Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 36, which I decided was an auspicious age.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s (2006) narration of her book, Eat, Pray, Love. When I read this book for the first time about a decade ago, I enjoyed it but did not feel a particularly strong connection with the author or her story. After having been married once, experienced divorce, several bouts of very dark depression, and marrying for the second time, Gilbert’s story and experiences reach me on a much more profound, personal level. The book also speaks to me in a deeply meaningful way now that I had a regular yoga and meditation practice.
At the start of my 36th year, Eat, Pray, Love also speaks to my age. Gilbert organized the book according to the design of a Japa mala, a strand of beads used to help one focus while meditating. There are three parts to the book, and each is divided into 36 individual stories. Together, they add up to the 108 beads that comprise a mala.
I am 1/3 of a mala, I told my husband over coffee and a delicious birthday breakfast of scrambled eggs with feta and fried potatoes. He had already brought me coffee in bed in honor of the Greg Brown song, Good Morning Coffee, which he had shared with me many years ago on the first mix he sent to me when I was living in Alaska. My husband and I spent the first four years of our relationship at a distance, and we used to send each other mixes of songs that communicated our love and desire to be together to help ease the discomfort and heartache caused by being so far apart.
There is an art form to creating a really satisfying mix of songs, and I still miss the absence of tape decks in cars. With a cd, you have a certain number of songs that will fit within the limited space of a disc. A tape cassette also has a finite space, but it takes time and practice to get the last song on each side to fit perfectly before the tape runs out. But I digress and also show my age in this nostalgic trajectory.
I would like to write a letter to the universe and take it to the ocean, light it on fire, and put it into ocean, I continued.
A few days earlier, I had read aloud to my husband the section in Eat, Pray, Love where the author writes a letter to God, requesting that her husband sign their divorce papers, and I had been musing over writing a letter to send my own desires out into the ethos. She was driving across Kansas with a dear friend while on a book tour and expressed her need to avoid more time in court to end her marriage.
Her friend responded with these words:
You are part of this universe, Liz. You’re a constituent—you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me—it will at least be taken into consideration. (p. 41)
My husband believes very strongly in the idea of setting your intention and expressing it out loud, and this idea has rubbed off onto me. From him, I have learned to quickly repudiate anything I say that is negative or counter to my true desires by repeating the phrase, That is not my intention; that is not my intention, that is not my intention and waving the negative thoughts away with my hands in a gesticulation reminiscent of a Reiki energy practice.
Given this inclination, my husband was likely not surprised when I expressed my desire to take my expression of intention to the next level with the additional act of an oratory reading, accompanied by fire and water.
Ok, he responded.
Of course, being a pagan, I decided to address my letter to the universe rather than to any particular god.
Will you bring paper and something to write with? We were getting ready to travel to the coast to dip our feet in the water, and I did not want to forget these two important items.
We headed out and after a bus, tram, and metro ride, we finally boarded the train for Oostende. On the train, I set about writing my intention to the universe. At one stop, a group of young, noisy boys got on with two adult men at the helm.
We endured the noise for several minutes, and then I suggested we see if there were seats in a quieter car.
Why suffer needlessly, especially on my birthday?
Once seated in a much more tranquil setting, I recommenced with my writing.
We made it to Oostende and spent the afternoon wandering along the waterfront, searching for lunch, and then trying to find a relatively quiet place to walk with our feet in the ocean.
We found a restaurant that was packed with people, which we took as a good sign, though our meal wound up a bit more on the strange side than we would have liked.
How’s your beer? I asked my husband while we waited for our food to be arrive.
It’s ok, he said.
Yeah, I guess you never really know what you are going to get when travel to a foreign place.
Just as I was finishing my sentence, our food arrived, supporting this theory. The nachos were more like a plate of Doritos covered with a kind of processed, liquid cheese than what we had envisioned from the image on the menu. The veggie patty was also on the strange side, though at least the bread was fresh and tasty and there was a small side salad to counter the effects of the cheese on my delicate digestive tract.
Despite the somewhat strange fare and the screaming children, we had a nice time at the restaurant.
Take a note never to travel on the weekend in the summer, I said. At least, next year my birthday will be on a Monday.
After lunch, we headed back to the water. We wound our way through throngs of people with shopping bags and took pictures of the cityscape, street art, shop window displays, and funny signs.
My favorite was one that was meant to read “enjoy the moment,” but the “n” was missing from “enjoy.” Coming from a Jewish background, I read it as “oy the moment,” while my husband (perhaps from spending so much time with a woman of Jewish descent) read it as “n’oy the moment.”
Oostende was not at all what I had anticipated. Having spent time on the coast of the French region of Bretagne and Normandy, I had imagined quaint old buildings and quiet, wild coastline. With its many tall, modern apartment buildings and hotels lining the beach and trash and beachgoers covering the sand, Oostende was definitely not quaint and anything but quiet.
You could see teaming masses of people in all directions, and being an introvert who actively avoids crowds and crowded places, I had no desire to try to meander my way around everyone in order to walk in the water.
Just picture them all as puppies, I said, repeating the words of a Prescott College alum who had shared this idea as a way of opening our hearts to embrace all people with love, which he said was far easier to do when confronted by a puppy than another human being.
Despite the protests from my inner introvert, we walked onto the sandy beach and into the writhing mass of humanity.
Shall we take our sandals off? I asked. The sand was littered with cigarette butts.
As we headed toward the water, I expressed my uncertainty over my initial plan for my letter.
I’m not sure I want to read my letter of intention out loud here. It just doesn’t feel right. My husband agreed.
At least, we can walk in the water while we try to find a quiet spot, he suggested.
So we walked toward the water.
We stood at the water’s edge, waiting for the waves to find our feet. The feeling of the water washing over my toes was like a homecoming, a gentle caress from a dear friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. My whole being sighed with relief.
We walked by people and dogs of all age and size.
People in Belgium are a lot larger than I imagined they would be. We could be in the United States, I noted.
We crossed over a rocky jetty and onto the beach on the other side.
This is better, my husband said.
There were fewer people and the overall atmosphere was more tranquil, though there was booming techno music coming from a tent city not too far away. In Europe—in Belgium, at least—it seems like one is never far from the sounds of techno music.
This is definitely better, I agreed, but it still doesn’t feel like the right place to read my intention.
That’s ok. We can just walk in the water and enjoy the ocean.
And this was just what we did. We walked along, stopping to look at rocks and shells, until we came to a quiet place at the far side of the beach where we could sit.
With threads of techno booming behind us, we said side by side, enjoying the ocean, the gulls watching us for signs that we might share food with them, terns flying overhead, and each other’s company.
We found wild looking rocks—one that looked like it had either a fish or alien face on it—and rocks in the shape of hearts, which I am always on the lookout for.
When our feet had dried, we walked over to a pier and walked to the end, where we stood side by side, watching the boats travel in and out. Then, we headed to the train and back to the quiet solitary existence we so cherish.
It’s good to be away from humanity, we husband exhaled once we returned home, showered, and settled in.
Indeed! I agreed with a happy sigh.
The woman across from us on the train ride back had talked on her cell phone nonstop. Each time she would hang up the phone, we would exhale with relief, only to cringe when she would dial yet another number. She did not set her phone down even once for the entire trip.
I think some people just cannot be alone with themselves, ever, I said to my husband. It’s kind of sad, but it also isn’t easy to be alone with your thoughts.
It will be good to be away from all of these fat, loud, and annoying people. A woman seated on the other side of the train had been downing waffles and a sugary drink for the entire ride, and it was making my stomach turn. It was the ingestion of such unhealthy food that bothered me, and I found myself worrying for her health with each bite of waffle.
Yes. We have cats at home for that.
We ordered sushi takeout for dinner, which more than made up for our bizarre lunch experience. The total for our order came to 36,36. As we cleaned up, we talked about the number 36.
I’m 36, I said in a tone of shock mixed with awe. I’m closer to 40 now.
But you’re even. When I turned 30, I had expressed my distaste for this decade because every year would always have an odd number in it. knowing my affinity for even numbers, my husband had eased my discomfort by explaining that the odd years had their own kind of evenness because the numerals that comprised the whole number added up to an even number. Have I mentioned that I adore this man?
Still a little odd, though.
Well, you’re always going to be a little odd.
Ha! I snorted in response.
We held my letter of intention ceremony on our back terrace. My husband set down a skillet, and we sat while I read my letter aloud.
You might fold it to help it burn better.
Ok. I folded it into a tight, origami-esque shape.
You might want it a little less tight.
Ok. I created a kind of birdlike boat shape.
I carefully lit each corner alight, and we blew into the delicate flames, watching the paper crinkle and fold into itself as it turned to ash.
Later, we sat for our evening meditation. Every time I click “done” at the end of our meditation, the app shares the number of other people who meditated with us. This evening’s number was 3,634.
Wow, if only two more people had been meditating with us, it would have been 3,636, I said to my husband. Of course, I imagine there were at least two other people meditating, they just might not have been using this app.
The horror, my husband replied.
I read aloud from our favorite series about witches while my husband lay with eyes closed beside me. It had been a perfect day, and my heart was filled with love and gratitude for this cherished being by my side. I fell asleep snuggled up into his back.
Sometime in the dark hours of morning, I was awakened by a loud sound. I first thought it was a man yelling, but then I realized it was the sound of cat sex, a regular occurrence both day and night in our corner of Brussels. People here do not seem to spay or neuter their dogs or cats, and the cats get some serious action.
I lay awake in the dark. As thoughts came, I decided whether or not I needed to engage them. Those I didn’t, I sent on their way. Then, I experienced a moment of intense clarity.
This was going to be an auspicious year. I was 36, an auspicious number. It was not only part of the 108 beads on a mala. It was twice the number 18, which is the chai number for life in Judaism. Also, the individual integers of 36, when multiplied, equaled 18.
I felt both clarity and a kind of hopeful relief. Everything would be ok. Everything was ok. This year, I would be given the gift of peace. I listened to the steady rhythm of my husband breathing beside me and fell asleep.