Let’s get this party started.
It’s my birthday! Before I start writing about moves and grooves, I’m thinking about the ways that we pause, gather, and reflect.
There are people in my life who’ve taught me everything I know about hospitality. About welcoming folks at the door with big smiles (the Jacobs fam) and coming outside to wave visitors down the driveway many hours later (Grandma) and always having Jello in the fridge for the in-between (Grandma again). About sinking into conversation and refilling the pitchers. Reading the room and making sure everyone leaves feeling heard and understood, rearranging things on short notice so that someone who’s suddenly in town for something important can feel nestled and supported.
My former roommate Trish is one of these people. Our social circles overlap quite a bit, but she’s also famous among many of my friends she’s never met because she introduced me to a tool called…
The three birthday questions
Trish would want me to make it clear that she did not invent these; she learned them from the wonderful Rachael. But Trish spread the ritual and her way of asking among her own people so consistently and carefully that I almost reflexively ask them now, too. And so they’ve rippled on, and I now get random, fairly frequent texts from others that read: Help! At a bday dinner now. What are the 3 qs again???
I’m going to demo and answer them myself and then share some observations in case you want to adopt them too.
1) Please share three things you’re especially proud of OR three particularly vivid memories that happened in the year since your last birthday.
[JS note: it’s very important to include that one in full - i.e. the option to share "proud” and/or “vivid.” ] My answers today:
Obvious answer #1: I finished incubating a human and then I gave birth on a January day that felt both tranquil and very dramatic. Under control, out of control. I moved blearily through the fourth trimester and practiced accepting help and made new friends with (or deepened old friendships with) people who went through it all at the exact same time, so very differently. A year ago right now said human was on the inside, just starting to flutter around, while I watched the total solar eclipse on the side of a road in Utah and napped in the rocking chairs at Old Faithful Lodge, too tired to go look at more geysers. And now she’s a seven month old bundle of possibility and shrieks and “MMBA-mmba-ma” noises. (To be clear, those are not reserved for me.)
#2: I went back to my job after parental leave. I decided to leave my job. I left my job. If we were sitting together in person right now, I might say more.
#3, way less momentous: Completing #The100DayProject on Instagram. And then taking a much needed Instagram hiatus. More on that — what it’s like to undertake a small but steady creative project with an infant in the picture — some other time, maybe.
2) What are three things you’re looking forward to between now and your next birthday?
My partner and I have become a whole new kind of team. I’m proud of us. And I’m looking forward to seeing how we keep growing as a team and supporting each other as individuals as we co-parent an eight month old (😍) and later a one-year-old (😬) and by this time next year a 19-month-old (😭). (Those are BY FAR my three most utilized emojis from Jan. 12-today.)
Recommitting to showing up [adrienne maree brown] while also tuning my instrument [Tara Sophia Mohr; FYI, the audio version at the start of that post is different from the written version. Listening to it helped me feel less guilt and shame about the ways I’ve spent part of this summer regrouping after leaving my job].
Seeing where this project goes! The other day I saw this photo and the caption below from @bethpickensconsulting:
“But Beth,” you cry. “How can I keep making work without inspiration?” 🦎🦎🦎🦎🦎🦎🦎 Habit, consistency, and discipline will be more central. Of course you need to feel inspired but that is not a passive act. When you need some, go have experiences. 🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕 ••• #bethpickensconsulting #yourartwillsaveyourlife #onartistsandhopelessness #makingartduringfascism
So this email project is an attempt at that habit, consistency, and discipline.
3) Now everyone else makes a wish for the birthday person!
If we were doing this in person as it’s meant to be done, I’d be off the hook now and you’d each have the opportunity (not the obligation) to make a wish for me. Since we’re not, I will make three wishes:
For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to start her new gig surrounded by comrades who share her vision and get shit done. Can you imagine the group text?
That when I answer these questions next year, I feel I’ve spent my privilege [credit Brittany Packnett] well and with integrity. I especially want to explore what it means to be a generous host in this moment in history. What are my 2018 versions of always having Jello in the fridge? How do I connect those dots and do what I can to push my backyard / Chicago / the U.S. to be better hosts and neighbors?
Asking the questions IRL
Say you’re sitting around a dinner table/coffee table/cake and you think the time is right to initiate this practice. I learned from watching Trish that it usually works to start like this:
You, casually, lightly, no-pressure vibe: Hey, is it time for the three birthday questions?
Birthday celebrator, often warily, maybe excited: What are the three birthday questions?
You: Oh, they’re just a way to talk a little bit about the year behind you and the year ahead.
BC: But what are the questions?
You: You kinda just have to do them and be surprised.
BEFORE YOU INITIATE THE ABOVE, you should be fairly certain that:
The birthday person is someone who will not freak out if you put them on the spot. They don’t have to be super extroverted but they do have to be ok with a little improv and reflective sharing. Tell them their answers can be as deep or shallow as they want. If they don’t respond with interest to the above, drop it.
People aren’t itching to leave. If you’ve hit a lull in the convo, you’re kind of at a seventh inning stretch, the questions can save the day. If it’s early-ish in the gathering but you’re among friends who know each other well, they can take things deep and cut through small talk or “why haven’t we hung out more lately?” questions. (Hate those.) But if folks are kinda done, maybe let them leave and consider doing the questions one on one with your birthday pal.
Everyone can participate and folks will read the room. We’ve recently started doing these at family birthdays with our niece, who’s seven; we adjust answers and expectations accordingly.
You’re willing to make the first or last wish. The answers to #3 have the potential to be super touching. You should listen carefully to the birthday person’s answers to 1 and 2, and be prepared to go first and model a thoughtful wish if people aren’t jumping. You should also be ready to give folks an out and make it not-weird if some people are shy about saying wishes publicly, or you could give people pieces of paper and invite them to write their wish down. Don’t force everyone to go around in order.
I think I’ve done the birthday questions with half the people receiving this email. What am I forgetting? Anything you’d add or amend?
See you next week
Thanks for reading! These won’t always be so long.
Grateful for you,