In the months leading up to my 50th birthday, I fantasized about how I might celebrate it…
On Sundays, while chopping onions for dinner, I allowed my daydreams to go rogue, admittedly fueled by a little white wine and the blasting soundtrack of my 80s adolescence. I envisioned a tour across Japan. A tangle of chunky necklaces. A choreographed flash mob in which I danced with everyone I’d ever known, in chronological order.
But as the big day approached, I realized I didn’t want any of that. To be honest, I’d spent the past few years navigating the challenges of raising teenaged boys in a turbulent world. We were living on a land mine of uncertainty, where the brutal days outnumbered the peaceful ones and we were often a family in crisis.
Crisis has a funny way of pulling at the loose threads in your life. People tend to either take a few steps closer or a couple steps back, while others, some of whom you’d least expect, run for the hills. Frankly, I can’t say I blame them but it can be terrifically lonely. As my birthday approached, I mostly wanted to hibernate. Sometimes I fantasized about running away to Japan in my chunky necklaces, but that wasn’t really in the cards.
My husband kept asking me how I wanted to celebrate and I kept putting him off. I wanted to stay 49 for at least a few more years.
Let me back up a moment to say that fifty is a gasp-inducing, Twilight Zone age. Aren’t my parents that age? I had no problem with my husband and friends turning 50, but how was this happening to me? If you knew me, you would know that I am a very childlike person. My personal style is Toddler Who Dressed Herself. I have intentional bed head. If Bjork and Mr. Rogers had a child, it might as well be me.
As ambivalent as I felt about this birthday, however, I knew I wanted to mark it in some meaningful way. What did I want for my birthday? What did I need? In digging in as deeply and authentically as I could, I woke up one morning and typed this email:
I am turning 50 on Jan 2. I am 12 on the inside so I am not even sure how this is possible. I’ve given a lot of thought as to how I want to spend this day. I’ve decided I’m not in the mood for a party. And there is nothing material I need.
What I could use right now is a little booster of love. So that is why I’m writing you today.
I’m not sending this to everyone I know. In fact, I’m sending to just a handful of you. If you are getting this, it means you make my heart beat with fondness and joy. Some of you I know better than others and some of you maybe I’ve lost a little touch with but I am grateful for all of you.
What I’m asking for is a little written something — email me something like a story or a memory or how we met or maybe something you want me to know? A photo even? I don’t want this to feel like work. It doesn’t have to be long or literary. You don’t even have to do it!
I’m going to print these and put them in a box and read them on my birthday and maybe reread them on days I need them. And I’m going to write you back with my own love letter to you.
OK that’s it. Thank you in advance.
I read it and immediately deleted it, snapping my computer shut. My inner critic hissed: How narcissistic of you! Why would anyone want homework over the holidays? Everyone is so busy and overbooked as it is! Who do you think you are exactly?
If there’s one thing I learned by 50, it’s to give this mean voice a juicy middle finger. So I rewrote it and emailed it to my husband who told me to go for it. I quickly came up with a list of people and sent it off before I changed my mind.
If I had had a party, the list would have looked very different. A party means people in your current city, demographic and social orbit. The Birthday Project recipients ranged in ages from eight to eighty and spanned the globe from New Jersey to Australia. Every chapter in my life was represented.
I was stunned when my inbox blew up. People wrote back to say they were honored. Some said they were in tears. One friend said he was exploding. My heart started beating really hard.
The letters started trickling in over the next month; each response as varied as the person writing it. Every arrival in my inbox filled me with stomach-dropping anticipation, the way only a love letter could. Wherever I was at the time, I dropped everything to read. There were poems and photos and secrets and drawings and memories and first impressions.
Sometimes the intimacy was so overwhelming, I had to put the paper down for a moment to catch my breath. The tears were triggered almost every time, not because the content was heavy or sad, but because I have never felt so understood. It wasn’t just that people took the time to say thoughtful and kind things about me, it was that each email laid bare my soul in snapshots that connected the dots to my whole beautiful life, coming at a time when I so desperately needed it.
A former colleague from my first job out of college, a brother really, sent me a photograph of us in our early twenties, posed on a staircase in full 90s glamour with our beloved third work sibling we lost last year to cancer. It contained only two words, which held an ocean of meaning for me: “Everything, everything.”
My youngest son wrote how he feels comfort in my presence. How although I am “female, black-haired and rounder-headed” in comparison to him, we might as well be the same exact person. “We’re more than mother and son,” he said in conclusion. “We’re soul mates.”
Some of my friends wrote about their own complicated feelings about turning 50. There’s a stigma, a feeling of shame that comes with 50, particularly being female I think. But each friend promised me that the idea of 50 gets more comfortable over time. One said, “You will make marks and be marked. The wear and tear will add both polish and patina.” Another shared this quote by Anne Lamott: “Our true person is outside of time and space. My inside self is outside of time and space. It doesn’t have any age. I’m every age I’ve ever been and so are you.”
One friend confided that her dearest friend passed away shortly after turning 50. She ended her letter with one of my favorite lines from the Birthday Project: “So, any moment you might feel 50 is not a blessing, please, please look at what you have and not what you have not.”
I have not quite figured out how to be 50. I can tell you that I am comfortable and happy in my skin, more than ever. I’ve noticed an ambitious fire recently lit inside me; an urgent, everyday sense of Why Not? And especially: Why Not Me? I have learned how to ask for what I need. And that life is far from over.
I still might choreograph that flash mob one day. I’m still working on my moves.
Lisa Rubisch started her career at MTV and now directs commercials and music videos for major brands at Park Pictures in New York. She also contributes writing to websites, anthologies and books, and has written other essays for Cup of Jo.
P.S. A small kindness I’ll never forget, and the nutty thing Joanna did at her 40th birthday party.
(Photo by Youngna Park.)