Today is my 45th birthday.
I've always loved my birthdays: the cake; the celebration of another year well-lived, or at least survived; the cake; the pressure on family and friends to send gifts and cards; the cake; the birthday
The third of four children, birthdays have always been a big deal to me. Middle kids, if they aren't particularly outstanding or particularly troubled, are just sort of, well, there -- sandwiched between the oft-photographed leader of the kid pack and the much-adored baby of the group (case in point: my senior portrait is a modest 8x10, while my little brother's portrait is approximately the size of a billboard).
That's why I was always ridiculously excited about an entire day acknowledging my presence -- and my presents. Mainly the latter. Because PRESENTS! (Please email me if you would like to know where to send the cases of wine).
I also relished the jelly-bean-topped bunny cakes Mom baked me, since my birthday falls near Easter; her special version of the birthday song, always followed by Dad's comical, deep "Annnnd mannnnny more!"; and the annual story of my creation, which goes something like this: In late 1969, Dad was hospitalized following a severe allergic reaction. Mom apparently missed him a whole big bunch. Yadayadayada. I was created. Yea for hives!
Funny thing is, I've never quite outgrown the joy of birthdays.
I still remember the excitement of turning four and tearing open two huge, wrapped presents that had tortured me all day. They did not disappoint. Not every four-year-old gets the Fisher Price Little People Play Family House and the Little People Farm on her birthday. But I did. You are allowed to hate me a little for that because I also had the Little People A-Frame Vacation Home and the Little People Airport. Let's face it: You can't have that many Little People and ever seriously claim you had a bad childhood.
My fourth birthday was infinitely better than my 13th. That was the year I hosted my first slumber party on a stormy April night. If that stupid tornado siren had not wailed at 1 a.m., my parents never would have discovered those neighborhood boys hiding in the basement, and I might not have been grounded until my 14th birthday. Thanks, Mother Nature. Thanks, a lot.
But birthdays are about more than presents, parties and cake. Well, they are about more than presents and parties. Cake is still veryveryveryveryvery important. I cannot stress this enough. Do not show up at my house on my birthday without some sort of buttercream frosted confection or God help you. I once had a husband who did not get me cakes for my birthdays. The key word there is "had". (Just kidding, ex-husband. Okay, mostly kidding. Okay, I'm not kidding at all. No, I'm still kidding. Only I'm not. Or am I?)
In addition to cake, birthdays also are a great day for reflecting on the past year and taking stock of what you have learned in life so far. I'm no Buddha, but I know some stuff.
The following are just a few things I have learned on this crazy journey (look at me rambling away because I have caught The Old!):
1. Life is a gift. Treasure it. Even when it is hard, it is still pretty damn good. Like everyone, I have things in my life that are hard right now. But I am sitting on the back deck, the sun is shining and I'm talking to you while birds sing overhead. So find the good, yo. Always find the good. Need some help getting started? Okay. Bacon exists. Focus on that.
2. Your mom is a gift. Call her. Today. Right now. Man, do I miss hearing my mom sing to me on birthdays. As cheesy as her annual rendition of "Happy Birthday" was, it also was the best part of my day. That's why I do not have a voicemail saved of her singing it. When my mom called, I answered the phone. You do the same. Odds are, your mom always did the the best she could for you.
3. Give Dad some props, too. After all, when you threw your shoes out your second-floor window so you could sneak out of the house quietly in middle school, he did not freak out like your Mom would have. He simply carried your shoes back upstairs and dropped them by your bed. Then he stared at you for a long, long, long, oh-my-God-is-he-going-to-kill-me long time, saying nothing, as you pretended you were asleep and had no idea how your shoes went flying out the window and landed near your friends waiting in the alley. He followed his hour of staring at you with a long heavy sigh, which made his point without a word being said. Amazingly, he didn't tell your mother, who would have grounded you until you were 15 -- which she did, anyway, after you tied those bedsheets together and climbed down the front of the house. You know what? I'm grounding you right now. Geez, you were ridiculous. Hug your parents, friends. If you can still do that, you are very, very lucky.
4. Do what you love, and do it well. It might not pay all the bills, so I'm sorry to say you will likely need a "real job." Bummer, right? I need to get one of those, too. But don't give up on what you are passionate about, either. Squeeze it in -- whether it is writing, painting, taking photographs, dancing, acting, playing piano or learning guitar, crafting, woodworking, cooking, knitting, or doing whatever gives you solace when Prince's elevator of life tries to bring you down. You might not do it better than anyone else, but who gives a flip? Isn't the pleasure it gives you enough? I've been a writer in some form or fashion most of my life, working it in around school, kids and other jobs. It hasn't made me rich or famous, but unlike anything else I do, writing makes me feel at home in my own skin, like I'm doing what I'm meant to do. I'm not willing to abandon that. Of course, if anyone would like to help me become a rich and famous writer, that's cool. In fact, that would make a nice birthday gift. Call me.
5. Relationships are hard. Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Dating is hard. Second marriages are hard. Love is hard. It just is sometimes. I would like to say I have all the the answers to a Happily Ever After by now, but I don't. Instead, I refer back to #1 every day: find the good. Does your significant other make you smile, even when you are so, so, so mad at him or her? Annoying, isn't it? But it's also good. Did he start your 45th birthday with surprise donuts from your favorite bakery? If so, keep trying. Just keep trying. I'm pretty sure that's what your grandparents did. They didn't expect a perfect spouse or have some grandiose ideas about romantic love. They certainly didn't have syrupy Facebook posts about what makes a good man or a great woman. Nah. They just woke up every day and decided not to kill each other. And that worked. Try that.
6. Your children are amazing people-in-training. I'll have plenty of regrets late in my life, but I'll never regret the time I have spent with my kids. Still, give your children some space to be their own people, make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons. I know it's hard, but self sufficiency is one of the best gifts you can give them. So back off a little. This is totally how you can justify all that time you spend on the Internet.
7. Get real. My sister-in-law had a grand idea. She suggested we spend a day posting photos of our real houses, not our fake, company-is-coming homes. Did you refuse to post that adorable photo of your dog because of all the unfolded laundry on your bed? Did you crop out the dirty dishes on the counter in the photo of your kids? Get over it! Real people have messy houses and messy lives. It's not going to kill you to be uncropped or unfiltered occasionally. I promise. You might even find it freeing. That doesn't mean you need to air all of your dirty laundry publicly. But we can help each other out if we will at least admit we aren't perfect. If you are the friend who has the perfect marriage, perfect family, perfect career, perfect home, perfect hair and perfect life, well, I want whatever drugs you are taking that make you believe that. Seriously. Is there a prescription?
8. Speaking of drugs, I prefer wine as my Instagram filter for life. It is okay to allow yourself the occasional indulgence. But all things in moderation -- unless it is cake on my birthday, and then screw that.
9. Faith is important to me. The world is hard, and I for one, don't like to go it alone. I posted more about faith in the piece I wrote for my daughter, and I meant every word. I won't be as poetic here, but I'll cut to the chase: faith is like the day's first cup of coffee. Without it, most things are intolerable. Get you some. But please don't ever use your faith to attack others who aren't exactly like you. That's not cool. It's pretty much the opposite of what your faith should be teaching you.
10. If other people don't like you, or don't approve of your choices, ask yourself this important question: Am I an asshole? If you are, in fact, an asshole, please try to fix that. If you are not an asshole, and you are doing the best you damn well can, then go on with your bad self. I'm not going to tell you it doesn't matter what other people think because that is a big, fat lie. It does matter sometimes. It hurts sometimes. This is why therapists exist, to help us deal with all the different voices telling us how we should be. But at the end of the day, you have to do you, boo. No one does you better.
11. Last but not least, ask for help when you need it, and give it when you know others need it. I am terrible at this. Really awful. Like I suck so hard at it. But I am slowly learning that it isn't weak to admit you can't always do everything or handle everything alone. Admitting you sometimes need help or feel fragile takes real strength and courage. I'm also learning that giving what you have to others -- whether it is your time, your love, your gifts, your grace or your forgiveness -- amazingly, fills you back up. I hope I get better at this in the years to come, and I pledge to try. I want to be fat with all the love.
Today I'll be fat with cake, my memories of birthdays past and my hopes for birthdays future. Even though I have to apply more anti-wrinkle serum every year, I still really dig this whole birthday thing. I'm a little older, a little wiser, a little wider and a little more who I am. Here's to finding the good.
p.s. When my husband asked what kind of cake I wanted, I had PMS, so I requested a half-strawberry, half-lemon layer cake, with a cheesecake center, iced with buttercream frosting and topped with chocolate cupcakes with peanut-butter frosting. Fingers crossed!!