I turn 36 today (yes, thank you, that’s very sweet of you). It’s a non-committal number, neither small nor large; depending on who you ask. I am either a very old young person or a really young old perso. Either way, I have no inkling what TikTok is.
While still at school my December birthday invariably fell during exam time, a fact I made up for in my twenties and thirties by throwing elaborately stressful parties. This year, like so much in 2020, is an enforced exception. I am not, for example, careering through grocery store aisles buying sweeping armfuls of potato chips and dipping sauce destined to be wasted later in the evening on anorexic guests; this year will not find me in terse last-minute negotiations with a mercenary bootlegger who is yet again threatening to not show up at all unless he’s paid twice as much; my night probably won’t end at 4 am singing the Julie Andrews songbook at the sky, wiping a tear away as I say “You have no idea how much you mean to me” to strangers I met four hours earlier.
Being stripped of the artifice of celebration is a relief. Because I’ve spent most of the year muttering to myself in a small room, that I am spending my birthday with other sentient beings is enough to make me jump for joy. I am cloyingly grateful for the plethora of messages and flattering pictures my family and friends put up on social media, memories of thinner times when one could touch without an attempted murder charge. I look at the pictures now and still feel the useless insecurities I felt at the time, my grandmother’s prophecy ringing in my ear: “there is never a photograph of you that you won’t, in ten years, see with kinder eyes.”
The enduring advantage to a December birthday is that it allows you to look back on the whole year with a sense of well-timed completion. I’m of an age now when I’m beginning to get a sense that this is all there is to life. Not in a dispiriting way necessarily, but rather as a reminder of that one vague truth we all routinely forget: your life is being lived now, right this minute. Not in some imagined future, and not in a beckoning past. Now. I say this because so much of my time on Earth has been spent assuring myself that happiness is a future destination. When I have my dream job or perfect partner or foreign passport then I’ll be happy. Then I’ll wake up in a sunny mood and stay there forever. It’s not true. Happiness, I was thrilled to discover this year, is a choice.
The enduring advantage to a December birthday is that it allows you to look back on the whole year with a sense of well-timed completion. I’m of an age now when I’m beginning to get a sense that this is all there is to life
I can’t speak for you, but most everything I have in my life that I am grateful for and that makes me happy – I got it by stepping out of my own. It was when I stopped forcing life into a pre-cut version of my fantasy, stopped insisting that events turn out how I imagined or else not at all, that my life began delivering the essence of what I’d asked for from my dream.
I think that we all, to some degree, became aware of similar truths during the lockdowns of the pandemic. It was a painful blessing
I think that we all, to some degree, became aware of similar truths during the lockdowns of the pandemic. It was a painful blessing, and I left mine winded by the vast internal change I’ve experienced despite not having moved two feet most of the year.
I suppose it’s natural for a viral plague to focus one’s relationship on one’s body (as ever, mine remains a tense board meeting of hostile competing interests). So much of how I spent this year was conscious of protecting or observing my physicality. Did I touch that doorknob? Did I get that close to that coughing vector of contagion? Did I forget to wash my hands again? Did I get up from the couch this week? Will I catch the virus? Will I survive it? Will they?
I saw my parents after nine months away. It was lovely, but also jarring. I noticed the age spots I had associated with my grandparents now on their hands. Their skin looked different, their aches more plenty, their hair slightly whiter. That’s the other thing about aging: we forget other people do it too. Happy as I am at being reunited – and with my general state in the world right now – I have also finally realized at 36 that that it’s often not happiness I’m after, but a sense of contentment. A sense of still acceptance of the way things are, and recognition of how many true blessings I have in my life. The art of presence if you will. So, until my next birthday, that’s what I’ll be working on. The presence of presence. Although, to be honest, the presence of presents doesn’t hurt either.