Birthday treat

Last weekend I turned 50, a milestone I somehow never thought I’d reach. Turning 50 isn’t a remarkable task–given enough time, anyone could do it–but somehow I never imagined it happening to me.

Burdicks

When I was younger, being 50 is something I never (literally) pictured. As a child, I could readily envision myself in high school, college, and young adulthood. I could picture myself in my 20s and 30s, when I imagined I’d have long, disheveled hair and legs that would stride tirelessly through woods and streams, stomping fearlessly through mud and briars. But I never imagined myself as middle-aged, settled, and settling. Back then, I never imagined I’d transform into a gray-haired, thick-middled woman in a pink coat and gray beret, the kind of unremarkable older woman you might pass on the street without really seeing. I could if I really tried imagine myself as a white-haired and wiry old lady, but not as gray and middling.

Reflective self portrait

Thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate, I took a group singing class for non-music majors that I’ve since insisted was the most useful class I took in college. In that class, I had to stand in front of my peers and sing unaccompanied, including at least one opera song in Italian. This class is where I first learned about the passaggio. All singers–especially sopranos like me, my teacher said–have a low voice and a high voice, but the trickiest voice is the passaggio, the voice in the middle where the low tones in your chest meet the high falsetto in your head.

Reflective self portrait

My voice teacher was a rail-thin sliver of a man, but he physically transformed when he sang, standing up taller and emitting a big, booming voice that seemed to come from the center of the earth. After alternating between his thin, unremarkable speaking voice and his rich, deep singing voice, my teacher explained that mastering the passaggio was the secret to becoming a good singer. If you weathered the passaggio, he explained, you could link your high voice to your low voice to create one seamlessly connected voice that swelled effortlessly from low to high without any squeaks, croaks, or cracks.

Reflective self portrait

When you shift from low voice to high, he explained, your throat–your whole body–does all sorts of weird things. Your voice sounds squeaky and shrill. You think this voice sounds bad because it is unusual to your ear: it’s not the speaking voice you’ve grown accustomed to. Even though you’re singing from your own body–where else, exactly, could you sing–the passaggio is a place you might not ever explore.

“Put your hand on my shoulder,” my teacher would say as he sat at the piano and switched from his soft speaking voice to his infinitely rich baritone. He wanted all of us–a half dozen non-musicians in a one-credit pass/fail elective–to feel the physical change. “Your whole body is an instrument,” he’d insist, and yes, you could feel something shift in his shoulder as he went from slack-spined and insipid to upright and energized: Clark Kent transformed into Superman.

Burdicks

I am, at age 50, weathering a different sort of passaggio. Being 50 is physically weird. Your body becomes alien, with new aches and pains, less flexibility, and diminished energy. Fatigue becomes a kind of friend–a phenomenon you know right down to your bones–and so do disappointment and resignation. If you are a woman, your alien body will surge with heat, sweat, and restless, abundant energy as you lie abed, pondering life, the universe, and the eternally vexing question of whether you locked the back door.

Although I was (and am) an unremarkable singer, my college voice teacher did walk me through the passaggio once. Usually, he let us choose our preferred register for whatever song we decided to sing in front of the class: the whole reason I opted for this elective, after all, was to force myself to sing in front of strangers, figuring the experience of taming my nerves would be good practice for teaching. (I was right.) But occasionally, my teacher would choose a key on the piano and ask us to sing it, turning us the other way so we couldn’t see how low or high that note was.

My writing runs on chocolate

And so one day when he thought I was ready, my teacher did with me what I’d seen him do with other students: he asked me to do a warm-up exercise down low in my register, and then he gradually moved that exercise up, up, up the scale. After a half dozen steps, I started to waver, my voice feeling thin and squeaky. “If it doesn’t hurt, don’t stop,” he encouraged. “It sounds beautiful to the rest of us: keep going.” And when I reached the place where my voice finally cracked, he turned me around to the piano and showed me, there on the far right side of the keys, the impossibly high note I had reached. “If you don’t believe that’s the note you just sang,” he said, “just look at your classmates,” and indeed, they were all staring at me, amazed.

Although I never became a classical singer, what I learned from that one credit, pass/fail class was the courage it takes to stand in your own shoes, open your mouth, and trust with all your heart whatever sound comes out. At the still-strange age of 50, I’ve come to believe that in the middle of any passage, you won’t necessarily imagine what comes next; you just have to trust your body to work through its weirdness on the way to a pure, clear note.

Eeyore

Yesterday after months of secret angst, I turned fifty. Now that I’ve passed that venerable milestone, I realize what I had been dreading wasn’t being fifty by turning fifty. Among women of a certain age, there is a widespread expectation (spoken or implied) that you should Do Something Grand for milestone birthdays, and my usual low-key celebratory style felt completely inadequate, at least in my imagined build up to The Event.

You are enough

But now that the auspicious occasion is officially over, I can say I celebrated as I (if nobody else) saw fit. In the morning, I went to the Zen Center, left after one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square, where I explored the old burying ground–there is nothing like visiting graves of the centuries-ago deceased to put your life in perspective–before stopping at Burdick’s, where I treated myself to half a slice of raspberry-chocolate cake and a small dark hot chocolate. And under the combined influence of meditation, a brisk walk, and high octane chocolate, I did something I love to do but hadn’t done in ages: I sat in a cafe and wrote, starting with nothing to say and eventually finding words to describe why turning fifty has been unsettling. I wrote my way, in other words, into my own sort of clarity.

Street salamander

This is how I’ve navigated the first fifty years of my life, so why wouldn’t it be an apt way to celebrate the commencement of the next? After that first decadent treat, the rest of the day unspooled like any other Sunday: J and I walked to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, where our waiter surprised us with ice cream, and then we played with the dogs in the yard in the afternoon, as we normally do.

It was a quiet and contemplative day–no grand trips or parties or eye-popping spectacles to advertise on social media–but it was a day with all the things I love: walking and meditating and time with J and the dogs. And it was a day, too, with not one but three deserts: Burdicks cake and hot chocolate in the morning, Thai ice cream at lunch, and a slice of chocolate peanut butter cake in the evening. It was a day, in other words, with an abundance of delights.

Pooh and Eeyore

At some point, I’ll blog the journal entry I wrote yesterday at Burdicks, but for now all that’s necessary is to note I had a quietly delightful day and couldn’t have wished for anything better. If the way you spend your birthday is the way you’ll spend the coming year, please sign me up for fifty more.

The birthday girl

It’s been a few years since I’ve kept my tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on or around my birthday. (I took the above photo in 2010, when I celebrated my 41th birthday.) Today, though, is a perfect museum-going day. While much of the nation is in a deep-freeze, it’s unseasonably warm, rainy, and soupy-humid in Boston, with swirling wisps of snow-melt fog. What better day to celebrate one’s birthday inside where it’s warm and dry?

Giant baby head in snow

So today I have an afternoon date with John Singer Sargent, whose watercolors are on display at the MFA through January 20th. Water in the form of winter rains can leave you damp and shivering, or water in the form of watercolors can transport you to another time. On a gray and rainy January day, any influx of light and color is welcome.

Aloft

It’s become something of an unofficial tradition for me to go to the Museum of Fine Arts on or around my birthday. I did it last year when I turned 40, and I did it several years before that when I turned 38. Taking a day off to stroll the galleries is a simple pleasure that gives me a chance to take stock of where I’ve been and where I’m going, and I love surrounding myself with beautiful things–paintings, sculptures, and the like–as a reminder of how I’d like my life to be.

Midair

In characteristically warped fashion, today I want to spend my birthday contemplating death, first in an exhibit of ancient Egyptian funerary art and next (if I have time) in an exhibit of prints by Albrecht Durer. The ancient Egyptians turned preparing for the afterlife into an art, and Durer’s prints often focused on dark and otherworldly subjects. Neither probably sounds like the stuff of your normal birthday celebration, but I’ve never exactly seen myself as normal. In my mind, taking time on your birthday to remember where your life is headed isn’t morbid; it’s realistic. Although I’m not dead yet, I figure it never hurts to check out the scenery in the “neighborhood” where we all eventually end up residing.

Today’s images come from an August trip to the MFA, when I shot lots of pictures of art, images of the Museum’s Japanese garden, and a photo-set of the enormous baby heads outside the Museum’s Fenway entrance. Enjoy, and I’ll see you once I’m another year older.

Empty in the middle

When I was a graduate student doing my PhD coursework at Northeastern University, I often took advantage of the fact that the Museum of Fine Arts was right across the street from campus. In those days, my student ID got me into the Museum for free, so on days when I didn’t have much to do between classes, I’d go to the MFA to stroll the galleries. Because I went to the MFA so often, I came to see it not merely as a storage vault for fine art but as an indoor pedestrian path: a kind of secular cloister-walk where I could walk even when the weather was bad.

Fisheyed and angular

I still like to go walking at the MFA, although I do so far less frequently now. When I go to the MFA with a friend, I look at art as you are supposed to, considering each of the works in a given gallery, dutifully reading the placards that identify and explicate each item, and otherwise absorbing the educational intent of the museum space. But when I go to the MFA by myself, as I did on Tuesday, I typically go there simply to walk, not focusing in particular on any piece of art or any given gallery. Instead, I occasionally go alone to the MFA because it is a space dedicated to looking and thus a space that is amenable to strolling. Where else (except, perhaps, at a mall) is it okay to walk around with no other purpose than just looking?

Overhead

Tuesday just happened to be my 40th birthday, and Tuesday’s trip to the MFA to go walking was my understated gift to myself. Over the New Year, I made a list of 40 things I’m grateful for as I turn 40, and it was an illuminating endeavor. Although some material possessions made it to my personal Top 40 list–my car, for instance, which I paid off in 2008; my camera, which continues to work even though I’ve recently water-logged and then dropped it; and my audio player, which I use to listen to books for free–most of the items on my list are intangibles. I’m grateful that my apartment in Keene is within walking distance of my job, and I’m grateful that J’s house in Newton is within walking distance of the T. I’m grateful to be blessed with friends, family, and a menagerie of pets, both my own and J’s. I’m grateful for my good health, my meditation practice, and my blog and the people who read it. And in tough economic times, I’m grateful that I have food to eat, shelter over my head, and clothes on my back: more than enough.

Bold

Museums are a great place to go when you want to rejoice in simple abundance. Both greed and gluttony are deadly sins, but there’s no shame in relishing beauties we all can share. Why do I need to own a storage vault of beautiful belongings when museums house so many lovely things we can collectively enjoy? The fact that I don’t go walking at the MFA more often–the fact that this space and its contents are an easy T-ride away, but I only occasionally take the time to visit them–is an embarrassment of riches. Museums and the beauties they contain are simply there for the looking, as is the natural world with its ample riches. Given these gifts, which are already within my easy reach, why would I dream or desire to reach for more?

Light and dark

It’s not that I undervalue possessions; instead, I’ve come to realize I overvalue experience. I am deeply grateful for the things I own; nobody but the deeply deranged would rejoice to have their material goods destroyed by fire or rain. But this being said, there isn’t much I want other than more time to enjoy the things I already have. More than tangible things, what I want is my own life and the health to enjoy it. This past December, J and I agreed not to exchange gifts for Christmas or our birthdays; instead, we split the costs of board-walking in Ocean City, agreed to buy one another soccer tickets for Valentine’s Day, and have begun to brainstorm our next unorthodox adventure. Gift-wrapped surprises are fine and good, but J and I have come to realize that what we most deeply enjoy from one another is time and experiences shared.

Rotunda

And so on Tuesday, my fortieth birthday, I went walking at the Museum of Fine Arts, where I bought myself a membership so I can enjoy an entire year’s worth of gallery rambles. In the gift shop, I bought myself a bracelet and a pair of earrings: only the deeply deranged would deny herself some small, precious thing to mark a momentous milestone. And now, having come home and sorted through the photos I took while walking–free souvenirs captured by my still-functioning camera–I chose forty from my fortieth to share with you: a kind of virtual cake sliced and shared across cyberspace, there being no need for the further illumination of birthday candles lit and extinguished.

There are several reflective self-portraits in my images from the MFA, it having been a long time since I posted many of those.

Table with tapas

Yesterday was my birthday, so here is the requisite shot of Friday night’s celebration: Girls’ Night Out at Solea in Waltham. In past years, I’ve shared similar table-top shots; last year I was sick on my birthday, so the celebration felt anticlimactic. This year, instead of trying to figure out what I want from the proverbial “rest of my life,” I’ve decided to reflect on what I am grateful to already have. Instead of seeing the occasion of my birthday as an opportunity to focus on what’s wrong and needs to be fixed, I’ve decided to focus on what right in my life and needs to be continued.

So in the spirit of tapas–little dishes that whet the appetite and make for a meal when combined–here are three little things I did as a 38-year-old that I want to continue now that I’m a day over 39.

Table with a view

This past year I’ve made a more serious effort to meditate with others. During the spring and summer, I started practicing with the Open Meadow Zen Group, and recently I’ve been making an effort to sign up for talks and interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center. After having led a Zen group of my own in New Hampshire–and after seeing that group fold–I was a bit shy about climbing back into the “sangha saddle” again. But now that I’ve taken baby steps back toward doing formal meditation more regularly with others, I’m wondering why I insisted on practicing on my own for so long. Meditating at home on one’s own is an important part of practice, but I find meditating with others infinitely more powerful.

This past year, I’ve made a more serious effort to see my life–not simply meditation–as being my spiritual practice. Instead of limiting my practice to what I do on a meditation cushion, I’ve been trying to pay closer attention no matter what I’m doing. That means spending a lot of time doing “driving meditation” during my weekly trips between New Hampshire and Massachusetts: instead letting myself zone out while I’m driving, I’ve been trying to follow my breath as I drive, paying close attention to the sensation of my hands on the wheel while I watch other cars with alert concentration. If sitting upright on a meditation cushion qualifies as “practice,” why can’t sitting upright in the driver’s seat?

Ambience

This past year, I stayed consistently debt-free and saved money instead of digging out from debt. In the past, I’ve relied upon credit cards to fund my under-employed summer months, which has meant I’ve spent my fall semesters paying off debt. This past year, I did a better job managing my finances (and I taught more) throughout the summer, so the money I made during an extra-busy fall semester went toward savings rather than debt. Without feeling like I’ve scrimped, I’ve felt more financially “settled” this past year, paying off my credit card balances every month (even if that meant dipping into savings over the summer) and being more diligent about saving for next summer and beyond. After having spent years in a marriage where we couldn’t make ends meet on a six-figure salary, I love the feeling of living within my means (and enjoying myself) on much less.

So there you have it: three things I feel I did right this year that I want to continue. They aren’t exactly New Year’s Resolutions since they’re things I’ve already started doing; instead, we might call them Birthday Retro-lutions, nibbles of wisdom I recognize as tasty in retrospect that I’d like to continue sampling as I continue to creep toward 4-0.

Goose Pond

Yesterday morning: quiet dogwalk at Goose Pond here in Keene.

Midday: Mount Monadnock as seen from Rt. 101 in Dublin, NH, one of the snowy sights on the drive between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Mount Monadnock

Afternoon: a pink cling-film replica of the Taj Mahal in the lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. We went to see teapots, but photography is prohibited in special exhibitions.

Taj Mahal

Evening: very tasty margaritas at Cilantro Mexican restaurant in Salem, MA. (This is the first of two rounds, before the world started looking fuzzy…)

Tasty margaritas!

Nightcap: three candles (for 30-something) on a peanut butter pie, delivered, lit, and wished upon in a Salem parking garage (don’t ask: it made sense at the time).

Three candles for thirty-something

Yes, I made a wish; no, I’m not telling you. The book in the background is the church ladies’ cookbook where the pie recipe came from (again, it’s best you didn’t ask: it makes sense to the ladies involved).

Thanks again to Leslee and A (not her real initial) for birthday rich with artful teapots, tasty beverages, and much laughter: priceless.