It’s my birthday and I’m another year older and like every year before this one, I woke up exactly the same. It’s a sensation which didn’t change with age; the feeling of waking up on your birthday to absolutely nothing extraordinary. As a child I was convinced if I concentrated hard enough, I’d feel something; taller or heavier or smarter or wiser, but year after year, the birthday wake was ordinary. As I toast my 42nd year, I realize “ordinary” is extraordinary.
I have a love/hate relationship with my birthday. August birthdays sucked as a kid because we were always on summer break. The only parties I had were with Russian family members where the booze flowed freely to the grown ups and the kids were urged to go play and I was only summoned as an excuse to stand in front of a birthday cake (which I never liked) plugged up with candles.
As I got older, jumping from one monogamous relationship to the next, the pressure to satisfy me on my birthday fell on my significant other. He had to find a restaurant or a bar and think of a thoughtful, unique gift and ultimately I am too hard to please and make it known. Often this forced the kind men who loved me to throw their hands in the air, and me to plan my own parties and pick out my own gifts. I was OK with that. Until I got tired of planning for everyone else – and then having to do it for myself.
Sometimes it feels like pressure to celebrate. “What do you have planned? Doing anything special?”
Truth is, every day I do something special: I LIVE. I find joy in as much as I can and try to fill my days with pleasure to balance out the laundry, toilet cleaning, dishes, and ungratefulness, the constant cloud hovering over motherhood.
Also, I don’t want to plan anything; I don’t need another chore, another dozen things added to my endless list of things to do. I’m a perpetually planning machine; dinners, birthday parties, holiday gatherings, class events, taxes, gifts for everyone…there’s no end; when you reach the end of the year, you start all over again. For my birthday all I want is a break; from planning, from cleaning, from jumping up to get the phone, from making breakfast (and lunch and dinner), and mostly from feeling guilty. I won’t feel guilty for sleeping late or eating ice cream twice a day. I won’t feel guilty for not calling someone back or clicking “like” on the Facebook post. On my birthday, I won’t feel guilty for putting myself first – and that’s a gift worth acknowledging, and celebrating.
Two years ago my husband was responsible for creating my favorite birthday memory: a proposal on the Brooklyn Bridge. Now today has added value: not only a day to celebrate my birth, it’s also the day we got engaged.
Other birthday memories:
On my 16th birthday, my parents knocked it out of the park with their gift. I desperately wanted a camcorder but they were very expensive; about $800-$1,000 in 1990. My grandparents chipped in for half and not only did they buy it for me, they presented it to me via a scavenger hunt around the house. It started with a wrapped cardboard box presented in my room. Inside was a clue, written on looseleaf paper with several spelling errors on it, which I politely, and for the first time, didn’t point out. I couldn’t follow the clues so my parents helped me figure them out and led me to the kitchen where there was another wrapped box with another clue with more spelling errors. There was a total of four boxes, the last of which I tore apart rapidly as soon as I saw the Sony logo. That morning delivered a lifetime of Christmas and birthday mornings in one potent dose; I had never felt more loved.
My 18th birthday was the first and the only birthday I had at a Russian restaurant in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. I had just returned from what had been the best summer of my life up until that point. I spent 2 months in California taking one photography class at UCLA and living in the dorms. I learned about sex, drugs, and rock and roll and what it finally meant to live like an American teenager. (OK maybe more a privileged college student in a wealthy California suburb.) There were more pools on campus than photo labs and when I returned to Staten Island, I was the most tan I had ever been; everyone spoke Spanish to me. Even my dark brown hair developed blonde highlights as I walked on an invisible trampoline of hearts saying things like, “it’s been kissed by the sun,” because it felt like I finally had been. I danced sober all night and didn’t care when the adults started acting inappropriately or when my cousin (one of the only other people my age) took one vodka shot too many and threw up on his plate (later to pass out in it). At the end of the night, the sides of my face were sore and my mouth and jaw ached, and before the hypochondriac in me could come up with why I reminded myself it was from smiling so hard.
My 21st birthday wasn’t memorable. I went to Atlantic City just because I could. The allure of gambling didn’t appeal to me as much as my permission to do it. I had been drinking for six years, driving for five years, voting for three years and pulling the arm of a slot machine felt anticlimactic. I showed my ID and they happily took my money like the shredding machine a casino really is.
My 25th birthday came two weeks after I moved back in with my boyfriend after we broke up for two weeks. I thought I wanted us to get back together more than anything, but this was because I was young and insecure and would do anything not to get rejected. We got back together and I threw a brunch at the Blue Water Grill. They printed menu cards with my name on it. My boss was there and a weird assortment of people and the whole time my back itched because it was also right after I got my first tattoo; a tribal sun on my lower back, with the Chinese symbol for ‘big sister’ in the middle. My sister got an identical one, only her center had the symbol for ‘little sister.’ Nine months after that brunch we got engaged, eight months later we were married. A year after that we had our son and three years later we were divorced. It’s only now in retrospect I see at my quarter century mark, I physically bonded myself with my sister and falsely bonded myself to a man I should never have gotten back together with. When I was 25 years old, I was still many years from learning to love myself and to value what I wanted out of life. I was still many years away from asking for it – and then going for it.
Sixteen years ago I had a discussion with a reform Rabbi about Shabbas. Typically after sunset on Friday night, a person observing Shabbat will not “work,” use electricity or drive. [There are many other rules and restrictions; if you’re interested, Wikipedia has an overview.] Every Friday evening, this particular rabbi would have Shabbos dinner with his wife and two teenage children. They ceremoniously lit the candles, ate the challah, and drank the wine, saying the proper blessings before each ritual. After dinner both children went out with friends, driving and otherwise ignoring all the other rules of Shabbat. I asked him why this wasn’t hypocritical and he explained that he thought the important part was coming together as a family once a week and taking a few minutes to acknowledge their faith, remember their culture, honor their traditions, and then move on with their life.
Maybe I can look at my birthday like a personal Shabbat: a declared date on the calendar assigned solely to me, a day to reflect my entrance into the world, the butterfly effect which came in my wake, which lives I’ve touched, or hearts I’ve inspired. I reflect daily on the lives I’ve created, seeds I not only got to plant but get to witness blossom. A birthday is a chance to PAUSE, an imaginary spotlight on me, but the day keeps ticking, and as it turns from 11:59 to 12:00, it’s a new day and it’s someone else’s turn.