But a week after my birthday, I’m seeing some serious blue sky through the swirling mists of self-reflection. (Turning 30 hasn’t taken away my inordinate fondness for cheesy literary lines, alas.)
The first birthday party I remember involved the simplest form of fantasy – a Strawberry Shortcake shortcake. Layers of whipped cream, strawberries and pound cake, topped with my first heroine, Strawberry Shortcake herself. I collected more dolls over the years, but she was the one I really admired. Freckled, frilly and surrounded by sweet friends, with an endless supply of happy songs and fresh fruit at her disposal.
By the time I turned 16, I thought I had figured out exactly who I wanted to be. My party was a chaotic, classic Conchie affair, well-wishers packing every available inch of our East Vancouver heritage rental. Kids slipped through the cracks in the crowd, chasing our hapless cocker spaniel while my dad dished out his signature hospitality to an abundant jumble of relatives, friends, mentors, neighbours and people who knew my dad. I flitted from chair to chair, smoothing my hair and showing off a birthday dress bought for me by a dazzling new older friend. I did my best impression of a charming, presentable adult, all the while keeping a teenaged eye on several crushes and frenemies. That party said simply, “You are a part of this world – a part of a large community, whether you like it or not.”
My 19th was a much more controlled affair with strict parameters. On the cusp of university, I required all of my guests to arrive dressed as someone they wanted to be when they grew up. My sullen first boyfriend, a motorcycle mechanic (swoon), came as himself, naturally. Other notable guests included Nurse Ratched, a circus clown, the Queen of England and an anarchist who brought me the perfect token of societal unrest: frozen meatloaf. Good times. I came as a princess, frog in hand. Translating the everyday into the romantic was already a habit of mine, a path I thought I could walk easily through being a famous writer. My friends were all happy to be larger-than-life characters, just waiting to be written into legend.
By the time a quarter century rolled around, I had moved on from playing dress-up to playing hostess. I invited a very distinguished list of sophisticated guests, heroes and mentors, wits and wise ones, and with the help of my adopted Swiss house parents, I served a gourmet meal along with scintillating conversation. This, I thought, was the person I wanted to be: always intentionally thinking about the deeper meaning of life, and surrounding myself with reflective, wise, classy people. Two years later, I staged a similar party, but this time, it was to introduce my almost fiancé to a group of discerning guests. He won them over easily, his handmade vinaigrette being the deciding factor, I suspect.
So last Sunday, when I walked into a darkened dining hall and my 30th birthday surprise party greeted me full-on, I wondered what it would have to tell me about myself.
This is what didn’t happen: a movie-esque montage of champagne glasses, warm smiles and silver trays of perfect appetizers moving about a room immaculately decorated, as I glided effervescent from table to table, a live jazz band telegraphing the sheer joie de vivre and confident maturity of a sensational 30 year old famous novelist. That party belongs to someone else. Someone with money and a personal assistant, and maybe an apartment in New York.
I stood, instead, blinking in the sudden light, speechless, while a wide variety of people, old friends and new, my parents and siblings all stood grinning and fidgeting. There was no choreographed plan – at least not right away. Things were awkward, although the hugs were genuine and I was delighted in the surprise appearances of intrepid friends from out of town.
A random assortment of pot-lucked food was spread thinly on the wooden buffet table, and people fidgeted and made small talk while someone ordered emergency pizza, and I tried to step out of the spotlight. A karaoke machine was playing threateningly in the corner while my sister held a microphone, eyeing me with intent. My four-year old nephew glowered at me from under the table.
After the shock wore off, and the requisite mini-press conference of “Were you surprised?” and “How did you do it?” was taken care of, things began to smooth out. Or at least, we began to play. Sardines, that is. I was the catch, and as I descended into the dark basement of the ranch’s main building, I wondered if I could just disappear for the rest of the night, to escape the encroaching social awkwardness and building tension at not being able to plan everything myself.
I found an old hiding spot, underneath the stairs, and curled up. I could hear laughter, the creak of floorboards and tentative alliances forming as people groped their way through the dark.
The first few seekers found me quickly, and whispered words of solidarity as they fit themselves into my hiding place. My nephew was the bravest fisherman of all, striding confidently through the gloom, telling the world where I wasn’t.
As the crowd grew and we began to giggle and our cramped muscles longed for the lights to go on again, I let my worry over the collective responsibility for a mixed group of people to enjoy themselves drift into the dark. Here I was on my thirtieth birthday, curled up in a basement hideaway with many dear friends and family, found. They had all made the journey to this old ranch at the end of a long gravel road, and were now giving themselves over to the silliness of a teenage game, because they felt I was worth finding, and knowing. Even though I haven’t yet done anything of great importance, according to the world’s (and my own) standards.
In fact, every single person present had walked through at least one prickly/awkward/painful moment of relationship with me, as recently as the day before the party. And yet, they were still there. Showing up as true friends. Bringing presents, their presence and words of life. Telling jokes about the past, and greeting one another with kindness and humour.
The rest of the night was delightful – from silly songs to tender ones, from words of great encouragement and blessing to an overenthusiastic, 80s rockstravaganza session of karaoke, kicked off by a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.” A session that was doubly impressive, because we had no liquid courage to push us to perform. All that gusto was straight up guts. We were clear-eyed and committed, and We Are the Champions may have been our finest moment of all, my friends.
The greatest gift this birthday has brought is a clarity of mind and spirit about where I am. I’m the person who likes singing off-key, can’t afford to throw lavish parties, has a real marriage fraught with everyday romance, is slowly working on the very beginnings of a first novel while slogging through the nine-to-five jungle, and lives in a community where potlucks are essential, technical difficulties still occur, and awkward moments make for shared experience.
I am not living the dream at 30. I’m living the reality of being myself, surrounded by an extraordinary, forgiving and faithful group of people I call friends, and family.
Bring on the next decade. After years of wanting to be someone else, I’m still here. The lights are on, and I’m found.