in the nothing of the year
I'm so glad you were born
happy friday, everybody. this is the weekly (usually, although to 100% guarantee something to read from this newsletter every week, you’d have to subscribe or upgrade to the paid version). this week it snowed, and it was my birthday, and it’s embarrassing to celebrate, or even mention, one’s own birthday, but this essay is about all of those things. those things are also, however, the reason this essay is a few days later than I intended it to be. For that same reason, I’m extending the sale, which I meant to remind all of you about one more time on Tuesday, until the end of the weekend. For three more days, yearly subscriptions are $35 instead of $50; tell your friends, tell your enemies, tell your crush, tell yourself. xo
At the end of the old year, at the beginning of the new one, everything buzzes and hums. All the brake-lights and stoplights splinter like gems in the cold. Then February shuffles into March and the fun part of winter is over. All the anniversaries arrive. The arguments and to-do lists and calendar reminders pile up. This new place is just our house now, with all our dust in it, with all our stuff on the floor. Five minutes ago it was December, and then it’s the last Wednesday in February, in a short month, in another murderous year. It’s Valentine’s Day and then it’s Mardi Gras and then it’s Lent. Mostly we all stay inside. My friends start talking about plans for summer, as though summer really was going to happen again, as though I’m supposed to believe that. People get on and off the subway wearing grey smudged crosses above their eyebrows. The year holds its breath, not new and not old, not here and still not there yet, the train stopped in the dark between stations.
There are always so many more people than I expect with smudged foreheads on Ash Wednesday, as though this whole godless red-light city suddenly admitted itself to be secretly Catholic. I don’t really know what the ashes mean, but my vague understanding is that the whole day is the theological equivalent of a hangover. As far as I can tell, it proclaims that joy and excess have an equal and opposite cost, and that dirt and stains show up the day after every party.
Enough of my friends were in New Orleans the week before last that my instagram stories filled for a few days with parades and glitter and costumes, crowds and beads and floats and a sun-soaked city that from certain angles looked like the most possibly slapdash stage set, plywood and cardboard erected hastily on mud, built to live for a day and be torn down. In the videos and photos, everything was excess and gluttony and desire, ephemera and hyperbole, joy and joy and joy, more of it and then more again. In the street, people wore crowns and wigs and painted faces, they gathered in themed groups and long organized lines. It seemed, from a distance, thousands of miles away in a cold city and a grouchy, tepid winter, that the space between wanting and having closed, for a few brief bright days, down to nothing.
Two days later, everyone was hungover and posting from airports. Mardi Gras is a party at the threshold. In a rented house near the river, on the day after the parades, friends gathered at a dinner table in dim, comfortable light. The pictures of beads and costumes were replaced with pictures of sleepy meals and goodbye drinks. The next morning, those were replaced again with departure gates and desperate orange juices, the kind of miserable smudged-camera photos of multiple beverages at a fast-casual outpost that make you feel hungover just to look at them. Everyone who had traveled for the celebration came home, and life resumed again after the party. Someone who lives there posted a photo of confetti-coated streets patrolled by an exhausted-looking garbage truck. Cleaning up after the party usually lasts longer than the party does. When Ash Wednesday arrives, it seems like maybe this is the point of it: A holiday about holidays being over, about the dull trudge of real life, about what we do between the miracles, in the grey part of the year, when nothing glitters.
In 2020 I read Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (I wrote about this at much greater length a couple years ago). All three books, but Wolf Hall in particular, seem to take place in an endless Lent; it’s always the between time, always the grey part of the year, waiting for the next thing, waiting for the winter to be over, waiting for the weather to break, waiting for the seasons to change, waiting for the miracles. No one serves meat, or wine, or anything good at all. Nobody throws a party. The bare branch world holds its breath, not one thing and not another.
My birthday’s the last day of February in any year that isn’t a leap year. Whenever I’ve had a party for it, I’ve always joked that you could just come celebrate the end of February if you didn’t like celebrating birthdays. The weather’s always bad on my birthday, but the weather’s made no sense this year. It could easily have been sixty degrees, just as easily as it could have been a snowstorm, which it was. All the weather ever does is break your heart, but everybody believes in it anyway. I know the weather is science and not religion, a thing that happens rather than a thing in which someone believes or doesn’t, but most of our relationship to the weather is emotional rather than rational, a qualitative experience of a quantitative thing. The weather is just the weather— a series of consequences colliding with one another, an app on your phone, a process so large it will not allow you to notice it— but people treat it like love because it’s that, too.
The thing about love is there’s no way to predict or measure it. Things work out or they don’t; you see someone or you never see them again. You wake up one day and feel nothing for the person next to you, or else that day never comes. You go on a date and you’re bored and you go home or you go on a date and your whole life changes; the person on the second date isn’t objectively better than the person on the first one, because that isn’t how it works. Why someone’s presence makes my insides a bell tower at noon and someone else’s presence does nothing to me isn’t something I can predict in advance, and neither is how long those feelings will last, when they will change, or what they might become. We can try to make ourselves kind, attractive, attentive, interesting, compassionate, good listeners, reliable communicators, and responsible partners when partnership arrives, and all of that makes some difference, but it can only go so far until the road runs out and the wilderness gleams. In the end, love lives on the level of the mysteries, whether or not the mysteries interest us, and whether or not we prefer math to mythology. The weather is like love, hooked more to mysteries than to equations. There are always predictions but they’re rarely exactly accurate; even knowing what to expect and staying informed, we are more often than not unprepared.
It snowed the night before my birthday. A friend and I walked out of a long dinner and into nearly-empty streets where thick and white snow was falling sideways, painting the lights brighter. For a few minutes, trying and failing to get a cab, blinking soft little pieces of ice out of our eyes, we were in a movie and not in our own lives. Something had happened to us; I’d expected it, but not really. The app had said snow but it says that a lot. It hadn’t come true yet this year, and I had stopped expecting it to. When we finally got a cab, the falling snow obscured the landscape out the window. The air was full of fat white confetti, and ghostly streetlights shone out of a pool of fog at the border of the park.
People on the internet love to make fun of anyone who makes any kind of a deal about their birthday, and they make a lot of solid points. Birthdays are annoying and childish, it’s hard to feel happy rather than sad on them, they create a lot of stress for no real reason, it’s annoying to split a check for a large table of people at a restaurant, and who wants to celebrate being one year closer to death? Expectation mostly reaps disappointment. I can’t just not do anything on my birthday because I know I’ll feel sad about it, even if what I want to do is nothing at all.
But everyone likes a party that they didn’t earn; that’s the point of parties, most of the time. It’s true that people throw parties for themselves or their loved ones when they graduate, or retire, or accomplish a big goal, but the majority of parties celebrate holidays and anniversaries and occasions that exist on some other axis than achievement. I’m so glad you were born, I say to my friends on their birthday, and my husband says to me the morning after the snowstorm, when there’s a cake for breakfast. Continuing to exist isn’t an achievement like buying a house or getting a job; it doesn’t seem worthy of a party. But it’s the main thing anyone does with their life, the in-betweens and getting through them, the spaces from one spotlight to the next. I’ve done nothing, but look how I’ve kept doing nothing, all up and down my life, over all of these however many years, getting up each day and doing nothing again. A birthday can be seen as a celebration of all these dull and necessary interstitials, the morning after the party and the weeks that follow it, the lenten seasons, when we celebrate nothing, and lay fallow, and give up things, and wait, and try again, the long walk from one room to another, before the miracles come, and if they never do.
In the cab home, after it dropped my friend off at his place, the weather poured down the city and made all the streetlights glitter and ooze. The tops of buildings disappeared to nothing. I told my husband it was snowing and he said he couldn’t see it through the scaffolding so he went downstairs and outside to look. When I got out of the cab he was standing on the corner, wearing one coat on top of another coat over his indoor pants because we’d all forgotten how to dress for snow, gazing wide-eyed at this regular, obvious weather and our regular, obvious block and the regular, obvious night, like a million other nights when it’s snowed in New York City. “It’s for your birthday!” he said as I ran up to him. That’s very, very stupid—the weather is for no-one, and snow is more an inconvenience than a gift, and precipitation has no feelings, and I know all of this—and, on that night, in the snow, an hour before my birthday, it made me smile until my face could split apart. We stood there for a minute, looking up at the sky and each way down the avenue, and then we went inside and shook off our coats in the hallway and put our socks on the radiator.
None of this meant anything; the only way in which weather is real is when it’s a disaster; otherwise it comes and goes and nothing happens. Maybe that was why it felt so much like a birthday, since birthdays work the same way. They come and go and nothing happens. We keep on living and another one comes around whether or not we did anything notable in the interceding year. But we get to celebrate anyway. For a few hours the snow is pretty rather than disgusting, and for one day just being born is an achievement. I thought it wouldn’t ever snow again and then it did; I did nothing in the year since my last birthday but here I am again, existing all the same, adding one more item onto the pile, throwing a party that celebrates nothing.
No one really loves another person because of what’s special or admirable about them; if we did, love would be math and not mysteries. I’m so glad you were born, and how you know that’s true is that I cannot logically justify it. I’m so glad it’s snowing, and that we’re standing here, outside in it, cold and wet and bedraggled and acting like children and ruining our leather shoes. We live with each other in the in-betweens, in the long dark blocks between streetlights, the lenten season between a party and a miracle, where we offer one another nothing, and love one another for it.
thanks for reading. this is griefbacon’s weekly-ish public post. one last reminder that the subscription sale is extended for just two more days, if you want to read a whole lot of other stuff both like this and not like this.
Counterpoint: I DO want to celebrate another year where I escaped the reaper’s clutches.
this was really really lovely. happy belated :)