Monday, October 25, 2010

Birthdays a time to slow down, take stock and be selfishly indulgent

A peaceful place to sit and relax

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 24, 2010)

It's almost my birthday. I love birthdays, especially my own. Many adults don't feel that way. The older they get, the less they want to celebrate the day of their birth. Birthdays remind them of the passing years, years that fly by at an increasingly frightening speed.

I understand the fear of aging, but I don't embrace it. Rather than ignoring time or wishing it away, I choose to celebrate it. Each year — for that matter, each minute of the day — is a gift, the best gift ever. Birthdays make me grateful, and a little giddy.

I'll be 59 years old on Wednesday. If I had been born in China, Japan or one of many other Asian countries, I'd already be 60. Those cultures calculate birthdates differently than we do in the West. In Korea or Vietnam, for example, a child is 1 year old when born and celebrates its second birthday a year later.

I suppose it doesn't really matter how birthdates are calculated. What's important is their acknowledgement. I don't mean public displays by family or friends. Being remembered by others is appreciated but not essential. What's essential is to remember ourselves and to acknowledge our accomplishments, value and worth.

Birthdays are, after all, celebrations of self. We all have an opportunity, once a year, to consider our lives. What would we like to do differently? What would make us happier? Healthier? More alive? We can ask ourselves what presents we'd like to receive, and we needn't wait for others to give us those gifts. We can give ourselves the gifts we really want.

Most of the gifts I'm giving myself this year concern time. Sure, I've indulged in the occasional handful of candy corn (a seasonal treat) and one thick, gooey slab of brie cheese. (It's not good for me, but it's my birthday, so I'm allowed!) But the gifts I want most are not the kind you can buy at a store. I want more time to read, to exercise and to spend with family. I want to have fewer problems to solve. In essence, I want less stress. Figuring out how to give intangible gifts is more difficult than buying a bag of Halloween candy and a slice of brie cheese, but that doesn't make the search any less important.

Determined to find what I seek, I have begun by doing nothing.

Doing nothing is something we 21st-century Americans rarely do anymore. We're very good at being busy. We're proficient at multitasking, but tell us to sit still without an agenda and we're often at a loss. Nonetheless, I did it the other day and again a few days later. I went outside and sat in a chair. I didn't have a book or a computer or even an iPod. I just sat there and looked out. I felt the breeze, watched the water and listened to the sounds of birds calling, fish splashing and dragonflies whizzing by. It was extremely peaceful to be so actively idle, and it actually worked. Time slowed down. Mental chatter decreased. I felt less stressed.

The way I see it, birthdays are a free pass to accept pleasure without guilt. They represent new beginnings and annual opportunities to refashion, refresh and relish our lives. On our birthdays, we can be selfishly indulgent. We can be as idle or as active as the mood demands.

In two days I'll be 59 years old — 60 if I had been born in Asia. No matter how it's calculated, what really counts is how we use the time we have. I intend to use my time to celebrate life, to enjoy the everyday treasures that are always here if we take the time — make the time — to look around and truly see.

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