Thank you for reading what I’m writing in these series of posts. You’re walking with me on an incredible journey. And I want to be fully open with you as much as possible.
Disclaimer: This blog post is long because it’s a love letter to many, many people.
You’ve never cried on your birthday.
You wake up to an ominous shadow on the wall of your room, like something out of a vampire movie. You realize it’s your housemate and turn on the light. Your floor is covered in colorful balloons. Each has a word, spelling out a birthday message. There’s also a balloon of you, and another of the well-put-together former housemate you’ve joked about being obsessed with.
You head out to shower and don the first outfit you picked out for your big day. You come back to find a birthday banana cake that another of your housemates baked for you. You also find birthday streamers newly placed across your door. Your housemate friend who looks like your last ex is right there, excited to hug you and wish you a happy birthday.
You head outside and realize it’s 70 degrees. You can’t remember the last year you had Vermont weather like this on your birthday. You realize this is a rare gift: The nature around you is full of magnificent fall colors, but the temperature is like a perfect summer day. Not cold, but not too hot.
You go on a birthday walk with God, listening to music together while you read your Bible and talk. You ask just to walk with Him, saying nothing, enjoying the sights together. You then ask Him that today would be special, and you also tell Him that you’ll be cool with whatever He wants to give you.
You come back to your room and gather your things to go to work. Just as you’re about to head out the door, the ladies of CareNet surprise you at the door. Not only do they sing you Happy Birthday and bring you gifts and a card, but they give you a birthday ride to your workplace. Had they arrived a few minutes later, you would have missed them. Had they arrived a few minutes sooner, you would have seen them on your walk back home.
After arriving at the lab, you go to the university cafe to get your birthday breakfast: a chocolate croissant, and a mug of hot apple cider with fall spices. Two of your favorites. As you enjoy them, you experience the stillness and beauty of the Vermont foliage, hearing the musical notes that the colors evoke in you.
You head off to do your teaching in Doctoring Skills, the bedside manner and physical exam course at the medical school. You could have taken today off, but you enjoy helping so much that you just don’t want to. You don’t tell anyone it’s your birthday, but decide to celebrate by making it as wonderful a session as you can. You enjoy the cases, and you joke with the standardized patients who do the bulk of the teaching. It is an awesome time.
Then you head to CareNet for your birthday lunch. You all put on birthday hats, take birthday pictures, and then enjoy a delicious flourless chocolate cake with raspberries. You all talk about your lives and laugh together. You head back with a few extra pieces of cake, and some birthday cookies. If the day ended now, you’d be perfectly happy.
You get back to your lab and put the finishing touches on your conference poster, since the deadline for printing them is today. You also prepare for an important meeting you have later this afternoon. Just as you’ve got it all together, your labmates decide it’s time to have cake. You realize you’ve actually never celebrated your birthday before with your labmates before. It’s low-key, and a welcome break. Just when you feel it should end, it’s time for your meeting to begin.
You, your mentor and another professor are looking over reviewer responses you’ve received on a paper you’ve submitted for publication. Normally you’d all look over each comment together and draft responses. This time, you took a chance and wrote all the responses yourself. Your mentor and the other professor have looked them over, and they thought your responses were good. As you go over them together, you all find ways of drafting better responses. Nevertheless, the point remains that this was an important milestone in your professional development. You take their praise and their help, and you celebrate.
You send the conference poster to your colleague and then walk home, enjoying more of the fall foliage. You head off to a local butcher shop and purchase your birthday meal: filet mignon and a lobster tail. And while you don’t obsess about money, you’re pleasantly surprised when it comes under budget.
As you head home to cook your meal and change into your other outfit for the day, you stop to take a few phone calls. You’ve missed a few lovely messages today already from your family and friends, and you don’t want to take calls during your downtime. At the same time, you want to make sure you get everything cooked in time, and the lobster is taking longer than you expected. But you don’t care, and you talk for as long as you can. The meal, salad and drinks all come together just in time to head out to your small group.
Your small group always eats dinner together before your study. You arrive with your meal and realize that 1) the church’s other small group is joining yours this week, which makes you happy, 2) they’ve brought you cake, gifts, cards and your favorite music to celebrate, and 3) nearly everyone decided to either dress up either in Gatsby style or “Josh Pothen” style. You are floored.
There are too many things that touch your heart tonight in this one gathering to chronicle. A few: The friend whose birthday gift to you was two boxes of chocolates “to share with everyone”. That tells you he’s understood a deep secret about you: you enjoy sharing the gifts you’re given with the people around you to bless them and make them happy. Then there’s the friend who heard about your gift preferences and brought you a Norman Rockwell coloring book with colored pencils. The friend who came elegantly dressed in something she’s only worn four other times, including family weddings. And the friend who dyed his hair black and styled it like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. “My wife complained, ‘So you won’t dye your hair for me when I ask you, but you’ll dye it for Josh!’” You all laugh, and the joke is even better because you all know each other well enough to know it’s all good-natured.
As you head out, a few of your friends ask if you’d like to join them tonight for some Irish music. You really want to, but you’d promised your best friend you’d video chat with him very soon. They rain-check it so you can all go together another week. They also send you back with some extra cake, along with the extra steak and lobster you had even though you ate a full meal.
You return home and run into the housemate who baked you the banana cake. She tells you she didn’t want to ruin your birthday, but she has to have a difficult conversation with you. You’re honored that she trusted you enough to have that conversation, and knew you well enough to knew that making sure things are good beneath the surface is ultimately what’s important to you. You hug her and thank her.
You quickly check your email and are horrified to learn from your colleague that there was a problem with your poster. You email and apologize for not being there to fix it.
Then you video chat with your friend and his wife. They’re parents of a nearly 1-year-old and there’s a cold going around, so you’re honored they stayed up to chat with you, particularly to have a special birthday chat with you.
You then head to open your other presents that you’d received in the mail from your family and friends. You didn’t know how many of them there are, since one of your housemates had graciously agreed to confiscate all of them so you could be pleasantly surprised. When you find them, you’re shocked by how many there are. As you start opening them, you’re shocked by the spread. A sampling: Books. Movies. A letter from your Dad that means the world for you to read. TV shows. Dessert wine. A gift card to one of your favorite restaurants in town. And though you usually hate receiving clothing, you receive a bow-tie you love so much that you go outside for a few minutes to calm down.
When you’re done, you look at all the balloons scattered across your room you keep walking across. All the leftover food. The cakes. The presents. You also think over all the well-wishes you’ve received in person, over the phone or online. All the messages you received from people about when they saw you as beautiful, both the people you knew would tell you and the people you were pleasantly surprised to hear from. Then you remember you still have a party on Saturday that your friends are planning for you. And you get an email back from your colleague, saying they were able to fix your poster and get it turned in on time.
And you realize that today, you didn’t get just enough. Today you were overwhelmed by abundance.
It’s not always that way. Oftentimes it’s just enough, and sometimes even that is hard to receive happily. But today mattered to you, and it was more than you imagined. Perhaps those other days are what help make today special.
Then you remember that you were brave enough to ask for what seemed too much to ask for, when in reality you were articulating your needs and wants while genuinely feeling (not just saying) that you’d be fine with whatever you were given. You got it all and more, from your family, from your friends and from God. They all gave you so much more love than you’ve experienced before.
This makes you want to find out what the people in your life really need, both on your birthdays and at other random times. Then you want to give them more than they asked for.
Even as you decide this, you know you won’t do it well. But you still want to try. Because after all, everything worth doing well is worth doing poorly. Particularly when it’s about them.
You’ve never cried on your birthday. Today you cry for joy.
I want fireworks. I want lavish foods and drinks. I want a party that’d put the biggest wedding to shame.
As soon as I step out of my room in the morning, I want to be swept off my feet. I want an all-day celebration, with me being surprise-shuttled from one of my favorite meals to another, meeting and drinking with different groups of people. I want it all to culminate in a joyous all-night affair at a gorgeous venue, with all my friends from around the world dressed and donned up like like characters at a ’20s Gatsby party.
I want fun party games where everyone breaks out in laughter. A dance floor where everyone drops their inhibitions and joins me in joyously expressing ourselves together as one group. A concert floor where my friends and I get up and start singing. Birthday speeches. Thoughtful gifts. All the good red, white and dessert wines. An elegant devil’s food cake with a thick layer of dairy-free frosting, the kind made from confectioner’s sugar and dyes. I want the party to never end until I fall asleep. And I want next year’s party to be even bigger.
My poor family and friends have to put up my high expectations each year. I even have a Google Doc birthday list that’s ridiculously long so that I can be surprised by what my family members pick from it. In my defense, while things have never been as big as I’ve imagined, I’ve always been happy. And each birthday has been, for me, bigger and better than the last.
But this year, I find myself in an odd place.
I turn 29, an odd age. The day, October 15, falls on a Wednesday. My morning’s booked with teaching at the medical school. My evening’s booked with Bible study. Both those things I’m loath to miss. 12-4 is still unaccounted for. My family has graciously sent me surprise gifts from my Google Doc wish list. My friends are arranging a joint surprise birthday party for me and another friend on Saturday, October 18. What it’ll look like, I don’t know.
But I’m also in an odd place emotionally. On one hand, I’m putting to death my battle with grandiosity, which my counseling reveals goes farther than I ever realized. On the other, I realize I don’t often tell my friends what my real needs are.
These two don’t have to be contradictory.
A disclaimer: What I’m about to write is simply what I’d like. I will not expect it of you.
Here’s what I would love from you for my birthday:
On my birthday, I’d love it if you told me one specific moment when you genuinely thought I was beautiful. I don’t mean when you thought I was awesome. Describe that scene to me in detail. Explain why you felt that way. That’ll help me in my personal growth.
Then I’d love a hug from you, and if you feel comfortable, give me a loving, friendly kiss on the nose. I know that’s odd, but that’s the body part I’m most self-conscious about.
If you can’t be there in person, call, email or text. The more personal the better, but I’m not picky. I understand you all have lives.
Also, tell me one thing you really like. A song, a movie, a book, a work of art, a museum, or whatever. Something I need to experience. Just the knowledge would be a great gift because it’ll give me some new ways to experience beauty.
What else do I like?
Surprise gifts? Yeah, sure. I admit I’m picky, and hopefully that’ll change as I grow up. I like thoughtful gifts, the kind not randomly grabbed from the gas station a few hours before. The kind that mean something to me, and that won’t just being extra loot. (I’m a bit of a minimalist.) Maybe one day I’ll make that Google Doc wish list public so you’ll know what I’d really like. Maybe.
I don’t do cards. As sweet as they are, it’s another thing I’ll throw away. I’m more about you looking me in the eye and saying what you want to say to me. I have a good memory. I’ll remember what you say, and how you said it.
I like theme parties, the kind that have costumes, fancy foods and games and events. Something a bit different from just getting a bunch of people together and serving food. Something different from the usual gathering.
Having said that…
I repeat: I won’t expect anything from you. In some ways, it’s for the best that my birthday is the way it is this year. Part of the reason I take birthdays more seriously than most is because I almost never had them. I was a nuchal cord baby, meaning I was nearly strangled to death by the umbilical cord. The fact that I’m alive is a gift from God, a reminder of how good He is. The past year and a half has reminded me of how I need to let go of thinking of myself and instead focus on His bigness and goodness.
So this birthday, I’ll live my life. I’ll go to teaching, to Bible study, and continue with my usual day. I’ll open my gifts at a convenient time. And I’ll gratefully accept whatever everyone gives.
But even if you don’t do anything for me, I’ll still be happy.
Because on my birthday, I’m going to particularly trust that God has arranged the events of those day for a reason. (He always does, but I’ll pay particular attention that day.) And whatever He wants to give me as my bread for that day, I will ask Him to help me gratefully accept and appreciate it.
One last thing I want you to know:
As much as a part of me wants all this so I can feel important, another part of me wants it so I can give you all a good time. It’s easy to be jaded in life, and I just want my loved ones to feel the kind of raucous joy that makes you laugh, smile and feel good all over for hours.
Because after all, I’d just love to give you just a teensy bit of what you’ve given me. Even the ordinary moments have meant so much. Thank you. Thank you.
As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.
My best friends would tell you I’m more observant than most people, both in conversation and in details. How true that is is not for me to judge. What I know is I value being attentive to detail, as shown by the fact that my exes are more observant than me.
An example: Once I was sitting with an ex inside the “Aztec temple” pavilion. We were silent, holding hands while glancing at each other like mischievous, happy little kids. “I always notice peoples’ hands,” she told me, and then proceeded to analyze mine. When we met again several months later, she noticed a detail about my hands so subtle that only Sherlock would notice.
Interactions like that helped me up my observation skills. Now I’m constantly stimulated by new sights. Details. Discoveries. Sounds. Moments. The world is more rich and vibrant to me than ever before.
But with that came a blessing and a curse: Every moment I experience now stirs up deep feelings within my soul.
This particularly mattered for one of my relationships. Even though we spent a lot of time on the phone, we’d only met twice before we started dating, and we were only able to meet in person a few times after that. Since our time together was so limited, I spent a lot of time in my head replaying and analyzing those moments. Recalling all the individual details in those moments. Not just to understand, but to savor their sweetness. So when we broke up, suddenly everything began reminding me of her.
An example: Several months ago, a visiting married couple played in our church’s worship band. One plays violin, while the other plays cello. Keep in mind I play the violin, and now deduce which instrument one of my exes plays.
Then there was the time I went to a friend’s evening bonfire. It was so dark you could barely see anyone until the flames roared up. To my horror, one of the new people there sounded exactly like the ex who triggers severe nauseous reactions in my body if I even see pictures of her. Even the way she inflected her words was eerily close.
Coincidences like that happened again and again. In fact, they became so frequent that it became impossible to simply ignore those memories and the emotions they evoked.
This is not an exceptional experience. Lots of people go through this after breakups. But because I was now awakening emotionally and feeling more than ever, these moments took on a particular pain.
Then something changed.
It began with a trip to Montreal. A few months earlier, this ex and I had visited there with a mutual friend. Even though it’s one of my favorite cities, I didn’t want to go back because of all the memories I’d experience walking down the streets. But now I had to return to visit The Paradox, a dear female friend from NYC. Yes, I could have bailed. But I really wanted to see her, and she’d scheduled to visit me in Montreal months in advance.
We ended up in the same parts of town that I’d gone to with the ex. As we walked through the town, I felt the deep hurt healing. It’s not that I replaced those memories of being in Montreal with the ex. The Traveler had urged me to accept these memories as things that formed me and set me down my journey. It’s that my new memories had helped put those old ones in perspective. What’s more, these new memories were beautiful, and they became what I thought of whenever I remembered Montreal. (It’d helped that The Paradox and I were able to do more during our time in Montreal than I had with the ex.)
Now I realized Le Bon Dieu was giving me chances to rewire my memories. To put them in their appropriate mental place. To go back and redo moments so that they were no longer connected to the exes. To make different choices. To transform the intense pain into deeper joy.
The cello and the violin players, for instance, were an opportunity for me to accept the joy of the cello, and now connect my first thoughts of it to these new people. And the person with the ex’s voice was an opportunity to separate the nausea from my experience of the sound of her voice, or even of similar sounding voices.
It even happened in ways I never expected. And that leads to perhaps the most precious instance of God rewiring deep emotional experiences within me:
There is a glass bridge connected to my lab building that I often use to take phone calls. In March 2103, I went there to return a call from the ex. As we talked, she told me she wanted to officially date exclusively. An emotional cocktail of joy, adrenaline, love, peace and surety rushed through my body. That high continued coursing through my body for several hours.
I thought I’d never feel something that specific again until my next relationship.
Then in January 2014, I went back to that bridge to return a call from The Vicar. He told me that he and the church officers were inviting me to be the Junior Warden (the number 2 elder) of the church for the next year. My first instinct is generally to sit and pray first, but in that moment, I didn’t need to. I immediately sensed the okay from God, and so I said yes.
As those words left my mouth, that same mixture of emotions I’d experienced with that ex suddenly rushed through my body again. What’s more, it was as strong as what I’d felt before, if not stronger.
I don’t mean to imply this rewiring process results in instantaneous fixes. Frankly, this post has been delayed for over a month because it still hurts to recall some of these “healed” memories. Some pain runs deep. But what isn’t healed is now undergoing remission.
Coda: I wrote about the ex’s voice. Recently I got a new housemate who looks a lot like her when she puts her hair up. Another opportunity from Le Bon Dieu to deal with the nausea. Now when I look at her, whatever I experience isn’t anywhere near as painful.
As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.
As I near the end of my grieving, I feel ready to to resume chronicling the lessons I’ve been learning.
“The Jewish people have a tradition called Shiva,” the Traveler tells me during one of our coffee shop talks after the fallout with the ex. There are different variants of this custom, but the one he describes seems the most relevant to me right now.
“When someone’s died, these women–professional mourners–show up at your house and stay with you for seven days. They sit in the room with you and don’t say a word. When you cry, they cry with you. When you have to do your chores, they get up and help you.”
“It’s the gift of presence,” I note out loud.
It makes me think of the Biblical story of Job, the good man who God allowed to lose nearly everything he had, and whose friends insisted that God must be punishing him for something he’d done. Oftentimes we Christians villainize the friends as terrible, judgmental people.
But what if they were reacting from a place of confusion?
What if they were deeply perplexed that God would bring such horrific tragedies on someone they loved and respected? What if they wanted to help their friend by saying something, and so they said the only thing that made sense to them? What if they didn’t behave any differently than you or I might?
That’s why I’m grateful for my community of friends. A few have offered me insights, and mercifully most of those were things I needed to hear. But the vast majority have given me something more precious than words. They’ve given me themselves.
I think of The Music Teacher, who sought me out and asked me if I needed to come over, and then let me hang with her for the whole night as I processed out loud. The Heretic, who still seeks me out every week to see how I’m doing and to share his life with me, even though he’s moved to the other side of the country. The random friends outside of Vermont who contact me to tell me they’re praying for me.
I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll tell you one story that still deeply touches me even now as I think about it:
“So is all of this difficult for you today?” The Peer asks me nearly a month after my chat with The Traveler.
Today is his wedding day, and I’ve come to congratulate him during the reception. He could make the conversation more about himself. He could be mentally elsewhere, or at least parallel processing the other things he has to do today.
And yet on this happiest day of his life, in this moment he’s focusing on me with all of who he is.
“Honestly, yes,” I tell him. “Today’s your big day, though. But to answer your question, yes, it brings up a lot of memories and emotions I’m still working through.”
I don’t have time to tell him how during the first week of the grieving process, it felt like several organs had been ripped from my body. Now it doesn’t hurt as much, and I feel closer to accepting the reality I’m living in. And yet if I’m honest, I’m still not ready to stop crying on the inside. Somehow my friend picks up on all of that.
“We spent today praying for all our single friends here,” he says. “We know it can be a hard day for all of you, so we’re praying that God…”
I don’t hear the rest of what he has to say, because I’m deeply moved. Blessed by his presence. Awed by his proactive love.
“You’re a really incredible person, you know that?” I tell him.