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My birthday, now and Zen

I’m not sure how entertaining a TV episode this would make, but to celebrate my recent birthday, our little modern family did do something oddly madcap, very Left Coast, some might even say unusual.

Both husbands (Peter, the current and Phillip the upstairs ex) asked me what I wanted for that special day, and, fresh from a retreat at Spirit Rock, I proclaimed: “I think it’d be interesting to meditate … all day.” Taking into account all the month-long, champagne-toasting, gift-filled, dancing-as-fast-as–I can-birthday celebrations of my past, even I was surprised by my reply.

But I knew it was the right one.

So, we did it — all of us, Peter, Philip, his handsome partner Dr. Sheldon Cale, and two good friends Sherry and Jennifer spent April 21, 2013 in retreat with the Everyday Zen community at the Marin Headlands Institute. Even pups Sally and Cyrano indulged in some doggie dharma, and spent hours resting in a shady parking spot under some beautiful trees.

As it turned out, the Everyday Zen folks were not expecting us. I’d made a call to let them know we were coming, but that early warning was somehow lost in their serene shuffle of life, so our 8:30 a.m. arrival brought a look of mild shock to many placid faces, especially that of the woman who greeted us. When I told her it was my birthday celebration, she then beamed beatifically, and sternly ordered: “All right, then, from this moment on, don’t worry about a thing! We’ve plenty of food for lunch, and we will make you feel welcome!”

And that they did.

At first it was daunting, being the only people in light linens, pastel cottons and sun hats. We were noticeable among the black-robed, brown-shawled, long-skirted practitioners. Would they judge us as frivolous because we looked ready to party, not meditate? Would our bags stuffed with suntan lotion (for all the walking meditation), a sun parasol (which felt pretty monastic to me, and smart: a paper umbrella made in Japan, after all), and bottles of iced water offend them? Our hosts had only their cushions, their mats and their serious intent. Did we belong there?

I was determined that we would belong, at least for one day because this birthday was a milestone (hello Medicare!), and I wanted to greet my mild panic with ease and equanimity.
A birthday meditated, not medicated.

In any event, there we were, on the breeziest blue-sky day I’ve experienced since moving to San Francisco two and a half years ago. Once again, the weather affirmed my choice both to move here and to spend this special day my way. The ocean sparkled nearby, the lovely mountains and beach beckoned, but the six of us, with a grim, celebratory determination, took off our shoes, put our stuff in a corner, set our cushions, and got down to it. Down to the floor and down to the ground of our being.

We sat in silence that morning, for a good half hour, and then were welcomed by the group’s leader, Norman Fischer, the Zen master I’d come to see. He didn’t seem at all surprised to observe six pink-and-white neophytes nestled among his sober faithful, and in fact, invited us to go outside after the first sitting and get instruction on how to be Zen for a day. They made it all so easy for us.

Of course, the hard part began soon thereafter, and as the hours ticked quietly by, as our knees, rear ends and backs started aching, my small birthday party was consoled by the unavoidable fact that our monkey minds were easing, and our daily tensions were fading. It became a special day by sheer virtue of our becoming aware of practically every single moment of it. For better or for worse.

Oh, wait. Isn’t that another ritual?

Maybe not.

My 65th birthday was a wedding, of sorts: of me to what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn calls my continuation (rather than my birth), and a joining of my life to the lives of dear friends who chose to be with me that day. It was certainly an occasion filled with lots of presence — celebrating the genuine present — wrapped in the beauty of my new hometown, tied with the ribbon of all the experiences I am having in it, the things I am learning from it. That special day in the Headlands, I received many gifts.

But the best was the gratitude I was able to feel for every single bit of it.

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Read more in Evalyn’s “For Better and For Better: A Story of Divorce, Dachshunds and Everlasting Love,” coming eventually to a bookstore near you. E-mail: ev@marinatimes.com