“It’s like your birthday, except it’s afterwards. You know how you always really look forward to your birthday, and then when it comes around it’s really disappointing? Well then you go out a few days later and have a really good night.”
My neighbour in the queue to ‘Life’ was explaining the concept of the ‘actual birthday’ to me last night. “But then surely you end up looking forward to that night, which defeats the point?” I asked.
“No, it’s just the next good night you have, you label it afterwards.”
Actually, I rarely look forward to birthdays. The older you get, the more the ritual and sentiment become others’ tool for embarrassment. On my last one, a friend informed the guide of our Dublin tour bus of the fact, who then insisted that the entire bus sing me ‘Happy Birthday’ whilst I sank further and further into my chair, before he gleefully described my reddened face over his tannoy. It’s all part and parcel of the ‘fun’ – it’s your day whether you like it or not – and anyway, I should have known what I was letting myself in for, banter being the currency of that more jolly type of tour guide. The best birthday I can remember was my seventeenth, when I was surprised by school friends (around twenty other seventeen/eighteen-year-olds), went to a park and, undisturbed by police or PCSOs, was plied with vodka and energy drink (Smirnoff and Red Bull I seem to remember – how did we afford that?). I was violently sick, cleaned myself up, carried on drinking and, after the party had broken up and we’d all staggered back to our various accommodations, lost my virginity.
Birthdays, like New Year’s Eve, are often imbued with the mythic qualities of a magic charm, particularly when you’re younger and haven’t quite learnt to discern between the imagined and real futures (we’re still learning). Being seventeen I remember was a lot of fun, and it’s difficult to tell whether the birthday celebration provided a framework for that year, coloured it with its vivid, memorable experiences, or that the year has inextricably informed my memory of that night. Certainly I know that on the bus home the next day, uncomfortable, drowsy and accompanied by the potent scent of the night’s accumulated activities, I felt distinctly contented and optimistic – the tired outcome of the ushering in of a new era.
The most optimistic person I know is my boyfriend. Not exactly laissez-faire, often busy, prone to stress, he nonetheless conforms almost entirely to my own definition of optimism. He is quite the opposite of me: whether or not as a result of a conscious effort, he refuses to see the bad in people and situations. I like this opposition, partly because it seems a pleasingly simple confirmation of my own personality (this might be the secret of attraction), but also (and this might be another) because I envy it. I avoid closeness, consciously or not, whilst John – aptly – embraces it. My response to rejection or dejection is always the same – blame. His is acceptance. I have yet to find anyone more accepting of people, situations, difference.
I’m tempted to put Twitter into that list as well. I only recently discovered Twitter. Actually ‘discovered’ isn’t the right word – I acquired Twitter: sent off for it, having read a brief and evasive description and a couple of buyers’ feedback, had it delivered, unwrapped it, toyed about with it – and now after two days it just sits there half-constructed in the corner, and every few hours I go over and stare at it and wonder where to put it, and why I got it at all. John, on the other hand, has had it for years. I scrolled down his wall for some instructions or some inspiration. As well as a lot of inconsequential yet inexplicably well-phrased and engaging comments on his day, there are numerous tweets about the marriage equality referendum in his motherland (Ireland) in May. I envy anyone who can embrace Twitter and tweeting, but more so anyone who can use it to inform themselves and (maybe… hopefully) others about what they care about.
The reason I equate acceptance and openness with optimism is the same reason I think counterculture is a force for good. To enjoy and embrace the pleasures of the present is the route to changing the future, even if those pleasures are, like birthdays, nothing more than emblems of that future. To lie down and die, to drop the pen, draw the curtains and slump into a heap on the floor is to acknowledge – even, sometimes, to will – that the darkness remains forever, that there is no past or future and that even the present is nothing more than a negation of possibilities, a void, a black hole.
A truly miserable present leaves no possibility of a radiant future; even to realise such a possibility is draw out the tiniest light, the silver sliver of promise, which illuminates the blackness. Openness and acceptance aren’t just the beginning of a narrative – the optimistic seeds of change – but actually are the future, the performance of that future. How do we know what freedom is, or can be, if we haven’t experienced it, at least in our dreams?
Maybe this piece should have been more focused and grounded in issues. If I didn’t get a strange pleasure from ruminative amblings across my own past I probably would have licked it all into shape, distilled it and locked my anecdotes into parentheses, but I don’t like to do that. These are my illustrative examples. My conclusion (the thing I’ve been avoiding) is this: that the promise of a wonderful future isn’t solely sculpted from the stuff of an appalling present; that the optimist doesn’t live in a pessimist’s world; that praxis is optimism, and optimism praxis. It’s my argument for art, for protest, for anything like that. There’s your practicality. However – don’t follow me on twitter.
Benedict Hawkins (GR. Feature Contributor)