It’s about this time of year that the preceding year starts to lap me. Where was I one year ago today? The memories are really fresh, but tinged, I know, with longing. Fall of my third year was one to remember—with embellished mental snapshots of both blustery gray skies and orange turtleneck sweaters, collaged with sunny, warm days where I joyfully went out of my way to, yes, step on that crunchy looking leaf.
But there is nothing that marks the time passing more than the first day I mark, alongside all my earnestly-made commitments for the new school year, in my clean planner—it’s my birthday!
Let me tell you, fall birthdays have it made. Haven’t you read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”? (If you haven’t, turns out the “relative age effect” can help explain a lot about why September-December birthdays are more often “successful” in school at an early age— more cognitively and physically developed than our summer counterparts, school districts where the grade cut-off on Sept. 1 favors those born closer to that date…not bragging or anything but…) But this is not to diss you, my dear Cancer and Leo-signed friends. Even my younger Libra brother has suffered the consequences, being born exactly four years and one week later than me—talk about living life in the shadow of the eldest child when you spend your entire life watching the evil older sister open presents while your mother implores you to “just be patient.” I mean, it’s not like I got to drive sooner, vote sooner and— ahem—drink sooner than all of you…except that I did! And boy, what a cause to celebrate!
Except this year is different. This year, my birthday kind of snuck up on me, inspiring very little anticipation because I think it…I think it’s happening. Call me melodramatic (I might deserve it) but this year, I’m on the brink of entering that phase of life where your girlfriends start giving you encouraging birthday cards that say things like, “You might be one year older, but you’re one year sweeter!” Soon after come the bitter birthday cards—“However old you are is the new 30”— followed by the apologetic— “I’m not making any age related jokes because I genuinely feel bad about how old you are.” Thanks, someecards.com, for the good wishes!
I guess anything followed by 21 is going to seem less monumental but I mean…22? It doesn’t get much more of a let down than that. I remember a conversation with Andrew Walsh ’09, maybe held so particularly dear because I’ve now passed the milestone, that in so many words advised me, “Yeah, turning 21 is great, but it’s this sort of peak in your life—you’re moving towards it for so long and then afterwards? You’re pretty much just spending the rest of your life getting further and further away from 21.”
On my birthday, I turn to Billy Collins’ poem “On Turning 10.” Add it to your reading list with Gladwell’s work (didn’t we all resolve to read for fun this year? Right after we blocked out time to “work out at 8 a.m.” every Tuesday/Thursday on our new calendar so that we’d be “awake and ready before our 9 a.m. class?” Good, it wasn’t just me.) The poem is an elegy to getting older, through the eyes of a nine-year-old making the jump into the double-digits—“The whole idea of it makes me feel like I’m coming down with something,” it opens. I feel you, buddy. It’s the last few lines that really hang with me, the reason I come back to it each year—“It seems only yesterday I used to believe/there was nothing under my skin but light./If you cut me I could shine./But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,/I skin my knees. I bleed.”
On turning 20, there was a sense of loss, as I left those awkward teen years behind (or, tried to?) but I eagerly reached for being “in my twenties.” On turning 21, I ignored the last line and its mortality. On turning 22, I’m embracing the vulnerability of my age. I might be hitting the upper limit of the “college-age” bracket, I might be “grown-up” and “mature” and “responsible” in the eyes of my younger peers, I might be taking 300-level seminars and the days of 8 a.m. tutorial might be long gone (only to be replaced with…failed attempts at said workouts), but I still fall down. I still make mistakes. I still bleed. And I still want to—that’s where all the good stories (like the story of my 21st birthday, but that’s for another day) come from. That’s where the memories come from, the ones I will hearken back to a year from now when I’m out in the world—somewhere!—and worries about being old seem “so college” of me. Will you help me get back up? This arthritis, I tell ya…