Do you see? Historically, I relish my birthday no matter what. You wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid, too, little sister? Aw, I feel a little awkward about this, and I sure hope you get one on your special day. But, shhhh, stand aside because it’s MY birthday, this is MY gift and I want to make sure Mom gets a pic of me with Henrika Lily. Wait, no. I think I’m going to name her Jenny Henrika. I’m turning 7 today, so I can totally change the name on the Cabbage Patch Kids birth certificate. You know, I can actually do anything I want today. It’s my birthday. I’m the star. Sing to me! Feed me cake! Give me ice cream! Let me open presents! Cheeeeeeese!
I turned 35 two weeks ago. Appreciation and surprises rolled in from near and far. People made me smile, laugh, blush and feel overcome with gratitude because I can’t believe they love me so perfectly. (cookie bouquets, haikus, notes, flowers, jewelry, cars pulled over on the side of the road and technology given to kids to make space to talk to me, oh my!)
And, yet, there’s the other side of birthdays, and it didn’t elude me. There were tears. Not because I’m getting older—although I was once told by someone who is obviously mistaken that 35 is a woman’s tip toward the downhill slide—but because of this: My journey sometimes feels way harder than I want it to be. And, though I know this journey is all for the greater good, even my birthday couldn’t relieve me of its present weight.
I didn’t get why I was feeling so heavy on my birthday, the ultimate festival of awesomeness for a hardcore Leo, and I felt generally very awkward, alone and socially inept all day. I just wanted to hide and not have to face anyone because I simply wasn’t “myself,” and I was definitely not playing the part of the happy-go-lucky birthday girl I felt I should be.
So I called up a friend who’s always good for spiritual refreshment. Cin is a poet of some renown (check it) and always has a fresh way of seeing things. She said, “Everything is just extra on your birthday. Ouchy things feel extra ouchy. Wonderful things feel extra wonderful. This is kind of how birthdays are. They’re extra everything.”
So this is obviously, like, “extra” fabulous. This is me on my 35th birthday, post-tears. If 35 marks the downhill slide, I’m totally wearing tight jeans, Blanche Devereaux jackets and big necklaces the rest of the way.
One thing we can learn about being a friend, from a comedy writer
So, yeah, on the topic of those “extra” kinds of feelings and friendship, I read this really cool Cracked.com article the other day. (Hey-oh, David Goldstein, thanks for the share!) It’s called “Robin Williams and why funny people kill themselves.” It paints a vivid picture of why comics develop the gift of funny, and how they often feel compelled to hide their dark stuff throughout their lives, sometimes all the way up until a self-inflicted end. It’s insightful and it’s sad. And I hereby declare it required reading.
(Aside: My inner circle does not need to read the article because they already know. They miraculously like me even when my need to process is incessant, my forehead vein is sticking out and mascara is streaking down my cheeks. Which is doggone decent of them.)
Anyway, David Wong’s boiled-down advice to friends of funny people is this:
“Be there when they need you, and keep being there even when they stop being funny. Every time they make a joke around you, they’re doing it because they instinctively and reflexively think that’s what they need to do to make you like them. They’re afraid that the moment the laughter stops, all that’s left is that gross, awkward kid everyone hated on the playground, the one they’ve been hiding behind bricks all their adult life. If they come to you wanting to have a boring-ass conversation about their problems, don’t drop hints that you wish they’d ‘lighten up.’ It’s really easy to hear that as ‘Man, what happened to the clown? I liked him better.’”
It got me thinking. I wonder what would happen if we substituted different personality traits in for “funny.” Nice. Smart. Strong. Empowering. Sexy. Snarky. Motivational. Witty. Holy. Wise. Tough. Passionate. Ornery. Creative. Cool. Shiny.
What’s your schtick?
I’m not funny, so the applications of Wong’s article aren’t an exact match, but, like you, I am a bunch of other stuff (warm, open, caring, playful…) These are real things about me, and I generally try to be my real self at all costs, but sometimes other qualities (over-thinky-ness, overwhelm, hard-on-myself-ness, perfectionism, fearfulness, etc.) take the stage. On those days, I feel afraid of what might happen if my shiny self doesn’t present.
Will you still want me?
I’m not sure you will. So I can identify with Wong on this point. I’ve seen it before—that moment when someone you consider a friend isn’t quite sure what to do with a state of being that’s not your modus operandi—you get the glazed-over eyes and emotional detachment and end up feeling dumb for venturing from your usual shininess, or whatever it is you think they like about you. And so you bottle it up around them and, next time, you’re darn sure to put on the face you think they want to see.
Feeling dumb after showing your real self sucks. And it veers awfully close to feeling un-liked or unloved or isolated. Which, in some cases, can be a slippery slope.
So my point is: If funny people feel required to stay funny because that’s what’s expected of them, as Wong asserts, others may feel it behooves them to maintain X, Y or Z persona for the same reason. And it’s just as damaging. We must break this pattern. All of us. I’m talking to you.
The shiny mask keeps things nice and pleasant, but behind the mask, we feel glaringly alone walking around in the world. You tell yourself people don’t want anything to do with this heavier, lackluster version of you. You keep your sunglasses on.
And if you remove the sunglasses? And the mask?
Well, I can’t say I’m skilled at doing this myself, but all I know is that when someone takes off his or her sunnies and lets me see their heart and soul, no matter what shape it’s in that day, it gets pretty awesome. Unfortunately, most of us walk around with some masterful masks, which may cause us to miss out on potentially expansive connections.
Recently a friend I’ve known for almost a year shared one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. It was a tale of unending loss and grief in his life. In our relationship of pleasantries and passing conversation, I never could’ve guessed he’d been through such tragedy. After he laid it out there, he apologized for telling me, for weighing me down. But, on the contrary, I felt both more alive and more connected with him. I’m not sure how this works, but something about the honor of becoming privy to the trials of this guy as he was processing some deep feelings was ultimately very, very uplifting. And, as a result of being let in and letting him into my own world, I am now way more into what’s beneath his facade than my experience of him from the past 10 months. It took some time to develop a friendship, as it usually does, but the dude is now in my heartspace.
Another example: I was recently shaking it with a big crowd at a festive occasion, delighted to have run into a much admired friend I hadn’t seen in a while. As we hugged, shimmied and bumped booties on the dance floor, I asked her how she was doing and she responded so simply, to the tune of, “Well. Here I am. I haven’t done this (insert her deep desire) yet, and I want it so bad. So, I’m happy for these people, but I’m really not doing so well at the moment.”
The honesty. The authenticity. The courage. The vulnerability. The real, pulsing life being laid out there in an unlikely space. The power of it all will take your breath away. At the time, when each of these friends opened their hearts and showed me what was inside rather than what they thought they should display, my heart opened, too. And what came next in each instance was infinitely better than whatever I was doing or planning to do the moment before they got real with me.
This chick–let’s call her “Tiffany” in honor of the artist who created her–is all, “Hey, Fish. I’m kinda blue today. Do you still wanna hang out? No? Ok. I’m just going to descend, then.”
It’s awesome when people get real.
On one end, the willingness to let down the walls and just be who you are, whatever it is, in that instant, is a pure, glistening gift.
On the other end, compassion, sincerity and general openness is equally as valuable. For example, at a BBQ last weekend, someone I don’t know as well as I hope to one day circled back to a nonspecific comment I made weeks ago about a tough time I was having. She asked me about it in the most sincere, caring, understanding, open way, and it instantly brought me to tears. She might as well have said, “I see you, I care about you and I’m here for you.” It’s ballsy to jump into someone’s world like that. I’d call it heroic, even. But now I know that if I want to reach out to her and be my stripped-down self, I totally can. What a gift. Happy Birthday to me.
So, what if we were genuinely open to allowing the people in our lives to be however they are on any given day? And what if we were authentic about our own feelings as well? When we’re not our usual shiny selves, what if we could just be ok with that? And not worry about how others might receive us? And not feel icky about their response, if unfavorable, to us on these days?
I think we can try for all of this.
Kip frosted this cake for me all by himself. Because it was my birthday cake, and because he loved frosting it so much, it was extra-extra delicious.
But back to my birthday.
Birthdays feel like the New Year to me. They’re a chance to look at your life, at what you’ve created, and reflect on what you want to manifest in the coming year. I’ve got a rough sketch in my head of how I might want my 36th year to look. It’s pretty bold and there are a lot of unknowns, and being true about my feelings and wholly accepting of others is on the list.
But if it ever gets to be too much, I could take the tongue-in-cheek advice from my burst-of-goodness-and-wisdom-and-laughter friend, who rocked an extended text convo with me the day after my bday. Here’s a sample:
Her: That pic of Kip and the cake summarizes how blessed yet awesome you are. I hope your day is as rockin as yooooouuuu!
Me: You are so right. 🙂 It was an up and down day (birthdays are kinda like that sometimes), but overall definitely rockin. Thanks for your kickass love!
Her: Ummm, yes, birthdays are bittersweet, emotional, thought provoking in maybe not the best ways…why is that?! … I hope wine punched those thoughts in the ass…ha!!
No filter. No mask. Let’s just feel what we feel and be who we are today, tomorrow and every day after. And, if friends aren’t ready to embrace the real you when you’re “not yourself,” don’t let it get to you. Be that person anyway and go for a cup of the fancy tea, a talk with your closest friend, a nice yoga class, a long run, an Epsom-salt bath or, yes, maybe even a glass of wine. You are not alone. You are divine. You are loved. A tough day—be it your birthday or otherwise—doesn’t have to mean a downhill slide. It can mean your very blossoming.