Sunday Morning ~ Weaving a New Net
Ukonde uyambira ku bwakale. ~ You start weaving a new net using the old one.
~ Chewa proverb
September 19, 2021
I tried to find a proverb relating to birthdays and, finding none, am going to conclude birthday celebrations are a western thing. Many elders in Malawi and Congo had no idea when they were born. When asked their age they’d reply “adult”. When asked when their child was born women would reply, “After the rain.” or “During the dry season.” We’d count the baby’s teeth and add six months to get an estimate of age. When life depends on subsistence farming the calendar isn’t important; the rains coming and going are. I’m not sure I ever had a conversation about birthday celebrations with any of my Malawian friends either. I thought about it this weekend as the calendar told me I am now eligible for Medicare. That’s a big reason for celebration in my book and I’m hoping I’ll see it for all our citizens during my lifetime, no matter their age.
Birthdays were not big in my house growing up. They were noted and celebrated with cake for desert, traditional candles, and song but there were neither parties nor many presents. We usually got some clothing and money which had to go into our bank account. For me it was always a little disappointing. When I started working as a midwife and was present at births I started wondering why we celebrated the baby and not the mother that day? She worked really hard and deserves recognition. I began the tradition of sending my mother flowers on my birthday thus eliminating expectations. Then I’d treat myself on each of my children’s birthdays. This made more sense to me. But milestone birthdays seem to come with greater responsibility.
Early in our marriage my husband and I would daydream about our future and create fantastic scenarios. We started out small, like eating lobster every wedding anniversary (that was before we moved to Maine and lobster was still a treat). We planned to turn forty in Venice and when that year came my mother came to stay with the kids and we headed off to that fabulous city then biked around Tuscany. (As I write this I realize I have a lot to pay forward). For our fiftieth birthdays we planned to bike across the country. This idea was hatched when we were twenty-two and turning fifty seemed a few light years away. The bike trip didn’t happen. Our marriage had ended abruptly five years before and though I had rehabilitated myself into a functioning person again, turning fifty was a painful reminder of what dreams were flushed deep into the sewer system. The financial instability with losing an income did not allow for a six month sabbatical for a cross-country bike trip. I lowered the bar and decided to run a half marathon, something well out of my comfort zone. This was not a superhuman challenge but something I’d never done and it provided me reassurance that I wasn’t over the hill. (This is my version of self care.) There was a half marathon in town on the very day of my fiftieth birthday so it was all very convenient. I threw myself a big party to boot.
Now I’m thinking about the next stage of life and what to make of it. When my grand daughter asked me how old I was turning, she cringed when I told her sixty-five, as if I’d told her she needed an injection. “Oh no!” she said in a sad way. I asked what the problem was? “I don’t want you to die.” she said, which was very touching. I hugged her and told her I thought it would be a long time before I died, not that anyone knows. I remember being eight and thinking forty was old, sixty was ancient, and eighty was a rare and exclusive club. Now I look back on how quickly the last twenty-five years passed and think I should get busy planning that bike trip.
I’ve had dear friends with me the past weeks and we’ve had lots of discussions about rituals, birthdays, and how we incorporate our past into our future. Like when I turned fifty, this is not where I expected to be right now. The pandemic tossed a big wrench into my professional plans. But I’m lucky and privileged to be able to stop and think about how I can start weaving a new net. It’s exciting to think of this as a beginning with a better stocked tool kit, gratitude for all I have, and a wider view of what’s behind.
Love to all,