Waking up on the morning of my birthday, the idea dawned on me that I was in an accidental retreat. I had this slight suspicion that a kind of "awakening" toward a greater truth would happen. (These kinds of experiences tend to happen to me when I'm in solitude, in prayer, and in a quiet space.) While I had been planning on hiking, the god of weather thought otherwise. Perhaps God desired something different for me. With the Gent gone on a trip, me home alone in our small, cellular flat, and the gushing rain that flowed like small rivers outside, I surrendered my day to Jesus and was open to how things would play out - inside me. I knew it would be a cozy day; I just didn't know I would naturally be retreating when I hadn't planned on it or felt led into it in advance like my usual times of solitude.
With all those thoughts swirling around moments after opening my eyelids and the curtains, I knew that I still wanted to keep to my other desire: getting over to Zuni Cafe to eat the afternoon away while writing, reflecting, and reading. After I gloriously slept in and finished up some necessary things, I was out the door. I was stoked for some unexplainable reason to walk in the rain and take the metro muni. Maybe it was just the energy of being around people in public spaces. Perhaps it was because I have always loved walking in the rain and feeling her drops of water on my skin. While writing this, a new idea came to mind: perhaps it was a mini, urban baptismal expression of becoming something new or growing more whole into my created being: I was drenched, then went down below the ground, and then rose back up – only this time instead of being comforted and celebrated by a pastor and congregation about a new life, I was on Van Ness Street walking my way through the homeless for a couple of blocks until I crossed Rose Street, some scooters, and through the doors of Zuni's bricked-façade building. I was about to celebrate my life through feasting.
After utterly indulging my palate with two different salads, two glasses of rosé, an aperitif (Lillet Rosé), and their infamous hamburger (with a birthday phone call from the Gent in between the salads and the glasses), I decided to continue on in my food trek and enjoy their flourless chocolate cake (Julia Child's recipe) and an espresso. This was all over the course of three hours, accompanied by thoughts scribbled down and blurbs read on the history of whiskey brewing in America.
When I was strolling back from using the loo and paying for my service, my eye caught what would necessarily be a lovely addition to my own birthday gift: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I remembered this from last year when I was there with others for my birthday dinner. I decided to seize the moment and bought the $40 tome. When I was paying for this second bill (while wondering if the Gent would approve), the server asked, "Are you visiting from somewhere?"
Cocktailed with bashfulness and boldness, I answered with a "nope" and that I was a local celebrating my birthday there.
His facial expression in response was all the confirmation needed for me to understand that someone had noticed my long lunch. To be honest, I was a little surprised. While I was there for a few hours, I honestly didn't think I would be noticed since, after all, I was the table that was "camping out" in servers’ terms. Servers usually forget about these tables. I know, I was one.
When it came time for my birthday dinner (an hour and a half later), I was enthusiastically welcoming and meeting some friends and family still on a semi-full stomach. I tried not to mind since this was the original slated thing for my big day and going to happen at my other favorite place: Una Pizza Napoletana. This artisan pizza-maker, sporting sleeves of tatoos, creates delectable masterpieces out of about three ingredients. I personally love that one can't modify any of the four pizzas they serve Wednesday through Friday nor the fifth one they offer on Saturday (which they only have on that day because of the freshness of the farmer's eggs who hand-delivers them). The conversation over dinner was pleasant, and I was thrilled to be in a place that was comfortable to me.
All this to say, when we sat down my friend Trina leans over and whispers, "This is totally your kind of place." How did she know? What tipped her off? While I was again surprised at someone else's remarks, it wasn't until I began to open presents afterward (alone in my flat) that I was able to see more of myself through the lens of how others viewed me: a lover of good food and ingredients.
Another friend decided to give me a ride home afterward, and I ended up staying over at her house that night since she thought I shouldn't stay home alone on my birthday. Usually, being on my own really doesn't bother me, sometimes I actually welcome and love it. This time, though, there was a tenderness in my heart from reflections and for a mysterious reason, I was grateful she offered.
After a cozy finish to my birthday comprised of a candle-lit bath and opening a special gift from my mom that I had been saving, I slept. Light was all around me so it was a challenge. In the morning, upon getting ready to leave, this friend offered to give me a simple, white, French pâté dish and shared that out of all of her friends (she's in her mid-sixties), that I would probably be the person who would use it the most. I said, "Of course I'll take it if you don't want it..." And thanked her with gratitude.
After the new day passed and moved into the night, after tidying up and showering, I hopped onto my bed to open up the remaining gifts. (For what it is worth, I am seeing just how grateful I am to (a) have access to food (and good food) and be able to pay for it, (b) be able to choose this for myself as a way of celebrating myself – something that surprisingly is a discipline for me – and (c) receive thoughtful gifts from people.)
I decided to unwrap the presents in the order in which I received them more or less. I first opened a bottle of wine from some dear friends. I read the back of the label; these grapes were grown in clay soil. I was surprised that fruit could flourish in what seemed like an unlikely context to me: a dry one void of nutrients. I next opened up my mother-in-law's gift: her homemade Meyer-lemon curd. Next up was a gift from the friend who gave me the pâté dish: the novel Delicious! by Ruth Reichl about a woman who feels out of place in New York, working at a food magazine. I wondered if she got this for me because she has heard I can feel so out of place in San Francisco. This was followed up by another gift from her and two Italian chocolates from the pizza shop owner and his wife. I then unwrapped one that came in the mail: my oldest sister's gift, which was a recently published cookbook I had wanted but never told her about: Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich. Bottom line: a theme was quickly becoming apparent.
But perhaps the greatest surprise was not my realization that I loved great food and ingredients (or the gift of understanding that somehow others have come to understand that about me). No, the greatest gift was feeling the fragrance of love (yes feeling not smelling) fill me. It was as if I were the walls of my own heart and I could feel a fullness of the aroma filling me. I had been praying all throughout my quiet day. Walking to the metro muni, underground, walking to Zuni's or as I leaned against the glass walls gazing out at the rain outside and the feeling of it inside. Even during my short hour home in between meals, I prayed. I prayed that God would help me understand why I felt sad. It dawned on me: I had felt unloved. A feeling familiar to me.
This birthday, sitting on my bed with the presents opened, I sat with this feeling I had felt all day and then had this glaring ephiphany: I am loved. It was not because of the presents. It was not because I celebrated myself. It was God who helped peel off the layers from my eyes - or perhaps off from my heart - and grow a rose out of some clay soil. He helped me to see (or feel) that I can parse out the dysfunction of relationships and appreciate the good coming out of them. The love that is there even when it may be hard to find in one's tone, domination, manipulation, control or other coping mechanisms I may feel in relational dynamics. I could appreciate the person without their dysfunction or dis-ease as I sometimes think about it. I could receive the love from one even in the midst of their woundedness. It was amazing to finally get - not on a head level (something I "knew"), but feel on a heart level. And I was just tickled that somehow over the course of three years, I had been known in such a way to others that was unknown to me - even to those afar. While the gifts declared that This is the Year of the Food, my heart made a step forward my hike in life: embodying the joy that comes from receiving the gift of being known and loved.
After this epiphany and being called into a greater truth, I then read a birthday card and gift from my younger sister: 33 things she loves about me. Let all the rivers flow outside and in.