Birthdays: the Moth

Context: there’s this great storytelling night called the Moth. Real people stand up & tell stories, five minutes long, and the only rule is that the story has to be true.

I was due to tell this story on June 8, 2022 at the Rich Mix, East London, but a Covid scare struck me down. But! I already drafted it and wanted to share.

Remember: it’s meant to be read out loud.

So I had a big birthday recently. I know what you’re thinking; my 21st. No, it was my 40th.

It came at a weird time.

Growing up, we didn’t go in for big birthday celebrations. I’m not sure if it was because we’d got out the habit or because we were broke — we were so the kind of kids who got Easter eggs after Easter in the remnants sale — but, it just wasn’t our thing.

All of this is to say: expectations were low.

And I’d had this line in my head the whole year before: a line from Dante. “In the middle of my life, I found myself in a dark forest”. Just know that I’m not the kind of person who has Dante living in their head rent-free so I knew my subconscious was trying to tell me something.

I needed a change. I’d been in East London forever. And I was still trying to get my head around waking up a middle-aged wife and mum, two positions I’d always been pretty opposed to (your mum probably felt the same).

And California had always been this place that felt like the answer to all my problems. I’d gone there for work, a lot, and fallen in love with what young people call the vibes and what people my age say is the light but really is what happens when you can get cold hard cash and a suntan at the same time.

Me & my family decided to go.

I didn’t know you could flounce out of a country… but I’m here to tell you that you absolutely can. I sent big round robin emails. I was openly furious about Brexit. I was like; I am going, for good.

It was a long flounce cos the visa does take time.

We landed a few weeks before this big birthday. And; it was pretty strange from the get-go. For one thing, it was raining when we landed. I must have been twenty times and never seen rain. We drove, dazed, for two hours through glistening concrete and arrived at our temporary home.

Without my social security number, we couldn’t do much the first few weeks — couldn’t get a phone, couldn’t find a place to rent, couldn’t get health insurance. It made me paranoid just walking down the street. Fall over on the pavement? Could be 50k. Get hit by a bus? Could be 500K.

The billboards were for dog tarot or the right to life. Posters on the street advertised professional cuddlers. The food was either organic oversize onions at the farmers market for two dollars each or chicken biscuits for $1.99. Everything was super-size, even the cars people lived in.

There was so much to take in that I didn’t think much about making friends, early on. The first person I thought looked cool — my tattooed next door neighbour, who seemed to be the only person in the area who wasn’t a VP at Facebook — and I had swapped numbers after we met on the street but she ignored my texts. When she eventually replied, it was to say that she spent weekends on “a silent retreat, of sorts”. It probably wasn’t going to work out, friend-wise.

But back to my birthday.

I woke up and celebrated with my gorgeous husband and my gorgeous son. I put on this incredible checked vintage blouse with massive leg of mutton sleeves — it’s important you know how good this blouse is.

Left the house and walked to the tube.

Tried not to get run over.

Tried not to get shot.

Got out in the city and made it to my tenth floor office in Embarcadero. I don’t know if you’ve been to SF but Embarcadero overlooks the bay; you know the one Otis Redding sang about sitting on the dock of. My desk was by a floor to ceiling window and the sea and sky were dazzling. Boats floated past. Flowers on my desk from friends back home. I felt like a kind of temporary king.

My boss came in. It was a joke we had that we’d both had weird jobs before; in my case, I’d spent a few years as a writer on this magazine for tweens, Go Girl. All I did was make up horoscopes and interview Miley Cyrus in hotel bedrooms. My boss had just joined from a company that shut down; they’d been preparing for the spread of infectious diseases — pandemics, she called them — and there didn’t seem to be any on the horizon anytime soon.

In passing, she said to me, “have you seen this thing in China? I’m worried.”

It was the end of January, 2020.

I didn’t know then we’d spend most of the year in a small house with no garden, no childcare and no friends.

That people we loved back home would be diagnosed with very serious health problems.

That we’d crack in the winter and come home unexpectedly.

That I’d pay a stranger to go to my house in California and pack up my knickers.

That over time I’d find these first few weeks, from the dark forest to the flounce, funnier and funnier, and that I’d be here tonight telling you this story.

What I remember most about that day, my 40th birthday, is how exciting the future seemed, how very young I felt, and how little I knew.

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Sarah Drinkwater

Free agent — angel @Atomico, ex @OmidyarNetwork @CampusLondon. Into communities, the best uses of technologies, London, looks and books.