I’m Done With Performing Gratitude
Why did I want a birthday cake I didn’t want to have to eat?
Desperate for a sanity-maintaining joyous task, I started looking for my birthday cake this week. The actual day won’t come for a few weeks yet, but I thought it couldn’t hurt, especially if I decided I wanted to order something special. I didn’t end up ordering anything. Half an hour into the search I remembered I don’t actually like cake. We didn’t have cake at our wedding. We served cookies and milk, among other things, and because it felt perfect to me, I never asked if anyone cared for or about the difference. I’d never liked cake. But I was doing that thing I do when I don’t know what to do. I slipped into a narrative that seemed correct, but wouldn’t taste right.
I think I was searching for a birthday cake for a part of me that wants one, but doesn’t want to have to eat it. That part thinks those layers of sponge and frosting make me special, and mark the day as mine. That part doesn’t care what I actually consume, but it does care about what I offer myself in celebration of my life.
My birthday was fraught growing up. It was too close to Christmas, only two days removed from my younger sister’s birthday, and presented a direct conflict with what I believed made me a good person, which was not wanting anything. I spent all year shoring myself up, thinking I’d get through this season of rapturous desire without breaking my heart, and every season I would lose myself. My heart would reach for some token of recognition it couldn’t have, and I knew it from the beginning.
Christmas was for everybody, and if I missed out on gifts so someone else could have more, that felt right. But my birthday—I knew it shouldn’t matter to me, having a joint birthday party with a sibling who was six years younger than me. I should have been grateful to my mother, who was most certainly on her own, for making something work. I tried very hard to be good in that way. Still, each year, I wanted and wondered. What if I got to pick a theme? What if I got have a party? What if my birthday could be just mine? What would it be like to have a cake with just my name on it? What if I could have no cake at all?
Despite my efforts to master a childhood of stoicism, The Wanting rose up in me, and it became harder and harder to quell. By the time I turned nine, my birthday gift to myself was a crying moment—in a bathroom with a locked door, under a bed, or on the floor of my closet in the middle of the night. Just a few minutes of mourning for all the things I wanted, hoped for, and convinced myself I might get right up until it became evident that I would not.
God, I would get so angry with myself for desiring anything at all, when I should have been grateful for whatever showed up, even if it was just a cake I didn’t want in a flavor I didn’t even get to pick. I would cry and admonish myself for what I’d done, for disappointing myself.
But I didn’t let anyone else see my disappointment. That would have been considered the larger transgression. If I didn’t get birthday presents, I should try extra hard to seem happy so no one had to feel bad about that. If my birthday was forgotten, I should be grateful that the people around me worked so hard they couldn’t remember. And if there was cake, even if I didn’t want it, it would be rude not to ask for a second slice, and even more ungrateful to scrape away the frosting and give it to my brother. Someone might be watching me do it, and it might make them think I didn’t get what I want. And that was much worse than not getting what I want.
In the second semester of my freshman year of college, I spent spring break in Caretta and War, West Virginia with a group of friends from a campus volunteer organization. That was my first experience with real rural poverty, and it fundamentally changed my outlook on such things. One of the helping activities we did while there was throw a big birthday party for all the children who didn’t get them during the rest of the year.
I didn’t go to the party. While it was happening, I was unloading a truck full of trash and debris we’d collected into an an actual dump (honestly one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen in my life, and I still don’t know how to describe it exactly). No one made me choose the dump over the party. I just couldn’t go look into those little faces, at all that Wanting, knowing I couldn’t give them what they were actually worthy of. Which was everything.
The kids were happy with whatever we offered them, but we knew they needed and wanted more, and they knew it too. I didn’t want these babies running up to me to say Thank You for the trinkets, and face paint, and snacks, when they lived in abandoned FEMA trailers riddled with black mold, and heated by large metal contraptions that threatened to incinerate them all in the night.
I didn’t want it for the same reasons I don’t like it when parents try to force their children to be loving or affectionate toward people the child doesn’t actually know. Something feels wrong about making kids lie and pretend to display feelings they don’t have. Something is wrong with asking a child to betray themselves in service to a sense of propriety. It breaks something in them that’ll have to be put back together, you know, like everything else.
Gratitude is important. It’s how we bring ourselves back into a shared reality when we are overwhelmed by all that personal desire. At its most meaningful, it’s an individual practice, more than a public performance. I was probably thirty before I realized I’d only ever gotten good at the performance. I knew how to make other people feel good about what they’ve done for me, but had no idea how to feel good about getting what I actually want. In fact, I’d learned the opposite. Why else would winning feel like cheating? Why else would being loved the way I want to be loved feel like my partner is making a mistake? Why else would I assume disappoint is for me, and desire, even in secret, is for fools?
My adulthood birthdays have been hit-or-miss, but mostly great. Even the ones I spent alone, which was something I wanted, and received. Once I had more control over my life, and learned to wield it, the birthday mistakes and mishaps became my own. If I forgot to plan something, it didn’t happen, and when I tried not to care, I failed to do so. It’s been hard for me to share the time with others, allowing them to celebrate my life, but I’ve learned. Gifts are still challenging because I don’t really understand social propriety and rules around gift-giving. But I try. I don’t try to do it anyone else’s way or step into a role in anyone else’s story. I give as Me. I receive as Me.
My kind of gratitude is both generous, and sure of what I want. This version taught me how much disappointment is not my enemy, and neither is honest desire. It convinced me I can be thankful for what’s offered, and tell the truth about what I prefer. I don’t hurt people by knowing what I want, but it does hurt me to lie me about it. Especially when I begin lying to myself. I don’t do that anymore. Now, I stop and ask myself, why do you want a cake you don’t want to have to eat?
And the most honest part of me answers. And no part of me orders the cake.
I’m taking a little break from some social media platforms for a few weeks, but one of the things I love most online are accounts that curate hyper-specific content. Not ALL hyper specific content, but like most millennials, I’m a sucker for a little nostalgia. Or a lot of it. Just depends on the day. Every once in a while, I come across an account and say to myself, “I am so thankful for the imagination of other people, and how often I reap the benefits of their gifts.” Well, I really just smile to myself and think oh shit! before I send it to other people, and spend a delicious amount of time scrolling through, liking and saving my favorites.
Here’s something I keep telling myself, but don’t always remember:
“Every life is worthy of experiencing the best of this world.”
It doesn’t really matter how many different ways I answer the question, people will not stop asking why I moved back to Indianapolis. It’s as if the various truthful answers I’ve given aren’t satisfactory. Nothing to be done about that, I suppose. I mean, I could spend a lot of time answering this particular question for those who just can not, and will not, accept the answer.
I could move on to more interesting questions I haven’t already answered. This time I’ll do both. I’ll try to answer this question one more time, in one more way, then I can’t imagine writing anything more about it until, at the very least, I have some new realization and can’t help but share it. Seems unlikely to happen, but you know, I like to leave a little room just in case. I’m always learning or re-learning basic true things.
Not too long ago, a neighbor asked Kel and I why we moved back to Indiana. We each had our own answer to that question, but I mentioned that I have a lot of close friends here who have children. I’m not sure yet if or when we’ll have children, but I know that I love children, and these children particularly. I’ve already been part of their lives for years. For most of them, I lived here when they were born, and I held them in their first days of life. Once they learned to speak, I became Miss Ashley or Aunt Ashley. Then I was gone. There were visits, cards, FaceTimes, and phone calls, but it was undeniable that I was somewhere out there, somewhere away. And I never liked it.
I’ve spent many many years on the fence about venturing into parenthood, but I have always wanted to be of great assistance to the people in my life who already have kids. I want to babysit, and come to choir performances, and little league games, and I want to be called when there is an emergency, and I want to be called when a little person just wants to see my face. I don’t just want to be a distant witness to the lives of these young small people who are becoming who they are, and who they will be. The school photos, drawings, and video chats are not, and have never been, enough for me. I want to be in that shit, encouraging, and showing up for my friends and family as much as I possibly can.
“I get it,” my new neighbor told me. “You don’t just want to know what’s happening, you want to participate.” Yes! That was the word. I didn’t come back here to be a leader or center myself in anything. I came back here to take part in a growing community my heart chose a long time ago. I simply could not be satisfied to watch it from afar.
And that was my newest revelation about why I moved back here. But it’s not the only one.
When I was a small child, my brother and I made Christmas lists, and drew stars next to the items we wanted the most. My mother would collect our lists at some point. Then she would go about working overtime at the county jail for weeks, my brother, baby sister, and I would spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s apartment, just up the road. We would almost forget about our lists until the holiday was nearer, plus we knew that asking about them directly was not allowed. We taught ourselves to forget for as long as we could. And sometimes, if we were really quiet about it, we got to open one present early on Christmas Eve.
I remember one of those Christmas Eve’s, a perfect one. I was about six years old, which would have made my brother five, and my sister closing in on her first year. We were watching A Christmas Story, and just as we were introduced to the familiar ache of childhood want and the gleaming allure of a Red Ryder bb gun, there was a knock at the door. My mother stood to answer it, and we all followed behind her like little ducks.
When she opened the door, two police officers stood in the frame. It had already begun to snow, and as they greeted my mother with familiar smiles, friends from her job, I assumed, I watched the snowflakes fall onto the shoulders of their uniforms, and stick the deep navy fabric. The each held a gift in one hand. The taller one told us these gifts were sent to us by our dad, who we both knew was in prison. They said, our dad wanted to get us special things, that he loved and missed us. We opened the gifts, right there in the doorway, with our mother’s smiling permission.
My gift was a Power Rangers fanny pack. It was the thing I’d wanted most of all, and I’d drawn a big star next to it. I turned it over in my hands, zipping and unzipping it’s singular pocket, thinking of what I would keep inside. How did he know? I wondered, but only for a moment. I was six, and much more given to magical thinking than rational logic. How did he know? very quickly became Of course, he knows. He knows me. After we said goodbye to my mother’s officer friends, I asked if I could call my grandmother and tell her what my daddy sent me. I couldn’t wait. She said, I could, and I ran upstairs to use the corded phone in her bedroom.
When I came back downstairs, my mother was helping my brother assemble his gift from our father, another starred present. I stood there watching them, feeling happy but like something was happening I couldn’t fully grasp. The truth tugged at me, and I felt myself being pulled toward understanding. Then, my mother looked up at me and smiled. She was radiant. She asked if I wanted to keep watching the movie. I told her I did. “Good!” She said, “We were waiting for you.”