A heart's breath

For my birthday this year, God gave me the gift of grace.

Published April 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If our lives are made up of a string of a thousand moments, at some of those moments we look a lot more spiritually evolved than at others. This is a story about the latter.

The worst part about celebrating another birthday is the shock that you're only as well as you are. You'd have thought you'd be cooked to perfection by now, a font of wisdom and patience, one homogenized you instead of a chain gang of incarnations: your current condition, then your last, your inner Slobodan two people back, connected by shackles to Cindy Lou Who. The weeks before my birthday happen to be my most bereft and neurotic, although I love the big day itself, so what I started doing some time ago was to pump myself up out of the doldrums by campaigning for more acknowledgments and bigger gifts.

I tell everyone. You really have to if you want people to come through. Some people won't go the extra mile, and then on their birthday, when no one makes a fuss, they feel neglected and bitter. So I start calling people about a month before the actual day. Presents can make up for some of the disappointments that life doles out, such as it makes almost no sense and is coming to an end more quickly than ever. One can't help but remember the joke that Woody Allen used to tell, about the man at the Catskills resort complaining that the food is so terrible, and the portions so small. Still, I'm not as bad as I used to be. You add alcohol to this level of narcissism and greed, you've got a real problem on your hands. Fifteen years ago I had a birthday reminder on my answering machine for weeks, and then, the day after, changed it to include an alphabetized and frequently updated list of family and friends who had neglected to send anything. There were fewer people every day, until one week later, when the message said, "This is an updated and alphabetized list of people who have forgotten my birthday: Evan Connell."

Sam and I were in Hawaii for my 45th birthday not long ago. I had been given a vacation on Lanai in exchange for a speech, and this would have been perfect without this one pesky fly in the ointment -- America had gone to war. So I swam with Sam all day in the warm surf and then watched the news from Kosovo on CNN every night. It was utterly schizophrenic: the tropical beauty filling the windows, the pounding of war on TV. There I was telling everyone I met that my birthday was coming up, and then donating by phone to relief organizations.

Sam kept promising me that he was really on top of my birthday this year, although he was having cash flow problems. So the day before, I gave him money with which to buy me a present at the gift shop. Still, it felt pretty nuts, ordering room service fruit platters to eat while watching the ghastly news at dinner. But what are you supposed to do, call off your life until things improve in most parts of the world? Does common decency dictate that you not play while others are suffering so? I don't know the answer, only that one moment I'd find myself wanting to volunteer in the refugee camps, and then, a minute later, worrying about my thighs. I'd imagine feeding soup tenderly to little children and then I'd berate myself for having forgotten the self-tanning cream. I'd think about going to Montenegro to be Jesus' love there, his hands and his heart, and then I'd obsess about how much better tan fat looks than pale fat.

I got up at dawn on my birthday to watch the sunrise -- golds, roses, many many blues. There was coffee and the New York Times waiting outside my door from the room service staff, who had wrapped up some bright blue fanny packs for Sam and me. I took a cup of coffee out to the balcony and sat there quietly. The balcony was my cathedral. Little birds sang, unseen. I did not understand why I was on vacation in the tropics, with a healthy boy safe and asleep inside, while much of the world was caught in an ugly dream. But I tell you, Fun means Finally Understanding Nothing. And e.e. cummings sang backup to the morning,

I who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love andwings;and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

And then, the wailing began from the bedroom.

I went to investigate. Sam lay in bed, red-faced, weeping, clutching at his eye like the Cyclops in the "Odyssey."

"Honey, what's the matter?" I cried out in alarm.

"My eye is totally scratchy," he cried. "As if you even care."

It seemed likely that he had a grain of sand in his eye. I couldn't see anything there, but I know how painful it can be, so I took him to the bathroom and tried to flush it out with cool water. When this didn't work, I put him in a lukewarm shower and had him stare up into the spray with his eyes open, so he alternately looked demented and dead. But whatever it was did not dislodge. I cooed and patted him a lot, and he cried and blamed me and rubbed his eyes no matter how many times I said not to, and he said mean things about my ineptitude. But still, somehow, I felt huge and nursey, like John Lithgow's Roberta Muldoon in "The World According to Garp": God as transsexual nurse.

"I think I've torn my cornea," he wailed.

"You have a bit of sand in your eye," I said.

We tried everything -- makeshift eye-cups, sitting quietly with our eyes closed, prayer. I gently tried to make him stop rubbing it, and encouraged his tears, promised they would help wash his eye, and through it all, I was kind and patient. Finally I suggested that we go down to the pool so he could swim around with his eyes open, to try and flush it out. He squinted at me, half blind and miserable, Popeye with conjunctivitis, rubbing away at it, and I gently got him to stop. There were other kids in the pool and I thought this might shame him into acting braver. But he kept whining in an aggravating way, and while he swam around, I decided that when Jesus said that we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom, he was not talking about this sort of shit. He meant well-behaved children, full of wonder.

Sam came splashing out of the water as if to escape acid burn. "Oh, for God's sake," I suddenly wanted to shout, "This is not Kosovo! And you're ruining my birthday." I reached for him, but he batted my hand away. I had him sit down beside me and close his eyes, and I rubbed his back gently, and tried to figure out what Jesus would do. I think there are a lot of people, and Jesus was one of them, who glisten when children are around, but this is because it's only for four minutes at a time; they don't have to live with them. On bad days, when Sam is being unpleasant, I think Jesus probably could have raised reptiles more easily than a child. He lived with a bunch of bachelors, who acted a lot like whiny children -- "Who's first?" "What about me, Lord?" "Can I be in charge?" -- but they were old enough so he could leave them behind when they got too annoying, roll his eyes and head back up the mountain.

So this is what I did. It being a resort in Hawaii, my mountain was a lounge chair at the far end of the pool, where I sat fuming. I listened to KFUCKED radio play in my mind: Sam was an awful person, I had done a terrible job raising him, it was only going to get worse, soon he'd be hurting our animals; also that I don't actually like children, and should never have had him. Then he staggered over with his hand cupped over his eye, as if barely able to keep the eyeball from spilling out of the socket. His voice was reedy, imperious, blaming, exactly like George Bush must have sounded at nine, and this finally pushed me over the edge.

By now I was so angry at him that I could have screamed. I didn't actually believe he was in any real distress, and therefore his suffering was not legitimate. My heart was hard, my heart was like held breath, refusing to budge, to give, to breathe. It did not want to beat, not one tiny bit. But the catch is that it can't help but breathe one tiny bit, and when it does, then grace can find the miniscule opening and get in. That is why grace often arrives in such small measure -- the size of a grain of sand -- and finally grace did come: I realized Sam really was suffering, not like a child of war, a starving child, a child full of shrapnel, but rather like my child; my crazy child. And Jesus' heart was not hardened against crazy people, or we would all be doomed. He was not embarrassed by craziness. He just said, "Yeah, well, me too," then he took care of you anyway. So I scooted over to make room for Sam, closed my eyes, and prayed to stop being such an asshole. When I opened my eyes, I could see how crummy he felt, hunched and lonely and exiled, with a beach towel draped over his skinny self like a dropcloth hung over a lamp. And I got it: Refugees R Us. He was a refugee camp of one, alone, miserable in his own way, far from home. I'm not saying that he shared a great deal with a 9-year-old boy in Albania; only that suffering is suffering, and compassion is compassion.

I put a hand on his shoulder, and said, "Honey, let's get you some help." He said in a tiny Tweety Bird voice, "Who could help us?"

"I don't know. But let's go look around."

We stood. I took his hand and we walked inside, and came to the resort's beauty salon. Believe me, there is no less likely place for me to find spiritual help than in a beauty salon, with all those noxious odors, all those acrylic claws. First aid stations for the soul should not smell like conking solution or hairspray. But we had followed our feet and something had led us here, like we were on a Ouija board. Maybe it was random luck or my subconscious, but on the map of the morning, the X said, "You are here." So I decided to start with that.

The beautician was young and kind, and she had a bottle of eyewash. She put Sam in a chair at the sink and had him tip his head back as if she was going to shampoo his hair first. She handed me the squirt bottle, and told Sam to pull his upper lid away so I could squirt the stream of water all over his eye. We used the whole bottle, and after a while, he was better.

"It still hurts a bit," he said grudgingly, as we walked back to the pool.

"Stop," I cried. "Run to our room and get my present!" and he did.

When he came back out, he had a small pair of binoculars for me. I peered at him through the wrong end, to make him laugh, and he did. The truth is that progress is usually small and sneaky. The lie is that only big will do; only big will change the world, so everyone will be kind to each other and the killing will stop. Big is the magic we look for first, but grace is what makes things work out against all odds. If it were too big, it might sweep away all the bits of knowledge and insight we're granted as we go along. If it were too big, it couldn't get through the almost invisible cracks and holes in our walls, in our stone hearts; knowledge comes in tendrils.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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