I turned thirty last week.
For weeks, I tried to write something witty, pithy and perhaps inspirational about this milestone age. I wanted to write the observational essay that so many could relate to; that would speak to others who might have many of the same mixed feelings and emotions about this age as I do.
But the words never came together.
Almost a month ago I found myself in tears at a local cafe (before things shut down, of course) because I just couldn’t write. A combination, perhaps, of pandemic fatigue, shaky mental health, and the intimidation of a topic too expansive to sum up in one bite-sized blog post.
In the run-up to my big day, I was juggling some pretty mixed feelings about it. I was both excited, and full of dread; simultaneously hungry for change, and terrified of the unfamiliar. I couldn’t shake the concept of mortality, and was haunted by archaic expectations and cliches. The prospect of a lonely birthday in lockdown had my already turbulent emotions reeling – and I was unable, to my horror, to put all this into words – which is supposedly what I do best.
Because not only was it the start of a new decade, but I would be entering it in entirely alien circumstances. While a year ago I would have imagined marking it with a good old family ‘do’, a large gathering, a night out with friends, a fancy meal, or a city break abroad, I would instead be spending the day mostly on my own, in the confines of my one-bedroom flat, as many others will have experienced this year.
The day ran the risk of slipping into solitary melancholia if I didn’t ensure I had plenty to do.
Despite all of this, after much consideration, and after the day itself arrived, I realised I was, in fact, grateful to be turning thirty in lockdown.
This seems to have been the thirtieth I needed, rather than wanted.
I find that, often, the pressure put on a birthday to be brilliant and perfect can tinge the edge of whatever does happen; if you feel even remotely less than wonderful and grateful, you’ve let everyone, including yourself, down.
I’ve always been very lucky, with family birthdays and childhood memories being ones of joy, love and contentment. However, as much as I love the occasion, and as special as they always have been, I’ve sometimes found them quite difficult to deal with emotionally.
Birthdays rarely give you space to feel. They don’t permit you to wake up feeling indescribably grey, the intensity of which increases in the glow given off by the significance of the day, like rain clouds growing denser in the brilliant light of sunshine, looking more threatening than they really are.
This year’s solitude and slowness offered me the opportunity to feel exactly how I really felt without needing to berate myself if I wasn’t chirpy or cheerful enough. As an introvert, the ability to control my socialising through scheduled Zoom calls and messages eased the weight of being constantly ‘on’. This mere release of self-imposed pressure allowed me to really enjoy the day on my own terms, at my own pace.
A slower birthday also offered me time to reflect. While I am prone, when given the chance, to wallow and obsess, I tried to use this time to sit back and take stock of where I have come from, what could come next, and how I can learn from the past to build a better future for myself and others.
2020 has been a year of change (though what an understatement!). When we faced this brand new decade together in January, the year vibrating with potential, we had no idea what lay ahead. But among the devastation, loss and discomfort, the positives weave in and out; a fine, glinting thread between knots of chaos.
We’ve all been forced to reboot and wake from autopilot. We’ve reassessed our lives and priorities, rerouted our pathways, reprogrammed our goals and regained perspective on what matters.
I am grateful, in the end, to be starting my new decade in the same year. It seems appropriate.
I expect my thirties will bring their own surprises, challenges, losses and gains; this age will teach me lessons, much as 2020 has been an education in itself. I’m starting this chapter having learned vital life lessons over the last eight months.
It seems fitting to be embarking on a decade of personal change alongside the change that encompasses the rest of the world.
Keeping it simple
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned this year is to appreciate the small things. When all the glitz we’ve become used to has been wiped clean with closures and lockdowns, we’ve retreated to little delights. We now know the joy of a fresh bag of flour, a walk with a friend, and having the sofa sag with the weight of another.
We’ve been reminded that being physically apart from the ones we love doesn’t mean you are alone, or any less surrounded by love and friendship.
The news has been filled with stories of lonely people reaching out on social media on their Big Days, asking for a little love – and receiving an avalanche of Tweets from strangers wishing them well (like this story about Chris in London, or this tweet about centenarian Audrey in Norfolk). These people did not send gifts or money – just kind words to make someone’s day. When it comes down to it, this is what matters.
All of this serves as a memo about what lies at the heart of a birthday. While it’s usually an excuse for balloons, bubbly and time with friends and family – that’s just not possible this year. Instead, it was love at its most uninhibited: messages, the joy of a phone call, the time spent on celebrating, the homemade cake, little meaningful surprises in the post, and the entertainment of a well-chosen, witty card.
I was lucky enough to receive so many wonderful, thoughtful, gifts; but it was the simple stuff -– the texts, the decorations, the (socially distanced, one-person) visits, the Skype sessions, the effort put into creating collages of photos from the past, the precious time spent together, the stranger spotting balloons in the window and yelling “happy birthday!” from the street – which topped things off to make a truly remarkable day.
A special day
While I was worried I’d feel lonely, or bored, or sad, I ended up having quite a surreal but wonderful day. I had Zoom calls from as far away as Australia, went for a very quick wet and socially distanced walk with my Dad (who drove two hours to visit for one), ate artisanal pasta I’d bought for myself, and had a Thai feast delivered to my door. I watched 13 Going On 30 (naturally), replied to kind messages, laughed and shared moments with my family, and blew out my candles at 7.45 am, before my partner went to work.
The hours melted away, and I suddenly found myself rolling into bed with a belly full of bubbles at 10.30 pm (the bedtime of a thirty-something).
I felt so loved and so lucky. In the face of a ‘funny day’, people had made an effort, and I couldn’t have appreciated it – and the people in my life – more.
My quieter day served a reminder to go into my thirties with the aim to slow down, focus, and be grateful going forward. Soak up the simple stuff. Start as I mean to go on.
Of course I missed my family, deeply, and my friends. As a twin, it felt really strange not to be marking the occasion with her by my side. But this is the hand I was dealt with this year. There was nothing that could be done. No point in aching for a celebration that wasn’t possible.
I woke on the day determined to make the best of this strange situation, to focus on how lucky I am, to take stock of my privilege, feel the love, and take a moment to remember and reflect, with gratitude to those who made the day remarkable even from afar.
And, at the very least, it was certainly memorable. Lockdown was recently named the word of the year; so what would be more fitting than starting a new year of my life in total lockdown?
A special birthday deserves a special celebration; and since special can be defined as ‘different from what is usual’, then this was definitely the most special birthday there could be.