I spent the golden years of having birthdays doing them wrong. Maybe you're thinking, "Child Sophie, you were perfect and you couldn't fuck anything up. Surely your birthdays were treasure-like occasions, and you're too humble to admit it now that you're an adult." Unfortunately, reader, you're wrong this time. They were all disasters, and it was all my fault.
As a child, I used birthdays to measure my self-worth. I spent the rest of the year carefully cultivating relationships with the other kids in my class by making them cards out of wrapping paper and writing them (probably inappropriate) platonic love poems. But it was all a ploy. I did nice things for people all year in anticipation of my own birthday, hoping that my "random" acts of "kindness" would come back hurricane-gale force at my yearly celebration of self.
This plan never worked. Every year, I'd throw the coolest-sounding party I could think of (actually, my mom would throw it; I'd boss her around like a girl on MTV's "My Super Sweet Sixteen" and she'd acquiesce, because my mom, unlike my peers, was incredibly into my birthday), and I'd invite everyone in my class. Themes included: smiley face theme, gymnastics theme, jewelry-making theme, and vaguely-TLC-the-band theme. SEE HOW COOL I WAS? Then my classmates would show up, and I would still be the least popular person there (just as I was every other day of the year), and no one would talk to me until the end of the party where I had to open present after present to a chorus of, "Yeah, my mom picked it out."
Sixth grade was especially emblematic. In middle school, all the kids would decorate each others' lockers on their birthdays. I made a point to gather the birthdays of every girl in the sixth grade and steer the locker-decorating committee. I even had this special box that contained cut-out pictures of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, pre-curled ribbon, and 3-D stickers that said "DIVA." I pulled the box out every few days and got to school early so I could decorate a different birthday girl's locker. I was sure to make it known that I did most of the locker-decorating work. I made these printed-out cards in Microsoft Word that everyone could sign that read "HAPPY BIRTHDAY! LOVE, SOPHIE" in Comic Sans font.
When my birthday rolled around in May, I slept in a little. I just knew that every girl in the sixth grade was at school already, transforming my locker into the most unrecognizably decorated celebratory symbol the school had ever seen. I imagined there would be press-on jewels all over it, and helium balloons tied to the slats in the front. Everyone would know it was my birthday. Alex Blair, whom I had a big unreciprocated crush on, would say, "Oh GOSH Sophie, is it your birthday!? HAPPY BIRTHDAY! You must be the most loved and adored girl in the sixth grade. I'm seeing you in a new light on this day. Here, take my shirt that I'm wearing. It's a present from me to you. I'm pretty warm today, and besides, it'll look much better on you anyway."
For my birthday that year, my mom gave me a pale blue tennis dress with a polo collar, which was exactly the style in the early ots. Unfortunately, I was about 40 pounds overweight, and the stylish, form-fitting clothes of the moment transformed me into variations of marine life, mostly: this dress made me look EXACTLY like a cartoon whale. But I thought I must look better in real life than I did in the mirror (mirrors just lie, don't you know), and walked to school on a cloud.
I entered the school building. Lots of kids were there already, I could tell they were looking at me differently. Shane Sorinson smiled at me; clearly a "Hey-birthday-girl" smile. A gaggle of eighth graders stopped their hallway conversation to give me a nod. Everyone knew. People had seen the locker, and they knew it was my special day. Nothing could get in my way today. This way the best day of my life.
And then I turned the corner to my locker and I saw exactly what I'm sure all of you were expecting I would see: nothing. No one had done anything to my locker. My locker looked like all the other lockers. I walked around the hallway to see if maybe my friends had decorated someone else's locker thinking it was mine. Nope. There were no decorated lockers on that day. Then Abby Rosenfelt walked up to me. I had decorated her locker just two weeks before. She looked at me and said, "Hey, I don't know if you know this, but you have a TON of bird poop all over your dress."
I have always been good at playing the victim. In recounting my birthday for the first half of my life, I have generally summarized it like this: "I remember everyone's birthdays and always give nice presents to everyone, because I'm such a good friend. But no one ever remembers MY birthday. No one loves me as much as I love them." That could be an accurate portrayal, except that it willfully ignores all the ways in which I was a terrible friend.
I didn't know anything about Abby Rosenfelt, for example, except the day she was born (and that she was Jewish, because, obviously). I didn't go out of my way to listen to other people; I never tried to be there for people when they were having a hard time. I didn't make people wrapping paper cards or love poems because I was reflecting on how much I actually loved them; I celebrated people because I wanted to ingratiate them to me. I didn't do kind things because I cared about others. I did kind things because I wanted validation for myself.
I'm not sure when, exactly, I figured this out about myself. I think at some point I started to realize that maybe I needed to stop expecting everyone on earth to stop whatever they were doing on May 17 to celebrate the day I was born. I really only need one person to celebrate me: me.
In adulthood, I've come to really love birthdays. On my friends' birthdays, I spend the whole day thinking about how grateful I am that they are alive. I believe in celebrating as often as possible, because life is full of seriousness and gloom, so we ought to celebrate as much of what is beautiful as we can. There are LOTS of things worth commemorating: pie, beaches, trees, Star Wars, Gandhi, clean sheets, birds, seasons, etc; but nothing so much as the people in our lives. Our relationships are what hold us together; they are the beginning and end of all that is meaningful about humanity.
And on my birthday, I have been trying to celebrate myself. I have been trying to thank myself for waking up every morning; for being open-minded; for learning from disasters; for laughing as much as I do. For the past several years, I've been pretty good at that. I'm gentle with myself and I ask my friends upfront for the things I really want (pie and flowers and that's literally ALL). I call my mom, who will always celebrate my life because after all, it is one of her accomplishments.
But this year, I got sick. My birthday was Saturday, and I was coming down with the flu. I couldn't enjoy the beautiful weather or the nice music in the air the way I wanted to. I was mad at myself for being sick and I was mad at everyone around me for not being able to fix it. I had a panic attack. I lay in the bathtub sobbing wordlessly because I'd lost my voice. I sounded like a basenji (that's a breed of dog that can't bark) being water boarded. And while I was panicking, I started thinking about my most recent ex-boyfriends, and what nice birthday presents I'd given them, and how they weren't going to give me anything at all just because we broke up or whatever. And I thought about my boss slash close friend who had not greeted me that morning with a "Happy Birthday" text, but with a text asking me whether I could substitute teach on Friday. And I thought about how probably no one actually liked me because this year I've been so depressed all the time and no one cares and I should just drown in this stupid bathtub.
The thing is, Sixth Grade Sophie would have been moved by the kind of birthday I had this year. My sister came into town and cleaned the whole house and lavished me with so many gifts that it felt embarrassing. My roommates and my sister made me this insane breakfast and decorated the kitchen with flowers and cloth flags, and decked the table with SIX DIFFERENT TYPES of raw vegan pies (my favorite). Friends brought me beautiful books and baskets of food and cards and art supplies. My phone filled with texts from people whose birthdays I hadn't honored this year. And even amidst all that, gratitude was hard to find.
The trouble was I couldn't feel gratitude for myself because I was sick and tired. Looking back, it's really interesting to recognize how important it is to be able to take care of yourself and your own needs first. That's when you can really appreciate all that is wonderful about your life.
For the first time this year, I realized a central truism about birthdays: They're inherently difficult. You never know exactly what you're supposed to do, or how thankful you're supposed to be, or what you're supposed to expect. They're linked with supposed-tos and aging, and both of those things are challenging and yucky. No wonder so many people hate them.
But still, I'm glad we have them. I look forward to another year of celebrating the people I love unconditionally, and at the same time, trying to remember to celebrate myself. And maybe I'm glad they're hard.
As my birthday was drawing to a close on Saturday night, there were people chatting at my house while I faded fast into the depths of my swelling flu. I wasn't talking to anyone, and no one was talking to me. My cat climbed onto my lap. I put my arms around him and for a moment, fell asleep. I woke up in this warm lull of voices, realizing that for just a moment, I had let myself just BE, sick or not, in this thick of celebration. And there it was: the gratitude; the joy; the fantastic, quiet realization that life is full of beautiful moments. Maybe you don't need a special day to realize that. But it sure doesn't hurt.