The celebration of my 21st birthday was the most stereotypically drunken affair in modern human history.
By the time I turned 21, I was no stranger to the art of drinking, having taken up the habit some years earlier, both as a solo and social endeavor. Attending a large drinking college with a football problem and dating guys who were older than me increased my access to and passion for alcohol. So when my birthday rolled around in the spring of my junior year, I was primed and ready.
Understandably, I don’t remember much about the event. I know that friends started gathering at my rental house by the train tracks some time after 9pm the night before my actual birthday, as was the custom. They arrived with alcohol in hand, insisting that we do birthday shots together. I know that my outfit for the night involved a skirt with some sort of animal print and a sideways trucker hat, a very fashionable look in the early 2000s. I know that the whole affair took to the bars at midnight, when I was “officially” of drinking age, and bartenders who had been serving me drinks for the last 3 years pretended not to notice that I was just now claiming to be of legal age. I know that my friend, [name redacted], spent the evening buying me shots of something blue. And I know that, at 4am as I was dealing with the predictable outcome of all this revelry over my boyfriend’s toilet–and it was coming out blue–I periodically lifted my head to moan “I hate [name redacted]!”*
These types of celebrations are typical for one’s early 20s. A time in life when all possibilities are open, when we finally get to claim the title of “adult.” We celebrate in this way perhaps because of the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Who are we as adults? What will our lives look like? In the absence of answers, we throw ourselves into celebration and revelry. (I’m just grateful that my 21st came before the ubiquitous presence of camera phones.)
Last year, I celebrated another milestone birthday. I turned 30 just months after one of the hardest and most terrifying decisions of my life. I channeled all of my anxiety about what my life would look like in the future into a month of celebrations. On the day my ex-husband moved out of my house, I officiated the wedding of a beautiful couple joyfully starting their life together. The next weekend and danced to and received love advice from kirtan artist Krishna Das. I hosted a birthday party with dozens of friends and played Twister until my muscles burned. I jumped out of a plane and, hovering between heaven and earth, promised the Universe that if it would carry me through these dark days, I would serve the world in any and all ways it asked of me.
I posted pictures of all my celebrating and heard people say, “You look like you’re having so much fun!” And I was. But beneath the gusto with which I celebrated a new decade of life lurked a terror so deep and dark I couldn’t even name it to myself. The dread of an unanswerable question: “Am I going to be okay?”
One year later, I’m happy to report that the answer is yes. My 30th year brought challenges the likes of which I couldn’t have imagined. But it also brought an extraordinary burst of creativity and motivation. It brought the knowledge that I’m supported by amazing people who would never let me go hungry or be alone for too long. It brought an unexpected sense of security, because if I can stare into an abyss of not-knowing and still put one foot in front of the other and provide for myself, what is there left to fear?
My birthday celebrations this year were much quieter, but no less satisfying. A sushi lunch date, breakfast in bed, along walk in the sun, a living room picnic with friends. I didn’t feel the need to make any declarative statements to the Universe this year, other than a heartfelt, “Thank you.”
So here’s my advice: Turn 30 with gusto and great flare. But turn 31 humbly, quietly, with intense gratitude and an assurance at that everything is exactly as it should be.
A few days before my birthday last week, I took myself out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant near my house. Halfway through my meal, someone at the next table leaned over and said, “Is your name Melissa?” It was a guy I taught dance with in college, ten years ago. He said, “I almost didn’t say anything because I thought, there’s no way it’s her. You still look exactly the same. You haven’t aged a bit.” I smiled and thanked him, told him it was a very nice thing to say. But on the inside, I thought, “My friend, you have no idea how far I’ve come.”
*Author’s Note: I don’t recommend this degree of alcohol consumption, nor do I wish its after-effects on anyone. If you choose to drink, please do so responsibly, and always have a designated driver.Birthday, Life, Meditation, Reflection, yoga