How to Celebrate When Everything Feels Bad

cupcake sparkle gif

There is this Lucille Clifton poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” that my chosen sister Sarah just sent me, handwritten, in the mail:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

As soon as I read it I could feel the hot pressure building behind my eyes. Tears soon followed. The poem reminded me that around this time last year, I was so, so sad. I was living in Alabama, a thousand miles away from my closest blood relative. I was going days without leaving my apartment. I wasn’t writing. I probably smelled. At the time, it was hard to think of reasons to celebrate. I think this is because I have always linked celebration with joy, and how does one turn to joy when pain is so present?

After receiving Sarah’s letter, I couldn’t shake the question. Couldn’t stop thinking about celebration — the shapes it can take. The reasons we do it at all. “I was so moved by the poem you sent me, sister,” I texted her a few days later.

She went on to tell me that it was another sister of ours, Nabi, who first shared the poem with her last spring. Sarah had been hurt in love, but in denial about it for a while. One night, she finally broke down crying in Nabi’s lap, letting herself be as heartbroken as she truly was.

“It was the morning after that that Nabi recited that poem to me,” Sarah shared. “When she got to those final lines — ‘everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.’ — that brought some strength back to me. Made me feel noble and brave. Made me feel less alone while at the fucking greasy bottom of one of the worst heartbreaks of my life.”

I have vivid memories of talking with Sarah throughout this period of her life. For all the months that she was putting herself back together, she held those lines close. Everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed. That failure? It gave her a reason to celebrate. And Clifton’s lines gave her permission to.

In our culture, the act of celebrating is very tied to specific reasons for celebration — birthdays, graduations, marriages and the like. There are certain markers that are universally understood: We eat cake. We dance. We break piñatas. “But shame-eating a cake in your crib because you’re stressed and lonely is different than eating cake with your best friends because someone had a baby,” Sarah says. “In that sense, celebration is an energy, an awareness, it is possible at all times and is present wherever there is a human spirit.”

Clifton’s poem reframes what celebration can mean because it expands the reasons for doing so in the first place. Embodying the idea that resistance itself is a reason to celebrate, celebration becomes not just about turning to joy, but about overcoming — a reframing that has been incredibly useful to me.

The other day, I brought home a tiny treat that I intended to eat after dinner. “Whatcha got there?” my roommate asked me when she saw me walking in with the small box. “A celebration cake,” I replied matter of factly. When asked what I was celebrating, I said, “Not turning away from myself.”

I may not have been able to consciously turn to joy during those months of sadness I experienced in Alabama, but that experience felt like it was trying to kill me, and it did not. I may not have left my apartment for days, but I did overcome every day. Sometimes it was through the simple act of waking up. Sometimes it was in doing my hair, or talking on the phone with Sarah, or drinking milkshakes with Nabi. Those acts? They became both reasons to celebrate, and acts of celebration in and of themselves. Because they marked the movement that allowed me to get here. And I don’t know, maybe it’s reductive to think of celebration in this way, but when existence is actually persistence, it’s hard to think of a more worthy cause.

Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Emma Bracy

Emma is the Associate Editor at Man Repeller.

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