(Reposted/ April 12, 20…)
April 12, (year intentionally left blank) Today on my 61st birthday, I choose to be alone.
I retreat to a cabin, deep in the North Georgia mountains wilderness. To contemplate the meaning of life. To contemplate the deluxe spa treatment, hot tub and gourmet dinner to follow.
This is wilderness on my terms.
I dig it. No wine Bacchanal with girlfriends after their Zumba class. No dinner with reluctant offspring who make hasty exits before the check arrives. No date with a Silver Seniors prospect “seeking good, honest woman with No BAGGAGE/NO DRAMA!” On all counts, not me. My SS date might spring for an Early Bird dinner. While calculating the tip, he’d also gauge how much Viagra he’d need to peel off my Spanx, while avoiding a four-hour-plus erection that could lead to medical attention.
Never mind that no girlfriends, offspring or men invited me for a birthday celebration. That’s beside the point.
In younger days, this reclusive choice would be unfathomable. As a kid, I expected birthday tributes. My parents came through with fantasy parties, presents and cakes. For birthday TEN, on a father-daughter outing at FunTown, squealing friends popped up like prairie dogs from behind picnic tables, with gifts of Beatle albums and Beatle paraphernalia. Mom might take me shopping at Rich’s, then lunch at the Magnolia Room.
ADULTHOOD: BIRTHDAY MALAISE
Grueling jobs and children can turn birthdays from milestones to millstones. April 12th has a nice ring to it, but unpredictable weather and relentless children’s events, make April the cruelest birthday month.
Birthday 45: Rain-Out. Cold wet bleachers, in a tornado watch, I fumed at the baseball Daddy/Coaches, living sports careers vicariously through their sons, who refused to cancel the game. Blessedly, lightning zapped the power out. Back home, Miles, Savannah and I ate cardboard pizza in the dark. Most birthdays during my 40s and 50s, I peered at work computers as minutes warped toward five o’clock, then distorted again in a soul-crushing commute. I pondered time/space relativity, listening to All Things Considered.
Birthday 52: Sick-Out With pollen-induced pneumonia, I drove from work to yet another baseball game, now high school. Dad, in the stands, busily keeping stats on his left-fielder grandson, didn’t say hello, much less happy birthday. At home, delirious with a 103 fever, FunTown receeded to a far away galaxy.
The problem with birthdays:
- Expectations: other people should make me happy!
- Fear: Bucket List
- Fear: old age and death
- Expectations: Other people should make me happy! They won’t. They may throw a party or ignore me, but they can’t make me happy. Ditto celebrations, no matter how entertaining. Does the steakhouse version of “Happy Birthday: “Fried chicken, country hawg, it’s your birthday hot dawg!” delivered by forced singing servers, really make me happy? I gave up on temporary gratification of food, alcohol or entertainment. The third martini or one more piece of cake, luscious in the moment, will let me down later.
- Fear of the Bucket List. A “Bucket List,” like “100 places to see before you die,” is anxiety-inducing. Who will fulfill every wish, every dream or go to 100 must-see places? Who says we should? Like people, places, things and actions won’t make me happy. World travel, to personally transcendent locales, is a life-changing adventure. But racing to check off 100 places can dissolve into mindless escape – a backdrop for socializing, eating and drinking that you could have more easily at home. Last Birthday: (Bucket List Revisited) On my death bed, I doubt I’ll say “Damn it, I never saw Machu Picchu or even the Great Wall of China!” But I would likely regret the unwritten novel, the un-learned musical instrument, the unspoken words of love. The unexamined life.
- Fear of old age and death. For some, public speaking outranks both, but let’s stay on topic. With good genes, and baring accidents, overdoses or suicides, you’re likely see old age. Different for everyone, but here’s my take on being officially old.
Birthday 61: Old Age Revisited I always believed, if I reached this impossible age, every minute would be pain and insanity. Like Dracula, I’d avoid mirrors. Never venture out of my crypt. Or, at 7 a.m. daily, in hair-net and housecoat, I’d emerge to sweep my driveway, threatening neighborhood children with my broom. On watch at my front window for signs of youthful exuberance, I’d report loud music, bare skin and unknown cars to the Homeowners Association or if needed, the police.
Except for avoiding mirrors, none of that happened. With only minor pain and temporary insanity, 61’s not so different from 16. I never wake at 7 a.m., sweep driveways or any surfaces.
Back to those mirrors. They are frightening. Personal trainers, hair colorists and cosmetic procedures are mandatory, but not cheap. You must procure your own money by any and all means. Don’t rely on partners, who expect return on investments, or your children, who’re waiting for you to die before you blow any possible inheritance. Stay legal, if possible, and sell stuff – televisions, cars, houses. Get rich or die trying.
That’s my old age, so far.
We can always simply reject or forget our age. I spend days unsure if I’m 42, 30, or 78. I now believe my elders who maintained they felt the same inside despite their age.
Do you fear death? Most of my life, fear of death paralyzed me. I still don’t like it. Who does? Yet, seeing my elderly parents through their recent deaths shifted my outlook. Under the hooded cape, the Grim Reaper is a dark angel who relieves suffering and escorts us to the next realm, whether heaven, reincarnation or plain old nothingness. I’d bet on the latter and I refuse to consider hell. Socrates said if non-existence is the worst possibility, what have we to fear?
What I fear most is fear itself. Overcome by waves of despair for no outside reason, I’ve crumbled at the prospect of one more day. I often struggle to let go of the past and forgive myself. .
Yet old age has bestowed gifts. Examining life, I’ve learned key truths. Maybe, wisdom? I trust myself over friends, family or WebMD. I agree with the Buddha that clinging and aversion are the causes of suffering. Change is the only constant. Merlin advised King Arthur that, no matter or age, we can always learn. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure. Our fear of the impermanence of life and all that we grasp after awakens in us an awareness that nothing of this world is real and nothing lasts.
Here’s the biggest surprise of all. My grown son, who I’m not sure even knew that today is my birthday, has texted and called a dozen times asking how my birthday’s going. Several friends, concerned that I’m alone, have texted invitations to celebrate when I return.
When I released my iron grip on craving attention and forgave inevitable disappointments, I learned that happiness, even on birthdays spent alone, lies within.