The uplifting power of magical thinking during bleak times
These are dark times. We need something to look forward to. You are all invited to my 50th birthday party in Amsterdam. Please start planning now.
I turn 50 on January 5th, 2022. Because January is a crappy month to be in The Netherlands, I’m also going to have a 50th birthday party six months after my actual birthday during the surreal days of Amsterdam summer when it stays light out past 11pm and the cornflower skies are filled with fluffy white clouds featured on all the master painters’ canvasses in the Rijks Museum down the street. The clouds are worthy of mention. They form shapes you don’t even need magic pancakes to see, but there will be magic pancakes at my party if you would like them. There will also be boat rides of varying types. We will of course go out on the Shrimp Whisker, my family’s little canal boat but that’s only for very special guests, of whom you are definitely one. I’ll also be hiring one of the regal Dutch wooden boats with a crystal chandelier and a silver bowl for tulips — that’s really a thing boats here have — and an elegantly stocked bar, varied depending on the festivity that particular day or evening. There will also be a gothic estate in the country with a hedge maze and glass conservatory. I’m inviting Allison Dubois, the medium who wreaked havoc at Camille’s dinner party in season one of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to a dinner party I’m hosting one night. I no longer drink alcohol but that will not stop me from performing “I’ve Been to Paradise But I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene for my guests at some point.
I’ve always needed something to look forward to, and if I don’t have it, I conjure it in my mind.
I’m pretty good at using my imagination to escape into a world that’s safer than the one I’m currently living in. It’s a skill that has served me well throughout my entire life, from growing up in a violent home to walking away from a toxic work environment at the height of my career. In each case I’ve spun elaborate visions in my mind for a better future until I’m able to find myself in a better place. Finding rays of hope within the scope of my imagination (a party!) while living through a global pandemic fits squarely into this category. I lose hours tucked away in my elaborate daydreams. My imagination is like my own private Wonderland and I’m lucky enough to have many of my dreams actually come true, like beginning a new mid-life chapter in Amsterdam — an actuality that began as a wisp of a daydream.
Reality doesn’t factor into my fantasy party plans much. Neither do the pesky constraints of time or space, nor life or death. Freddie Mercury is often on the guest list of my fantasy parties. We’re very close friends in my mind. The guest list of course varies depending on the occasion and my mood but there are typically some staples. Roxane Gay comes to all my parties. Martha Plimpton is often there for obvious reasons. If I haven’t yet met the person I envision at my parties, it’s no matter, I just have to invent an elaborate backstory about how we will have met — another rabbit hole I can fall into for hours and days.
I started planning a party about six weeks into the pandemic. It hadn’t yet morphed into my epic 50th birthday celebration yet. This party started out smaller.
I got the idea for a party while I was roaming around the garden of my townhouse in Amsterdam in full Lebowski mode. I’d watched MidSommar three or seven times in the last two months (and I’d seen it in the theater when it came out last year). It was a witchy day, all around. It was in fact summer solstice and it was going to be light out until 11pm. There were about three people I was mentally preparing for the bear suit at that particular moment, and my husband’s gross black toenail that he’d dropped a log on had finally fallen off and he’d given it to me, just as I’d asked.
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked when I first requested he give it to me when it turned black and I was sure it was going to fall off. “Sniff it,” I said. “I knew it,” he said.
That morning my mostly black cat cornered the frog she’d been torturing for the last week or so. We’d already rescued it from the basement twice, all dried out with copious amounts of our dog Brian’s hair stuck to its parched body and we gave it a drink and tucked it away deep in the ivy with stern instructions to the cat to leave it be. I was restless after being cooped up for the past four months since the pandemic started, hitting the Netherlands early and hard, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. My anxiety was the worst it had been in years. Dreaming about a party was the salve I needed.
My summer solstice party would be fabulous. We’d eat magic pancakes and cast spells and dance into the moonlight by the canal where we moor our tiny boat. I mostly envisioned my really good girl friends in attendance. The ones I hadn’t seen in years because careers, geography, kids, life. They were all coming and it was going to be glorious. We’d listen to Bjork, Enya, The Cranberries, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks and Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits mostly because of the sentimental value it held as one of our Dublin House jukebox favorites back in our New York City days. The other was the Pogue’s Fairytale of New York, which I played six times in a row one year on my birthday and Mike the bartender staved off a riot and let it keep playing over and over in honor of my special day. Dreaming of having all the people I’d loved and cherished together in this magical fairytale land I live in brought me great comfort. Early last summer I was still optimistic enough to think a party in Amsterdam in exactly a year’s time with all my dearest friends who would travel from the States was still possible. By August I knew this was a fiction even I couldn’t conjure to life.
When the weather changed from summer to fall last month and we started into the COVID second wave, the solstice party plans that had once buoyed my mood vanished, leaving me with literal and metaphorical dark clouds. The dismal weather Amsterdam is famous for set in: very little daylight, perpetual gray clouds enveloping the world and my psyche, and so much rain and dampness our dog Brian literally grows mushrooms and we have to shower him with anti-fungal soap to keep him from scratching us all into madness.
We’re now officially in the second wave. We went into partial lockdown this week after weeks of the government’s perplexing lack of action after what was widely considered to be a fairly successful approach to the first outbreak. Three students and a teacher in my son’s 9th grade class tested positive and we got an email last night that one of the school’s grounds keepers, an elderly Dutch man who smokes a lot, also tested positive but so far is thankfully showing only mild symptoms. My son’s school is still in-person. The government and RIVM (the Dutch health authority) stated in the last press conference when they announced the partial lockdown measures that schools were too important to close again so all efforts will be made to keep them open for as long as possible. But the students aren’t required to wear masks in classrooms despite sitting close together. It’s fraught.
Back at home in the States, things are worse. My sister in Sunnyvale, California is juggling supervising her six and nine year olds through their all-day online learning while the fires ravaging the west coast blow smoke in their direction. My parents are alone in the house they refuse to downsize from in Northern Virginia. FOX News blares 24/7 in their living room where my dad almost exclusively sleeps in his recliner because he can’t make it to his bedroom most nights. He turned 80 years old last week but he came down with shingles and couldn’t even manage a Zoom call with any of his remaining 11 siblings — there are still eight living and they spread west from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. During my WhatsApp video chats with my mom I can hear my dad moaning in the background; sounds that would prompt me to call an ambulance but she dismisses as “just his normal noises.” He hasn’t eaten much in the last couple of days and this morning my mom, who was a nurse for 40 years, texted me to say he was on her nerves for “being an asshole” and she was going to Target.
My son’s mid-term school break is next week. Last year, my husband, son and I rented a car and drove from Amsterdam through the French countryside to Normandy. We strolled through orchards and sampled Calvados directly from the barrels. We went to a French mansion that had been transformed into a haunted house for Halloween and it was so terrifying I farted my way through the entire thing and literally tried to escape not caring if I left my husband and 13-year-old son behind, those fuckers were on their own, but I could not. (As I write this I realize it’s likely I’ve turned into my mother in ways more horrifying than I care to admit.) We rented an airbnb apartment in Hon Fleur, a little port town that looks like where Elsa and Anna live, and shopped in the local French markets for cheese, mustard, tomatoes and fresh bread to eat in our charming apartment’s kitchen, the centuries old beams in the ceiling so low and crooked both my husband and son had to perpetually stoop. We fed scraps of the rotisserie chicken we bought at the Saturday market to the orange cat napping in the windowsill of the apartment downstairs. We all curled up in the same bed and watched Harry Potter, which was fitting because our apartment was located in what looked like Diagon Alley. We hired a historian to take us through the WWII sites in Normandy. Living in Europe and learning about WWII is a world onto itself.
This year travel isn’t possible. Even if we felt brave enough to risk a trip (we don’t) we couldn’t cross any borders. The Netherlands is currently Code Red: personas non grata. So are Germany, Belgium, France, Italy and several other countries within short range not to mention literally everywhere else. When Dutch Prime Minister Rutte announced the new measures for lockdown this week he said travel to any Red Zones was prohibited and I turned to my husband and said that he might as well say don’t walk out your front door — Netherlands has the worst numbers in Europe. Yesterday the guy who delivers our packages told me my neighbor has COVID. Our own street is a Code Red.
I’m not watching the presidential debates nor the confirmation hearing not only because of the time change but because I have limits to the amount of self -harm I’m willing to endure but I follow all the people I trust, respect and admire on Twitter to tweet what’s going on. Thank you for your service. I’m eternally grateful for the journalism coming out of the U.S. and doing my best to subscribe to it all because if there was ever a time when the fate of the world relied on solid journalism it’s now. It vexes me sometimes when people casually make comments about how nice it must be to be free of Trump over here in Amsterdam. No one is free of him. His reach is infinite and apocalyptic. Our Dutch neighbors are watching the upcoming election. The world holds its breath. It feels less oppressive being in Amsterdam than it did when I lived in Falls Church, Virginia and that is a privilege and a luxury most don’t have. This week especially the collective pain and suffering coming out of the States is staggering. Hundreds of thousands of women leaving the workforce, millions falling below the poverty line, human rights poised to be stripped away by the highest court in the land, COVID numbers on the rise and still no justice for Black people who are murdered. The collective pain crosses oceans. We need a light in the storm.
So it is that I find myself planning my 50th birthday party, which will take place beginning a year and a half from now and will last for the entirety of my 50th year. Sometimes I get a little too frantic caught up in the details and find myself texting a friend in the middle of the night: You’re coming to my party in Amsterdam the year after next right? It’s best to just answer yes to this question. I’m typically happy to sort out the details later, or more realistically, already have a plan in place down to the type of plane and time of day you’ll be arriving so all I’m really doing is confirming you’re on the guest list.
Don’t worry, I haven’t completely lost my grip on reality. I’m well aware this is largely a work of fiction I’m creating in my mind to help keep me sane in a world gone rogue. The thing is, my fiction tends to have a way of coming true.
I’m having a 50th birthday party in Amsterdam. It’s going to be fabulous. You’re all invited, and I can’t wait to see you.