Birthday Abundance

Another year and life goes on. Do we get better at it as the years go by? Well this was my birthday week. I won’t tell you which birthday because we Boomers are – as someone has said – “middle-ageless!” It was actually a quite wonderful week, one of the best birthdays so far. The first photo displays cards and gifts piled up on my breakfast table that I received over the week, including a lovely bouquet of flowers from my sister/friend Karen who lives in Ohio. Anyway, it was actually my birthday this past Wednesday, but I did celebrate all week because three different groups of friends took me out to dinner on different nights, and one book group gathering of friends sang “Happy Birthday” to me and two other friends who were also celebrating this month. (Actually the first birthday dinner on Monday was a celebration for two of us, and that was double the fun! See the second photo below.)

Looking at the spread of gifts and cards on the table reminded me of Anna Quindlen’s book Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House, 2012) and I pulled the book off my shelf as I thought about this blog. (See third photo below.) This work is written as a memoir and for those of us who have grown a bit wiser over time; its pages held many deep truths from which I drew in my own recent writing. (By the way, every last jot, every last footnote, has now been sent into my publisher and so the book – The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Story Over a Lifetime – should be forthcoming by late fall. Stay tuned, folks, and you’ll be the first to know when it’s published!)

Well, back to Quindlen and my birthday celebrations. These three evening gatherings were with folks with whom I have traveled, so to speak, over many years. And they fell into natural groupings. The Monday night crowd were friends from St. John’s – one whose husband I cared for and then buried when he lost his battle with melanoma, another who’d known me since my Lexington days two decades ago. The Wednesday evening group included a couple whose daughter and her husband I married years ago, who themselves have gone through some hard times in recent years with serious illnesses. The Friday evening friends I’d known the longest, from days in the late ’90s when I first arrived in Richmond. We reminisced about the good memories along with the life challenges that we’ve shared over the years – the living of our lives and the sharing of ourselves with each other. Quindlen has the following words of wisdom about our lives and old friendships:

There are signal moments, bursts of excitement, times of dislocation and distress buried within long stretches of everyday. … They create a blanket of real life, woven day by day until the thing is all of a piece. “There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship,” Iris Murdoch wrote. (p. 22)
I was struck by Murdoch’s phrase quoted by Quindlen, the “utterly taken-for-granted relationship” that deep and old friendship provides. Like a solid marriage, we take for granted certain loyalty, trustworthiness, a kind-of counting on, that certain friendships provide. That good kind of taking-for-granted – not the bad kind that includes insensitive ignoring of the other’s needs, and so on. (Having counseled many couples in therapy in my previous life and as a pastor in my current one, I’m very aware of both.) But what Quindlen means here, and what I embrace in this birthday week, is that taken-for-granted quality of friendship with those who loved me enough to celebrate the fact that I exist in the first place.

And as we reach our middle-ageless years, the fact is we have a bit more time to cultivate and nurture these bonds we have with special others. Quindlen says “friends are an essential part of our lives – the phone calls, the emails, the coffee, the lunch, the glass of wine … that feeling that there’s someone not obliged by bonds of blood or marriage to support, advise, and love you. … Today we have the time.” (p. 34) In contrast with the lives we lived in our “making it” past – meeting deadlines (although some of us still have them!), dashing off to meetings, frantically searching for papers and memos that must be found; kids to raise, planes to meet, conference calls to answer, job interviews, people to hire and fire, and so it went.

Near the beginning of the book, Quindlen reminds us of the line that Carly Simon sang that went, “These are the good old days.” Quindlen says “lots of candles, plenty of cake. I wouldn’t be twenty-five again on a bet, or even forty. And when I say this to a group of [friends] at lunch, everyone around the table nods. Many of us find ourselves exhilarated, galvanized, at the very least older and wiser. (p. xii) And finally she says:

There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from who we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes. (p. 4)
Life. As this author reminds us and as I second, we just get better at it as the years go by. To be continued …