October is birthday month: my own, my son’s, even my dog’s. We’ve always made much of birthdays in our family. From the time I was four or five, I had these elaborate, themed birthday parties. My mother went all out. One year, after a summer trip to Disneyland, we recreated the Magic Kingdom in our house: the living room was Main Street, where Mickey and Minnie welcomed everyone with old-fashioned penny candy and arcade games; the dining room was Fantasyland, entered through a cardboard castle erected between double French doors; and the back porch was Adventureland, complete with a jungle boat on a “river” of menacing stuffed animals. Another year it was a Davy Crockett party, with the house decorated to look like the woods of Tennessee and coonskin caps given as favors. Halloween, a perennial favorite of mine, was an oft-repeated theme, with guests asked to come in costume and our dark, bedroom hallway transformed into a spooky netherworld.
In my small hometown, those birthday parties became one of the social events of the season for both the kids and their mothers, who generally came along not really to chaperone, but to eat and laugh and marvel at the energy of it all. Over the years, I enjoyed the preparations for those parties almost as much as the parties themselves, which probably explains why, as an adult, I still go all out in my own home with themes and decorations for every season and every occasion.
Somehow, though, I don’t anticipate my own birthdays with quite the same enthusiasm as I once did; rather, now the approach of another birthday engenders a “New Year’s Eve” reaction of countdown and contemplation. Not only is it October, but it is also the autumn of my life. A sobering thought, not exactly conducive to a party attitude — unless you look forward to a good Irish wake. No matter how great you look or how well you feel, you still have to own your years, and you still have to accept that you only have a finite number of them left. Time is not on your side.
In an essay about aging, writer Dominique Browning says that while growing older can be terrible, there is also something liberating about being “an older woman.” (The New York Times, “First Person,” 8/9/15) At age 60, having shed old insecurities and shrugged off petty annoyances, she now lives by the mantra, “I’m too old for this.” Browning can spot trouble coming and simply walks away, saving herself a lot of aggravation.
I’ve come to a similar realization, though not because of a landmark birthday. For me, the retirement from a fast-paced life of paid work has made me realize how easy it is to fritter away time on inconsequential matters, especially when your life is less structured. And others are more than willing to help you do that: long waits for scheduled appointments, unproductive meetings in clubs and organizations, endless rehashing of old conversations, routine chores performed out of habit rather than necessity — all gobble up the minutes, the hours, and the days if you let them.
As the old saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy person; yes, I was always busy, and yes, somebody was always asking for something. I am proud to say that I have done work that matters my whole life, work that made a difference, but winter’s coming now and I still feel I have more work to do. Ironically, though I’m officially retired, I have even less time to waste; I finally have to learn to say no.
I’ve been practicing. I’ve been looking in the mirror, pursing my lips, putting my tongue to the back of my upper teeth and sounding out, “Noooo, noooo.” I think I’m getting the hang of it and, in the process, have found a mantra of my own: “I don’t have time for that.”
But I could probably make time for a big birthday party, if you’d care to throw me one. A Halloween theme would be nice.