If my memory serves me right, it’s probably the first time I ever spend my birthday alone. I’m never an outgoing kind with a wide circle of acquaintances, but I do have a few close friends and a pair of parents who care about me so much that it hurts. But this year, no one is around. My best friends are not in town; I’m not intimately involved with anyone at an “I wanna spend my birthday together” level; and my parents are, my parents.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. When I started to register the fact in my mind a while back, I quickly made acceptance and was even kinda looking forward to it. Taking a birthday as a normal day, to me, is something worth trying as much as not having one posing photo taken during a whole trip, it brings you closer to the intrinsic value of things, something dramatically forgotten in our time. When I look back in the past 31 years that I more or less have made some effort to make my birthday a special day, there surely is a lot of loving and sweet memories, but I also remember the faint anxiety that lies underneath and the sense of relief afterward. It felt like putting on a Disney princess costume for 24 hours, and you’re all sweaty inside but you keep smiling to everyone and act like you’re born into that dress. I can’t help wondering, does anyone spend their birthday alone these days?
But don’t get me wrong, I do wanna spend my birthday with people I love. I just know that, if the best option is not available, I don’t have to search for a second-best option to make it happen, not to mention there’s no such thing as second-best for me.
Let’s be real, a birthday is not about cakes, presents, or feeling like a princess. Essentially, a birthday is nothing but a reminder of the trace of one’s very existence. If it serves any purpose, it’s the one best day in a year to reflect on oneself, to rewind, regroup and reset from where you’re at. When I turned 30 two years ago, I wrote a very confessional essay to go over my past, my shame, my darkness, and my hopes. So truthful that when I read it again, it still hurts and I feel embarrassed. I feel embarrassed coz I have evolved further from that version of me. And luckily, I deem, to a slightly better way.
For a start, to my own surprise, I have become a much tougher person. In the past year, I did go through some major phase transitions. But during the seemingly volatile times and events, I realized I managed to go through them in a relatively composed manner. My (very serious) relationship ended abruptly. I cut contact with a long-term dark and complicating influence in my life. I spent new year’s eve alone in a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Bali. I was faced with a vicious crime committed against me. Just to name a few. But none of them freaked me out, at least not as much as they used to. When things like these happen, I’ve learned the first thing to do is to take a deep breath, I’ve learned to pour myself a glass of wine when I cry, I’ve learned to sweep my broken pieces of heart aside and worked out a logical thread in my head first, I’ve learned to leverage all the tools I have to ride with the waves without a complete emotional collapse. And then I did. The wave passed and I’m ashore. And that’s when I realized the trick of being tough. It simply takes time and enough practice. Through all those years that I was weak but had pretended to be tough, it eventually happened. It happened thanks to all those pretending, and it happened without any formal notification. You only realize that when a crisis happens, that’s the moment the secret talent called “toughness” reveals itself and comes quite handy. For the first time in my life, I no longer see myself as the girl struggling in the middle of the sea hoping to be rescued by someone, anyone; for the first time, I recognize myself as a fully fledged woman who is capable of handling her own life, even if it’s a mess. It is the kind of sense of security that no one else can give me but myself.
And the mental strength (as an unexpectedly acquired skill) also helps me become a better loner. It might be a surprise, but even for me, someone who is almost obsessed with being alone, spending time alone is never an easy thing. Actually, I don’t think it ever will be. (After all, what a monster I’d have to be if one day I find being alone is easy?) In the past year, especially in the time when I’m single, I involuntarily and voluntarily spent a lot of time being alone. I stopped going out and meeting random people that I knew would eventually leave little trace in my life. I took three solo trips, one specifically to spend time in sheer solitude and silence. I started to treat solitude like a bad-tempered old friend, instead of an eternal enemy. I stopped feeling anxious and insecure when I needed to spend Friday night alone. I started to look forward to every Saturday morning when I’d wake up in sunlight and make myself primitive but satisfying breakfast and dance to some outdated music while the sausages are burning on the pan. I learned to find pleasure in doing the most tedious housework. Most importantly, I started to write again. Even with traveling alone, something I’ve been doing since I was 20, it’s only until this year that I don’t really feel overwhelmingly lonely anymore on the road and could truly be at ease and enjoy myself.
It is, however, for sure that I still have my moments of fragility. And I will never dare to claim that I’ve mastered the skills of being alone. I still have the sadness attacks and cry often. Some times harder than others. But I don’t try to fight against the urge to cry anymore, nor am I ashamed of it. I believe it’s a kind of self-protective mechanism, it is my body trying its best to console my soul. All I need to do is simply to witness it happen and wait for it to pass.
On top of making peace with the old sores, in the recent half year, the thing I think about most is how to be a better person. This might make those who are close to me laugh, but I’m genuinely keen on becoming a warmer, milder, kinder person, a more tolerant, multi-faceted and open-minded person. It is difficult as hell sometimes (how to be tolerant with stupidity? I’m clueless), but every day is a repetitive practice. It can be as simple as smiling to the lady who sells me breakfast every day. It can be spending a few minutes to chitchat with the cleaning lady in the office. It can be asking some normal questions like a normal person to my colleagues to show that I care. (yes, it doesn’t come naturally with me). It can be taking a deep breathe before replying an infuriating email and repeating “always assume positive intention” in my mind. It can be trying to be less impatient with my parents and be more communicative and open with them about my life and my real thoughts. It can be being nicer to people closest to me, becoz somehow we always mistakenly assume that we can make little or less effort with people we’re most familiar with. It might be a bit slow to only realize this now, but I’m finally ready to be a more compatible and less cynical human to the world. In my life I’ve been a lot of things — I’ve been “cool”, I’ve been “intelligent”, I’ve been “courageous” and I’ve also been informed of my charm to some, and none of these are hard-earned traits. But currently, nothing intrigues me more than simply being a good person. It takes real work to be a good person.
Then it is love. Love is always and still my biggest weakness. When specifically staying away from it in the past half year, I don’t spend a day not thinking about it. I wonder what could I have done to right my wrongs. I wonder why I keep disappoint and hurt. I wonder why I seem to be so deeply flawed. I wonder if I am capable of giving love. And I wonder if I deserve the kind of love that I long for. I wonder a lot of things that I have no answers for yet. But I do believe that, if through all the daily practices, I manage to become a better person, the answers may follow. And I can’t wait to be ready for it again.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with where I am. As a pessimist, I’ve finally seen some significant progress in life. In some way, I am fully aware that I’m in my prime year. And I know I have a few more to come. I remember telling this to a tinder date one time when we were having brunch. He was a guy in his 40s, extremely wealthy and very enthusiastic in me. When I told him this, he laughed and said, my dear, your prime has passed. 28 was your prime, you’re only going down now. I thought about it for a while and told him: No, I am very sure I’m at my prime now. When I was 28 it didn’t feel prime at all, not even close. You have no clue about a woman’s prime. After that date, also for many other obvious reasons, I didn’t see him again. Mostly, I don’t see the necessity to see anyone who, despite the claimed fondness, tries to tell me what my value is based on my age. No girl ought to take that shit. Every woman is in charge of their own prime. And I, at 32, am looking forward to another prime year to come.