Yesterday was my birthday. One more year and I'll be 40, that dreaded year where "over the hill" actually starts to mean something. And today I'm thinking about newness, about what that means as we get older, about what birth is and how we crave it even as our bodies start to show their wear: varicose veins (yes, I have them), wrinkles, weak joints, wiry, silver hairs that stick out oddly in the part of our hair and even our eyebrows.
Newness takes on a fascination it didn't before, and we see people older than us struggle to be re-born. Every semester I teach stay-at-home moms who are now college freshmen. My mother's step-brother left his career as a scientist and his position as a university professor to become an apprentice to a renowned painter. He's working on his own paintings, hasn't sold any yet, but every day he shows up, eager to be taught. Every time I talk to him I think, we are never done becoming.
It's been a strange summer. We've done the usual things: hiked in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains; camped, fished, and kayaked at Flaming Gorge; watched Monday night family movies on the grass at the city's amphitheater; barbecued in my in-laws backyard with great-grandpa simultaneously chewing a hot dog and hollering for my toddler to come give him a hug. But something odd has been afoot in our own backyard, literally.
At the beginning of the summer, as I was walking out to water our kitchen garden one afternoon, one of the neighbor kids who'd grown tired of jumping on the trampoline and was playing with a firetruck on the patio ran over to tell me that we had a squirrel stuck in our window well. I looked in, and sure enough, there was a frantic little squirrel running around in circles down there with the rocks. I wondered if he was feeble, since I've seen squirrels scale brick walls all the time, but this one didn't seem capable of getting himself out. I climbed in and after about two seconds of trying to get him out with my bare hands and yelping each time he scurried up my arm, I wised up and put on a pair of gardening gloves. He was so skittish it took about five minutes to finally just scoop him into my hands and then toss him out.
By the time I crawled out and brushed off my pants, I was tired and sweaty and a little embarrassed by all of the squealing I'd just done in front of kids. I watched the squirrel dash haphazardly around the toys and tables on the patio, completely ignoring the dozens of trees we have around our yard, and then, to my dismay, he ran right back over toward the same window well at top speed and fell back down. It was almost cartoonish: a little Wylie Coyote running over the edge of a cliff, holding there for one second, and then dropping into an abyss. I climbed back in again, yelped, cursed, and flung him out. He scurried over to the carport and hid there behind the Acura.
"Don't go near that squirrel," I warned the kids. "He's crazy or rabid or just incredibly stupid. All of which means he's dangerous."
We turned back to our usual business and forgot about him.
The next day as I was cleaning up from lunch, my son hollered to me. "Mom! He's back in the window well! That squirrel is back!" Luckily my husband was home, and, in his dress shirt and tie, he crawled in and repeated the same routine of scoop and toss (minus the squeals) and once again the squirrel scurried around the patio and promptly fell right back in.
After screaming in laughter and frustration, we finally got him out and once again hoped it was the end of it.
That night I heard screeching noises coming from just outside our window. It was too dark and I was too tired to look, but the next morning I peeked in and sure enough, there he was. Only this time he had burrowed into a corner and lay there twitching, the little bag of his belly moving in and out slowly with each breath and no sound coming from him now. He was determined to die there.
My husband decided we didn't want a squirrel corpse rotting by our vegetable garden, and in a last hope to reunite him with his own, he scooped the squirrel into a shoe box and drove him a few blocks away to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains where there are miles of trees and thousands of squirrels. Maybe his own could take care of him somehow. My husband drove home and we all washed our hands of the whole affair.
The next morning my son screamed that there was a dead squirrel in the window well.
As if that weren't odd enough, a week later we found two newborn squirrels lying on the ground just outside of our covered porch. Hairless and fragile, skin stretched over their eyes, freakishly large heads, they looked alien. My toddler kept calling them baby giraffes. My oldest thought they were shrews. We stared at them for a minute, clueless about what to do, when suddenly an adult squirrel raced over, picked up one with its teeth, dropped it in its paws, licked it all over, then picked it back up by the back of its neck and scampered into the trees. All of that took about 5 seconds. Mesmerized, we slowly backed away so that it could return and claim the second one too.
Over the next week we found two more newborn squirrels, same place. I've searched all over and can't find a nest, can't figure out how they got there or why, after living in our house for 10 years, we are seeing this happen now. It's raining baby squirrels. The old are choosing their place to die. There's a whole world at work I can't quite understand.
So what on earth does this have to do with Mark Chapter 2? This is where Jesus tells his adversaries that "no man putteth new wine into old bottles" or "seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment." New things have to start fresh. The old dies and the new begins and makes its own way to become what it is fully meant to be.
I guess that goes for the Mosaic Law and Jesus's gospel as much as it does for, say, the life cycles of small animals and even the way we, as humans, evolve. Not that we don't draw from the old. We always do. But what is new, what is born or re-born, has to live in its own way. As much as we try to rescue the old, revive it, it is determined to die. It's time.
I'm determined to appreciate the new. Birthdays always make me reflect on my life more, and that can be productive. Sure, it can be depressing when I look at the list of "101 Things to Do Before I Die" that I wrote when I was a teenager. Globe-trotting, as it turns out, is far more expensive than I'd realized. But I'm so glad I included things like "learn how to make strawberry shortcake from scratch," which is pretty do-able in a day.
I hope I keep introducing myself to the new, that I remain open, interested, malleable. That, when it's time, I let the old in me burrow its way into a place to die and let the new, as odd as it may seem at first, as gangly and vulnerable, find a place to thrive.
Europe in three weeks! Strawberry shortcake today.