The Portland Phoenix

Miserable & Magical: Happy birthday to me

Pandemic or not, there’s no way this year’s birthday could top what I did last year. Even if there was no quarantine and I had an epic day planned, it still wouldn’t beat being front row at a Lizzo concert as she sang and twerked a mere 15 feet from my sweaty face.

That’s definitely not happening this year, and unfortunately, neither is anything else.

Let me check my calendar again to make sure I have that right. OK, yep. Nothing. The only thing slated for May 22 aside from me turning 28 years old was that this column was due. And as much as I enjoy writing this, it’s not quite enough to make it a memorable birthday.

As someone who has a flair for the dramatic, I tend to put a lot of pressure on my birthday. Historically this has not served me, or the people around me, well.

For example, let’s take my 22nd birthday. I was crying on a mall bench by 10 a.m. because my plans to go to the New England Aquarium got ruined. 

Honestly, my history with NEAQ is so complex, so deeply woven into the fabric of my being, that I could easily make this entire piece about it. But since my editors probably don’t want 700 words on third-grade field trips, abandonment issues, and a childlike fascination with seals, I’ll spare you.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

When I turned 6, my parents gave me a hard plastic baby doll with blonde hair and a pink swimsuit. Naturally, I brought her to school with me because what are birthdays for if not to have all eyes on you?

Things took a turn for the worse, though, when the other girls started to fight over her and I had to hide with my new toy behind a bookshelf as sticky fingers closed in on me. It’s not a good feeling when your friends would rather play with your toy than with you on your own birthday.

On my 23rd birthday I sat alone at Portland Lobster Co. eating a sad chicken sandwich because I couldn’t afford the lobster roll. Yes, I know. Feel bad for me. You’re probably thinking “flair for the dramatic” isn’t a strong enough phrase.

I feel like what you do for your birthday is some sort of status symbol and frankly, that’s dumb. Growing up, I felt that if I didn’t have a fun party or do something grand and exciting, I’d be exposed as boring and sad. I thought to have a lackluster birthday represented who you were as a person. It’s supposed to be a day all about you and if you don’t do anything fun, what does that say about you?

Somehow I internalized all this over the years and put so much pressure on myself to make my birthday special. I’d always be like, “Am I having fun right now? Is this as good as I hoped?” when I should have just gotten out of my head and into the moment.

My 23rd was my last bad birthday. Thank God for maturity or I probably wouldn’t hit a five-year streak of good birthdays this year. Having absolutely no plans except for being completely alone all day would have sent me into a pit of depression at 23. Now, I’m OK with it. Is this what being an adult feels like?

I’ve really felt myself change over the past few years. I am not the same person I was at 22 or 23. I’ve become more comfortable with who I am and with spending time by myself. I’ve also let go of a lot of the pressure I’d been putting on myself. Not all of it, of course (I’m still human). But I feel a tad less neurotic about having things be a certain way. 

I’m more content to go with the flow now than I used to be, which is really helpful for this suckfest of a time we’re living in. I don’t know what my 28th year will hold (or is this technically my 29th year of life? That always confuses me) and I have to be OK with that. 

My hopes for 28 are that I continue to slow down and be in the moment. I want to continue letting go of self-imposed pressure and any external pressure I feel, and instead focus on myself and what I want. 

And truth be told, I kind of want to go to the aquarium. 

Kate Gardner is a Portland-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, SELF, and Bustle. You can follow her on Twitter @katevgardner.

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