Why Your Birthday Matters
Your birthday is a lot more than you think it is.
Posted June 15, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Big deal. A birthday. The day you slid down the birth canal and took your first breath on your own. You and seven billion other living people had that experience. If I had any mathematical or statistical aptitude, I would probably divide that number by 365 to estimate how many people in the world might have the same birthday as mine. That’s how I always looked at birthdays, but last week, all of that changed.
It started when my husband Paul and I got an invitation to El Monte Sagrado resort in Taos, New Mexico, for a new farm-to-table alfresco dining experience they will be offering on the last Wednesday of every month through September. Sure, I thought, why not? It was the day before my birthday, and when I casually mentioned that to the woman who invited us, she said they would add in a spa treatment for me. Dinner in the lap of the sacred mountain, and someone ministering to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that have carried me this far—it sounded perfect.
Several staff members at El Monte Sagrado confided that they wanted to change the image some people had of a resort that was a little formal and exclusive. The idea of the dinner was that people who didn’t know each other would meet, mingle, enjoy each others’ company, and then dine on gourmet food prepared by executive chef Cristina Martinez and served family style. The staff was so friendly, and the atmosphere so relaxed, that everyone bonded right away.
Long tables were beautifully set on the grass lawn, and the event began with cocktails and hors d’ouevres at 5:30, proceeded to a three-course dinner with wines from Vivac winery (the owners participated in the dinner), and then, to my dazzled surprise, everyone lit sparklers and sang happy birthday to me over dessert.
The next day, on my actual birthday, I showed up at the spa, and the receptionist wished me a happy birthday. Then I was introduced to Melissa, a tall, handsome, Hispano-Indian woman with braids that cascaded down her back to her waist. She gave me the staurolite treatment, which involved the use of sacred garnet and mica stones that are found in Taos; if you look at them, you see what is called a “fairy cross.”
First I was vigorously dry brushed, then slathered with turquoise mud and wrapped up like the filling in a warm burrito. Next came a hydrating mask and massage. I said to Melissa that she had great power in her hands. She replied that she was afraid to cut her hair because she would lose her power. I laughed and said that sounded like Samson in the Hebrew Bible. She didn’t know about Samson, but she knew what her native elders told her: you must cut your hair on a full moon to make it thicker and facilitate faster growth. Something about that little bit of information spoke to my soul. I felt nourished inside and out.
For lunch, our Taos friends Susy and John said they’d like to treat me to a birthday meal. I was a little nonplussed at all the birthday fuss, but happily agreed. We dined on the patio at The Trading Post restaurant. The menu was Italian based, and with the red-and-white checked tablecloth, we felt as though we were in Europe. When it was time for dessert, a foot-high Napoleon arrived with a candle and everyone sang happy birthday to me.
An hour later, we were given a private tour of the new Larry Bell Hocus, Focus, and 12 exhibit at the Harwood Museum (through October 7). Larry has lived in Taos since l973, but he’s known as a Southern California cutting-edge artist because he also lives and works there. The Harwood has what is probably the world’s largest collection of Larry Bell pieces, and on my birthday his ex-wife and daughter accompanied us as we viewed the current show.
As I understand it, Larry makes glass sculptures by putting pieces of glass in a vacuum with a metal material that vaporizes and coats everything in its path when it melts. The Harwood show is almost all vacuum depositions on paper that Larry made over five decades. It also includes “fractions”—small jewel-like pieces that are fashioned from parts of his works that failed. What a visual paean to failure! And one room has 12-string guitars that Larry collects and abstracted lush, female forms that have pendulous breasts and broad hips and are inspired by the musical instruments.
When we saw the larger pieces, which are all about light and surfaces, we understood that Larry works with illusions created from mirror-like glass that emanated from the Los Alamos junkyard. Paul and I sat in chairs facing each other, and we watched each others’ faces morph and meld with our own. The pieces seem to have corners and sides and angles, but it’s all an illusion.
What intrigued me most was an enigmatic book that Larry made in 1975. He invented a visual code where each image (i.e. a man running) represented a letter or a space. He turned the alphabet into 26 pictures and 10 photos, which he explained was an “animated discourse.” I would have stood staring at it for an hour, but I was told there was a surprise waiting for us—we had a private viewing with us, Larry’s ex-wife and daughter, and Larry himself, in his studio.
Larry is an unassuming, witty, thoroughly unpretentious man whose studio is ringed with 12-string guitars, which he considers as sculptures that sing. He told us that he had hearing loss and never knew it, which is part of the reason he was a bad guitarist. In fact, once he was working at the Unicorn club in Los Angeles where Lenny Bruce was performing. The brilliant, unhinged comedian finished the show, and no one would leave before his next show. They didn’t know what to do. So Larry got onstage to play guitar, and the place emptied out.
When we asked Larry if we could see the vacuum chamber he uses, he led us to a huge machine that looked like something out of a retro sci-fi movie. “The equipment does a process that makes my eyes feel good,” Larry said with a smile.
And then Larry told us about his process—which involves three elements: spontaneity, intuition, and improvisation. He works very fast for this reason. “Those three tools are workable for anyone in life,” he mused.
I left Larry’s studio feeling, once again, that I had been nourished, and that it had been a great birthday, but it was not over. Paul arranged a surprise, romantic dinner at Lambert’s restaurant, on their outdoor patio. We feasted on beet salad with goat cheese, thick pea soup, and panko coated chicken with spicy barley and greens. Then, just when I was getting ready to leave, the waiter arrived with an offer: I could have any dessert I wanted since it was my birthday. I opted for thick, rich, rice pudding with cardamom and pistachio.
Back at El Monte Sagrado, I turned on my iPhone for the first time. I quickly checked email, and then briskly looked at Facebook. I thought I was hallucinating. Hundreds and hundreds of texts, emojis, videos, icons, hearts, and messages that ranged from short and sweet to elaborate, funny, wacky, and risqué to mild and wild. How did anyone, let alone everyone, know it was my birthday? And it wasn’t even a special dreaded birthday with round numbers. The answer: Facebook. There, I’ve said it. Something good about Facebook. All your friends are notified of birthdays, and they can choose to post on your timeline. I read each one, appreciated each one, was surprised by each one. It was fun. A birthday could be fun.
So that was the end of my birthday celebration, but it wasn’t. Paul suggested that we drive into Indian country, and for the next days we had one powerful, meaningful, moving experience after another. It began at the fabulous Indian Trails Trading Post in Grants, where Freeman, the owner, took us through his museum, told us stories about his life as a miner, trapper, and man who housed a famous lawman/outlaw. Then he saw us hovering over two antique pawn bolo ties, trying to decide which one was best for Paul. When we finally decided, Freeman made a decision too: he gave it to Paul. Gave it. Even Paul was getting gifts for my birthday.
We headed to a once-a-month Navajo rug auction, a native flea market where we had a deep, long, lucky-to-be-alive convo with natives from Zuni, attended a local festival, saw low-riders’ works of art, drove the back way to Acoma Pueblo and hung with a mother and son pottery duo and a woman who sells teeny, tiny pots, and ended up eating hollow hearts at a great Chinese restaurant. But that is for another story.
The reason I am writing this is that I am l00 percent convinced that this most unusual and unexpected sequence of birthday delights came to someone who pooh-poohed the meaning of birthdays, and who learned that it is important to feel cared about, appreciated, and even celebrated. Yes, people who like you or care about you or even love you need an opportunity to express it, and you need to hear and feel it. A birthday isn’t just the day you slid through the birth canal. It is also the day you came into the world, began your lifelong engagement with the world, and, every year on that day, you get feedback from those you have engaged with.