Today, I’m twenty-six. But I never thought much about what that means. It means I’m also twenty-five. And twenty-four. And seventeen. And ten. And five. And one.

I never feel like my new age on the day my previous age retires its crown. I don’t feel twenty-six today. I still feel like I was yesterday. I still feel the twenty-five behind the newly formed ring of twenty-six.

Age is like a box within a box within a box within a box and so on. Your one box is pretty small. It probably contains some giggles, the first time you crawled, the first time you stood up on your own, and a whole lot of crying. Your two box probably contains your first words and some training pants. And the boxes get bigger to contain your first day of school in the five box; your first crush in seven or eight; the awkward moments of puberty in those preteen boxes you don’t mind duct-taping shut forever (after all, if duct tape doesn’t fix it, nothing will); your driver’s license in your sixteen box; your high school graduation and college acceptance in your eighteen box; your college graduation—or mine in this case—in your twenty-five box.

Where I get in trouble is in the times I pull things out of boxes and put them into one they don’t belong in.

Starting a new chapter does require a little review in previous chapters. But when you pull something out of your fifteen box and try to make it fit in your eighteen box, it’s going to be out of place and likely awkward. And creepy. Likewise if you try to fit something from eighteen into twenty-five. When you take something out for review, put it back where you found it. And make sure you’re filling the right box.

Birthdays are a complicated thing, aren’t they?

I’m getting ready to close up my twenty-five box now. But it might take a while. It might take till I’m turning twenty-seven to completely close it. And even then, I might discover things that go in that box or another one some time down the road. Looking over it, there’s quite a bit in here. Twenty-five started with incredible happiness that very quickly turned into incredible heartbreak. Twenty-five was the birthday that left a grungy taste in my mouth when it comes to birthdays.

But twenty-five didn’t stay there.

Twenty-five searched for healing—demanded healing. Twenty-five took the first steps into becoming emotionally healthy. Twenty-five redefined love, trust, hope, faith.

Twenty-five rebuilt me.

Twenty-six has a lot to live up to. But at least it’s got help. Specifically twenty-five other boxes full of help.

The first thing I’m filling this box with—the first thing I’ve filled them all with—is love. I’ve been loved on today, and I know I will be loved on in days to come. And I will love just as much back.

What else will twenty-six hold on its way to twenty-seven?

I don’t know.

But it’ll be fun finding out.

(written 30 May 2013)


"Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is.

Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t mine instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.

“Whose is this?” Mrs. Price says, and she holds the red sweater up in the air for all the class to see. “Whose? It’s been sitting in the coatroom for a month.”

“Not mine,” says everybody. “Not me.”

“It has to belong to somebody,” Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody can remember. It’s an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It’s maybe a thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn’t say so.

Maybe because I’m skinny, maybe because she doesn’t like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, “I think it belongs to Rachel.” An ugly sweater like that, all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs. Price takes the sweater and puts it right on my desk, but when I open my mouth nothing comes out.

“That’s not, I don’t, you’re not . . . Not mine,” I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.

“Of course it’s yours,” Mrs. Price says, “I remember you wearing it once.” Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.

Not mine, not mine, not mine, but Mrs. Price is already turning to page thirty-two, and math problem number four. I don’t know why but all of a sudden I’m feeling sick inside, like the part of me that’s three wants to come out of my eyes, only I squeeze them shut tight and bite down on my teeth real hard and try to remember today I am eleven, eleven. Mama is making a cake for me for tonight, and when Papa comes home everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you.

But when the sick feeling goes away and I open my eyes, the red sweater’s still sitting there like a big red mountain. I move the red sweater to the corner of my desk with my ruler. I move my pencil and books and eraser as far from it as possible. I even move my chair a little to the right. Not mine, not mine, not mine.

In my head I’m thinking how long till lunchtime, how long till I can take the red sweater and throw it over the schoolyard fence, or leave it hanging on a parking meter, or bunch it up into a little ball and toss it in the alley. Except when math period ends Mrs. Price says loud and in front of everybody, “Now, Rachel, that’s enough,” because she sees I’ve shoved the red sweater to the tippy-tip corner of my desk and it’s hanging all over the edge like a waterfall, but I don’t care.

“Rachel,” Mrs. Price says. She says it like she’s getting mad. “You put that sweater on right now and no more nonsense.”

“But it’s not—”

“Now!” Mrs. Price says.

This is when I wish I wasn’t eleven, because all the years inside of me—ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one—are pushing at the back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and stand there with my arms apart like if the sweater hurts me and it does, all itchy and full of germs that aren’t mine.

That’s when everything I’ve been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I’m crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I’m not. I’m eleven and it’s my birthday today and I’m crying like I’m three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and spit coming out of my mouth because I can’t stop the little animal noises from coming out of me, until there aren’t any more tears left in my eyes, and it’s just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.

But the worst part is right before the bell rings for lunch. That stupid Phyllis Lopez, who is even dumber than Sylvia Saldivar, says she remembers the red sweater is hers! I take it off right away and give it to her, only Mrs. Price pretends like everything’s okay.

Today I’m eleven. There’s a cake Mama’s making for tonight, and when Papa comes home from work we’ll eat it. There’ll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it’s too late.

I’m eleven today. I’m eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny-tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.

Copyright © 1991 by Sandra Cisneros

(watch for a new entry inspired by this short story)

a prayer for Pancho

Pancho Gusto is a gentle person. He’s an older man, probably fifties or early sixties. There is a weight of something like guilt in his lovely green eyes – a physical feature he’s unable to explain since both of his parents were full-blooded Mexican. Pancho is a war veteran. Which war, I can’t quite remember – I want to say Vietnam. He walks with a slight limp from a bullet that is still embedded in his leg.

I met Pancho in 2008. It was a chilly winter day in Orange County, so probably about 68 degrees. I had just walked out of Berean Christian Bookstore in Fullerton, having purchased a jewelry box for a friend’s birthday. Pancho asked me if I had some change so he could get some food. Being that I rarely had cash on hand at the time, I told him I didn’t, but I’d be happy to go with him and buy him a meal nearby.

His jade-colored eyes widened in surprise and while he didn’t seem to step back, it was as though his bewilderment at my offer knocked him backwards a few notches. He very quickly said he’d walk over and meet me so I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with him in my car. I offered to just walk with him. We crossed the parking lot, talking the entire time. Pancho told me that he’s had a bullet in his leg since the war, that he didn’t want to shoot anyone but others were shooting at him. Memories of the war seemed to weigh heavy on him still.

Yet he spoke of God with reverence and love.

When we got to El Pollo Loco, he quickly told me what he likes (beans and rice, and lots of it) and went to sit outside. I only realize now that he might’ve felt embarrassed or ashamed and didn’t want to sit with the general public in the restaurant. He was probably considering me as well… and this makes me feel kind of sad. This is such a kind man, and there are very few people who will be blessed to know.

I ordered and paid for his meal (a chicken burrito with a side of rice and beans and a soda) and went outside to give it to him. I asked if I could pray for him. He said, “yes,” and we bowed and prayed together. I then went back to my dorm and my cafeteria food.

I’ve been thinking about Pancho for about a week or so now. He started coming to mind recently, and I don’t know why. I hope he is doing well and is alive and healthy, but I have no way of knowing, especially now being 1000 miles away from the place where we first met. At this point, I suppose all I can do is pray and have faith that God has Pancho in His grasp, and that grasp is firm. I wish I could see this nice man again and share a meal of burritos and rice and beans.

Who knows… maybe Pancho will make it to the Northwest at some point. Or maybe I’ll run into him again when I’m visiting the place I once called home. Or maybe we’ll have burritos in heaven.

Please pray for my friend if he comes to mind. Pancho Gusto is a good amicable man who loved good food. This is how I will always remember him.