By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It came again last week — my birthday. People are born, and celebrate the event, every day of the year. I suppose it’s human nature to notice neighboring festivities as your day draws nearer.
That’s what happened this year, as Sept. 14 approached. My daughter's friend turned 20, and asked everyone around her for advice they wish they'd heeded back in the day. A cousin’s wife hit the 40-year mark with the Facebook post “Bring it!” and a relentlessly curious attitude about what happens next. A friend 50 miles away continued her quest to lose the baby weight she’d put on, 20 years ago. As her 50th birthday approached, she joked, she’d lost child number one and child number two; the 25 pounds she retained from the third will mostly likely be gone by this time next year.
All these birthday celebrants showed a kind of fearlessness that counterbalances any disadvantages of age. Must we be stuck in a rut? I think not, my friends declared, and set about changing their lives, whether that meant a total career change, or plain old sweat and soreness.
Inspired as I was, I had to sit down when I realized the combined ages of these worthy women just about equalled the years my Wednesday interviewee had lived. 100-year-old Peter Weissel was more than twice my current age, and clearly much wiser. For one thing, he didn’t talk a lot, always a mark of good judgement and self-control. For another, he retained an air of serenity that can only come from having learned what deserves anxiety and what doesn’t. As our hour-long chat wrapped up, he smiled gently when I mentioned my birthday.
“Why, you’re just a baby,” he said. Mr. Weissel also described a man of 65 as “a nice boy,” in a matter-of-fact tone that was not at all condescending.
It’s always a good idea to ask older people for advice, and this was one opportunity I didn’t want to miss. Despite the schmaltzy syrup pop culture has poured on the notion of the wise elder, I asked the question: “Do you still get excited about birthdays?”
It was a poorly thought-out query. What I really meant was, “What makes life worth living, after so long?”
It seemed Mr. Weissel understood the spirit, if not the details, of what I asked. He told me, “Well, you should enjoy yourself.”
This made me think, all the way home, about how to do just that. It’s not fair, or true, or healthy, to buy into the notion that adulthood is all grinding obligation in the service of being a responsible citizen. Of course we all have to do our jobs, clean up our messes, feed the dog and help our fellow man. It never hurts to do any of that with a smile. Or to whistle.
Too much whistling isn’t recommended, though. It's not realistic to aim for a Peter Pan-like eternal youth, swathed in exercise gear and coated with mascara and manicures. Growing, whether it’s growing up or growing older, involves the art of finding one’s way with a measure of dignity and consideration. It involves embracing reality — and then giving it a solid kiss.
Perhaps the most adult thing any of us can do is aim for honesty and a real understanding of what we want, how we feel, where we’d like to go if only we could ditch some of those self-imposed limitations. I decided to start small, and make a mini list of things I wanted to enjoy on my birthday. It read, “Italian roast coffee. Topo Chico mineral water. A healthy, green houseplant. Dark chocolate with sea salt. Olives. A good book, uninterrupted. Nap. New music. A poetry lecture.”
Once I began, I was shocked at how easy it felt. The shock, however, did not match the chagrin I felt about how long I stared at the blank screen, pre-list. It took several minutes to place the first word on the page.
Here’s the thing. Birthdays are about more than what we want. However, I wonder about the wisdom of adopting the “I’m so content, I don’t want anything” attitude. The very act of desiring something is connected, I believe, to action and growth and vibrance in daily life. Just as indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love, it is also the opposite of life.
When I’m brave and honest enough to admit — even to declare — that I want something, that means I am ready to take a step forward. Do I want a bigger world? Yes! If yes, what can I do to expand my borders? To my delight, I find it’s possible. Do I want a small luxury? Yes! If so, how much can I spend? Three dollars? It’s really something, how much pleasure I can squeeze out of a Lindt chocolate bar.
This year, the first birthday gift I received was from myself. At the last possible moment, the night before I turned 45, I decided to ask “What do you want, Rachel?” The answer, modest though it might seem, felt profound. Paradoxically, the very act of identifying what I desired left me filled with satisfaction. I knew what I wanted; I knew myself.
My birthday, I realized, could be nothing but happy.