Recently in my class, we read the short story ‘Eleven’ by Sandra Cisneros. The story is about a little girl, Rachel, and her eleventh birthday. During school that day, her teacher holds up an ugly red sweater and the class ‘accuses’ it of being Rachel’s. Rachel, being embarrassed and insecure, breaks down; her birthday has been ruined.
However, it is not exactly the sweater that ruins Rachel’s birthday; it is the realization that perhaps she is not as prepared to be ‘eleven’ as she thought she was. She says, “You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve.” Basically, she expects that, by turning ‘eleven’, she should wake up and immediately be more mature than she was the night before. However, when she breaks down about the sweater, she realizes that being ‘eleven’ does not guarantee maturity and doesn’t mean she is able to handle the sweater situation any better than she could when she was ‘ten’. She says, “Because the way you grow up is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one”. That, as we get older, we are just adding to the years we were before.
I think, in our society, we really hype up celebrations. We think holidays and birthdays need to be big, huge, extravagant endeavors. For New Year’s, we NEED to find a raging party, buy an expensive dress, and have THE TIME OF OUR LIVES–otherwise, we are missing out on something. For Christmas, we HAVE to get the most amazing gifts, cook the most delicious ham dinner, and make the most MEMORABLE memories with our families. For our birthdays, we need to have the ENTIRE day devoted to celebrating ourselves; we MUST have a huge party, eat the BEST birthday cake, and have 100+ notifications on Facebook to feel special. I don’t know about you, but every time I hype myself up for some kind of holiday or celebration, I am always let down; either someone gets too intoxicated and needs to be taken home, my flip flop breaks, my grandpa forgets to call me, etc. We are taught that these holidays and celebrations NEED TO BE THE BEST EVER, but perhaps these expectations are the exact cause for disappointment, and for things going wrong.
Sandra Cisneros’ story is very timely for me, because my own birthday is coming up in just a few days. I, much like Rachel, have a very difficult time celebrating my birthday and always expect some kind of eventual breakdown. My birthday has always been a day of disappointment: when I turned 18, the only thing I wanted was for my mom to pick me up from my track meet early so I could celebrate, and then it started blizzarding and I had to stay to ride the bus (trivial as I look back on it). Or, there was the time one of my family members was released from a rehab facility on my birthday and decided to hang out with the neighbor’s instead of me. When I was in middle school, I tried to throw a birthday party and my mom’s toothless boyfriend forgot to take the hamburger buns out of the freezer, which is SO embarrassing for a 13 year old. Or, the time my car blew up two days before and I spent my birthday trying to figure out transportation. Then, there was the time the “love of my life” broke up with me RIGHT before my birthday (well, that has actually happened more than once….). One year, my boyfriend at the time was busy preparing for NFL football and almost completely forgot my birthday. And then, there are those times that you will see me sobbing, because I am so overcome by the unexpected thoughtfulness and generosity of the people around me that I turn into a complete disaster because I don’t feel like I did anything to deserve that attention. So, like Rachel says, we are like jawbreakers–layers upon layers of different years and different life experiences.
People let you down, and life lets you down. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received is, instead of focusing on how you CAN’T depend on other people, tell yourself that they are just doing the best they can. So, when people don’t show up for your birthday party, when people forget to call you, when people disappoint you, remember that there are things going on in their lives that you may not necessarily understand, but that they are doing the best they can with what they are given.
This year for my birthday, I am still expecting to cry. I am expecting to be let down. I am expecting for things to not work out the way I had envisioned them. But, I am going to remember that it is just a day and, in the grand scheme of the days I have lived thus far, I am doing just fine.