By Ellyn Oaksmith
I don’t know why I picked 47. Maybe, just maybe, I am getting wiser. This was the year I made my birthday about love. All kinds of love: sisterly, romantic and that most important love, that shores up women approaching the rocky shoals of middle age: my friends. My sister kicked it off by quietly asking me if she could throw a mid-week gathering for me. Wine and cake, six o’clock to eight o’clock. At first my mind scrolled through a list of motherly duties: homework patrol, soccer, carpool, piano lessons, riding lessons… How could I carve out time on a weeknight to drink wine with my girlfriends?
It was as easy as saying “Yes.” Keeping the guest list small was easy: it would just be a small group of women with many connections: book group, volunteering at the school, our children, all living on the same suburban hill. My sister baked a cake and opened wine. There would be cheese and crackers for those who would miss dinner. She’d keep it simple. I was surprised at how excited I was. Little did I know the reserves of joy this gathering would unleash.
Each day I logged onto the Evite.com to see who had responded, my heart warming with each yes. By the weekend every single woman who had been invited was coming. I was Sally Fields at the Academy Awards. “You love me. You really love me.” My inner eleven year old, terrified that no one would come to her party, was silenced. Bring on the cupcakes.
My birthday was on a Sunday, the party, the Wednesday before. By Monday I was aglow, smiling at strangers, buying treats for my kids at the grocery store, paying attention to the things I love about my husband, enjoying dinner together instead of living for lights out. I was Gene Kelley in “Singing in the Rain,” spinning my umbrella over my shoulder, enjoying the slap of raindrops on my face. Did I mention that I live in Seattle?
That night at the party my sister had everyone pause in their conversation to offer up a toast. She said she wanted to wish me a happy birthday and said, “I am so lucky to have Ellyn as a sister and a best friend.” Liz’s best friend Barb had died of cancer in April. I’d been promoted and the significance of her words weren’t lost on me. Then another friend added, “We’re the lucky ones to have such a friend.” I was completely overcome with emotion, suffused with a joy so intense, I felt myself snap shut like clam. Click. “Enough,” my brain said. My heart needed a break. I made a joke, flushed and muttered, “The sincerity is killing me.”
The next day I sent out an e-mail saying what I’d wished I’d said at that tender moment. That I’d felt so loved, so full of emotion that I’d needed to switch gears. That being able to call this group of talented, courageous, interesting women my friends was an honor. That it had felt like the richness of life, the fruits of reaching out and connecting, were present in the room. “These are the good old days,” I’d written.
The next day I went on a 4 mile hike with a dear friend. “Isn’t this a blast?” she said as we drove out of town. My friend spent much of the summer caring for her sick mother. Cruising down the tree-lined corridor of I-90 we both felt our spirits soar, stress lifting as we left the suburban sprawl behind. As we parked at the trail head, my friend couldn’t believe that she’d lived in Seattle all her life and never been to Rattlesnake Lake. It was an ethereal morning, bright with fog, trees glistening with silvery rain drops. The lake shone like graphite as we started up the mountain. It was an awesome hike, followed by a wonderful 3 days, culminating with my birthday.
The only spectacular, noteworthy thing I did that week was change my perspective.
By Sunday night, my actual birthday, I was stuffed with cake and dreading Monday with more than the usual Sunday night malaise. Was I going to have to wait 364 days to get my birthday glow on again? Monday arrived with sheets of rain, a sick child and a slight hangover from one sip too many of red wine. Over breakfast I peered at my husband with what I hoped was a winsome grin. Perhaps it would win me a tiny little post-birthday compliment. He smiled back, tapped the side of his chin and said “Your zit moved sides.”
It was the bread that changed everything. I was taking out the bread to make the morning toast for the kids when it hit me. How happy I’d been when I bought the bread. How my children, conditioned to opening their lunch boxes to uneventful whole grain sandwiches and edemame spiked with sea salt, would crow in delight when they saw their squishy white bread sandwiches, sans crust and yes, Pop Tarts. In a fit of pre-birthday generosity I’d thrown this stuff into the grocery cart anticipating their joy at having trade-worthy lunch booty.
Now the bread faced me as a reminder that it was Monday, not Wednesday. There was no party on the immediate horizon. My friends had all moved on to their jobs, their carpools, their lives. My sister was facing nutcases in an ER and my flight attendant friend was being nice to rude people, stifling the urge to snarl, “Apparently someone forgot to take their happy pills today!” My birthday was flat champagne, deflated balloons, chewed, spit out and over. Yesterday’s news.
Or was it?
Like a ten year old mentally reviewing every possible angle to talk her parents into a later bedtime, I thought of ways to keep the party going. I was heading into Fall in Seattle, which means rain. Lots of it. Rain and darkness. Costco sells more of those little lights intended to fight off Seasonal Affect Disorder in the Northwest than any other region of the United States. To top it all off, I have a history of depression. (I know! A writer who gets depressed. Shocking!)
As my sister can tell you, I love planning fun things. Naturally I wrote down all the things that made my birthday special. It was a long list, with all the fabulous presents I’d received down at the bottom in terms of importance. Not surprisingly it was the simple things that counted: friends, being outside, dashing out when the sun shone, noticing little things more, appreciating my friends, actively cherishing my family, dressing up a little, cleaning my house in anticipation of a good time, working up a good sweat gardening and then having a beer before rushing onto the next thing. My birthday wasn’t in Paris or Rome. I didn’t even go to a restaurant. I enjoyed the plain cotton fabric of my everyday life. And it was fantastic.
My list became a resolution of things I needed to incorporate into my daily life. Spend more time with friends. More hikes. More quiet nights with friends. Press pause and make time for the people I love. I took time off of writing and went shopping for clothes. I always say I love clothes but hate shopping. This time I decided to enjoy it. And I did. I found that taking some time off made me more productive and organized. I jammed a fun thing in and ended up refreshed and energized. I also drove across town to see my mother and helped organize her house, which I enjoy. Normally I would be chained to my computer, running errands, grocery shopping, cleaning or returning phone calls. Not today. Being with the people I love makes me happy.
The next steps work in conjunction with a book I’m reading, “The Art of Happiness,” by Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama. During my birthday buzz, I smiled at people. I said hello to the weird dude with the clown nose playing a guitar outside the bakery. Clearly he was trying to get attention. I gave him some. I tried to find the connection I had with him as a fellow human being and share the fact that I was one year older, healthy and surrounded by people who love me.
I want to be a solar panel of my life, sharing the illumination I’d received that night in my sister’s living room. I was loved and therefore I love. Not just my own little family or my much, much bigger, loud Catholic family but that bizarre check out guy who mysteriously knows my name and the mom I see every day at school whose name I don’t know. I’m going to smile at her. She can choose to smile or not. Her day might be full of sunshine or she could have dog doodoo on her soul at 8:55 a.m. on any given day. I don’t know. But when I can, I’ll smile at her.
Candles. I received a bunch of them for my birthday. Seven to be exact. They smell great, they bring a warm glow to my kitchen and when I wake up, lighting the candle has become as much a part of my ritual as making coffee. It’s a reminder that my goal today is to make it special. I do little stupid stuff. I add my kids’ Nestle’s Quick to my coffee – yes, it’s a very low rent Mocha but I like it. I wake up early enough to have the house to myself for 15 minutes. I don’t grab my clothes at Costco, I seek out the stores I used to haunt pre-kids and buy outfits that I’m excited about. I wear make-up. I make an effort. I take the time to pet the cat in the morning as he howls by the treat cupboard before I shove him outside into the damp Seattle morning. He’s 14. He deserves this. We both do.
On my birthday I went for a walk with my dog in the woods, which I try to do most days. There were high white clouds scudding across the sky. The football field at the Jr. High was refreshingly green after a long dry August. It was dotted with crows my dog joyfully chased. I breathed in deeply, appreciating this moment, thinking, “I am so lucky to do this on my birthday, to have this time to myself.” I took in the greenness of the trees, the whiteness of the clouds, the dew glistening on the grass blades. I opened myself up to the beauty of the moment because of was suffused with the importance of the day.
It’s obvious that every day can’t be your birthday. If every day were your birthday then what’s the point of celebrating that special day? I don’t bake myself a cake every day and insist that my children buy me stuff (although they insist I need to buy them things nearly every day.) I don’t hang outside and wait for my neighbors to ask me what special plans the day holds. I don’t log onto Facebook waiting for my friends to tell me that they appreciate having me in their lives and I’m so special.
I have bad days, sick friends and a cat with hairballs. I enjoy using sarcasm. I know that tragedy is random. So what is it with this birthday glow thing? I suppose it’s about finding a memory of happiness and replicating it in the present. What happened that made me feel so good? I try to appreciate the greenness of trees, the pleasure of walking my dog, planning my garden, kissing my daughters goodnight.
My ten year old found a bean and planted it in the backyard. She didn’t know what kind of bean it was; she just wanted to see what would happen when she stuck it in the dirt. A vine grew. When it wound its way to the top of the torch near which it was planted, she duct taped a broom stick to the top and the bean kept growing. Three months later I took a picture of her in front of the enormous plant proudly holding the fruits of her labor. That night I steamed the delicious beans and served them to her with parmesan and melted butter.
“No thanks. I don’t like beans,” she said.
“Well then why did you grow them?” I asked.
“Because it was fun.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
The key to rewinding your birthday is capturing that feeling, visualizing whatever it was that made you happy and re-setting your brain. It doesn’t even have to be your birthday you choose. Some people hate them. It could be Christmas or Yom Kippur or Valentine’s Day. Or that one perfect summer day when everything just worked the way summer days are supposed to. Take the day that filled you with the joy of life, reminded you that you are your own self help book, written with love, filled with joy, sorrow, mistakes and lessons learned and keep that feeling going. Remind yourself of that every day. Find little rituals to populate your day, tokens of the things you loved about that day and replicate them in small treats, tender mercies and appreciation of the beauty of life. Your life.
No one else is going to celebrate you the other 364 days of the year better than you. You may never lose the weight, get the promotion, find your dream partner or like the way you look in jeans but let’s look at the big picture, shall we? When you are six feet under will it really matter? No one’s gravestone says “Beloved CEO whose butt always looked awesome in jeans.”
So go ahead, toot your own horn. Light candles at breakfast. Wear your best perfume on a Monday. Dress up. Smile. Share. Plant a seed. Find beauty in your own backyard. And Happy Birthday from a woman who knows that the secret to aging gracefully is to enjoy your birthday 365 days a year.
Ellyn is an award-winning screenwriter, author of two novels, a romance: Adventures with Max and Louise and a woman’s fiction title: Divine Moves. Her third book, Fifty Acts of Kindness (about an awful woman forced to be nice to total strangers for fifty straight days) comes out this Spring. She is currently working on her first young adult title, Chasing Nirvana. She blogs sporadically at EllynOaksmith.com, hangs out on Facebook at Ellyn Oaksmith and on Twitter @EllynOaksmith.