For the first time in 25 years, my birthday is finally not Tax Day. It is still the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and the day that the Titanic sunk, but federal income taxes no longer hold my birthday hostage! However, the circumstances surrounding the reasons for Tax Day no longer falling on my birthday have nothing do with the calendar or Leap Year.
Last year when I wrote a post about Year 24, I never would have imagined that Year 25 would be ending this way. A family birthday party will be replaced with a FaceTime call, an outing for ice cream will have me receiving my waffle cone from a worker donning rubber gloves. And though I could never have predicted these changes in public life, my Year 24 entry did speak into the certain uncertainty of the year ahead. I had just finished a book called Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. In it, Bowler writes these words, which merit reposting:
“I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again. Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
Being in the middle of a pandemic on my birthday should probably feel stranger than it does, but in some ways, it seems like a fitting end to Year 25. This year was strange, sad, and surprising. Both terrible and wonderful days were had in Year 25, days where I finished marathons and days when I cried before I even had breakfast. Year 25 was, without a doubt, the hardest year of my life yet. I struggled with issues from my past, doubts regarding God’s presence in my present circumstances, and asked daily questions about my future.
But as I reread Bowler’s words, I am drawn to a particular phrase: “Joy persists somehow.” In the midst of the persistent pain of my 25th year, I see how joy persisted somehow, too. I enjoyed the pleasure of long runs through forests of Northeast Ohio, of a quiet afternoon on the Scottish coast, hugs and kisses from my nephews while we watched Sleeping Beauty, cooking and baking in my light-filled kitchen and serving friends around my Ikea table. On days I could not bring myself to pray, others prayed for me, sang for me, preached to me. People listened and I learned. I got to be more honest with myself and others than I ever had before, and that honesty has and will continue to bring healing. God did not disappear, even when my eyes had trouble seeing him clearly, or even at all.
Each year, I become more sober to the fact of my mortality, that I only have so many birthdays left. The mortal nature of the human condition is tragically even more obvious this year on my birthday. Yet in this time of global grief, I see joy continuing to persist. I see it in backyard weddings, in cookies left on doorsteps, in Easter services streamed online, in cards in the mail, in hand-sewn masks. I see it in balcony sing-alongs, 8 pm clapping sessions, sidewalk chalk pictures, and window signs addressed to passerby. I see it on Zoom calls when 3-year old Eleanor sees her friend Harper and her eyes light up, so happy to see her friend through the screen. I feel it in the text messages I receive, the email replies I get, the memes my friends send me, the jokes my roommate and I make on day 34 of quarantine.
So as Year 25 comes to a strange close, I will share my birthday wish. I do not wish for a better year, a year without pain. I wish for a year where I do not forget the joys that existed in the pain. I wish for a year where we do not forget the people we missed, the love we felt, the forgiveness we gave, the God who was there through it all.