Originally published in Cabinet of Heed Literary Journal.
————————————————————— Heather lives and writes in Buffalo, NY. Her work is forthcoming and/or appeared in Cabinet of Heed Literary Magazine, Magnolia Review, Ghost City Press, East Coast Literary Review and others. She is working on her first poetry collection. Sometimes she feels alive.
It’s early July, yet again, and my bestie texts, “It’s almost your birthday! What do you want to do this year?”
I swallow my heart.
She offers a low-key night out. I say, “Meh. We’ll see.” There’s a patio restaurant I’ve been wanting to try, but I’ll probably wait until the birthday blues wear off.
The idea of planning a celebration, something even as simple as a dinner reservation, for myself is daunting. The idea of someone else planning a party on my behalf is even more daunting. If an ambitious friend/family member makes it happen, everyone stares and asks, “are you having fun? Do you like your gifts?” Then they sing and it feels like antifreeze is boiling in the back of my throat. All I want to do is cry.
Don’t get me wrong, I love celebrating birthdays: making people feel seen, finding a unique gift, eating cake. I just don’t like mine.
Birthdays are a time for family gatherings, for the sake of togetherness, real or not, with people who aren’t always right for us. We’ve gotta trudge through the trenches with a big smile and pretend we feel special and loved.
On my fifth birthday, Mom dressed me in my best Mickey Mouse dress and even though I walked on eggshells to not set her off, she screamed every time I tucked my fluffed blond hair behind my ears. The Golden Child must look and be perfect at all times, especially when she’s the center of attention. Deep-seated conflicts were painted pink in the backyard and Barbie sat at the head of the table between my feuding Aunts. Dad was drinking and crying out for reassurance at the computer desk again.
A guest I got/get bad vibes from (I felt energy deeply even at age 5) came storming in for a hug. When I refused, she lifted me up by the left arm, dislocating my shoulder. Happy Birthday to me! If this doesn’t symbolize the forced togetherness I’m talking about, I don’t know what does.
Every birthday after that has been quite similar. This year, though, I’m laying low with my husband and dogs on a hiking trail.
Birthdays, like New Year’s Eve, is a time for reflection. And each year my family probes me on every aspect of my existence: what are you doing with your life? When are you having Kids? Do you think College was a waste of money now? Why do you live your life the way you do?
Every year I’m reminded that I’m not where I want to be—yet. I shouldn’t have taken a break from grad school. Should I really have kids? I should “fake it till I make it.” I should know how to cope by now. I should. . .
Unsolicited advice, even from a good place, reminds that I’m not enough and that I’m taking too long. Imposter Syndrome sets in, and tells me I don’t deserve what I have and shouldn’t move forward. Feeling like a failure triggers my anxiety and trauma, and so I retreat to the shadows in my mind—which takes days or weeks or months to crawl out of if I’m not careful.
I know this mindset is unhealthy, but the “I should” social construct always has its way with me. This year I deleted my social media as a birthday present to myself. I’m also chanting: I don’t need to slay all the dragons all the time. It has helped.
My birthday has me feeling guilty for not feeling celebratory. The people who love me want to see me happy and smiley, but around this time, it’s not what I can give them. As a chronic people-pleaser, knowing I’m disappointing people makes me uncomfortable. Do I look like I’m having enough fun? Did I open the gifts with enough enthusiasm? Are my guests entertained? In reality, I doubt my loved ones are judging me in this capacity.
For many years, I thought I was the only one crying on my birthday, but I know there are many of us out there. So, this year let’s promise each other we’ll think of our day as a day to celebrate the life we have exactly where and how we are, without comparing ourselves to others. Let’s promise to respect ourselves enough to set boundaries and do the things we really want to do, for ourselves. Let’s promise to treat ourselves with the same compassion we give our friends on their birthdays.
This year my birthday will be different. I’m on this new journey, taking on new perspectives and reminding myself to think positively. This year I’m going to uphold those promises to myself.
Do you have the birthday blues? What does it stem from? How do you grapple with the anxiety it brings?
After a four-month corona hiatus, our favorite Chinese restaurant reopened this week. The neon green sign on the previously boarded-up window reads, “In mask order Chinese July 8th.” Ah, yes, you know I put that directly in my calendar. I drool for orange chicken, especially when I’m feeling sad.
Yesterday a fellow blogger Mark of Healing your Heart Within took the time to write a lovely comment in response to my recent post An Existential Crisis on a Scenic Hiking Trail. His words resonated and stuck with me, specifically:
“Your sadness and pain is all that the fear is built on, usually a rejection in some form from those you love and look up to, and you have spent your entire life thinking it is you that have caused this so you are in a constant ‘I’m not good enough, can I , should I’ in all that you do. That questioning of the mind is you trying to break back through that wall of fear. Find its source, understand it…and be free.”
I marinated those words, “find its source, understand it…and be free,” for the rest of the day: between advising appointments, my drive home from the office, awake at 2am. Did the Universe send this reader/writer to me? Like it sent me this love letter.
Believing in “signs” isn’t new to me. My grandma (not my blood, but no one would know), “Lannie Bird” they called her, was a very troubled woman with a rice pudding heart. She loved us kids unconditionally and her demise left a pea-shaped void I never did fill. She collected signs from the universe like I collect owls.
When she wasn’t skidding tires on our front lawn, sleeping in vodka-dew grass, she’d take us thrifting on hot summer days. She was always searching for that one special piece in the dusty boxes of someone else’s history. I loved that about her. She’d swat away the bees buzzing around my sister’s cherry-popsicle dress and tell us “never be scared to be yourself.” I didn’t know then that she carried a secret pile of rocks about her sexuality in her stomach. She bought us each a bluebird figurine.
“Grandma Blue,” we called her. She would stand at her window and sing, “come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you candy,” by Rosemary Clooney, and the blue birds would sunbathe in the birdbath of her sorrow in the yard. To her, they were a sign of joy, harmony and honesty—the very things she should have been chugging on the corner of Military Road instead. She loved to talk about who sent which bird to her.
So, what do I desperately need sent to me? What do I fear? What do I need to understand? I think, while driving past the youthful bicycle-gang in the middle of Seneca Street. No worries, no cares given, they’d say. The one kid, maybe 12, shoots me with his finger-gun every time I see him. I’m starting to take it a little personally. What would you do if I pulled over to get out of my car?
The nice cashier smiles under her mask, her eyes tell me so, and hands over a steaming bag. I end the meal with a fortune cookie. And whatdoyaknow? Grandma Blue sent me a bluebird from a treasure chest in some place that smells like lilacs.
Do fortunes cookies know what I need? Or do I just eat Chinese when I’m depressed and looking for answers? I’m not sure—but I’ll keep stuffing the tiny scraps of encouragement into my pocket!
I cling to signs as a way to organize and conceptualize my needs, thoughts, feelings. I don’t chase blue birds, but words. Someone else out there, the one to author this note, s/he understands and that’s validating.
“Find its source, understand it…and be free.” The what, the why, the how to let it go.
I fear failure.
I know my fears stem from childhood trauma flowing, rapidly, like a liquid shadow, in the fistula it carved out between my cerebral cortex and heart. You can’t bail liquid with a strainer. I know this because I’ve tried to empty the tunnel many a time. And if you can’t examine the organisms living in the water, how can you understand? The dozen memories I have, they haunt me less than the ones I cannot access. I am a book of erasure poetry.
“To understand is hard.”
I’ll be a year older later this month (“Please Don’t Wish me a Happy Birthday”—a post coming next week), but I’m still a child hiding in the closet, gripping my notebook and pencil-box full of supplies to runaway: pennies collected from the dryer, a spoon, a piece of tan cloth my sister and I shared when we were scared. I am a cup of emotions without a bottom. I should have worked through all this years ago. I should be sitting poolside laughing with my friends. Instead, I’m collecting fortunes and writing about it so I can sleep at night.
Though I wasn’t able to empty the fistula with the strainer today, I’m looking to buy the right ladle, the kind they don’t sell in TJ Maxx, but I’m sure the universe, or perhaps Grandma Blue, will send the right one soon.
“Once one understands, action is easy.”
I’m clinging to this until I understand. And I know I will someday soon understand. I have to. Mostly for myself. But also because Grandma Blue never got to understand and be free.
Do you believe in signs? Have they helped your mental health journey?
A quick prose poem on the edge of a hike
I trekked 7 miles and 28 flights of stairs to bring the rapids a bouquet of flowers in exchange for words. Instead, she sent me a quiet beach-ball bouncing about the swirling water of Devil’s Hole. In the dark of a tree contours the shape my body. So, I had a picnic with my existential angst while I waited for the moonkeeper to invite me in.
“We can all agree that the unexamined life is not worth living…but if all you’re doing is examining, you’re not living.” — Adam Leipzig
The hardest part of having an existential crisis is that it comes as quiet as bruises, often for unknown reasons. It’s the uncontrollable need to ask questions over and over again, never resting, about one’s meaning and place in life. Sarah Fader wrote an amazing piece explaining this in depth What Is An Existential Crisis And How Can It Be Resolved?, if you want to read more.
This morning, like many mornings, I mull over these questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong? Am I lovable despite my flaws? Are we meaningless specks? Will any of us be remembered? Is this life imaginary, am I? Are my thoughts my own and how do I know? Will I ever stop thinking about this?
Then I think to myself, you’re doing just fine. Give yourself some time. Put your hiking shoes on and flee Buffalo for the day. I head to Stony Brook State Park. I need to feel alive.
The easiest and most scenic Gorge Trail is closed for construction, so I head to the Rim Trails’ towering stairs. The woods are speckled with florescent signs, “Wear a mask in public” and is mostly empty due to the global pandemic. I think, if I can climb hundreds of stairs in a mask, the anti-maskers can handle wearing it in the grocery store. Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their interactions with others?
I climb away from the others. Just me and the chipmunks. They play tag as I pant and grunt past waterfalls and unbelievable rock formations. I envy the chipmunks for they can’t see the true depth of the woods. The humming waterfall echos in my heart and distracts me. I want to write about it, but I’ve forgotten how to restrain my inner editor.
In my backpack I carry sunscreen, water and paranoia of aging past 30: I don’t know what the hell I am doing with my life; everyone knows I am an imposter; and how did I get this far? My backpack is heavy and the trail is much harder to climb than anticipated. I need to throw my ego into water, but it’s like a leech kissing my brain.
When I reach the top, after polishing each thought like a new gem, and my brain is making the sound of a violin being tuned, I come face-to-face with this mural: “Learning to love.”
“This is a turning point. You are on the brink of enlightenment,” my former therapist said, almost two years ago, when I first acknowledged my crisis.
I remember the exact moment of realization, drinking my coffee by the window, on an ordinary day, beside the dogs: Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? Am I giving it enough meaning? Am I trying hard enough? I was much like the chipmunks: unable (and unwilling) to see the depth of my own woodlands—until that day.
These aren’t new questions. The first time I remember obsessing over my existence was in the eighth grade. At an away game, when I was being “too shy,” my volleyball coach told me, “just be yourself!” A teammate had to console me as I cried on the bus, explaining that I didn’t know if I was being my “true self” or just a “pretend version” of myself. She shrugged her shoulders and offered me a blue Gatorade.
Little did I know I would be so messy and weak and incoherent for so long.
In the trees, I do not stifle my soul or feel alone. I do not accidentally project my negative feelings onto them and regret it later. I sit for a while. Their leaves shutter, but do not scuttle.
I wonder if they feel my presence. They deaf clap at me. I carry on. I must cross a bridge much like this one:
I am shaky and weak in middle of the bridge. What’s on the other side? Freedom of distorted thinking, freedom to trust my choices, freedom to take accountability, freedom to be grateful for what I have and where I am.
I don’t cross the bridge on this hike, but I find some peace on the long way down because now I know I want to cross the bridge. I know I need to cross the bridge.
I’ve been looking at things from one angle my entire life, but on the bridge, I’m looking at life from new perspectives I didn’t previously realize existed. This crossing will take time.
Did you know you can build zen gardens upon rotting trees?
That’s right! I can build zen gardens upon rotting trees or I can fall victim to my past, thoughts and feelings. I know what I need to do. I think I might even know who I am.
I am a good person just trying to find her way back onto the trail.
Have you had an existential crisis? What was your experience? How did you push through? How long was recovery for you?