In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: It’s so important to paint your own life. There will be people telling you what colors to use and what brushes to paint with, but use the colors you want to use. This essay is like watching Bob Ross paint- so soothing.
Initial publication date: 11/24/2015
My Birthday Month
My Birthday Month—a time of paramount importance. I tell anyone: to my friend, “What do you mean your school is starting on My Birthday Month? We have things to do.” To the dental hygienist scheduling my next appointment, “Oh no, that won’t work. That’s My Birthday Month.” To my boyfriend, “Did you ask off work yet? It is My Birthday Month.” I know there’s gargantuan arrogance in assuming others will stop their lives just because I was born on an arbitrary day over a quarter century ago, but for well over a decade this has been my August refrain.
This year, as the anniversary of my birth approached, I had newly found space in my head and no desire to leave my apartment. Truth is for the past decade My Birthday Month had rarely lived up to my expectations. No matter how much fun I packed in, at the end of the month everything felt anti-climactic. Like something, something really important, was missing.
This year I didn’t have to wonder about what was missing because I was missing everything. I declined phone calls, ignored texts, let emails molder in my inbox. My calendar was a grid of empty white boxes. I wrote, read, and played with my cats. For the first time in my life, I sat in silence for day after sun-filled day.
The universe dealt me a combo retirement/birthday gift when a book I had put on hold at the library (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) finally became available. Marie Kondo wrote that purging my house of physical stuff would change my life. Now, maybe it’s because I read the entire book while waiting for three-and-a-half hours in line at the DMV that her theories sounded so appealing, but I found the book to actually have quite a bit of psychology in it. The author told me to pile all of my crap in the center of the floor, pick up every item, one-by-one and decide if it brought me joy. If it did, keep it; if it didn’t, get rid of it. By making thousands of decisions about every item in my life I would hone decision-making skills and take control of larger decisions in my life. Clearly the lady was nuts because she advised me to thank items for their service and talked about the hard work socks do every day. But, something about looking, really looking at what I chose to surround myself with appealed to me. I left the DMV and started to look, really, honestly look at my life by examining the objects around me.
Combing through these things I learned lots. I learned for my entire life I had settled or done things to please other people. My clothes were appropriate for work at corporate jobs, and I actually loathed wearing them. A large portion of my household items were hand-me-downs, cast offs from family members. I was too utilitarian to turn them down. I didn’t like the pictures on my walls, but felt obligated to hang them because they had been given to me as gifts. As I retired item after item after item, mountains of trash bags accumulated in my living room.
I assessed the decorative contents on top of my chest of drawers: A photo of my maternal grandfather and me = joy = keep. A bank from an ex-boyfriend = yak = plastic trash bag residency. A mug placed out for decoration = joy, but not in my bedroom = keep, but move to kitchen. A half dollar size bowl of porcelain roses that used to sit on my maternal grandmother’s side table = joy = keep. I placed grandma’s roses next to the picture of grandpa and me. And with that one tiny movement I knew why My Birthday Month never lived up to my expectations.
I was alone.
Starting August 1st, I always felt alone—even when I was knee deep in people and parties. Loneliness was my constant companion all the way through the beginning of September.
Grandma’s birthday had been the day before mine, Grandpa’s six days before hers, and mom’s a few weeks before Grandpa’s. When I was young all of us gathered at my grandparent’s house, and we would all celebrate—together. Grandma passed away when I was eleven, and our party went on with a hole in it. Grandpa followed Grandma ten years later and our collaborative celebrations died with him. Somewhere along the way I got into my head if I filled up every day with an exciting event I would forget how much I missed them.
But this year, with the new space in my brain, I was finally free to sit alone with myself and just miss them—and in the missing, that was enough.
The physical act of purging also freed me of old ideas: filling my time would keep me from missing my grandparents, security was more important than happiness, making do was good enough, that I deserved what was given to me—not what I wanted. They’re the ideas I was raised with, and with this Birthday I found I had outgrown them.
At the end of My Birthday Month I looked at my apartment with new appreciation. My hard work had brought me a condo filled with light and warmth, photos of friends smiled from the top of the piano, and my favorite books filled my shelves. I had the perfect writing corner and the comfiest reading couch.
This year’s Birthday Month helped me see what was really important and left me confident that I’ve built the life I want.
By Jessica Conoley