I turned 41 on Sunday. I know it's the truth, but I still can't believe it. Part of it might be that last year, when I turned 40, I was still in some kind of post-breakup transitional existence and, instead of doing something normal for my birthday, I asked my mom to do it new York to come and take me out to dinner, and then adopt a cat.
I love both my mother and my cat, but in hindsight I think I also savored the ruins of my life a bit masochistically. Yes, I was new in town and the pandemic made it difficult to socialize, but I could have invited a small group of friends to the park anyway. I just preferred the little kick to the shame that came from associating the words FORTY and MOTHER and CAT.
But after avoiding my birthday once, I found I wanted to do the same thing this year. That's the problem with letting your life get completely out of whack: all the little habits you've picked up over the years just disappear, and then you have to go through them one by one and decide which ones are worth that they are reintroduced.
For example, while I would say that in many ways I lead a normal, even healthy, lifestyle — I do laundry regularly, go shopping, exercise, and pay my bills — I eat ice cream for dinner at least twice a week. I don't know how that happened! That's not something a forty-one year old should do. But right now that's just the way it is.
We got a little lost trying to drive into camp
Anyway, again this year I didn't do anything normal on my birthday, but went to a YMCA camp in the Poconos with 250 sober alcoholics. I didn't tell the two friends I was there with that it was my birthday. The first night was pretty great; it was a long drive out of town but we stopped at the grocery store to get supplies and it was really fun running around and getting supplies like I was both a kid going to camp and he indulgent parent who took pleasure in buying the child whatever they wanted.
We stocked up on candy, cheap plastic toys, and firecrackers, and I bought a family pack of Count Chocula, my favorite cereal that I haven't seen in stores in years. We got a little lost trying to drive into the camp which felt right and then we discovered that our cabin was the only one on the site that hadn't been renovated - the people who greeted us, called her "The Relic" but as soon as we walked in we knew her real name was "The Murder Cabin" which also felt right. There was sawdust from the ants on the floor, mouse droppings on the shelves, and a very large spider hanging in the window.
The mattresses were plastic and had obviously been peed on a lot by anxious, homesick children - again, all very adequate, no complaints here. As promised, there was a lavish campfire led by a person with the equally lavish title of Campfire Master, followed by a nighttime screening of The Shining, which is my absolute favorite movie; upon hearing this, I secretly wondered if someone had figured out that it was my birthday and arranged everything perfectly in my honor. I watched the film for thirty minutes until about one o'clock in the morning and then went back to my bunk.
If chance is a language of God, so is the devil fluent
Carl Jung says that God speaks to us through synchronicities, small but powerful coincidences that seem to defy the randomness of the universe and point to a world full of meaning. Of course, it was just a coincidence that right after I crawled into my bunk, a group of very loud, very boisterous people decided to start an addictive Mafia game, a game I once loved but now, after I hate having to play one round too many with my extremely competitive family.
But if coincidence is the language of God, then so is it a language that the devil speaks fluently, and let me tell you, I've been to hell. What anger I felt that night! I really felt like I wasn't going to survive, and maybe part of me didn't survive, was consumed by anger and then reborn.
The next day I was very tired. I considered giving up and going home, but instead I decided to act like an adult and use my resources to address the issue, which means I spent a ton of money on the issue. My friends and I drove to Target, and I spent almost a hundred dollars on a fleece blanket, warm pajamas, clean socks, fancy earplugs, and high-dose melatonin. Then we came back and watched a fireworks show, and then I changed into my new sleepwear and got into my bunk and slept for nine hours. It was wonderful.
Sunday was my birthday, which I really forgot until I got up and swam in the lake and sat by the campfire and wrote in my journal. That was exactly the feeling I was hoping to capture, and for a few fleeting moments, it was. Then a girl I barely knew who I had mentioned my birthday to months ago, thinking she'd forget it, walked by and said, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" I was touched, but it also burst the bubble a bit; I had a good time but felt like I should have a better time since it was my birthday.
I ate dinner, chatted with my parents and got wet and muddy from the rain, and then we went to the pavilion to see the camp's talent show - but just as it was about to start, the bench collapsed in front of us, right on the foot of a friend, and so it was that I spent the night of my birthday driving forty minutes in the pouring rain to a country emergency room, where we stayed well past midnight and I slipped into a realm of exhaustion from which I really didn't know humans could survive it.
But I survived because I had no choice, and I came home the next day with an amazing new appreciation for my bed, my coffee maker, and my nice clean sheets—gifts from the gods or the devil. Turns out I hate camping but love my life.
Translated from the English by Felix Stephan.
For more episodes of the Trans Atlantic Express column, see sz.de/transatlantikexpress.