How do you celebrate your birthday? How do you celebrate “significant” birthdays?
While any birthday can be special, many consider birthdays when one enters a new decade, at age 50, 60, 70, and beyond, particularly significant. When you are “public” about a birthday and your age, you are letting people know how many years you have lived. It is also an indication of how much time you may “have left.” Some people choose not to publically celebrate and acknowledge birthdays. In our youth-obsessed, anti-aging culture, it is understandable why we may try to hide or even deny our age and celebrate quietly—in the hope that no one (including ourselves) will notice we are growing older.
This does not apply to our friend, Don. Don plans special events for his decade birthdays. For his 60th birthday, Don rented a theater in Philadelphia and performed a cabaret number he had practiced for weeks with a coach. For Don’s 70th birthday, he invited approximately 20 people to spend a weekend at a retreat center, Stump Sprouts, run by Lloyd and Susanne in Hawley, MA. It is an idyllic setting located in the Berkshire Mountains of Northwestern Massachusetts with 350 acres composed of forests, trails, meadows, and magnificent views. Don gave considerable thought and advance planning to the celebration—the first email message with details arrived about nine months in advance (the optimal time usually required for gestation and a healthy delivery).
In the initial email, Don said, “You all come from different parts of my life, but all of you are very important to me and have played significant roles in my own growth, evolution, and contentment.” He continued, “The theme of the weekend is Embracing Life, while we’re all also getting older. Another aim is having fun while we engage in some gentle personal exploration, relate to nature, experience some facilitated meditation, and refresh and nourish ourselves.”
As the time approached, we received additional updates, instructions, and a checklist. We were asked to bring a journal and three of our favorite poems. The wonderful thing about receiving advance notice is it gave us time to anticipate the event. My husband, John, and I started the three-day adventure by picking up two other guests we had offered to drive to the event. We had not met before and in the 15 hours the roundtrip required, we found we knew people and had interests in common. In fact, we enjoyed everyone we met during the weekend but that is not really surprising—knowing we were all friends of Don made us confident that we would share other things in common. John and I were grateful we were invited and had “made the cut.”
Don hired two facilitators, Collin Brown and Michael Cohen, to lead the weekend. I thought having facilitators for the weekend was a brilliant idea because it enabled Don to be a participant and focus on the moment. In his initial email, Don introduced them as “teachers and life coaches with interests in the spiritual dimensions of living fully” and mentioned they both had “vast backgrounds in leading experiential workshops where participants can learn about themselves and others while being part of a caring community.” From the moment the weekend began, it was obvious to John and me (we have facilitated and participated in numerous workshops), that our facilitators were “old pros.”
The weekend was beautifully orchestrated. The facilitators made it safe for us to share with one another. We all agreed to a “confidentiality rule,” and as the group exercises progressed, we felt more comfortable in expressing who we truly are—something we do not often have an opportunity to do when we feel we must put on “our best face” and appear that we “have it all together.”
A number of participants shared concerns about their grown children. This sharing was so valuable for me. While I know other people have challenges with children and grandchildren, it is easy to forget this when our relationships with others are often superficial—we hear about how “wonderful” other people’s children are doing and may wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t my children ‘have it together?’” While hearing that others have concerns about their children’s welfare does not solve your problems, it is comforting to realize that other parents also experience difficulties with grown children—it may be more of a universal problem than you had realized.
It was wonderful to leave the city, the hectic pace of everyday life, and go to a country location remote enough that our cell phones didn’t work. It forced us to slow down. It gave us the opportunity to commune with nature. I sat against a tree in the woods and remembered how much I loved to play in the woods when I was a child. Some participants had interesting encounters with animals. Initially, I was annoyed by a group of gnats that swarmed nearby. I realized that being annoyed at the presence of gnats in the woods was silly—it was their woods and their home more than it was mine. Then I noticed that the gnats always swarmed in the sun—when their spot became shady, they would move on to a brighter location. I thought of what a good metaphor this was for me—I need to spend more time in brighter surroundings and move on when people or environments become dark and depressing.
Participants were asked to write a poem—but the exercise was structured in such a way that even those with acute writing anxiety would not feel threatened. We were also told we did not have to share it. The facilitators asked us to select five words from each poem we were asked to bring and then put them together to write a poem—we were allowed to add other words and connectors. The poem I created is:
What prayer do I have before I die?
How do I act honorably to treat the arrival of unexpected guests?
What makes this wild life precious?
I need to create a clearing of calm so light that is rich and glittering is my crown.
One of the poems I selected was The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. I chose it because I love the question Oliver asks: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” While this question remains important throughout one’s life, it becomes particularly pressing as one grows older and realizes there is less time left. One exercise we were asked to do with a partner was to listen to one another’s bucket lists, or the things we wanted to accomplish before we die, and record the list in our partner’s journal.
While some may find the idea of “death” or a “bucket list” disconcerting, the subject of “death” is a frequent one in existential philosophy. Death serves as a constant reminder that we do not have forever. It encourages us to live authentically and responsibly with the time we have. A professor of existential psychology I once had stated that ultimately, every decision we make is a mini “life or death decision” because it either affirms the life we choose to live and our values, or it does not.
One exercise I have asked clients to complete in career planning is to write their obituaries because it forces them to consider what they want to accomplish with their lives and reminds them that life is finite. When I suggested this exercise for a boomer population, it was recommended that the exercise be changed to “What would you want people to say about you at your 75th birthday?” This perhaps is a more gentle approach, for those of us who believe we are going to live forever, to think about what is important and what we want to accomplish. It also brings us back to the subject of birthdays, or more specifically, your birthday.
How do you celebrate your birthday? What plan do you have to celebrate your next “significant” birthday—in whatever way you define that term? We are grateful to Don for giving us the opportunity to spend a weekend in a beautiful location, where we were fed delicious food, met interesting people, and had an opportunity to consider our past, present, and future led by skilled facilitators. It was a gift. It has prompted me to consider how I am going to celebrate my next birthday—a significant one. Don’s birthday was a reminder that “your birthday is a special time to celebrate the gift of you to the world.” (Unknown)
-- Christina Robertson