Today is my birthday.
Birthdays in my 30s have been a challenge. I like my birthday and I feel almost entirely positive about getting older, so when I have birthday angst it is usually around issues of friendship and community, and sometimes about a stubbornly irrational sense of fairness or unfairness based on what is happening on that day. I don’t go around with a lot of entitlement generally; I recognize that bad things happen to people on a regular basis, so when it turns out to be my turn, I don’t go asking “why me?”. But if something bad happens on my birthday, I take it as a personal insult from the universe.
When I was a kid, maybe 10 or so, our dog ran away on my birthday. She ran away any time she could get out of the backyard; it didn’t happen often but it did happen, and she ended up coming back that day like she always did. But in the time she was gone, I remember standing at the fence crying, because I didn’t know if she was coming home this time and I was scared and worried and it was my birthday.
My 30th birthday was the first one I spent in Philadelphia. I’d moved a few months earlier with my then-boyfriend. It was a nice enough day but I mostly remember feeling the full weight of my loneliness. Before, I’d lived in Atlanta, where I had friendships that went back 10 years. My last birthday in Atlanta was full of love and full of people – there was karaoke followed by a house party, a whole room of people who had nice things to say about me, and did. One year later, I was in Philadelphia and there was exactly one person within fifty miles who knew and cared about me. It was strange and isolating and lonely.
I’ve been measuring each year against that feeling, since then. It’s been hit or miss. Most years, people I want to show up for me on my birthday don’t. I had one really great one, in 2015, when I had just left my abusive household and I threw an “ice cream sundaes and Once More With Feeling singalong” party, and people showed up and sang and I felt loved and buoyed by community. I might have had another good birthday in my 30s, but if so I don’t remember it.
Last year I started the journey of realizing that I need to show up for my own damn self. I got out of bed at 4 am – not because I forced myself to but because I happened to be awake – and drove 2 hours west to hike a mountain. It was beautiful, and it gave me a sweetness and strength that did not remove the sting of the people I’d wanted to have show up for me who didn’t. Didn’t remove the sting, but ran alongside it: two streams, one day.
This year is COVID-19, and isolation, and I’m going to make it all about me for a second because it’s my birthday and this is the one time in a year I let myself do that. It just fucking figures that this is how I spend the last birthday of my 30s. I haven’t touched anyone except the two children who depend on me in over six weeks. Nobody could show up for me even if they wanted to. They probably would want to, let’s not oversell my moodiness: I have really wonderful people here, friendships that go back seven or eight years if not ten. I had been planning on doing something really excellent for this birthday and I think people probably would have shown up. But they can’t, and that feels meaningful too. Loneliness has been a theme, this last year or two or nine, and right now it’s ringing so loud I can hardly hear anything else.
It’s not all bad. Those two children? They’re saving my sanity, and have been since they were dropped on my doorstep a month and a half ago. I spent a couple hours today with the toddler contentedly perched on my lap, leaning forward to play with playdough or settling in for a snuggle, and that touched the place in my heart that is only ever eased by toddler-snuggles. My teen wrote me the sweetest note, and has big plans to make me a cake, and I am giving it like 60-40 odds that she actually manages to do it, but I’m still pleased she’s trying. (Not because she isn’t a good baker, she’s excellent, but because the plans of teenagers often don’t come to fruition.) The fact that she remembered today is my birthday, even though I barely remember telling her when it was? That’s lovely. It makes me feel cared-for, and important as a person.
And I’m drinking beer that one dear friend dropped off for me when I complained I didn’t have any, and I’ve been eating chocolates that another dear friend sent me in the mail, and that’s not nothing. People are touching me in the way they can, the people I count on most. It’s not enough, but it’s not nothing.
And — this is not a journey I recommend for everyone but if it sounds awful to you you might need it too — I’m learning how to be a little more entitled all the rest of the year. I’m starting to think that maybe I get to ask people to show up for me even when it’s one of the other 364/5 days in the year. Maybe I get to show up for myself on those other days when they don’t. Which makes the passing of this birthday, essentially alone, slightly less crushing, because it’s one day of many that I get to feel like I deserve nice things.
I’ve got a whole year to work on that before the big 40.
3 thoughts on “39”
So relatable. I’ve also been realizing that I need to show up for myself more. Like, turns out, I can ask for stuff that I want? You know, the same way that other people do, and that I never resent them for doing? And I don’t need to wait for a special day or an emotional crisis?
Sounds fake but apparently it’s a real thing.
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If you’re anything like me, you will see this message because you will be out to erase any nonsensical crap that might get posted under something you wrote several months ago.
I wanted to find a way to thank you for another article you wrote further back – your article on “Unrequited Love for a Friend”. Here I am at 55 in just that boat (again…) and writing about it in one document and channelling the energy from it into a project involving making my home what I want it to be now that I’ve ditched the marriage and the last son is out of high school. I was curious to see what the interwebs had to say about the creative use of that energy – an affirmation that my hunch for handling it was correct and useful – and so I found your article. It’s relatable, sound, personal, sensitive, sensible and honest.
And I’m hearing you about the lonely birthday! Mine was when I moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town in South Africa – my 45th birthday. I invited my nursing colleagues to tea, but the only person who actually came was a friend who was my eldest son’s godmother whom I’d known before. Birthdays became days of aching loneliness for some time after that, with our move a year later to Sydney, Australia, until I started taking control of what I wanted, but it took me until I turned 50 to do that. It gets better. As one gets older one learns so much more about being one’s own best friend and advocate.
Anyway, thank you. Know that what you write continues to resonate with, and inform folk of all ages, with global reach. Don’t stop writing, and don’t hesitate to redirect to your older articles as well. Onward and upward through these challenging times.
I LOVE this and love your writting. Thank you 💓