Get Well

Self and the City: Twenty-Three Candles

by Jessa Chargois

Self and the City is a column intended to increase visibility and dialogue surrounding mental health, relationships, harmful stereotypes, and the necessity for self-care and vulnerability. Self and the City will be headlined by Jessa Chargois on a bi-weekly basis. Submissions and guest columnists are welcomed to send work to 

I believe in over-celebration.

I believe in surprise parties, extravagant balloons, over-frosted cakes, thoughtful exchanges, and handwritten cards. I believe in new beginnings marked by another year around the sun. I believe in opportunities for self-forgiveness and the birth of new dreams.

Twenty-three candles for twenty-three new beginnings.  

Over the past year, I have watched the reflection of a twenty-two year old young woman transform in a Lower East Side mirror. Many days, she had been brave, chasing her dreams without reservations. Other days, she had been overcome with grief, mourning the loss of a unified circle of support in the shape of familial and romantic bases. Every day, she ended the night looking into her big, bright, not-so-green not-so-blue eyes, asking herself if she was proud of her daily decisions. And while most days, she was, those nights where her reflection depicted a remorseful and distressed young woman haunted her relentlessly.

She was born in the season of thanks. A season synonymous with the first snowfall, the first gatherings of loved ones, and the first bake of glutinous comfort treats. Regardless of these seasonal heartwarming firsts, this year is far from the first or last time she will be wishing for self-forgiveness on a set of birthday candles. However, at twenty-three candles, she has found a softness, a sense of nurture, and gentle understanding that has alluded prior wishes. She is far from who I will be when I am greeted with twenty-four candles, and am far from who I was when I blew out the flame of twenty-two. 

Nonetheless, the reflection I notice nowadays is of an independent, caring, expressive, confident, and passionate young woman, daughter, sister, creative, writer, friend, and individual. She has weathered several storms and is learning how to dance in the rain. She has redefined her relationship with the woman in the mirror, respecting her gut intuitions, her mental and physical well-being, and her desire to chase dreams. She struggles to accept the past and her ill-advised choices, but she is learning to welcome undesirable outcomes. Most noteworthy, the reflection depicts an individual who is alone. In the past, the reflection split her energy between chasing down romantic companionship and taking care of herself. Often, she would dedicate more of her love to her partner. Foregoing the tender care she required over the past year, a year filled with personal trauma, she faded into a dull and lackluster version of herself, a reflection I failed to recognize.

Fueled by pain, she found the strength to stand alone. Romanticising her relationship with the voyeur in the mirror, she began to redefine the key factors that made her unique. When asked to strip away inconsequential and frivolous labels, who is she? What does she stand for? Where are her moral lines? What sparks her inner flame? What risks extinguishing her light? What does she need? What does she desire?

As she stares back at me in my Lower East Side bathroom vanity, I can’t help but notice my pulse began to race. My hands steady on the cool, white porcelain vanity. Running the faucet, I splash cool water across my face, temporarily severing ties with the reflection. As droplets run down her face, I watch as she examines our face. The strong jawline contrasts with her thin delicate lips. Severe eyebrows rise and fall in sync with her analysis of our appearance. The line of freckles stretching from her right cheek to top of her left lip. Her large eyes dipping behind the long dark lashes, fluttering. This is our face, the face of twenty-three candles, and twenty-three reasons to be grateful for her growth. 

In the days to come, I will slip into my favorite party dress. I will don a smile to greet my beautiful friends that dance into my home to celebrate our journey together. I will welcome in a new chapter of my life with those who defined the memorable moments of my past, embracing our futures. At the end of the night, I will walk myself home in my beloved cowboy boots, and wipe the makeup off a face that doesn’t yet belong to me. In the mirror lives a reflection of a woman who has come to terms with the mistakes of the past, accepting her flaws, understanding she is about to make a whole year’s worth of new ones. She stands boldly alone, unashamed and unapologetic for her desire for her truth. Neither the reflection nor I hold the answers to our questions, and we both understand that this truly is cause for celebration. Relaxing our grip on the search for the truth, we turn another year old, ready for all that awaits us. Regardless of what you may call it, this sense of self-forgiveness, self-satisfaction, and self-love is something I’ve been searching for all of my young life. 

Regardless of measurable progress, it is necessary to celebrate growth. While we all age, we grow differently. Every lesson is one step closer to our final destination, our individual visions of peace of mind. Regardless of if the steps taken backward outnumber the steps taken forward, I argue the journey is worth celebrating in all of its form. The echoing chorus of “happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear….” rings throughout the dimly lit apartments, filled with loved ones. It becomes nearly impossible to avoid wishing for a continued sense of this belonging and understanding. The candlelight of the past year is blown out. The ever-elusive sense of closure washes over the room. Another year has come and gone in the story of our lives. We have grown, some together, some apart. Our reflections, coming in and out of focus, intertwining, jumping from mirror to mirror. For now, mine will stay home, in my Lower East Side apartment, just me, alone, with myself and this city.

Feature Image via Jessica Golightly

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