“Is the Buddha Coming to My Birthday Party?”

July 2012
July 2012

I could hear the shrieking of five-year-olds in the bouncy fortress from the driveway as I arrived at my goddaughter’s birthday. When they saw me, she and her best friend, Mia, ran to the mesh lookout windows to say hello, clinging to the strings and mushing their noses against the material, still bouncing lightly as they spoke.  Adrianna climbed out to hug me and noticed a necklace I was wearing.

“Who’s that?” she inquired, fingering the bright blue pendant.

“That’s the Buddha,” I responded, figuring this would be sufficient. It didn’t seem like the time to delve into spirituality, even for a wacky 20-somerthing godmother who taught yoga for a living.

“Oh.” Adrianna said, satisfied enough. Until she wasn’t…“Is he coming to my party?”

I wish I could tell you that I said something meaningful, from which my goddaughter then gleaned a childhood twinkle of wisdom. Instead, I ummed & I-don’t-know-ed until another five-year-old shrieked with glee, and her attention was needed elsewhere. She ran away.

Next week, she turns 13, signaling inevitable changes in our bond. I no longer have to pretend to sleep beside her to convince her to nap. She no longer naps, obviously. How many times I’d open my eyes, thinking she’d fallen for my ruse, only to see her tiny face inches from mine, awaiting whatever was next. I still stock her favorite healthy foods before she visits; cherry tomatoes have always been like candy to her— ‘matoes, she used to call them.

I no longer carry her anywhere, but sometimes we link arms through a crowded street or T station. I remember tripping once in the Davis Square station while holding her when she was very small. Fear shot through me so fast that I barely noticed I’d landed squarely on my kneecap, tearing my favorite pair of jeans. My knee bled and began to bruise as we boarded the train, but I didn’t care. I was shaken and grateful that I didn’t drop her, and she didn’t notice how terrified I was.

My friend, Abigail, a mother of two adult children and one teen and a standout high school English teacher, once told me what teenagers most want from their parents: beige couch.

“I’m sorry; I don’t understand. They want new furniture?”

“Beige couch,” she repeated. “Comforting. Supportive. Blends in. Doesn’t stand out.  Always there when needed.”

Being a godparent is nowhere close to the same realm as parenting, but we all know it takes a village, and I’ve been thinking about how I can be most useful to Adrianna, while she leaves childhood and enters adolescence. I keep recalling the women who helped me navigate through the quagmire of junior high and high school—older cousins like Louisa and Celia who laughed so easily; family friends like our childhood nanny, Emma, who was studying to become a lawyer and so smart and the opposite of boy crazy and Linda, who made not wearing the same cool clothes as everyone else seem even cooler; teachers like Mrs. Hess who honed in like a hawk on the fact that I could identify any author by a sentence of his or her work. I was like a nerd sniper of writing styles in my accuracy, but I didn’t rate the highest on standardized tests like the SATs, and I sometimes thought that this meant I couldn’t be a writer. Other teachers sometimes hinted at this.

And, then, my coaches—too many tough, dedicated, big-hearted, hard-pushing, whistle-wielding women to count. Coach Robertson, who first taught me to end even the most frustrating days by thinking of one small thing for which I am grateful. Coach Smurl, who was the first same-sex relationship, pregnant woman, and parent I’d ever witnessed. When DOMA fell last month, I thought of her. I am forever grateful to her for helping to shape my view of family, marriage, and love. Coach Marini, my original swim coach, who simply would not let us use the word can’t. It was like a swear word to her.

I know that I can’t be any of them (in this context, I think Mrs. Marini would be OK with it), nor can I be a beige couch. I can only be myself, to the best of my ability and hope that somehow the joy and satisfaction in that glints in my goddaughter’s direction. I want her to know that she’s strong, bright, kind, and unstoppable. I don’t want her worrying about her weight already. I want her to know the difference between liking Kanye West’s music and seeing him as a role model of any kind other than working hard at a job you love. I want her to know about love—that it is supportive and comfortable, a little like a couch. But it also dazzles, lifts you up, amplifies what’s best about you, is tender with what’s worst, and would never dream of making you smaller or less than you dare to become. Because being yourself will require daring—not the kind that jumps off things but the kind that forgoes the opinion of the crowd, the popular, too often, the mean girls. Now and always.

Adrianna visited last week, her last as a twelve-year-old. We went for a walk through Christian Science Park, past the reflection pool and had dinner on my deck. The arugula salad was her favorite, and she thinks she might like to run track & field next year. These were both of her volition. I swear. We listened to hip-hop after dinner and looked at old photos.  The photo below was one of her favorites, from that birthday party when she turned 5 and asked if the Buddha would be there.

July 2005
July 2005

I didn’t mention that the Buddha is no longer a single living person who comes to parties or eats cake. Instead, he’s a symbol of the best, brightest, and most peaceful core within each of us.

We went to a well-known bakery in my neighborhood, and I told her about its chef and owner, Joanne Chang. For her birthday, I bought her a pair of Nike Frees, her first proper running shoes. It was oppressively hot that day, as we walked toward her mom’s office, but she didn’t want me to carry them for her. She held them close on her lap as we rode the T.

She taught me something, about handstands, too. I do them for yoga, and she does them for gymnastics. Mine are often short-lived if I’m not near a wall for support.

“How do they teach you to stay up without a wall,” I asked?

“Oh, I can’t do it yet, but people say you have to press down really hard, to push your legs up higher… You have to lift yourself up,” she explained.

Days later, during a workout at the gym, I read the latest issue of Vogue on the elliptical machine with an article about Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of congress, a woman from Hawaii who served in Iraq, recently sworn in using the Bhagavad Gita, and jumped rope, marveling at how hard it is after you don’t do it for a while. Then, I fluttered in and out of handstands, practicing without an agenda, just having fun  On the last one, I thought of Adrianna’s advice, and I pushed down harder into the ground, until I felt buoyant and steady.

As I hovered longer than usual, I thought of my goddaughter’s face, not the baby face I used to see after fake napping but the young adult face, with its bright, dark eyes sparkling and watching, ready for whatever comes next. I smiled at how high she might soar knowing already how to lift herself up. I walked home by the street with a community garden, which I explained means that each person has their own plot of land, and they can grow whatever they want. She liked this idea, and as we walked ahead, she was quiet, thinking about the possibilities.

Originally published on my website, Om Gal.