A birthday letter
I spend a lot of time thinking about death. I’ve always been aware of it in the absence of my mother’s parents. When I was a teenager, I thought about dying often, not so much about killing myself, but rather wishing I were dead. Like so many literary-inclined girls, I went through a deep Sylvia Plath phase toward the end of high school that leaked into the beginning of college.
I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
And then, of course, the only book I’ve managed to read this summer is The Year of Magical Thinking. Death, loss, grief.
I rarely think about birth.
My only experience with it is my own, and I don’t remember it, of course. I have no siblings, no close friends with children, little to no experience with actual babies. The idea of giving birth has always been an abstract maybe, kind of like the idea of getting a tattoo or a dog. A permanent possibility, but I haven't quite decided yet.
I also have an odd relationship with the idea of birthdays—why do we mark our time on Earth by the number of times we go around the Sun? It's a celebration of life, maybe, but I can't help but think about it as Congratulations, you didn't die. In Ancient Egypt and Greece, only the gods and goddesses were celebrated. The Romans decided to celebrate the common man (men only, of course) and Christians considered birthdays a pagan ritual up through the 4th century. In the American context I find birthdays to be a self-centered concept [she writes, as she makes plans to celebrate this weekend].
But isn’t it? I think about this largely in the context of social media and parties where it becomes a show and something about it feels so artificial and insincere, yet we—I—crave it. I crave the attention and I also crave solitude, a day where I can be entirely selfish and do whatever I want, answering to no one.
My experiences of my own birthdays are odd, but only in the sense that I probably only remember them because it was my birthday. A fever. The Grand Paradise and an awkward lunch in a new city. The Phantom Tollbooth. Vertigo and a parking ticket. An affogato, dirty chai, cupcakes and nearly throwing up on a run. Getting high with my one friend in the city after his gig.
Playing at the City Museum and a cookie basket. Broken hearted in Madrid. A motley crew of random friends, before leaving for college. Drawing and painting alone, under the bridge downtown, and breaking a kind boy's heart. The beginning of high school season, zone meets, Johnny Rocket’s.
My ninth birthday was spent in Scotland where a dog named Honey Miss-Dizzy came sliding across the receptionist counter and into my arms. I ate strawberries and whipped cream for dinner. My eighth birthday, we were in Connecticut and I felt ignored and forgotten and was a pain in my parents’ ass. I have vague memories of birthday parties with ice cream cakes in the shape of spiders with legs made of licorice. Photos of Princess Jasmine dancing with us in our basement before it was remodeled; a giant, inflatable polar bear in the outdoor pool that used to be by the Community Center; my first birthday, in Connecticut. There's a photo of my mother holding me in the hospital.
I’ve passed a quarter of a century on Earth and somehow this coincides with a phenomenon called a quarter-life crisis, which supposedly starts around age 20, and takes up the better part of a decade. After my last letter, a friend wrote to me:
The surface temperature on Mars can get as high as 90ºF during the day...But three inches above the surface, the ‘air’ temperature is a chilling –81ºF. A 171 degree swing, in three measly inches.
You are frozen in space and time, suspended in three inches of August above solid ground and clarity...
A three inch gap may feel like nothing at all, but maybe it's the 14th or 40th day of unfinished business. Maybe it's that subtle reminder of people and things that went before. Maybe it's an old friendship or an expired love that keeps scratching at the back of your neck when you really can't afford to be scratched.
Or maybe three inches is just the size of your heart, staring right back at you in the mirror, reminding you you're still a human being.
It’s an exquisite metaphor, and I couldn't help but think of the other ways our bodies are tied to the universe. The way that my body and my sisters’ bodies feel the pull of the moon, waxing and waning. The way we rise and sleep with the turn of the Earth, mark our seasons by how the Sun's centripetal force keeps our planet in orbit. That our bodies made of star stuff can feel the vibrations of the entire universe, that the cosmos are in our DNA. Yes, it's a miracle.
But I didn’t do anything.
Behind these awkward and beautiful birthdays and unbirthdays, of course, is my mother, the woman who gave birth to me. My mother remembers my birthday, knows what a birthday actually means: it was the day she became a mother. You see, I think birthdays celebrate the wrong people. They should celebrate the mothers: the mothers who waited, the mothers who carried and nourished a human being inside of themselves and pushed it out into the world. For me, my birthday is a reminder of the woman I came from, 25 years ago. And I’m quite alright with celebrating that.
Happy birthday, Mom.
All my love,
I know, I know. Returnings is a fortnightly letter and I cheated and sent out TWO in one week. But it’s because it's my birthday and I'll do what I want!
But in all seriousness, I love writing to you all, and I love hearing back from you. We all have the things that keep us grounded, but when things are hard, they often fall to the wayside. I’m actually struggling with my things falling to the wayside now! Thank you for joining me—we're all going through the same things here, why go through it alone?
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