I turn 27 today – old enough that birthdays not divisible by five don’t seem particularly significant. Still, it’s always good punctuation to the year. In fact, whenever I’m confused by the chronology of my own life, I tend to try to orient myself by birthday. Like, “Okay, that was just after I left Mostar, which was where I was heading on my 21st birthday, so I guess it must’ve been in 2003.” Looking back over the last 10 birthdays, in fact, is quite a good series of snapshots in my life.
17 – It was during very last weeks before I moved out of my parents’ house for good. A strange, chaotic time, but also one when life felt completely open, replete with possibilities. I remember I had planned to go to Baltimore, but was trapped in by an unexpected snowstorm.
18 – Flagstaff, Arizona. A birthday party that more or less happened without me. I had been living out on the Navajo reservation, doing support work for traditional elders fighting forced relocation off their ancestral lands. Or, to put it in less glamorous terms, getting up at sunset, cooking breakfast on a woodstove, feeding animals and shoveling goat shit all day, then passing out at sundown. I had the chance for a ride into town on my birthday, and jumped at the opportunity (Electricity! Hot shower! Pay phones! Internet!). I split the cost of a hotel room with friends, and got enthusiastic about having a little birthday gathering. Unfortunately, as soon as the sun started to go down, so did my eyelids. My friend Nettle gave me a massage for my birthday present, then let me slip into blissful sleep while everyone else tried to have a very quiet party. 19 –Mijas, Spain. I had spent most of the winter doing agricultural work and hitchhiking around Andalucia. All I wanted for my birthday was to wash my clothes and have a nice dinner. I seem to remember it all being a miserable failure, with a complete meltdown because nobody would pick us up hitchhiking and it was MY BIRTHDAY.
20 – Chicago. And I really, really didn’t want to be there. A short visit to the U.S. got extended for reasons too complicated to get into here, and I’d had to bump back my plane ticket until the end of March. My friends took me to the Botanical gardens to sit in the tropical plant room and feel warm and happy for a few minutes. Then we went to the firing range to shoot a semiautomatic handgun at a piece of paper. What else needs to be said?
21 – Milan, Italy. A stopover on the way to Bosnia. I was staying a few days with friends of friends, but didn’t really know anybody in the city. I went to a café to check my email, and got NOTHING, so I was feeling pretty depressed. I went back to the house where I was staying, and was surprised with a home-baked vegan cake from a near stranger, a kindness I will never forget. We went out that night and almost got into two separate brawls with two separate groups of communists. Italy! On a more depressing note, just two days later, anti-fascist activist Davide Cesare, another friend of friends, was stabbed to death by four neofascists.
22 – Minneapolis, Minnesota. I had moved back to the US, with the goal of staying in one place for a full year, a possibility difficult to comprehend at that point. So I moved, of course, to Minneapolis. I made a big dinner for birthday, and though I don’t remember how it happened it ended up just being me and like ten guys. (Even though I had, and still have, several very close female friends in the city.) I remember having a really good time though.
23 & 24 – Madison, Wisconsin. I have to be honest, I really can’t remember which was which, mostly because my life was pretty static at this point. I was in a long-distance relationship, in college, working and trying to cram three majors worth of coursework into two and a half years. I managed, but at the cost of not really making any friends for the first year and a half I lived in Madison. One of these birthdays I went to visit my boyfriend, and one he came to see me, and I really can’t remember which was which.
25 – Madison, Wisconsin. I was on the verge of graduation, waiting to hear back from graduate programs. I had finally decided to have a social life again, and hosted a party, the only real one I ever had in my little bachlorette pad. I had to borrow dishes and utensils from friends, and half my guests had to sit on the floor.
26 – Ithaca, New York. I was at Cornell University to present a paper at a conference. I didn’t know anyone, and was in a bit of shock to leave California and arrive to a real winter. I didn’t know anyone there, but the Cornell Southeast Asianists are a nice bunch, and bought me a few birthday rounds at a local pub.
And today? I'm at home in Berkeley. It looks like it will be my last birthday as a student, and quite possibly the only one spent in California. So far, I’ve been celebrating by getting no work done at all (a rare and dangerous luxury in graduate school), and have friends headed over in a few hours…
I’m quite touched by all the phone calls, emails, texts and facebook messages (ah, the modern age) I’ve gotten. And I think I’m glad, on the whole, that I’ve led the kind of life that has left me with connections to people all over the world. At the same time, I can’t help but feel a little sad that most important events are marked by long-distance phone calls from the people I love, rather than actual time together.