This weekend marked the beginning of a week of birthday celebrations for me, orchestrated and carefully set up to ease me into this new year, a year that puts me into a new bracket on the age chart. Setting up dinners with beloved friends, yoga classes and brunches, so that I’m surrounded by love instead of alone. So far, it has been wonderful, fun, special….and just a bit uncomfortable.
I know, how incongruous is that? That I would feel anything other than elation around friends I have known for months, for years, for decades even. Who have seen me through joy and tears, heartbreaks and failures and growing ups. Who have rallied around me, toasting me with red wine and giving me cards and singing Happy Birthdays. I should have exalted in the attention, basked in the love. And instead, a part of me was uneasy.
Because they all showed up.
Some with headaches, some with husbands, some who can’t even eat pizza, some from the South Bay, some straight from work.
THEY SHOWED UP.
That’s kind of the point, obviously. And they’re my friends, who had told me they were coming, it really was no surprise to walk into a restaurant and see them sitting there. So what exactly was my anxiety about?!?!
Part of me felt like I didn’t deserve it.
When I was in 8th grade, my best friend that year threw me a surprise party. I can remember my mom having to tell me about it because I was having a moody, 14-year old kind of day and wanted to skip the sleepover that was planned at my friend’s house. I refused to go. She pleaded with me, trying to reason with her stubborn, self-righteous daughter (to no avail, I could out-stubborn anyone). She finally resorted to telling me about the surprise party, thinking that would surely change my mind. Um, no. That made me want to go even less. Because now I was not only the brat who didn’t want to go to her best friend’s sleepover, I was the brat didn’t want to go to her own surprise party sleepover that she clearly didn’t deserve and had to be forced by her mom to attend.
I went. It was fun. We ate junk food and laughed, watched Pretty Woman and Robin Hood with Kevin Costner, and tried to see who could hit the high notes in that Phantom of the Opera song, the one that ends in that piercing high E that mostly sounds like shrieking. But I don’t think I stayed over. I think I remember that I went home that night from this surprise birthday sleepover that my best friend threw for me because I couldn’t shake the knowledge that I didn’t deserve it.
It’s 20 years later and I’m 20 years older and it’s the same. I don’t deserve it.
I never had another surprise party after that birthday. I took control, planning my own birthday celebrations or lack of them some years, it was my choice. That was so much safer. I could control how much I allowed myself to take. And I could share it, that felt okay. I could have a blowout 3-day extravaganza 21st birthday with my two sorority sisters who were born the same day. Surely I deserved at least 1/3 of a celebration? I could indulge in the 30th birthday party at that bar on the Lower East Side called the Skinny and invite everyone I knew because it was also my friend Erin’s birthday. And people could come to celebrate her and maybe I could accept a slice of the cake, a sliver really, and wash it down with her prosecco and just a little guilt.
The control felt necessary. Because what if someone else threw me another party that I did not deserve? Or worse, what if they didn’t?
I’m still worried no one will show up.
I went to a healer earlier this year who placed her hand on my heart and told me that she was sending love to me, directly into my heart. Could I feel it? I don’t know. I could feel the light pressure from her hands, and feel her breath on my cheek, but love? I don’t know. She then asked me to focus on sending it back to her, straight back to her heart. Suddenly it felt like my chest was on fire, heating up that cool room in Ojai the way the blankets and tea and afternoon sunshine had not. Burning down through my fingertips and my toes like I had been holding them over a campfire, so hot it actually hurts but you can’t move away . “I feel it”, she said. “I feel your love”.
“But you have trouble receiving the love that you give.”
How does that happen? Did I miss that lesson in elementary school that taught how to give and receive love, nestled somewhere between sharing your toys and washing your hands in the bathroom? Was I home sick that day and no one brought me the homework that had 10 multiple choice questions that led you to the knowledge that you are worthy of love? Or did I just pick B for every answer and miss the point completely?
Instead I keep tallies of what I owe, like mini-golf scorecards that come with those stupid little pencils and always have me +1 over par. Struggling to get my score down, to at least break even someday.
It’s fine, I don’t need a ride to the airport. (Don’t go out of your way for me!)
You don’t need to come to my party. (I can’t take up your time!)
Please, don’t get me any gifts. (How will I repay you?!?)
How can I possibly repay you for this love that I’m not sure I deserve?
I can’t. I have to drop the scorecards. I have to go back through the questions and not just choose “B”. I have to find another way that allows me to accept love. While I’m struggling to open incredibly thoughtful gifts, when someone else wants to pick up the tab, when I’m confronted by the idea that I’m taking more than I deserve.
All I can come up with is…thank you. That’s all that’s left.
“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
Thank you, to all of you who sustain me. Who love me. Who show up. Who remind me that I am worthy, and that I do deserve love.