Give Yourself Permission to Celebrate Your Birthday
Illustration: Moya Garrison-Msingwana

Give Yourself Permission to Celebrate Your Birthday

I resist parties. I hate being the center of attention. But these days, embracing life is a necessity.

Illustration: Moya Garrison-Msingwana

I’m 34 years old. It’s a weird age, teetering between being in touch and stuck in my ways. And I know I’m not the only one standing at the intersection of Young Buck and Old Head. Every time something comes along, whether it’s slang or pop culture or a new tech platform, you confront the same question: Am I too old for this? That’s why I’m here — to work through these conundrums on your behalf, on a weekly basis. Together, hopefully, we can face some harsh truths about our own washed-ness.

If you’ve been playing those annoying-ass math games on Facebook that have sprouted up over the past few weeks, then you know that looking at every minute detail is the way to look smart online. (Are you too old to care about looking smart online? God, I hope so.) Well, that skill has paid off: The keen eye will notice that my usual introduction has changed. That’s right, I’m now 34 years old. My birthday was Monday.

And that last paragraph was excruciating to write.

My wife has tried to throw me a party most of the years we’ve been married, but I’ve resisted and pouted to the point that she gives up, resigning herself to the fact that we’ll just end up at a restaurant. Last year, I spent my birthday night in a bathtub with a container of watermelon. It was nirvana.

For most of my life, I’ve tried to avoid directing any attention to my birthday. I’ve spent many birthdays with friends and co-workers who didn’t even know because I never told them. In fact, I can remember two birthday parties in my life. When I turned eight, my sister threw me a surprise party. All my friends were there. I had pizza; Kool-Aid shot out of my nose. Good times. Then, when I was 21, my friends took me to a strip club and made me drink a different thing every hour on the hour for the entire day. I remember almost none of it, but according to pictures and eyewitness accounts — and the fact that I’ve threatened people’s lives if they ever repeated any of it — I had the time of my life.

It also was the last time I’ve gathered more than four people together for a birthday. My wife has tried to throw me a party most of the years we’ve been married, but I’ve resisted and pouted to the point that she gives up, resigning herself to the fact that we’ll just end up at a restaurant. Last year, I spent my birthday night in a bathtub with a container of watermelon. It was nirvana.

I get that I’m in the minority here. So many of my friends post about “birthday months” and tweet about their special days for weeks leading up to it. Atlanta, especially, is the birthday capital of the Black world. Over my five years living here, I’ve seen multiple invitations that look like White House Correspondents’ Dinner menus. I’ve been to parties that look like proms and the Source Awards: the Person of the Hour wearing some crown or sash or holding a big-ass bottle, soaking up the moment.

When I look at that person in that moment, envy washes over me. Not because I want to be them, getting all that attention — quite the opposite. Imagining being the focal point of the celebration gives me unbridled anxiety. I want to bury myself in sand just thinking about it. No, I envy that person because I can’t imagine the… whatever it is that person is feeling that allows them to enjoy their birthday with so much carefree frivolity. How is that even possible?

I wish I could tell you why I have such a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of the attention I get from birthdays. I could tell you that I’m someone who doesn’t like attention or some bullshit about being humble. But that wouldn’t be true. I have a bunch of Twitter followers and I get attention for articles that I write. I’m not afraid of that spotlight on me. I’ve always enjoyed performing in front of big crowds, whether step shows in college or hosting events. I’m not some recluse. But birthdays are just something else.

This isn’t a trauma thing, as far as I know. Other than my parents divorcing when I was 11 and there maybe being some consternation over having everyone in one place, my birthday has never been the scene of some crazy nightmare. Granted, as a teen and early twentysomething, I’d get into fights with girlfriends right around my birthday pretty much every year. I also know that I hate getting gifts and make my wife’s life a living hell when she wants to surprise me with presents. I hate asking for gifts and often find myself struggling to find the proper words when I get gifts. As I type this, is there an amateur therapist in the house?

With all that said, as I get older, I think I find myself more open to the idea of outwardly celebrating my birthday. I’m getting at that age where my friends are dying from things people our age shouldn’t be dying from — heart disease and strokes and things like that. I think I should probably count the blessings of these passing years that so many of my peers don’t get to see.

Add that all to the fact that I’ve spent the last two months fearing that I wouldn’t live to see 34, and I’m ready to turn over a new birthday leaf. I don’t think I’ll be handing out Tyler Perry Studios invitations anytime soon, but maybe it’s time to treat the day like the special occasion it is. Everything that’s happening right now has only has heightened my awareness that 35 is far from promised, so heading into Monday, I had a plan. I wanted to actually celebrate — my way.

I started by actually letting people know it was my birthday. Parties and real-world get-togethers may be out for the time being, but I could still answer the calls and texts and let the love wash over me — and I did. Celebration doesn’t need to be a physical act or event; it can be as simple as allowing yourself to be happy, to be grateful for the things you have.

So yes, 34 was different. It was a new day for a new year. And a realization that you’re never too old to find new ways to love being alive.