Reflections is a series of essays embracing the power of introspection, taking on personal topics and rooting out what is just below the surface.
I’m usually a big ‘birthday person’. If you aren’t then you’ll hate that I said that, but if you are, you know what I mean. I like to make a fuss! I like to wake up early, have a tea in bed (preferably delivered to me as one should not have to descend the stairs on one’s birthday morn) and tear crunchy wrapping from gifts and envelopes, bleary-eyed; and I like to stretch out slowly, languorously, and consider what it is I want to do with the day and this time which is completely my own.
See, I have a tradition for birthdays. It’s something relatively new that I started 3 or 4 years ago, and on the surface it appears the anti-birthday. Usually, I’d stay inside all day, alone, reading, eating, napping and not much else. I order a McDonald’s breakfast, have a bath at 9am, light candles in every room and float for the rest of the day on the zephyr of sandalwood and musk. Like a chocolate box of entertainment, I flit between the indulgence of midday Netflix, my favourite playlist and perfect peace – no sound, just the quiet conversation of light switches and humming radiators. It’s elected reclusion and I love it, this tonic to the pace of normal life.
This year was obviously different. I narrowly escaped the beginning of the 2020 lockdown in March by a few weeks, though casting my mind’s eye back now on my friends and I wrapped around the edge of a bar feels like looking at someone else’s holiday photographs: familiar but removed. I’d stretched out my day in blissful peace and then slapped backs and knocked elbows with my loved ones at night, the perfect tension between quiet reflection and raucous celebration (the stream of free drinks were nice too).
Hiding away for the day isn’t quite as much the guilty pleasure when it’s forced instead of coveted. The self-care rituals which carried the current of my day are all spent; what else have I been doing for the bulk of the last year if not taking baths and watching Netflix? For the delight of reclusion to exist there must necessarily be momentum, the thrum and rush of a busy modern world making way for a window of respite. In short, it’s simply not as special when it isn’t something different. So, what was there to do?
“As the dawn of my 27th crept ever closer, I started thinking about this phenomena of the lockdown birthday. A now almost universal experience of marking another year – another tally on the age count – while under COVID-19 restrictions.”
Contrary to the usual running of things, this year I wasn’t craving quiet. Quite the opposite: I’d have really loved to go wild. To have the kind of hedonistic, impulsive explosion of living which would have me groaning in regret the next day. To have something to regret! To share some sordid secret on boozy breath and wake up the next morning with smoke-stained fingertips and an erupting headache. I could have tried to create a similar scenario at home but I couldn’t fool my own brain into thinking that getting wine-drunk alone is as fun (or a good idea).
As the dawn of my 27th crept ever closer, I started thinking about this phenomena of the lockdown birthday. A now almost universal experience of marking another year – another tally on the age count – while under COVID-19 restrictions. Even if you escaped the stricter rules like the lucky summer babes, spread out in parks with their special six and a cold box of beers, the ability to celebrate freely was still cut short. Us February and early March babies are the final successors to be sworn into the OLB Society (Official Lockdown Birthday, if you didn’t know) and then we’re all practising members, all experiencing what it means to acknowledge (if not celebrate) another year of living while turning the volume down on living itself.
“A birthday in lockdown set precarious grounds for entertaining the usual reflective questions. I asked myself, where did time go? What have I achieved? Am I happy with who I’m turning out to be?”
Whether you choose to let birthdays slide by without so much as a courteous nod, or, like me, you luxuriate in the extravagance, a birthday in lockdown set precarious grounds for entertaining the usual reflective questions. I asked myself, where did time go? What have I achieved? Am I happy with who I’m turning out to be? Stewing over these considerations can usually be balanced with something light-hearted – bottomless brunch, perhaps, and always, always karaoke – but there’s little to temper those annual investigations when you cannot escape your own company.
Spending most of our time indoors encourages these kinds of nervous introspections often, especially after a gin or two. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course we’re going to find ourselves considering the big questions in life when the way we normally live has been flipped on its head. It’s just to do so too often – and alone – can lead you into murky waters without any chance of a rubber ring to pull you out (the rubber ring being your best mate telling you to shut up while handing you a giant goblet of wine across the pub table).
It’s like the burn you can’t stop touching or the mouth ulcer you keep licking with your tongue: it hurts and you know you shouldn’t, but the temptation of discomfort – that sudden bolt of feeling – is too hard to resist. Sure, it’s probably not a good idea to start picking apart the personal fabric of the past year, but there’ll be the urge to anyway.
“I didn’t celebrate the way I’d usually like to, because the way I usually like to celebrate is now the shape of everyday living. I didn’t see my friends’ drunk faces staring back at me from a bathroom mirror, either, or the streets’ night lights on the late walk home.”
This is why I need to have some kind of structure in place, to avoid the petri-dish of self-reflection that a lonely birthday can foster. This year my birthday fell on a Sunday which is somewhat annoying because I missed out on the smug joy of knowing everybody is working while I’m not – the sweet delight that accompanies a barrel-chested out of office email declaring I’m otherwise engaged. But few people work on a Sunday, even fewer in lockdown, so that was out of the window. What if I went about creating the antithesis of COVID life, forgoing loungewear for something more dressy… what else is there?
Herein lies the problem. Every lockdown birthday scenario that I cooked up was a thinly-veiled masquerade of celebration. I am not a person who can escape their own mind – if I know it’s phoney, I’ll struggle to pretend otherwise. So despite the enthusiasm to still make the day special, it seemed flavour was in short supply.
Perhaps it’s one of those unfortunate realities that couldn’t be remedied. Perhaps a lockdown birthday can be nothing more than the sum of what it is: a watered-down impression of itself. A little flavourless but still alright, kind of. Perhaps in trying to season that which is inherently unexciting, I was setting myself up for inevitable disappointment. After all, I always tell my carnivorous friends that eating veggie alternatives and expecting them to taste like meat is pointless. They’re different things so of course they’re going to taste different.
Aside from the reality that I’ve now entered my late twenties (ew), the arrival of my birthday brought a peculiar kind of anticipation this year. Few things are the same. I didn’t celebrate the way I’d usually like to, because the way I usually like to celebrate is now the shape of everyday living. I didn’t see my friends’ drunk faces staring back at me from a bathroom mirror, either, or the streets’ night lights on the late walk home. Nope, instead I was entertaining the Quorn equivalent of birthdays. The Linda McCartney of name day celebrations. Meat-free festivities, as far as the eye can see (which is little beyond the road at the end of my street).
It may not have tasted, looked, or smelled the same and that’s because it’s wasn’t. But it was still good. Still wholesome in its own way.
Illustrated by Anna Jane Houghton, a Liverpool based researcher and artist. Drawing influence from the ‘motel’ aesthetic and beatnik literature; her illustrative style combines florals and fruit, amongst plant-life and mid-century interiors, to reimagine the classic still life.
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