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June 21, 2007

Another one, so soon?

Tomorrow I'm not writing or emailing or working or doing anything at all except sitting on a beach with a big, fat book.

Tomorrow is my thirty-sixth birthday.

For as many years as I can remember I have always dreaded my birthday. Bad things always seemed to happen, or the milk was spoiled, or for whatever reason that one day could never live up to anything at all I wanted. I can get terrible morose sometimes and it's an awful trait, not attractive in a person at all.

This year is different, because I don't feel puddled up and lonesome, I don't have anything special at all planned but just the same I'm content and looking forward to doing absolutely nothing. I'm not sure if I got to shake the birthday curse or maybe it shook me. And when did that whole curse thing start, anyway? Maybe it started one year when something went bad, so the next year I was half-expecting disaster and got it. Then it came again and again. Or maybe I was dreading my birthday and then something bad happened to prove me right. Either way, I can't remember the last time I felt lighthearted before a birthday, except this year.

It's a change so fundamental it's like ... it's like that time I decided I was no longer a vegetarian and called my dad and asked him to smoke a rack of ribs because I was driving to Mississippi that very night and needed barbecue. With maybe a side of brisket.

It's that kind of change.

. . .

A few years ago I booked a vacation for myself and Mr. X. It was still fairly soon after 9/11 and we were right in the midst of the SARS scare, it was on the cover of every newsmagazine and people were wearing surgical masks on the subway. Planes were flying half-empty and I found a roundtrip ticket from Burbank (!) to Charles De Gaulle for less than $500. IN JUNE. It was unheard of. We booked our favorite hotel room, and I remember that all-over happy feeling I got when I pressed "send" on the payment for the plane tickets. I love Paris. Even though I dreamed of going there one day I had no idea I would actually leave the forever-dusty small towns where I grew up and go to THE REAL PARIS FRANCE ... and not just once but twice or three times. I love that city almost as much as I love Los Angeles. Plus, spending my birthday in Paris was on my then-Life's To Do List, a long list of 100 Things To Do Before I Die, a long numbered and bulleted typed-up list I'd made on the last day of 1999. I was excited to cross off:

#68: Spend my birthday in Paris

[I had to go find that list and re-read it just now and it made me a little sad and reminiscent. A lot of it is sweet and goofy and some of it is personal, as those sorts of lists should be.]

So, one of my big Life's To-Do List items was to visit Paris, France on my birthday and I was going to really do it! Tres exciting! I started planning and mentally packing and just that looking-forward-to feeling you get when a vacation looms out in the distance, making life inside cubicles and spaghetti dinners at home seem less mundane, everything tinged with excitement because in so many days I will be on an airplane to somewhere good.

A few weeks before the trip, Mr. X did a Very Bad Thing. And it affected us in lots of ways both emotionally and financially and I was very angry. I was hurt, and upset but most of all I was plainly pissed off.

I'd have moments when I sort-of forgave him ("It was just a stupid thing to do, people make mistakes...") then other moments when I held it against him like a mean-faced ogre, conveying my disappointment in every inch of my body and permeating every room with my dour, nasty little attitude of wounded unforgiveness.

I was mad, and also he is ruining my birthday, my vacation, our goddamn marriage... no, too scary to think of that last one. He is ruining my birthday! I said it like a mantra.

One day I was at work-- we were back at the old building then, a complex rabbit warren of beige cubicles with flickering computer screens. I remember very clearly sitting at my desk and trying to work and thinking all the time, what do I do? it's ruined, all of it, what do I do? Do I go on this vacation? Do I go and be mad at him? Do I not go thereby basically punishing us both? How on earth can we return to normal after what's happened? Damn him!

Then, in some flash of enlightenment I'm frankly surprised I was capable of at the time, I asked myself: Why would I choose to be unhappy? Why can't I go to Paris and try to have the best time possible? What kind of person sits here and thinks of all the ways of her unhappiness? Why can't I just let go?

Is it possible to be so fundamentally screwed up in the head that you actually choose to be unhappy?

Just that morning I had sat alone in my Jeep at the train station and pitched a royal hissy in the car, alone, crying and hollering about failed everything. And I was actually considering going on the pre-planned, already bought and paid for trip BUT sulking and having a miserable time just to prove a point.

Of course I had no idea what point I would be proving by choosing to be miserable on vacation, as if being wounded and cranky would hurt the buttmunch who screwed up my best laid plans anyway. It is a universally known fact that plan-ruining people could care less about how you feel, or they wouldn't have ruined the plan to begin with.

And I remember asking myself: What does it say about me as a person that I actually have to decide to be happy? Or that the equally appealing option was to be miserable in an I-told-you-so sort of way?

. . .

The truth is that I was very invested in my unhappiness. I wanted to be happy, I did, but when The Bad Thing happened (and we had so many Bad Things happen, like many couples do) I couldn't let go, I just stored them up in my little ledger of hurtful things. It was a role I knew, it was something I took comfort in. I could whine and carryon and be sad and in some way this gave me a fair amount of power. I was at least in control. I was in the driver's seat, I had a roadmap, and the town we were going to was Misery. Next stop, Whinealot!

We did go on our trip and we had a nice time, considering. Of course ya'll know how well that all worked out in the end.

I'm thinking of all this today, have been thinking on it, because something inside me clicked together like two missing pieces of a puzzle this week. I was sitting at my desk, at work, new building and now in an office (!) but getting that familiar twinge of Woe Is Me, because my birthday is coming and this one is a biggie. My thirty-six! Year of the golden pig and all that.

Then I thought, "Nope, not this year."

It's a nice Friday off work and I'm not going to think about deadlines and expectations and dates and money problems and the treadmill and birthday curses and why is he off being married and I still can't commit to a mascara ... this is my life and it will all work out somehow in the end. Me + one book + the beach equals birthday, no curse. The end!

That is what my divorce did for me. It taught me how to see that every soul-sucking craptastic event can have a surprisingly good outcome. It's finally knowing that even if something bad happens I can make jokes about it later. When he left I thought it was the VERY WORST THING ever to happen, and yet now sometimes Jennifer and I joke about that time I actually tried to set his favorite DVD on fire in the charcoal grill, waving my coffee-cup of Jack Daniels and declaring in slurry twang "I will never find love again, but hell if he is getting this goddamn DVD!" I was like a drunken, mad Southern Belle stood up at Winter Formal, declaring to everyone and God Is Her Witness that "I am truly dried up with love! You hear that you little peckers! I am SHUT OF YOU ALL!"

And hey, it worked out pretty great in the end. And the jokes get funnier the more divorced I am. So who's to say other bad things won't work out just as well? I'm tired of Very Bad Things and birthday curses, I'm tired of picking sad over happy. I AM SHUT OF YOU ALL.

That's a change, I tell you what.

And the best change of all is that I'm different in one way that counts more than all the others, a thing so different in me I almost didn't recognize the me in that birthday-in-Paris story. I was ashamed and embarrassed when I realized it. I looked back and I thought: why did I stay so long?

I don't even know that girl anymore. I would never ever stay five minutes with another man who did Very Bad Things, not to mention stay for years. I was a little humiliated for myself, ashamed of not making good decisions. Why did it take me so long to learn that lesson? Why was I so weak? Why wasn't I smarter than that? Why did I stay? And I sighed and let go of that one, too, for the first time maybe ever I felt a little compassion for someone who got married hoping it would all somehow work itself out and seeing that it did, really. In the end it all worked out just fine.

And that's a nice birthday gift, I think. And in case you're wondering it is much harder to grill a DVD when it's still in the plastic case. Just in case you yourself may be needing that little piece of advice. I am just saying is all.

Posted by laurie at June 21, 2007 11:36 AM