My new Facebook friend Gabi Moskowitz just had a birthday, and commemorated the occasion with a new blog post entitled “a letter to my 22 year old self”. Such a simple, beautiful idea, and since my birthday is coming up…in a matter of minutes, I thought I would reflect on how far I have come in the last ten years.
One reason I still unabashedly like birthdays and look forward to them with glee is that they are good moments to mark how far we may or may not have come in life. Over the last few days, I have been waging an all-out battle against a coming cold. Having a cold is always awful, but god forbid you have one on your day of days, your birthday. The feeling of dread at getting sick at this time of year makes me recall a birthday when I was younger, perhaps my 10th birthday. The birthday is a marker of time. This year I was sick, that year I was homesick. You think about friends who were present some years, absent in other years. Two years ago when I turned 31 I celebrated with a new friend who I was convinced was going to be my partner in crime. Two single ladies in the city! And yet not long after that birthday, she began dating a guy who she is with to this day. We haven’t remained close. So the people I celebrate the day with also mark the time. Friendships lost and gained. The temporal nature of friendship as seen through one day over the years.
So what was I doing ten years ago when I turned 23? I was living in France, and trying to survive my way through the worst year of my life. At the time I just wanted to blink my eyes and transport myself, Spock-like, to mid-April, when I would return home and leave my life of alienation in the French countryside (that year, Lost in Translation came out. It deeply resonated with the cultural isolation I was living through). But as I look back on that year and mostly cringe- the weight gain, the pimply skin, the crippling social anxiety, the even more crippling homesickness- I see the silver linings in that awful year abroad after college. I learned what anxiety, depression, fear, and shame feel like. They’re pretty awful. But empathy is only learned by living one’s own life. You can read about grief all you want, but can’t know another’s grief until you have felt it yourself. After my year of profound loneliness and self-doubt in the village, I came out the other side, another person. With a newfound empathy for those who suffer (not long after returning home I struck up a close friendship with a friend serving in Iraq, who also was feeling isolated and alone. Our situations were different, but nevertheless I related), I emerged from the other side of my 23rd birthday with the first hints of the strength adn independence that guide me through my 33rd year.
On that sunny Saturday in Paris ten years ago that I celebrated my birthday, I did so alongside my friend from Barcelona. Ten years later, we remain the closest of friends, and I am still grateful for the gift of her friendship. At the time I couldn’t believe that someone could be friends with someone like me who was obviously going through a tough time. And yet our resulting friendship is proof that the best people in your life will be those who get to know you and stay by your side when you are not necessarily at your best. So on my 23rd birthday, as I strolled the streets of Paris with Ana and other foreign friends, counting the days til I got home, I had no idea that in ten years I would be infinitely stronger, more resilient, as a result of that long ago year. And, as always, a work in progress.