After 31 years, I’m still getting the hang of birthdays.
I think it was on my fifth that I realized the virtue of not knowing what my presents were before the big day. I had snooped a few weeks prior, and I remember being crestfallen when I opened the wrappings and realized that there was no surprise waiting for me inside. That let down had lasting effects. Not only was I never again tempted to poke around in any place that might contain a future gift, from then on, I treated early birthday presents with disdain. No amount of urgings to “Open it now! Open it now!” could coerce me to rob my future self of having all my presents on my special day.
As I hit my tweens, and then finally my teens, birthdays usually involved large amounts of cherry cola, Twizzlers, Cool Ranch Doritos, and movies—usually ones that I had chosen in advance for their allure and then put off watching until my birthday in order to secure the specialness of the day. By this time, my birthday was no longer just a fun time; it was the one day a year that belonged to me, and I had to savor it and make it last through all the other 364 days that undoubtedly belonged to someone else.
After I got sick at 15, this sense of a “special day” took on a whole new meaning. Now I had to utilize the magic of my birthday to procure not only happiness, but health as well. Each birthday, I tried to learn something, understand something, about who I was and what I was doing here. I tried to wrest from the Universe some kind of singular blessing that would transform me and my life, so that this year things would be different. This year, I would come into my own.
Over the years I began to create little rituals for myself that, if done properly, I hoped would grant me these blessings.
I took the blowing out of candles on a cake and making a wish very seriously. I would stare at the candles for a moment, then close my eyes, and, with all my intensity, make my wish.
Each year I would draw Tarot cards, do elaborate spreads—looking less at what useful changes they might tell me I needed to make in my life and more for confirmation that all would be well.
I would go for an early morning birthday run—despite the limitations of my ill-health. I would get up right before the sun had begun to bathe the sky, trying not to wake anyone, wanting the dawn all to myself. I would soak up the morning’s energy and try to convince my body that it was now healthy.
I would make sure to catch a glimpse of my clock at exactly 1:19 in the morning—the recorded moment of my birth. I would hold the number with my eyes, willing it to impart magic and insight to me. I would contemplate the baby I had been in this moment exactly x many years ago, and I would try to feel a sense of recognition. I would try to remember all the things that she knew that I had since forgotten.
And I would listen to people around me, one of whom would invariably say that whatever age I was turning that year was a “good year”. I would latch on eagerly to their words—especially in those years when I turned one of those numbers that we have deemed particularly important—16, 18, 21, and all those after ending with a five or a zero—as if those intervening are somehow less important. But, as time passed, my enthusiasm in such things waned, so that by last year—the big three-O—I had just about had it.
I had had bad birthdays before. Like my 24th—when I was so sick and depressed that when my mother told me she was glad I had been born, I told her that I wished I could agree with her. Or my 26th, when I spent the morning in a doctor’s office in Cleveland getting pumped full of a yellow, vitamin-rich liquid that did nothing for me but make me want to vomit; and I spent the afternoon making the eight-hour trip back to New York from said appointment. Not to mention my 27th, when I was on a doctor-ordered anti-yeast protocol that not only required me to take Fluconazole every other day, which made me ridiculously nauseous (so many things do), but also eschew any and all kinds of sugar. And, just to top it off, my estranged father came by with a box of chocolates.
Those birthdays had been tough—with obvious cause. My 30th was heart wrenching for no apparent reason. I had thought turning 30 would be a laugh. I had hoped, as I had in previous years, that it would mark an unimpeachable spiritual milestone from which no u-turn could ever be made. No such luck. On the day, I found myself spiraling into a heartbreaking depression. I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say that I was angry/sad/upset enough to start vacuuming with a vengeance—tears streaming down my face.
Given all that, as my birthday approached this year, I found myself experiencing a degree of anxiety. I realized that all those years I had made all those special plans for my special day, I had been setting myself up for the kind of fall I took last year. So I determined to break all my former habits. I would not elevate this single day above all the rest. I opened birthday cards and presents when I got them—not waiting a single second more ‘til my birthday. I drank all six cans of the natural cherry cola I had bought for my birthday weeks before the day—and didn’t feel bad about it. I didn’t go for a run; I stuck with my usual morning walk. I didn’t wake myself up at 1:19 am to look my clock. I did light candles, but I didn’t make any wishes. And I did do a couple of oracle spreads, but I looked at them with impartial eyes instead of obstinately hopeful ones.
All of these efforts to take the sting out my birthday expectations reminded me of a conversation I had with someone on her birthday while I was in college. I said something about your birthday being the day when you’re special. She said, not a little snottily, “Well, I like to think I’m special every day.” I was irritated by this—as I was by many of the things she said—of course, I hadn’t meant that she, or anyone else, for that matter, wasn’t special every day; I had just meant that she was even more special on her birthday. But now, I have to admit, that distinction is probably no more than warring semantics. My whole way of celebrating birthdays has shown that I had come to believe that my birthday was the height of my specialness.
I think part of the problem with the way we (or maybe just I) celebrate birthdays is that cake and balloons and a mound of presents don’t tend to remind us of who we are. The anniversaries of our births are important because our spirits were drawn to this world, summoned into our baby bodies for a reason. I don’t think it’s imperative that we remember that reason each year. Perhaps we will never, in fact, know it, but I do think it is valuable to remember that in the incredible immensity of time and creation, our presence—however tiny—was deemed necessary. And our spirits had the guts to answer the call and show up—even though they knew it would be hard to be human, even though they knew that they would spend a lot of their time here getting it wrong.
Just look at the infant you were so many years ago. Despite what many might think, a baby is not a bundle of expectations for the future; it is a complete individual, replete with worth and fulfillment from moment one. And though I sometimes feel the opposite, we do not become less in the intervening years. The laws that govern the conservation of matter and energy inform me that no matter what has occurred in the meantime, that wholeness cannot be, and has not been, dismantled.
In a way, specialness doesn’t even enter into it. Every day, birthday or not, is one more day that I am alive, and that, for reasons beyond my ken, I am called to be in this world. And my daily decision to “live deliberately” (Thoreau, 1854) , with the entirety of my being, is a celebration all on its own.