Bill Long 5/14/06
Reaching 54 (on 5/15)--A Personal Essay*
[*The following two essays reveal more intimate details about personal life than many essays, and if you don't want to read them, please ignore them.]
One of the things I discovered early in life was that things other people found profoundly simple were often incredibly difficult for me, and vice versa. Memorizing lines? Easy for me. Writing long and coherent essays? Easy for me. Following directions? Very difficult for me. Learning how to enjoy myself? Very tough. In fact, one of the things others normally find easy, which has been quite a challenge for me, is to enjoy one's own birthday. I am just beginning to appreciate and celebrate mine. This essay tells the story of me and my birthday, with emphasis on how I spent (or will spend) five special birthday occasions this year.
If there was one overriding memory I had from youth regarding birthdays and Christmas gift-giving, it was the following experience. Every year, at about the beginning of December, my mother would admonish us (four boys) to make our Christmas lists but, at the same time, she would warn us that "this year" would be a "lean" one. "Don't expect much," was her general refrain whenever a time of festiveness impended. This contined well into my adult days, but then I lived on my own and wasn't really around her much during holidays or birthdays. But, in recent days the tune has changed. Oh, it is not getting better; it is just getting different. Now she will say, "Oh, your birthday? Is it coming up already? Ok, but I don't know if I will have time to get the card in the mail by the time it arrives." Or, "Well, I am just to busy this year to get anything in the mail by Christmas." Let me be quick to add, however, that she always seems to "come through;" the presents, cards and checks arrive on time. But they never arrive either without dire warnings about her penurious economic circumstances or about not getting around to things.
Don't worry. I have mentioned these things to her many times since I have become an adult. I , a child of the 1960s and 1970s believe it is better to "lay things on the table." Confront issues. Don't let them fester. That is what I have done. And, just to be clear. It isn't true that she is on the verge of bankruptcy. She lives comfortably. It is true that she really does send things on time. When I tell her that she is being inconsistent, her normal response is to deny that she has said what she has said or, if she knows she can't get away with such a line, denies that she means what I took her to mean. In other words, there are deeper issues here, issues of her own acceptance and enjoyment of festivities, that she made a point of inflicting on us.
As a result of these realities (and the memories of them), birthday was never a special time for me. The principal way in which her attitude and action "hurt" me, I think, is that it made me unable to receive gifts from people. By saying that this was going to be a "lean" year, she was, as it were, denying the "giftness" of the gifts. When they gifts actually came, I wasn't sure whether I should be grateful for them or actually be worried whether my acceptance of the gifts would be the final coup d' grace before our family fell into an irrecoverable economic spiral. Thus, I wouldn't look forward to birthdays and didn't really like receiving presents. She may not have wanted it to be like this, but that is the way it was for me.
When I had my own family, I realized that my wife (now my ex) and I had very different philosophies of giving gifts and celebrating birthdays. I usually "went along" with her desires, because I thought that was my role as a husband, but I felt uncomfortable "making a list" of what I wanted and really had a hard time getting into the notion of a dinner or special event for May 15. If I was asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I would always say, "Oh, nothing special this year." I didn't feel bad in saying this; I think I just didn't look forward to my birthday or Christmas. Then, when I would receive gifts, I would dutifully (but not really gratefully) thank people before putting the gifts away and probably never making use of them.
And so, the giving and receiving of gifts played almost no role in my adult life. It was rare that I recall anything I ever did as an adult on my birthday; I think I went one time to a restaurant where the waiters dance around and sing happy birthday to you. I usually hoped that no one around me knew it was my birthday (and usually no one did, because the kinds of places I worked--universities, law firms--were not the kind of "touchy feely places" that encouraged you to tell each other about your personal life).
So that is the "problem of the birthday" that I have today. I know intellectually that people consider their birthdays and Christmas to be special times of gift-giving, but it is hard for me to get over the early "programming" I described above. Yet, some things happened this year that are signs of hope for me, signs that I might truly learn something healthy about giving and receiving. Whereas I am a very quick learner when it comes to mastery of data, I am a slow "emotional" learner; thus even if I may be starting to learn some important lessons, they will take me quite a while to internalize. The two most important things I have learned in the past several months are: (1) the importance of identifying my preferences and choosing according to my preferences and; (2) the joy in giving money/presents that have come my way quite by accident.
The next essay will tell you what I mean by this.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long