, it’s power to obfuscate all that does not join in it, goes almost completely unnoticed.
Shane sent those balloons off within his cell from Corcoran and they have broken mine here in Sacramento.
What a choice we have every day, no rather, what a multitude of choices we have! Yet, we squander our freedoms – or count them up at end of day, stacking them neatly in the corner, perhaps even praising God for these blessings. But these are for our brothers – our sisters! In this Martin Luther was right – our freedom, our works as it were, these are for our neighbor.
I am ever so grateful. Though I realize it has the air of a hallmark card, I mean it:
Gratitude is the gift that keeps on giving.
Given a birthday card from prison – and the distance – I see it:
I’ve laid hold of the strings and let fly. From my vantage point – there you all are. The wonder of my family, friends, community. So many rich givers. So many humble hearts. So many laughing teachers.
What do I want for my birthday?
Friends, I’ve already got it.
From time to time I just need a lift – to see the forest for the trees.