It’s worth fighting through the inertia.
True as that may be, my self-pity disagrees. In its defense of digging a deeper rabbit hole, it would rather filibuster than concede. Its zealotry twists the mere suggestion of celebration into an offense against reason.
Birthday? Bah. What would you be celebrating anyway? Your troubled finances? The end of your relationship? The last dozen fights with Bug, an anemic field of job prospects, your dearest friends in crisis?
The silk-throated devil reminds me that I’m stretched too thin as it is. “Tired” is no longer an adequate descriptor for the perpetual state in which I exist. Wouldn’t you rather just rest, read, heal? Wouldn’t your time be better spent re-tooling your resume?
Once you’ve had 40-something of them, birthdays just become days. Throwing yourself a party at this stage is both tacky and desperate.
No parties. No people. No no no.
But also yes. Because every reason to skip out on pleasure is a dolled-up version of submission. In fact, the more convincing the justification for staying low, the more I should suspect — and upend — its dominance. A toxic mood relishes its alpha dog position, growing in power unless I subvert it.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a simple and ingenious approach to this. Just choose the opposite.
To break this feedback loop, we need to engage in a behavior inconsistent to the emotion we’re trying to manage. This is a technique called opposite-to-emotion behavior. To do this, identify the emotion (sadness), identify the mood-dependent behavior (inaction/isolation), then do the opposite of that.
Opposite to Emotion Behavior from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
A snap, right? Take the stairs. Don the cape. Put a friggin foot on the gas and go. Even when it seems like the most useless act in the world. Especially then.
So, snarling and irate and certain the endeavor will fail, I hurl a few names at Evite.
Fixing a time and place leads to tidying, menus, asking for help. I cobble together activities. I send personal invitations to a new neighbor and to old family friends going through a tough time. My mother gets on board — bless that lady — and then I am dashing around, slapping on lipstick and jamming in earrings as the first guests knock on the door.
As with so many actions, motion generates momentum. It’s almost irrelevant the direction of travel. Any push will do.
The friends arrive. More follow. They hug and meet and hoot and gossip. They bring wine, sweets, kids, dogs. A few play along with my contrived icebreaker activity, milling around five zones of the house where markers and paper on the wall invite joyful thinking about our community and our time together here.
As with so many choices, intention determines outcome. It’s almost irrelevant the details of the text. Any welcome will do.
Earlier in the day, Tee whisked Bug off to a college basketball game. Halfway through the party, he’s dropping the kiddo off. When half-ass planning this whole shindig, I’d been wearing armor of thorns and stink. My invite list failed to catch half the people I love. I’d also been too tight-hearted to ask Tee if he’d like to come. If I have to throw this stupid party, I don’t want my ex husband here. My birthday. My party.
Mine mine mine.
Then my son walks through the door and the room erupts in a cheer. Bug’s face lights up and he skips into the Studio 54 buzz and music and sparkle. Tee is already backing out, saying good night. “Come in,” I say. “Eat. Have a beer.”
“I’ve got a lot of school work still to do. . .”
I gesture wide. “There’s hot cider, Moroccan veggie stew.”
“Okay, just for a minute.” He steps inside and stays for an hour.
Tee is still there when my loved ones gather in a circle around the room. Everyone speaks out loud their wishes for the year ahead as well as their thanks for the right-here-and-now. My mom. The junior-high pals. The Zumba instructors who’ve become sisters. The new neighbor, the writing group fellow, all these the people who just happen to be my people. Even Tee shares how happy he is that we are parenting together as friends and that our son is thriving. Words upon words brushed with almost-tears and lots of chuckles weave their light web around the room.
Bug and the neighbor’s son, chasing down dogs who are chasing down crumbs, dart through the throng decked out in sunglasses and bandit masks, mercifully demolishing our grownup drift towards solemnity.
It’s an extraordinary and dizzying experience to stand inside the metaphor of a circle of love manifesting in real life.
That incessant need to be on, to get things right and be just so, has slunk off into some forgotten corner. In my home with these dear ones, I feel at ease. It is as if I really am — for the moment — okay as me. Clumsy, gushing, nerdy, cutting, tempestuous, so-very-lucky me. . . just a gal entering her 43rd year in the happy company of her tribe.
(And, as I remind several perplexed friends and my son: Yes, a 42nd birthday is the beginning of a 43rd year, because math, people).
As the music starts up again, the circle dissolves and takes on new shapes. Small pockets of conversation dot the room. People who just met giggle like old friends, a baby is passed to a new set of arms, men talk coaching and gals talk travel. Folks who haven’t seen each other in years cover lost ground. The first roots take hold under nascent relationships.
Orientation determines truth. I tilt my head and the whole thing resolves into sharp-edged clarity. Throwing oneself a party is also giving a party. A birthday is just another day, yes. It is also a gift, a perfect excuse to open a door and invite a fledgling community to weave itself into being. This circle is so much more than mine. It holds my son, parents, neighbors, and all the friends who show up with attention, voice, and story.
My girlfriend says that each year is “a free vacation around the sun.” Even so, it can also feel like an extended solo trip. It can take a few revolutions (or a few dozen) before it becomes clear that we have always been in this together.
This time I can see how many are at the helm, how strong the crew, how wide open the skies.