BIRTHDAY MAGIC | Maria Ilona Moore explores the power – and pressure – of celebrating yourself.
by Maria Ilona Moore
Unlike Christmas, which lost its magic for me long ago, I have always found birthdays to be irresistible. I love to celebrate my friends and make them feel shiny and shower them with gifts and cake and affection. To me, a birthday is your own personal holiday and deserves to be cherished. I love my own birthday because it brings with it a rare feeling of contentment. I don’t know what it is but, miraculously, my birthday lifts the pressures and the anxieties I usually battle with and lets me feel at ease. I’m the kind of person who tends to push my own feelings aside in favour of looking after other people, but on my birthday I don’t feel guilty about being a bit selfish. On my birthday I feel full of hope, as if today – just for one day – anything could happen. Perhaps that’s because of some birthday magic, or maybe it’s just because of the traditions I’ve created for myself over the years.
I’ve tried to remember where my birthday obsession began, but my memory is pretty hazy before about 19, so who knows really. I can remember a birthday in middle school, I was maybe turning 14, and one of my friends brought in a cake she’d baked for me. I remember being so surprised at this small act of celebration, of affection. At lunch, we sat around tables pushed together in a square and I remember how cool it felt to be part of this group of girls eating a birthday cake instead of our usual packed lunches. Even though I’ve lost touch with the girl who made the cake, and I can’t even remember who else was there, I still think about that day a lot. The feeling of being recognised, of feeling part of something, lingers long after the actual memory fades.
On another, much younger birthday, I remember standing at my front door with my mum, waving goodbye to friends who had come for a party, and seeing a rainbow in the distance. A rainbow on its own feels magical, but on your birthday? Wow. I can’t have been older than six or seven, and it’s quite possible that I’ve made this up or merged some memories. But I like to think of that as the start of my birthday love. Even if it didn’t happen, it’s a pretty comforting fake-memory to have, so I keep it close.
“When the magic starts to wear off you have two choices: fight against it and put even more pressure on yourself, or accept that everything, even your love of birthdays, will change at some point.”
The year I turned 21, I persuaded my friends to have a picnic on the beach with me. My birthday is January, but despite the weather, we packed up a bag with my favourite foods and we laid out a blanket and we sat on a freezing beach. When you live in Cornwall, going to the beach in winter isn’t anything unusual, but I do wonder if I may have pushed it with the picnic-in-January idea. I think we even walked to the next beach over to get the ice-creams it was famous for: heaped scoops of vanilla ice cream slathered in clotted cream and topped with chocolate or coconut or nuts or sweets. The picnic combined some of my favourite things – the sea, food, friends – and I think it was one of the first times I really celebrated exactly how I wanted to, not how I thought I should.
For the last two years though, I’ve not enjoyed my birthday as much. It’s not because I’m getting older (that particular anxiety hasn’t kick in, yet) more to do with where I’ve been emotionally on those days. There is such a thing as building your hopes up too much. There is such a thing as pinning everything on one day and beating yourself up when you wake up feeling like shit on the one day that was meant to be good. There is such a thing as being too obsessed with birthdays.
At the start of this year I turned 28, fairly uneventfully. I went to the cinema on my own and cried during the film because I’d specifically chosen a tearjerker. I hugged my friends and I ate cake in bed for breakfast and later on, I cried a bit more because it was my first birthday in five years without my (now ex) partner which felt very strange even if it was a good thing. The birthday magic seems to have worn off a bit and when the magic starts to wear off you have two choices: fight against it and put even more pressure on yourself, or accept that everything, even your love of birthdays, will change at some point.
I don’t remember the details of why I love birthdays, so I hold on to the things I can recall: the cake I never expected, the friends who support me, the birthday rainbow, the ice-cold beach. I hold these things safe against my chest and accept that I’ll never get my birthday just right. The excitement will always go hand in hand with disappointment, it will never be a perfect day, and I will most likely end up in tears.
But despite all of this there few things that fill me with the same joy. Even now, a couple of months away from my next birthday, I can feel the anticipation building. And even though I know the day might not go the way I planned, and even though I know the birthday magic is as slippery as it is transient, it still feels really good to just let myself be unashamedly excited for a while.
Maria Ilona Moore | @mooreofthis | mooreofthis.co.uk
Maria is a writer based in Cardiff. She makes a zine about films and feelings called Dear Movies, and writes a semi-regular newsletter about memory which you can subscribe to at tinyletter.com/sorryiforgot if you’d like to read more of her words.