My people don’t really bother with birthdays all that much. My siblings and I are just un-birthdayers, and my husband totally jumped on the bandwagon when he joined our tribe. I live in awe of those families who pull together elaborate themed parties for the kids, with craft tables and homemade cakes and invitations and, oh God, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
This is the birthday dynamic I grew up with: When you’re little, you get a cake and a couple of games in the yard with just the neighbors on the street, and once you turn, say, 11 or 12, birthdays just aren’t a big deal anymore. As an adult, I get a little eye-rolly over full grown people who annually celebrate their own birthdays, and kind of defensive when full grown people remember mine (oh-my-god am I supposed to remember YOURS now?). I’m not a monster: The kids get a birthday gift and a cake at home; I call my siblings and try to remember to text my grown up nephews on theirs; I buy presents for my young niece on hers. Spouse and I might eat out (or not) on ours. But there is little planning or fanfare involved in any of it. I did manage to pull off one birthday party in the backyard for each of them when they were little. I’m still recovering from it. Most years, we just told the kids, “I picked up a cake, and I’ll take you and a couple of friends to the movies.” They were invited to lots of fun parties that we never reciprocated. They can work this out in therapy when they get older.
Anywho, when I turned 40, I didn’t make much of it, other than to notice how easy it had suddenly become to gain weight (Seriously! It’s like you don’t even have to eat!) and that I gave even less of a shit what people thought than I did the year before. But as that year rolled on, I realized something else: after four decades on God’s green earth, you are kind of an adult whether you like it or not. You can actually decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do, within reason. I mean, I can’t decide that I am a wizard or that I no longer wish to pay my taxes. But I digress. The point is, a few weeks after I turned 40 I decided–without realizing it–that I no longer had to go to parties.
In case my birthday party lameness was not hint enough: I do not enjoy parties. I hate mingling, I don’t like going out at night in general, and I really dislike large crowds, especially non-anonymous crowds. I can enjoy a rock show, for example, but I detest being in rooms full of people I sort of know chitting and chatting and celebrating. Of course, one’s twenties and thirties are filled with obligatory parties—weddings and christenings and wakes and all sorts of rights of passage that I’ve never shied away from, and most of which I really enjoyed (even the wakes). But “parties,” like, regular parties thrown for no apparent reason (or for an adult’s birthday–come on, you’re an ADULT!) where you have mingle with strangers and meet your friends’ other friends and be out after dark or even (ugh) wear a costume or whatever? Just no. So, when a good and kind friend said to me one warm summer night in my 41st year, with all goodness and kindess, “we are having a party tonight; you should stop by,” it finally struck me that I could say “Thank you for inviting me, but I don’t like parties. See you on the beach tomorrow!” And I did.
What an immensely freeing moment it was. The friend wasn’t insulted, and I wasn’t lying, and I wasn’t dragging my even more introverted husband out to chat with people he doesn’t know, and the next day, I had had a nice rest and plenty of social energy to expend mingling and chatting with people I ran into on the beach. All was right with the world. Quite accidentally, I had given myself a gift, and that gift was simply permission to decline invitations. I sometimes go to parties, but not just because I feel like I should.
I have determined that the best perk of getting older is that you can give yourself gifts like this. You don’t need to keep up with twentysomethings anymore, you don’t need to impress the neighbors. You can let go of the hang ups that plagued your younger self, and you can start to accept your own limitations (that’s my motto!) and just live your life. I don’t really have/want/need a “bucket list,” so much as a “reality check” framework. If I stay within it, I find myself to be more productive and happy.
So now, each year, usually in the months leading up to or after my my birthday, I try to figure out what it was I have unconsciously decided to do or not to do over the course of the past year. Here’s a rundown.
I was almost 41 by the time I fully recognized the value of the “you can decline party invitations” gift. It’s still one of my favorite presents ever. Five years in, my closest buddies always couch their invitations with, “I know you don’t like parties, but…” And most know that I am more up for a party if it it is within walking distance of home, and over by 6pm.
The year I turned 42, I gave myself permission to suck at stuff. It sounds like a not so big deal, but by admitting that I was never going to be very good at certain things, I was able to let myself try them. That was the year I started dieting and exercising and eventually running. I started with couch to 5k, and never really got much further than that. I sucked. I still suck. In fact, I still mostly walk. But it beats standing still, and even if I did finish a 5k race behind a 90-year-old man (that actually happened), at least I finished it. I fell off the exercise/diet wagon over the last cold NY winter, and gained back a bunch of the weight I lost. So, now I am once again allowing myself to suck at it in order to “Just Do It.” Memo to Nike: You’d get a lot more traction with that slogan if you acknowledged that you can still do it if you suck. Just ask Jake the Dog:
The year I turned 43, I gave myself permission to be 43. That is, I stopped dying my hair. It was hard, the whole growing-out of it, but not that hard for a lazy and not-so-primpy sort like myself. It took a lot of explaining to my lady friends of a similar age, but I had full support of the spouse (who’d been telling me to stop for years) and the kids, who were quite sure I would come out looking like an X-man. I was assisted by a new stylist who, being in her 20s, had no dog in the “but you’re too young to be gray!” fight. Also helpful were the fact that I work from home, and the arrival of a national disaster that lowered everyone’s expectations for me looking halfway decent for about a year. I also wore a lot of hats. I went from a dyed chocolate brown to a funky salt mixed in with my natural pepper, with a wicked white streak up front. I have no regrets at all–especially as it allows me to continue to dress like a teenager (alas, more of a teenaged boy than a teenaged girl) without making myself look like a middle-aged lady who wants to look like a teenager. (Memo to youngsters dying their hair that trendy granny-chic gray: Step off. That territory is spoken for. You have to earn gray hair).
The year I turned 44, I decided that I am allowed to call anyone younger than me “Sweetheart” or “Hon.” I’m old enough for it not to be creepy (another benefit of gray hair) and it saves me the trouble of remembering all my kids’ classmates’ names. And there’s no sense in trying to pretend I’m part of the barista’s cohort anyway, right?
At 45, I came to terms with the fact that I am utterly unable to multitask, and that what little ability I had to pay attention to something when there is noise or other distraction is rapidly diminishing as I get older. So, I’ve stopped trying. I focus on only one thing at a time now, and when someone interrupts or talks or calls on the phone while I’m trying to concentrate, I simply tell them about my, ahem, disability, and that I can’t drive/write/type/cook/clean when anyone is talking (and that includes myself and all the friendly voices at NPR). I’m not an asshole about it; it’s my problem, not theirs, after all. But dude, if I want The Thing Done I need to do nothing else at all for a little while. It has unfortunately cut into the time I can spend chatting on the phone with my extended family, but I think it’s likely I did that too much before, anyway.
I turned 46 this week. I’m not sure what this year’s gift will be. It’s not something I plan or decide on (I told you, I’m a bad birthday person and a poor birthday planner). It’s something that happens, and that I’ve learned to embrace. I’ll let you know what it turns out to be next July.
Perhaps I will become a wizard.