I went for a walk this afternoon. Bright but cold, the kind of cutting chill that sneaks up under warmer drafts. The weather has been steadily warming for a couple of weeks; this sudden shift from warm to cold again is called “the cold of flower-jealousy” (꽃샘 추위). It’s said that winter becomes jealous of the flowers, and sends cold weather to drive them back.
I was born during this month of convergence, winter and spring, bitter cold jealousies and warm emergent growth. Thirty-two years ago. A Pisces, the twinned fish churning in a cycle of creation and destruction, expansion and retraction, highly sensitive and creative but also emotional and turbulent, many aspects of my personality a double-edged knife and involved in a kind of dance that only keeps balance by keeping in motion. Also, the year of the monkey, nimble-witted but just as likely to follow her curiosity into trouble.
Six years ago, by coincidence on my birthday, I received novice precepts. It was a strange moment. I felt like I lost something inside me that morning, a portion of what I called “myself,” and at the same time I literally picked up the mantle of a new identity. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a birth, because it was and has been a process so slow and at times imperceptible that I’m hesitant to assign any particular moment to it. There are ceremonies to celebrate that process, but nothing substantial comes into being because of a ceremony. Ceremonies recognize and encourage, but they don’t really create anything for me. The moments of birth, rather than being singular, are continuous; the gasps of sudden understanding, the shock of a first breath, come again and again to us, to anyone, if that anyone is someone trying to pay attention. Birth loses its singularity, becoming an on-going process.
An odd thing has happened since I turned thirty. I never cared much about my birthday. Not because I had any early understanding of “birth as continuous process,” but because I just didn’t care. I actively cultivated a nonchalance after high school, until that nonchalance became a genuine disinterest in birthdays, mine, yours, anyone’s.
Turning thirty mattered to me, though. Although I just said that birth, psychologically and spiritually at least, loses its particular singularity in the context of spiritual practice, the body (on the other hand) starts to keep very close track. My physical situation shifted drastically when I turned thirty. I lost nearly ten pounds in muscle-mass, the heritage of years of swimming, running, rock-climbing, weight training, and martial arts, and I have shrunk down to my slight build in a way I couldn’t have imagined during my twenties. My eyesight, after years of 20/20 or better, worsens noticeably each six months. My hands, once merely thin, now seem gaunt and have their first age-spots. Thanks to the Buddhist tonsure, I don’t worry about my hair; but I’m sure it too is changing. I feel increasingly frail. I worry about my knees. I wake up with low-back pain. I am stiff in the mornings and my hips ache in rainy weather.
This doesn’t distress me like I thought it would. What the body loses, the heart gains. Would I love to have back those ten pounds of muscle, which meant stamina, strength, health? My 20/20 eyesight? My limber limbs? Yes. But I wouldn’t turn back the clock of my mind at all. The process, incremental and largely unseen, and largely shaped by my monastic training, of growing older, is incredible. Wonderful. Worth all the liver spots in the world.
With slightly increasing age, though, comes a growing awareness that my life is limited. Birthdays suddenly became important, mine and everyone’s. Because, while they signify nothing in the absolute, they signify much in the relative.
Birthdays are become days of illumination, a chance to notice what has changed, to celebrate the world and being in it. Sure, I also badgered my friends to send me birthday wishes and indulged in some of my favorite things (coffee, a walk, photos), because it is my birthday today; but even if it had gone unnoticed by others, I would have remarked on it for myself and noted the day and its particulars. It’s my birthday. Of double significance because my body was born on this day, and so was my vocation, ceremonially at least. (And since I’ll hopefully be preparing for another ordination ceremony at the end of the month, this birthday resonates strongly on both the physical and spiritual registers.)
What has come once, won’t come again. Happy March 11th, everyone.
Last year I was too shy to talk directly and specifically about my birthday, and I made do with a short reference and a picture.