Birthday Wishes

IMG_1116Recently, my son sent me a text asking what I would like for my birthday this year.  I wasted no time in sending the answer:  a beachfront condo on Sanibel Island, a wrinkle-free neck, skinny thighs and good eyesight.  Even though I graciously told him he could select which of the gifts he would prefer to give me, I didn’t get a reply.  Perhaps he was too busy comparing the costs and labor involved in each of my selections before settling on his final choice.

I remember very well how easily I used to come up with a list of things I wanted for my birthday.  Like most children raised on lots of television, I always had a ready list of new toys and games I had seen advertised and that I was dying to have.  Later, as a teenager and young adult, I yearned for a wardrobe full of expensive and beautiful clothes that would allow me to have whatever look was trendy at the time.  Still later, as a not-so-young adult, there were always books, jewelry, a few clothes and other various household items that I would be pleased to receive, so even then the question of “what do you want for your birthday?” wasn’t hard to answer.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere in my journey through middle age, I just stopped wanting quite so many things.  Maybe I don’t long for beautiful clothes any more because I know that those clothes probably aren’t going to look all that great on my middle-aged body.  (And I’m actually okay with that:  one of the benefits of aging is that I no longer feel the pressure to strive for the “perfect” appearance.)  I don’t mind wearing the same few necklaces and bracelets each time I go out, and as for household items, my house is already as full as I want it to be.

I still love books, but years of diligently collecting the works of my favorite authors means that my bookshelves are basically full.  I don’t want to end up like my father, who had more than sixty boxes of books that he insisted on bringing with him on each of our family’s many moves.  (A family friend once commented, “By the time your dad finally gets all his books unpacked and on his shelves, it’s basically time to start packing them up again for the next move.”)  I go through my books every so often, getting rid of the ones that I no longer read so that I have room for any new books I add to my collection.  So far, my system is working, because I haven’t bought a new bookshelf in years.

So now, at the age of almost fifty-eight, I have a hard time coming up with a birthday wish list of things that anyone who isn’t fabulously wealthy (beachfront condos don’t come cheap) could actually buy for me.  And that’s a good thing, because it means I have reached the point where I have figured out that the things that I want the most, and the things that are the most important to me, have absolutely nothing to do with money.

I’d Rather Read About It

A good friend of mine once asked me why I enjoyed reading so much.  “How can you  just sit there for hours,” she wanted to know, “doing nothing but staring at a book?  I just don’t have the patience for that!”  I have to admit that I found her question so odd that I couldn’t think of an answer right away.  Especially since I know that my friend really enjoys watching movies, which the last time I checked, also involves sitting still for long periods of time.  And while I do enjoy a good movie, if I were given the choice between reading a book or watching a movie or television show, I’ll pick reading every single time.

A movie shows me things, in its own way and in its own good time, and sometimes with jerky camera movements that leave me feeling just a little bit motion sick.  A book, on the other hand, tells the story with words, and there are always plenty of details that are left to the reader’s imagination.  That means each of us are going to picture the characters, the action, and the setting just a little bit differently, so that reading a story becomes so much more personal that simply watching the action on a screen.  And I don’t know about anyone else, but I usually imagine the main character looking at least a little like people I know, and that makes them very real.  In a movie, you are stuck with what the actor actually looks like.

IMG_0696Words, if put together skillfully, can convey the subtle nuance, off-beat humor, and shared insights that make reading such a joy.  I enjoy the mysteries of Gwendoline Butler, not so much for their plots (which are good), but for her way with words.  In her book Cracking Open A Coffin, she describes the main character, John Coffin, sitting at a table listening to his companion’s troubles.  His dog, Bob, is underneath the table with his head resting heavily on Coffin’s foot, which is beginning to go numb.  She writes:  “Coffin looked his sympathy and tried again to shift Bob from his foot.  Bob sank deeper down.”  Anyone who has experience with a stubborn dog knows exactly how one can “sink deeper down” when it wants to stay put.  But that’s not something that could easily be shared on a screen.

When I’m reading a good book, I am truly seeing the world from someone else’s eyes, because everything is told through the narrator’s perspective. I know what the character is thinking, not just saying and doing.  I may be a middle-aged, middle class Protestant woman, but after reading Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, I know what it feels like to be a young, broke,Quaker girl from England who is struggling to start a new life in Ohio in the 1850’s.  That’s a gift.  And although I don’t read poetry nearly as much as I should, a good poem can pack so much meaning into just a few simple words.  My college yearbook used these words from Chidiock Tichborne as a memorial to a student who died during the school year:  “My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun.  And now I live, and now my life is done.”  Exactly.

So yes, I know I spend a good portion of my life with my nose in a book.  But there are so many good books out there, and so many authors whose words are just waiting to be read, and so much to experience, enjoy, and learn from them.  Personally, I can think of very few better ways to spend my time.