In Celebration of Celebration

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The last dregs of cold still cling to the city like the confines of an old winter coat—musty and worn, heavy and hard to shake—but as the days grow longer and the midday-twilight wanes, there’s no doubt that spring is upon us.  I stepped out the other morning for an early run to the beach (a sure sign of spring, in and of itself) and was met with a balmy breeze and the watery light of dawn filtering down through the trees, illuminating the vibrant, emerald buds now dotting their branches.  The air was perfumed with the sweet scents of lilac and daffodil and the speared heads of lilies of the valley were just beginning to emerge from beneath the soil.  These natural wonders signal the changing of the season, but for me they also signal something a bit more personal—my birthday.  

Normally this is a subject I take great pains to avoid.  When people ask when my birthday is or how I plan to celebrate I hem and haw, I grimace with discomfort and tell them, “I don’t really like birthdays.”  But while I am somewhat uncomfortable with the attention birthdays bring, the truth is that I don’t actually dislike birthdays.  In fact, I love them—at least, I used to.  When I was a child I adored birthdays.  With their egomaniacal little minds, their penchant for greediness and endless thirst for attention (I’ve mentioned I don’t like children, right?), and those grubby little mitts always seeking out the nearest sticky substance like a moth to a flame (frosting will do the trick), what child wouldn’t love a special day of their own, replete with cake, presents, and lavish praise heaped upon them?  

Sadly, as I grew older and depression wound itself around my ankles with a sinister purr, tripping me up at every turn, I came to dread birthdays.  I was no longer capable of the joy and excitement that birthdays entail and I found this loss of ability to revel in my special day extremely depressing.  (Depression is depressing—who would have thought?)  Birthdays became days filled with immense pressure—the pressure to enjoy myself, the pressure to be cheerful, the pressure to demonstrate the appropriate celebratory spirit—all tasks that require a herculean effort when you can’t exactly recall what those emotions are.  My OCD further complicated matters by instilling in me an obsessive (duh) fear that no matter how grateful I was, I could never truly express a sufficient amount of gratitude to be deserving of the nice things people were doing for me.  Birthdays were now an exhausting feat of mental gymnastics.  Do I look happy?  Why can’t I be happy?  Am I smiling?  Did I say thank you enough?  Am I making it clear how appreciative I am?  Oh god, I must look miserable.  People must be wondering why they’re even bothering to celebrate when I can’t muster up any enthusiasm, myself.  They must think I’m selfish and ungrateful.  It’s my birthday for fuck’s sake—am I really so wretched that I’ve turned this into an occasion for mourning and self-pity?  It’s a vicious downward spiral that undoubtedly ends with me weeping into a plate of frosting.

My mom and I actually developed a tradition in which we pick new birthdays.  Good days were so few and far between that the odds of one falling on my actual date of birth were slim to none.  So we still celebrated those days and accepted phone calls and well wishes from others, faced the pressure and increased socialization with (often unachieved) attempts at merriment, but we also allowed ourselves an extra day for us, alone.  If one of those rare unicorns of days when I woke up feeling good fell within a few weeks of my date of birth, I would declare, This is it!  This is my new birthday!  Quick, celebrate before the darkness descends once more!

I’m hoping this year I won’t need an extra birthday.  Now that my life has (quite literally) been infused with joy once more, I find myself searching for any excuse to celebrate—birthdays, religious and national holidays, those stupid, arbitrary holidays that pepper online calendars (like National Peanut Butter Day or Great Aunt’s-Cousin’s-Best Friend’s Day of Recognition), and even such mundanities as weekends and days with good weather.  Damn it, I want to celebrate everything.  I’m rediscovering that treasured feeling, once lost to childhood, of positive anticipation.  I’m remembering the delight I once took in planning and celebrating special occasions.  I used to insist on weekly Shabbat dinners, despite never buying into the religious aspects, and Pesach has always been my favorite holiday, simply for the elaborate rituals involved (plus I’m one of those freaks who loves matzo).  There is so much to love about celebrating.  It combines all of my favorite activities like baking, decorating, planning, choosing gifts, and cooking for others, all with the added bonus of occasion-specific, thematic guidelines to test your creative chops.  Celebrations are also wonderful excuses for indulgence and self-care—fundamental pleasures in life I once denied myself because I couldn’t be bothered to make the effort or didn’t see the point.  

There’s another valuable aspect of celebration that I touched on with my love of Pesach—the importance of ritual.  When I discovered my personal distaste for religion, I worried that I would have to relinquish my cherished cultural traditions or risk branding myself a hypocrite, but I’ve found that ritual plays a vital role beyond its religious function.  Ritual is, at its core, a means of cultivating mindfulness.  It is about marking the passage of time, imbuing it with significance so that the days don’t sail by in a monotonous blur.   It is about drawing our awareness to the present moment, while also allowing us to reflect on the past.  Even the small, daily rituals we partake in—things as simple as sunrise runs or morning cups of coffee—help frame our lives and bring our attention to the beauty of these fleeting moments, as we acknowledge the various ways in which they change or remain the same, day to day.

You might argue that creating so many excuses for celebration diminishes how special these occasions are, that near-constant revelry ignores the intended uniqueness of holidays (after all, when we ask the four questions at our Seders we ask, How is this day different from all others?)—and you might be right.  But, for the time being, well, I just don’t care.  When you’ve been wrested from the crocodilian jaws of mental illness and find yourself delighting in a strange, new world where joy and happiness are tangible realities, rather than unattainable fantasies designed to tease and torture, everything feels like a cause for celebration.  So, superfluous as it may seem, bake a cake, blow up balloons, hang streamers, and don your party finery, because tomorrow is Saturday—just an ordinary, unremarkable Saturday—and I feel like celebrating!

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