To Those For Whom Birthdays Are Hard

If you are the type of person who celebrates your birthday with meals and parties or even declares repeatedly for weeks, “It’s my birthday month!” This post is not for you.

This post is for anyone for whom birthdays are fraught with sadness, anxiety, or resentment.

Or all three.

I’ve been thinking all month about why I’ve often felt so much angst about my birthday, and I wonder if other people with summer birthdays struggle with this. I was never in school on my birthday, so there was no built-in pool to hand out party invites. Several times in my life, my birthday was spent at family reunions, on the road to family reunions, on the road to weddings, or even on the road to a brand new state because my dad had orders to a new military base, or living in a new state where the only people I knew were my family members because school hadn’t started yet.

My family was always great about making sure I had gifts or my choice of places to eat, but parties were rare.

I grew up watching my parents plan birthday parties for each other, where dozens of people crammed into our home for hours.

So when I turned 30 I wanted to have a birthday party. 5 people came. When I turned 40, I tried again. 2 people came.

Not quite the bashes that I saw my parents throw.

Add this to the usual angst associated with aging in general, and my birthday has rarely felt like something to celebrate. And it doesn’t help that J. Lo’s birthday is the same day, and she’s only 4 years older than me and looks like, well, J. Lo.

So this year, I decided to do something different.

I wanted an ordinary day. It would be my first non-Facebook birthday in 15 years, so I figured only a handful of people I know would remember. I wouldn’t have to field text messages or deal with the anxiety of wondering if I should like or love every wish on my wall, or just do a blanket thank you the next day, or respond individually…

(Is Facebook stressful for everyone on birthdays, or just Enneagram 4s?)

Anyway. I no longer want the pressure to celebrate my birthday, and I have to say, it worked out well this year.

With no social media reminding people to tell me happy birthday, I fielded very few texts. I planned an evening that included an online workshop about Supreme Court cases, watching Paula Poundstone live at the Lied Center in Lincoln (I won tickets for web access! Support your local PBS station!), followed by Tig Notaro’s latest HBO special, and I saved the season 2 premiere of Ted Lasso for last. I watched Olympic coverage all day, did some cleaning, did some packing.

It was a very ordinary day, and I just want anyone out there who struggles to celebrate another year of life to know this: you can make your birthday an ordinary day. You can release the expectations, you can tell people “I’d rather not do anything for my birthday this year.” No meals out, no party, no cake, no gifts. Sure, some might find ways around it—like “housewarming gifts” or “moving survival kit.” (Both much appreciated, by the way, Deanne and Amy.) But you can actually control the expectations and execution of how you spend your birthday.

A birthday GIFt from my friend AE Stueve.

Holidays are hard for many. So are birthdays. And perhaps I can sum it up best this way: don’t set yourself up for Ann Perkins expectations when you know, deep down, you’re a Ron Swanson.

How’s Your Summer Been?

I have been living a mostly pandemic-driven summer, but on the occasion that I venture out and run into people I know, one of the first questions they ask is “how’s your summer been?”

And I don’t know how to answer that, really, because first of all, it’s small talk, but second, I can’t tell if they are expecting me to regale them with tales of adventures and plans for the ten weeks that I’m not beholden to the high school.

I’m not sure they want to hear about how I’m procrastinating the curriculum fine-tuning that I wanted done by June 30 (it’s not done), or the schedule I’ve set up to pack all my things in preparation for a move the first week of August, or how I’ve been in physical therapy since just before school got out for “significant vestibular weakness” that I’ve probably had for at least a decade but was only diagnosed after a gnarly case of bi-positional paroxysmal vertigo.

They might want to hear about how I got rid of every piece of furniture I own except for my piano and my nana’s dining table (got rid of the chairs that went with the table, though—those things were torturous to sit on), and built a TV stand, a bookshelf, a desk, an office chair, an end table and a lamp. All. By. Myself. I bought a couch and a pouf, and I no longer despise my environs.

But that’s a long story to tell, really, so when people have asked me, “how’s your summer been?” or “any big plans for the summer?” in that small talk way, I really might just start replying, “Do you want to see a pic that sums it all up?” And show them this:

A screenshot of my bandwidth usage this month—the highest it’s been in 11 years.

Feels good to have accomplished something concrete.

Thinking: A Dangerous Habit.

I saw the tweet and it woke up the central cynic system of my brain: “Find three good things to look forward to this year.”

Don’t get me wrong–I am usually a fan of the Action for Happiness group. The work they do is important and helpful. I have their app and every afternoon my watch buzzes with a reminder to be gentler with myself, with others, to look for good instead of dwelling on the awful.

But the call to action on January 1, 2021 was too much. And yet, I stewed over it all morning.

“Three good things,” I muttered to myself. “I’m not a fortune teller. I have no trips planned. I have no life planned. And so little changes in my life from year to year anyway. Look forward to…what the hell.”

Last year? I had tons to look forward to. Trips, musicals, dinners, time with friends all over the country. It still hurts to think about the lost trips sometimes–there was about a 70% chance I was going to ride along in an RV with my sister and niece from Alaska to the lower 48. I actually mustered up the radical self-care to use two personal days and planned a trip to New York to see friends and museums. Two months into 2020, another friend snagged tickets for “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center, and I started planning a summer DC/New York trip.

Three things I looked forward to in 2020. Three things that never happened.

So I hope it’s understandable that my initial reaction to AFH’s initial 2021 task sent me into a bit of cynical rage. Why look forward to things that probably won’t even happen? Isn’t that a recipe for disappointment and depression? But the longer I stewed, something changed.

(As Stueve says, thinking is a dangerous habit.)

What if the three things I look forward to in 2021 aren’t exactly…things? Or events? What if the things to look forward to are more ethereal, more abstract?

Can I look forward to a deeper practice of grace–not only toward other people, but also toward myself?

Can I look forward to a continued minimizing and organizing of my life–possessions, apps–toward a maximizing of spending my time and resources purposefully?

Can I look forward to my to-read pile of books, my to-see list of films, my to-listen-to Friday Morning Soundtracks?

For many, January 1, 2021 is fraught for a variety of reasons. The panic from facing a blank slate of the coming year. The collective trauma from what we, humanity, have witnessed the past year. The pressure to change and mold ourselves into someone that–let’s be real–might only serve the people profiting off what we purchase to make those changes.

If you are feeling any of that, I understand and am holding space for you to feel and process as you need. And if and when you are ready to consider finding even one thing to look forward to this year, maybe move from the concrete to the abstract and see if that helps.

It’s worth a try. You are worth the try.

Happy New Year.

Christmas Eve 2020

When my dad moved us to Montana, I was sad to leave behind my Bellevue friends for the second time, but also looked forward to a world where no one knew that I played the piano. When it came time to register for classes, I auditioned for the top choir and made it. That choir yielded some of my fondest high school memories and dearest friends, and also introduced me to innumerable choral works.

The choir had a tradition at every December concert of singing the Austrian carol, “Still, Still, Still.” Always the final song of the concert, Miss Mac would turn to the audience and invite any alumni to the stage to join the choir and sing. Every Christmas since, when I hear that song, I am back on the stage in Williamson Hall, clasping the hand of the singer next to me before singing.

This year, the only singing I’ve done is in my car or my kitchen or even my classroom before kids or Stueve arrived; no communal carol singing of any sort. So I spent time this month learning a piano solo arrangement of “Still, Still, Still” mashed up with “Silent Night.” Initially, I thought I would record it and send it to my lifelong friend Mike–we met in that choir, by the way– as some sort of lame attempt at a long-distance Christmas gift. But then I thought about so many people I know (and I’m sure plenty more I don’t) who are low this season, who are missing concerts and caroling, who find music as a space for faith and comfort.

Sharing with just Mike is safe–he won’t point out the missed notes or uneven pedaling or changing tempos, because he’s my friend, but also because he shares my sentimentality for the song. I know it’s not a perfect recording, but I hope as you listen, you think of the people who made past Christmases special, and if you haven’t yet reached out to them, do so.

Merry Christmas.

Silent Night/Still, Still, Still composed by Sally DeFord, played by Julie L. Rowse

Looking forward to it.

It’s officially Winter Break for me as of 4 p.m. today, and this is an unusual Winter Break, as I’m sure it is for others. Winter Break in the past tended to fill up quickly with lunches and dinners with family, friends, and former students. There were typically no fewer than seven movies I’d go see in theaters. And of course, Christmas Eve services and Christmas Day celebrations were a highlight.

None of that is happening this year. And maybe it’s not happening for you, either. So at the risk of sounding preachy, I wanted to offer unsolicited advice about how to manage extended breaks mostly alone. Because even though my Winter Breaks could be busy, I’m a natural homebody and actually spend quite a bit of my breaks from school alone.

I was thinking today about how to best manage the next 18 days (!) of break, and it really boils down to two things: planning, and giving myself things to look forward to.

I started with that tonight–I’d found a recipe for Zuppa Toscano a couple of weeks ago that’s been haunting my dreams. So I decided earlier this week that after musical call backs ended and my break officially started, I would gather the ingredients and make a batch (and boy does it make A BATCH). I looked forward to this all week, and I really think it helped me manage my mood and my stress.

It has kale and garbanzo beans in it, therefore it is healthy.

After I ate a bowl of the Zuppa Toscano (with a side of Italian crusty bread), I started making a list of what I could look forward to, what I could plan, what I could structure my days around.

I have movies to watch and books to read (or listen to) and projects to work on and goodies to bake and basketball games to watch and new recipes to try. But the lists alone are not enough–the trick is to actually plan when to do these things, to capture that element of looking forward to something.

For example, I am already looking forward to Christmas morning, when I can watch Wonder Woman 84. Tomorrow and Sunday, I’ll plan out how to spend my days, making sure I have a good balance of rest, productivity, and entertainment. I’m sure there will be Zoom calls or FaceTime with people who matter, and those will be mostly spontaneous fun.

But don’t underestimate the fun that can be planned. Like in 30 minutes, I’m going to get ready for bed and watch Parks and Rec until I fall asleep. And then I’ll sleep tomorrow until I wake up, no alarm.

I’m looking forward to it.