Today—please hold your applause—is my birthday.
Birthdays are a tradition that, like so many made up holidays—shout out to Valentine’s Day and New Year’s—have been constructed into days so spontaneously epic that the real thing almost always disappoints.
As someone with a thirst for both being a victim and being the center of attention, a day that is supposed to be all about me is nothing but a gold mine of expected ecstasy and lived disappointment.
Why celebrate birthdays at all? We don’t do anything to be born. We don’t pick the time or style or to exist at all. If anything, moms should be the ones to celebrate their children’s days of birth, but who can blame them for not wanting to relive the horror of having to force a human out of their body?
Thinking about my birthday this year made me anxious. Last year I was out of town on a work trip and was able to avoid any mention of it until it was almost over. This year I’m in that uncomfortable position of deciding whether I’m willing to demand attention or not.
Celebrations are almost universally loved, but birthdays put people in the strange position of asking that others celebrate their very existence. Personally, I’m all for people celebrating me all day every day, but ideally they would do this without me ever even mentioning it. I want the benefits of the attention without the humiliation of admitting the existence of my ego.
I spent last week wringing my stomach into knots trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my birthday. I tried to make a list for those whose last name obligates them to buy me a present, but could think of hardly anything. I am in the absurdly blessed position of having my needs met.
But I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do for the big day. What do you like doing? Suddenly, I had no idea. What had I been doing for fun my whole life? Nothing, apparently.
What I finally came up with was enlightening and elementary, trivial and tremendous. True. I like being alive.
Way back in the day, people began celebrating birthdays because they believed that spirits had special power over people on days of change. To distract these spirits they threw parties for momentous occasions like weddings, birthdays, and funerals. The older I get the heavier my hunch becomes that the real reason for celebrating is much more devastating. Evil does not need a special occasion to hover over you. It is always there. Benign and numbing, but unmistakably present.
I don’t think any special powers are at work today or any seismic shift will happen in my being because the clock of my life is ticking past another number. The world is moving, propelled to expand by the same force that compels me forward in time. Every moment is a birth moment, every day you are older than the day before. Today is the day assigned to me for celebration because it’s the day baby me decided I was done keeping my arms and legs inside the vehicle, but it really belongs to everyone. Today, like every day, everything is being reborn, made new, birthed.
Scientifically speaking, the universe is expanding. One reason why is because if it did not grow, the pressure of gravity would cause it to fold, collapse, and eventually implode. You grow or you die.
I don’t believe in overthinking (trust me, I’ve thought about it a lot), and it’s odd to me that people don’t think about their birthdays and their universal significance more.
You are born. You are not static. You are passing through. You are alive.
This is not what I have thought about during most of my birthday celebrations. Here is a brief tour of birthdays of Alikay’s past:
- I dunked my face in the cake at my first birthday party. For the laughs, of course.
- In elementary school I was obsessed with being a spy and ran a spy school (sample training method: tie up my little sister and time how long it took her to escape) so I had a spy birthday party. My cake was hidden in the bathtub. It was awesome.
- Once I had a costume party and dressed up like a clown. This was a mistake.
- For my sixteenth birthday, my parents blacked out all the windows in our house and threw me a blacklight rave. My life has been all downhill from there.
- Crying alone because no one in college cared about my birthday as much as my parents did and they weren’t there to celebrate with me
- Attending an awards show where no one knew it was my birthday and I didn’t care because I was at an awards show
Today I’m uninterested in doing any of these things. I don’t want to celebrate my entrance into the world or my age. I want to celebrate being (as the great writer Maggie Stiefvater has said and I repeat constantly) so, so alive. I mean this in the grand marvel of human existence, but also in the tangible details of my own life.
Today I will celebrate the way my being lights up like the Christmas lights in our window when I see them lit from across the street, because I know that when I unlock the door my friends will be inside and I will be home. I will celebrate my block, where my friends live and wander back and forth between apartments at leisure. I celebrate the exquisite torture of the Broadway stop always smelling like toasted bagels in the morning. I celebrate the sun coming up over the Queensboro Bridge and the woman singing on the train. I will celebrate that it’s possible to rewire your brain in six weeks. The flowers on my desk, the towers in the sky, the fact of oxygen.
I will celebrate with cookie dough bites because the best lesson my mom ever taught me was that when life gives you salmonella from eating raw cookie dough you should find a recipe for cookie dough that doesn’t involve raw eggs.
I will ruminate on the words of Walt Whitman:
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
And I will think about my verse.
There will not be cake because does anyone actually enjoy the taste of cake? Didn’t think so. But I did just learn how to use matches last week so I’ll probably blow out some candles.
In ancient times, when people blew out candles, they believed that the smoke would carry their prayers straight to the gods. It’s why they began using candles on birthday cakes, because you were supposed to have more access to the spirit world on the day of your birth, and so your wish had a higher chance of being granted.
I will blow my candle out the window onto the busy street, and let my wishes linger over the people walking below.
May you genuinely feel the magnitude of your own existence. I hope the journey is easy and the train is waiting for you on the platform, but if it isn’t, I hope you have the guts to chase it down. May you have the courage to look your neighbor in the eye abd the kindness to live with open hands instead of clenched fists.
Unlike newly crowned Noble prize winner Bob Dylan though, I do not hope you stay forever young. I hope you, like the universe, do not stay anything. May you be rebirthed and remade and undone and understood.
So. Happy birthday to me. But more importantly, happy birthday to you, and happy birthday to the world.
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