Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Happy Birthday to D (and me)

This week I celebrated my birthday along with my good friend D. D and I share the same birthday, August 22. We’re both Leo’s through and through - stubborn, explosive, obsessive, cuddly. It was at D’s birthday party four years ago that we first met. Since then a great friendship has been forged out of fun and tears. In the long list of people and things that I will miss when I leave Amsterdam, D sits at the top. Below is a story I wrote for D for her birthday last year. It was during a time when both D and I were in the midst of difficult relationships. D was in the process of letting go. I was holding on for dear life. This is my ode to D and to the difficult situations we faced.


I wanted to get you something special for your birthday this year. Something different. Something a bit like yourself. Something you can’t gift-wrap or find in a display case in some exotic market. Not even in Nepal. Not even in Ikea. Something unreturnable, non-disposable, or redeemable at any major retail outlet. A magic trick perhaps. Or a special power. Like the ability to bend a spoon from across the room with only a furrowed brow and a bit of grit. That would be a befitting gift for you.

How about a small token of time? An extra 22 minutes every day, only for you. Time to do anything you want, even nothing if that’s what you want. Or a story? Yes, a story! That’s what I want to give you. To be honest, that’s all I really can afford, anything else would be too cheap.

A story.

A story about…

Where to start? Where do you begin a story for someone who’s heard the sound of a flower drinking water from a glass and understood enough not to ask how or why? Where on earth do you start? What word is fit to begin this story? A story for you, the conjurer of a thousand words and a thousand feelings with a simple brush of blonde hairs on a slim pale canvas. ‘Gift’. A nice word but not the one. So where to begin?

A girl in a tree.

As good a starting place as any I suppose. Ok by you? Not that that matters now.

See this girl in the tree. Tall but not too tall, with long limbs, the kind that are good for climbing. She climbs and clambers on these limbs, careful not to fall but not too careful not to climb as high as she needs. She is a girl after all. For years she has been playing in this tree with only her imagination and the sound of the wind and leaves to accompany her. For years she has been climbing. As the tree grows, so she goes.

Now imagine her for a second resting on a branch.

She’s lying across a big thick branch. She is lost in thought. Or she’s lost in the tree’s thoughts. It doesn’t really matter. But see her there, on the branch. Her hand is rubbing along the branch, feeling the branch’s hard skin and knots of wooden tension. Signs of growth are everywhere. She feels her own skin – it is smooth and soft.

She doesn’t think to ask the tree if it was painful to acquire such knots. She knows enough not to pry into matters that she cannot reverse. She just likes the feel of them, the texture of strength forged with time and experience - and a little pain she reckons.

A tree’s growth is measured in rings. A girl’s is not. At least not our girl’s.

And now for the story. Sorry it took so long to get here but this is the sort of girl one can get caught up with – ‘lost in’ so to speak. The sort of girl upon which gazes linger and men are reminded of all the things they forgot to say. The kind of girl you like to hang with.

The story begins on her birthday. Not sure which one - something between the age of possibility and decision, closer to tree houses than tree forts. On this day several birds arrive to feed and rest on the tree. These are not the first birds to come and indulge in the tree’s delicious apples.

In the winter there are less birds. In the winter it’s just the girl and the tree. Even the wind is absent without the leaves to talk to. Our girl likes the winter - no more than any other season - she just likes its silent concentration and bold vulnerability. That’s the kind of girl she is – the liker of things, the seer of beauty in everything.

But it’s not winter. It’s summer and the birds have long since returned from sipping Mai Thai’s along sandy southern beaches. Hungry and tired from the journey they arrive at the tree for rest and nourishment.

(By the way, if at any point during this story you happen to get bored, or just a little restless, feel free to take a break. I’ve left you some space in this book if you feel the urge to draw, call it a coloring book of sorts. I find a little space is good for a relationship. Reader-Writer. Earth-Moon. Man-Woman. Space is good. It helps create gravity. So use this space as you please.)

Let’s pause a moment now to watch the girl watch a bird eating.

She hangs quietly on a limb careful not to disturb the feeding birds. One leg wraps forward around the limb, gripping with thigh, calf, and heel. Her long arms spiral around the branch. She has the rare knack for naturally embracing things. With her chin resting against the bark, her eyes are fixed on a small black bird tearing into the flesh of an apple. The bird, always weary of danger, moves with alerted jolts. Its beak pokes and chews in abrupt chomps. Poke. Chew. Chew. Chew, chew, chew. Stop. Look. Listen. Chew, chew, chew. Stop. Listen. Chew. Swallow. The girl watches, counting the chews, curious what it takes to feed a bird.

This summer there seems to be more birds visiting the tree than in years past. Birds from all around the world. She wonders sometimes if the tree has the fruit and constitution to bare the weight and hunger of them all. It’s in her nature to care about these kinds of things.

Let’s hold that thought and pause for a moment to listen to the girl sharing some of her favorite words with the birds.

“Bamboozled” She giggles, unsure if it’s the bam or the boozle that she likes best.

“Flabbergasted.” This makes her laugh a little louder.

“I’d like to meet the person who invented that word.” She says through her own giggles.

“Humdrum!” She can’t control her laughter now.

“How can you say ‘humdrum’ and ever feel humdrum? It’s too funny. It’s outrageous! Outrageous! What a word.” She laughs so loud the birds stop their eating and look at her and her words and her laughs. What a sight to behold.

“You know they call girls birds in England.” She says to the birds. “I’m not sure I like that though. Birds are not just like girls, they are like all people: they come and they go, some are beautiful, some dull, some sing, some mate for life, some just eat what they can and fly away.”

The term ‘Bird Brain’ is not a particularly endearing one. If anyone ever refers to you as one (not that they ever would) you have the right to peck their eyes out.

Our girl would be quick to point out the intelligence of birds. If their ability to travel thousands of miles each year without once stopping at a gas station to ask for directions isn’t proof enough of a bird’s mental prowess, our girl will eagerly tell you stories about the clever birds in Japan that use cars as nut crackers. She’ll also tell you about a male falcon who, contrary to inherited instinct, learned to feed his young when their mother went missing.

I’m sorry. How inconsiderate of me not to ask if you want to hear more about the birds that use cars as nutcrackers.

Are you curious how they do it? Not that that matters now.

That’s the funny thing with writing a story, sometimes the writer mentions something and the reader wants to know more but the writer just moves along on their marry way oblivious to what the reader wants to hear. People can be that way sometimes. Just when you think your getting to the good stuff, the real stuff, they just move on leaving you wounded and wondering, “I’m confused. I’m not quite following you. What’s the reason for this missing?”

I think our girl would want you to know how these birds crack their nuts. So I’ll tell you. No, better yet, why doesn’t the girl tell you.

Take a second to imagine our girl out of her tree and in a classroom. She is standing in front of her third grade classmates. A white sheet of paper trembles in her hand. For the first time she is conscious of the eyes upon her. ‘Disappointment’ and ‘failure’ are new words for her, and she quickly decides they are not amongst her favorites. She suddenly feels a knot in her throat. She swallows but it remains. She rubs her hand against it but there’s nothing there, no lump. “But it’s there”, she thinks, “I can feel it”. She starts to read from the paper in her hand but nothing comes out, no words, just movements of the mouth. She is not used to speaking without ease. She coughs and tries again, but the knot will not budge, the words do not come. She swallows again and looks to her teacher who gives her an encouraging smile and nod.

The girl strains to squeeze her words past the knot in her throat. At first the words come out stretched and a bit distorted, more like word bits than actual words.

“Sssso-o-o-o-o”. She mutters. She starts again, this time the words come out intact but a little wobbly, like a fragile vase about to tip over,


She tries again.

“Some…p-p-people…think.” Her words now begin to take form.

“Some people think that birds are stupid b-b-because they have small brains.” The words now come. The teacher nods her head in affirmation. The girl continues.

“I’m here to tell you that birds are much smarter than you think. On a university campus in Japan you will find Carrion crows and humans lining up patiently, waiting for the traffic to halt.”

Her confidence growing she continues.

“When the traffic lights change, indicating it’s safe to cross the road, the birds hop in front of the cars and place walnuts, which they picked from the adjoining trees, on the road. After the lights turn green again, the birds fly away and vehicles drive over the nuts, cracking them open. Finally, when the light changes and it’s time to cross again, the crows join the pedestrians and pick up their meal of smashed nuts.

And if the cars miss the nuts, the birds sometimes hop back and put the uncracked nuts somewhere else on the road. Or they sit on electricity wires and drop them in front of vehicles.”

The girl folds here piece of paper and returns to her desk all the while trying to conceal her proud smile.

So who’s the bird-brain now?

Imagine now our girl in the tree eating an apple in early afternoon on an exceptionally hot and sunny day. While she chews her apple, she leans her head back and lets the sun and juice pour down her face. She is lost in the pleasure of absorbing the world.

Just then she is interrupted by an Owl - an English Barn Owl to be specific. A particularly chatty English Barn Owl at that.

“Whooo Whooo! Hello love.” Says the owl.

“Hello Mr. Owl.” Says the girl.

“What’s a girl like you doing up in a tree like this?”

“Eating an apple and enjoying the sun.” Replies the girl.

“No,” says the owl, “I mean what are you doing up in this tree? You’ve been here for quite sometime you know.”

“I like it up in the tree.” Says the girl.

“But don’t you get lonely?” Says the owl.

‘Lonely’ is definitely not one of the girl’s favorite words.

“No, not really.” Says the girl. “I have the birds to keep me company.”

“And when the birds are not around?” Asks the owl.

“I have the stars.” Says the girl.

“How can the stars keep you company? You can’t talk to stars.” Says the Owl.

“True, stars can’t hear you but you can hear stars.” Says the girl.

“That doesn’t sound like much of a conversation if all you do is listen? What if you don’t like what the stars are saying.” Says the owl.

“That’s when you really need to listen. The things you like are the easiest things to hear. It’s the difficult things, the scary things that are hardest to hear.” Says the girl.

“I dare say love, you are a difficult girl to follow.” Says the owl.

“Perhaps you’re just not listening.” Says the girl.

“We have the gift of gab where I come from love. We’re talkers. We only pretend to listen until it’s our turn to talk again.” Says the owl.

“Do you know any tricks?” Asks the girl.

“I can turn my head around without it coming unscrewed.” Says the owl and then twists his head all the way around.

“That’s a great trick!” Laughs the girl. “Can you teach me to do it?”

“Afraid not love, that’s an owl only gag.”

“But if you can do it, why can’t I?” The girl turns her head around as far as she can but only gets about a quarter of the way. “Ouch!” She says and then tries again, this time getting a bit farther - about 94 degrees if you’re counting.

“Careful love, you’re bound to get a knot in your neck with all that twisting.” Says the owl.

“Did you get a knot in your neck the first time you tried to turn your head around?” Asks the girl while straining to turn her head.

“No. Don’t thinks so. Now that you mention it, I can’t remember the first time to be honest.”

The girl twists her head some more.

“Careful dear, you really could hurt yourself, or worse, you could lose your balance and fall out of the tree.”

“I’ll bet you this apple that I can turn my head all the way around?” Says the girl still twisting and turning.

“I hardly call that a fair bet love. Baring the occasional horror film, no girl has ever turned her head all the way around.” Says the owl.

“This is a VERY good apple.” Says the girl holding it close enough to the owl that he can almost taste it.

“Mmmm. Smells pretty good.” Says the owl. “Is it juicy?”

“Very.” Says the girl.

“Is it crispy?”

“Extremely.” Says the girl as she leans the apple closer.

“Ok! Ok!” Says the owl. “But what happens if you win?” He says with a giggle and a twist of his head.

“If I win.” The girl says, “You must promise to truly listen to everyone and everything your big eyes see from now on.

“You’ve got yourself a deal love.” Says the owl and offers his wing to shake on it.

The girl stands up. Her long slim body balances like a gymnast on a beam. She brings both her hands flat together high above her head, her fingers point towards the sky. Her body is extended to it’s fullest. She bends her body backwards, then to the left, and then to the right. With each bend, her body bows in a perfect arc.

“Careful love, you wouldn’t want to fall out of this tree.” Says the owl.

The girl continues. Now she reaches her right hand over her head and grabs her left ear and stretches her neck towards her right shoulder. She does the same with her left hand. Then she relaxes and shakes out her arms and neck, loosening up her entire body.

“Are you ready Mr. Owl?” Says the girl.

“I believe so love.”

The girl brings her right foot up to her left thigh. Balancing now on only one foot.

“Careful!” Cries the owl.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” Says the girl.

“Yes. Yes. Just be careful.” Says the owl.

The girl takes a deep breath and then with a swift bold motion she does a full pirouette without losing her balance.

“Ta-Da!” She says. “I win.”

“What…er…you turned your whole body, not your head. That wasn’t the deal.” Says the owl.

“I never said I wouldn’t turn my entire body around.” Says the girl. “I only said that I would turn my head around. Sometimes when listening, it’s important to hear what’s not said.” Says the girl.

The owl felt a knot form inside his head. “But, but…Oh, I see.” He says.

“No.” Says the girl. “You listen.” And then she hands him the apple. “Here, this will take your mind off the knot in your head.”

“Thanks. You are a very wise girl.” Says the owl.

“Thank you Mr. Owl. Coming from you that is quite a compliment.” Says the girl.

The owl tips his head farewell and flies away with the apple.

Don’t think for a second that I know where this story is going any more than you do. Who really knows where things are going? It’s not as if I’m here inventing this girl’s life or presume to know why she does or knows the things she does. The thing she does are simply too unbelievable. I’m just as much in the dark as you are about what lies ahead.

What I do know is that the end of this story is coming soon. Eventually, as with anything it will come to an end. So if there’s anything you want to say, think, feel or imagine before it’s all over, you better do it now. Now before this story, and every story told before it, and every untold story comes suddenly to an end. Do it now! Feel it all right now! Say it now! Now! Before the sound of children playing on a frozen lake comes to a beautiful end.

Let’s continue…

Our girl has just spotted an apple high up in the tree. Although the apple is high in the tree and therefore difficult to see, the girl reckons it’s the biggest and tastiest apple there ever was.

But as mentioned less than 30 words ago, the apple is high up in the tree, in the highest part of the tree in fact. A part of the tree the girl has never climbed because the branches are small and weak. A fall from up there would do much more than just hurt, it would surely leave a scar, possibly a limp even, one that would be difficult to ever hide.

But the girl has already decided that she wants this apple. The decision was made long before the apple ever appeared. Before the girl ever knew the word ‘apple’ (which is certainly one of her favorite words).

So the girl starts to climb towards the apple. At first it is easy. The branches are thick, sturdy and strong, allowing her to move swiftly towards the apple.

Halfway there, she decides it’s time to take a break. ‘What’s the rush?’ She thinks, ‘The apple isn’t going anywhere.’

She sits back and basks in the late afternoon sun. As the sun warms her face she finds herself feeling quite tired and content and contemplates taking a nap. But then she remembers the apple, more importantly, she realizes just how hungry she is. The apple would certainly help cure her hunger. She decides to keep climbing.

As she climbs she slowly forgets the things she’s leaving behind…everything but the ground that is. It’s funny how much more we notice the ground the farther we get from it. Do we see it better, clearer? Or do we just realize how much we depend on it?

She has now reached the part of the tree she has never climbed. The limbs here are indeed small and difficult to climb. The apple, the one she is after, hangs at the end of a long, slim branch – two or so meters long if you’re counting.

She wraps her legs and arms completely around a stronger branch just below it in hopes of being able to reach the apple. Hanging upside down she slowly makes her way towards the apple. As she inches forward she stretches her head back to look at the ground far beneath her - she guesses it’s ten or so meters down and then makes a note to herself not to ever look at the ground again. "Don't look back." She tells herself.

By the looks of it, the branch she has chosen has what it takes to get her to the apple: a thick base, an abundance of green leaves and apples –all sure signs of vitality. Confidently but aware of her own vulnerability, she slowly moves along the branch towards the apple.

Halfway to the apple, the branch wavers – a little unsure of her weight and it’s own ability to support her.

The girl stops moving for a moment, careful not to do anything that would make the branch give way.

She hangs for a moment.

A moment moves towards eternity.

As she hangs there motionless, she closes her eyes and tries to forget about the apple and her hunger in an attempt to rid herself and the branch from the weight of needs and wants.

But hunger is not a thing you can take your mind off for very long. Her hunger makes it’s way through her body, from her stomach to her heart, up through her lungs, until it reaches her eyes and pries them open.

Eyes now open, she can see the apple again. It is as big and beautiful as she ever imagined.

So she decides to press on. Did I mention this is a very bold and stubborn girl. A Leo in fact.

She carefully slides herself forward, all the while self-conscious of the burden she has become to the branch but hopeful that the branch will hold.

Another inch and the apple is nearly within her grasp.


The branch lets go, not completely, just enough to send the girl reeling downward. Miraculously she hangs onto the branch with one hand. She is suspended in mid air. Beneath her is the ground. Her mind quickly calculates the probability of her surviving the fall – it’s not good. She looks up to see the apple, her hunger still there. Her options are limited to say the least. If she drops to the ground she is sure to hurt herself, perhaps a broken leg, maybe worse, maybe much much worse. The anticipation of pain is often the worse part of the pain. If she tries to climb back up the branch she will need to swing her legs up for support thus putting herself in a position that if the branch were to give way completely, she would be dropped on her head. Chances for survival would surely be much slimmer.

She hangs for a moment.

A moment moves towards eternity.

On a nearby branch sit a blue jay and a robbin. They have been watching the entire sequence of events - the climbing, the wavering, the letting go.

The girl looks to them and asks, “What do I do now?”

The blue jay replies first, “Yes, you are in a most unpleasant quandary my dear lady. That apple you are going after is a very fine apple. I can see why you would climb so high to reach it. But I have also been in many trees in many parts of the world and seen many apples. I can assure you that although rare and hard to find, there are other apples out there that are very fine as well. If you were to drop now, you will indeed hurt yourself, but you will most likely recover and be able to find another apple in another tree, a tree with stronger branches perhaps.”

The robbin interrupts the blue jay, “Yes, but she may never find another apple like this one, and she has come this far already. The branch has not given up completely. There is a chance it can still hold. There is a chance she could still reach the apple.”

“But what if it doesn’t hold?” Says the blue jay.

“But what if it does?” Says the robbin.





“Thank you guys!” Interrupts the girl. “But I think I’ll figure this one out on my own.”

And so the girl hangs. Taking in all the information available to her. Assessing both the facts and feelings.

She hangs.

And hangs

And hangs. A long strip of girl suspended between heaven and earth.

Take a moment now to see the girl’s face. There is tension everywhere. There is a clenched jaw. There are tears welling in her eyes. There are tears mixing with sweat as they slide down her cheeks. There are short fast breaths. There are eyes looking down then looking up. There is an invisible knot forming. And then there is a…a…what is it? A smile perhaps? It’s a change for sure.

The girl wipes her eyes dry. She takes a long look up at the apple and then a long look down at the ground. Her breathing has slowed. Her tension has loosened. She is now definitely smiling. A knowing smile. A smile that even the sun would envy. She winks. And then she…

The End.

Wait, I’m sorry, that’s not how this story ends at all. Nothing really ever ends. After all, this is a story about a birthday girl. Since when has a birthday ever marked an ending?

Imagine our girl, a little bit older now. Imagine here anywhere you want. Imagine her anyway you want. See her there. See her surrounded by trees. Trees filled with the most magnificent apples she has ever seen - luscious golden apples everywhere. There’s no need to climb anymore. There are birds too, not too many, not too few. And there are stars - millions of bright, flickering stars. And the girl is listening to the stars and the stars are whispering back to the girl, “Happy Birthday.”

The End. The Begin.

(Illustration by S O'Connor)


Blogger Chum said...

Happy Birthday, OS! I'm suddenly craving apple sauce.

10:49 AM  

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