With increasing dread, I waited for my 65th birthday. I could think of nothing but my own mortality. I felt old, vulnerable, weak, and puny in the scheme of the Universe. Seriously.
My plan was to head to the farm, far away from New York City and Tucson – two places where I lived daily life. A friend teased that hiding from my birthday meant that it would not find me. David (my mathematician husband) told me to get over it. He was already 65 and had no time for deeper worries.
As the countdown progressed, a truth whacked me on the side of my head. There was nothing I needed or wanted that I could not obtain. Besides, the happiness of things does not last long. Science dictates that most of what you have – or don’t have – won’t affect your lasting fulfillment. I was struggling with a ‘first world’ problem and that made me feel ashamed.
Still, I needed to find some other way to mark the day. Instinctively, I started cooking days for my daughters. The act made me feel purposeful. I love being industrious. It’s my strength. The more shopping and cooking I did, the more energized I felt.
The day before my birthday, I flew to Boston to deliver a talk to the McKinsey office. The event had been on the books for months; now I didn’t want to go. I never want to give a speech when the day comes. It’s a lot of work to get on a plane (again). Bad weather depresses attendance. Getting home is always a travel nightmare. But a promise is a promise; I dragged myself to Boston to tell my story of remarkable women leaders, centered leadership, and the new book.
Contrary to everything I’ve just told you, I had a blast. David reminded me that almost always, I have a blast. I was floating. Energized. When a shy man at the end of the book signing line asked what happened to me since that first moment when I began my journey, I laughed unexpectedly. In 2004, I took my first step to get rid of the feelings of emptiness and invisibility.
Today I’m filled to the brim most days with a force of energy. I feel seen and heard, and that brings me joy. That’s why I laughed. And call it Karma or my random luck, travel home was without a hitch.
I resumed cooking, waiting for my birthday to come and go.
Gaby and Nick (the first two people you meet in Grow Wherever You Work) are real people. They arrived that night with champagne and a momofuku* cake. I had said no birthday fuss, but hey, life happens. Jetta arrived next and we tucked in. It was pretty great, drinking wine, eating cake.
The next day was a day was like any other. I exercised. Went to the store for fresh bread. Drove to the farm. Played with the donkeys. Napped. Ate dinner and drank (more) wine. Watched a movie. Fell asleep.
Reroll that tape. Something important had happened beneath the veil of a quotidian day. Something transformational. And that puzzled me. Sitting with a cup of coffee, I used my new practice—to reflect with curiosity and without judgment. Here’s what I learned:
- Spending the day at the farm was an act of consciously letting go—of responsibility for the world, industrious work, worrying about everything, striving. I let go, maybe for the first time in months – or longer.
- The child within me took over—playing with the animals, chasing after the geese in the snow, daydreaming at the window, napping. That child and I were merged for the day.
- People who loved me chose to be with me—we ate and drank with gusto, happy in the moment. On good behavior, we dropped our petty conflicts to be together. It’s the best birthday gift ever.
- Challenges can be overcome without struggle—I knew that I was and (for a year) will be 65 years old. That fact freed me. Freedom leads to more creative thinking.
Many people live with tremendous constraints on their lives—illness, financial pressures, social isolation, prejudice, oppressive government—or something else. But one constraint is in our control. It doesn’t require champagne and cake, although those are nice to have. We do have to recognize – and change – the glasses we wear to see the world. It can be in black-and-white or in color. It can be dark. It can also hold joy.
Once I let go, I could feel like the child I was (and can still be). Surrounded by love, I was able to express it. Assuming ownership of myself, I was able to shift. Like magic, my fear and blackness evaporated. I had fun doing ordinary things. I filled up with lightness and felt myself floating.
That day, I stepped into an unknown future without fear. And without a goal, a need to achieve. We’ll see how long that lasts. I will let you know.
Meanwhile, here’s to your birthday celebrations!
*momofuku cake is everything you’d imagine it to be: a yellow cake with thick cream frosting permeated by gaily colored sprinkles. It tastes like birthday. If you want to see, check out their website! http://milkbarstore.com/main/party-cakes/
Happy birthday, and thanks for teaching me a new word. As you’ve probably guessed, the word is momofuku, which my spell checker is underlining in red.
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Thanks Michael! And I was inspired to add the link so that you can see the cake. I write these posts and never imagine that anyone will read them!!
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