“I count broken umbrellas after every thunderstorm,
and I fall asleep repeating the words thank you.
I will wake you up early
with my heavy heartbeat.
You will say, Can’t we just sleep in, and I will say,
No, trust me. You don’t want to miss a thing.”-Sarah Kay, Love Poem #137
My friend Nancy celebrates her (February) birthday by jumping into a cold body of water. She’s in her sixties with long hair, lanky limbs, and a body still strong enough to climb Cascade peaks with mountaineering gear strapped to her back. She told me that this birthday tradition reminds her that’s she’s still alive, keeping her sharp for the coming year.
One year I was among the friends she invited to jump with her. The closest body of water was Railroad Creek, a stream that ran beside the mountain village where we lived. We stood on its bank in knee deep snow, wearing sweatshirts and jackets, clutching towels. The wind gusted against our bodies as we began to shed layers. On Nancy’s count we walked into the water, submerging our faces and shoulders beneath it. For a moment, I felt my body go stone stiff, then prickle in pain. When I was able to gather enough strength to stand again, sensation rushed to my limbs so strongly that I could feel my blood pumping like a river from my heart to my fingers.
“You’re going to feel like jumping again,” Nancy’s husband Mark told us, “But don’t. The second time is always way worse.”
There are people who claim to dread their birthdays. When I’ve mentioned my upcoming thirtieth birthday, a number of friends and co-workers have responded that they try to ignore their own dates of birth. It’s a sentiment I struggle to understand: Has our culture become so obsessed with youth that we’re afraid of our own accumulating years? Or is it that we know each year we live brings us closer to our death? Are we burdened by the trips we didn’t take, the money we haven’t saved, or the stories we didn’t write?
Yesterday Peter and I drove to Acadia National Park. We let the sun wash over our mid-winter skin, warming our cheeks and backs as we scrambled rocks slicked by patches of snow. We climbed Gorham Mountain, walked to Otter Cove, and hiked along Otter Cliffs. The ocean roared, throwing the smell of salt into the air, and we stayed by its side, unable to stop watching the rising tide as wave after wave enveloped the rocks beneath us, splitting gray water into millions of white bubbles.
I know it’s a luxury to love something so fierce, to safely watch water strong enough to break a boat or sweep a body out to sea, but, still, I find myself seeking summits and seasides. I need the fierceness of unpaved places to bind the bigness of my worries to the confines of a body whose breath and blood sometimes fall in rhythm with water large enough to wash it out to sea.
My grandmother, whose name was also Nancy, shares a birthday with me. Although she spent most of her adult life in Metro-Detroit, she grew up near the sea and when she returned to it, she was a slim small figure in a bathing cap, who knew how to match the waves, moving through them like lace.
In a photograph taken shortly before she died (of a brain aneurysm at age 49), Grandma Nancy sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean with her legs tucked into her chest and her arms wrapped around her knees. She looks back over her shoulders, with one eyebrow raised at the photographer. Her short hair blows in the wind. The waves around her are white capped and the water is a grayish blue color which matches her pants.
Is it because my grandmother died young that I believe we should celebrate each year we’re given by moving our bodies and visiting places that silence our wandering minds? I don’t know–but I do know that jumping into Railroad Creek with my friend Nancy was a kind of death and resurrection, a reminder of the pulse of blood and breath that course through us, animating each of our brave movements. And I hope, as I enter my thirtieth year, I remember to walk and to breathe, to listen to the waves, and scramble the rocks. I hope I keep running, planning, dreaming, wandering, and remembering the lives that passed before mine.
Tonight Peter and I will drive to Portland for dinner and music. We will get dressed up in our city clothes and walk sidewalks lit by streetlights. We will listen to Michigan musician Chris Bathgate play at a Portland theatre, and when he sings “Calvary”, belting the chorus, “ain’t it good to be alive,” we will let the words wash over us–like waves.