Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fifty/50? Milestones, markers and moments that make life

If we count the milestones in our life by the years we pass, then last Sunday was, I guess, a marker of sorts. Two score and ten, a score short of Milton's defined life span for man. But why should one birthday, even if it is the beginning or end of a decade, be particularly noteworthy? That's one of those unnecessary questions, I guess, but having turned the half-century mark (and please note how it seems more significant once you attach the "c" word to it!) I suppose I must be granted the luxury of wondering.

Phone calls, emails, the occasional actual paper-card that comes in the snail mail, handshakes at work and hugs at home (and sometimes vice versa), frantic messages the day after saying "OMG I forgot!" and (the best part) presents you said were not really important but were happy to unwrap anyway. Did I forget the sugar highs and the blind eye to blood glucose levels? What about the arthritic knee that is beginning to makes its presence felt every time I leap up to pick up my mobile and cheerily answer yet another well wisher?

Seriously, when I tried to pause for a moment (between answering the mobile phone and hanging up on the landline) to wonder what all the fuss was about, it struck me that it's largely about reinforcement and guilt. And maybe, sometimes, unfortunately, also regret.

Reinforcement? Well, let's face it, even though we know deep inside that the people around us (well, most) really do care, it's good to be reminded when they completely unexpectedly throw you a surprise or give you an extra warm hug, or even just tap you on the shoulder to say so. It reminds you of the network one has built up over the years, and tells you that the hours that you spent listening to someone or bothering to respond do add up to something. You also realise that networks can't help but grow when they've been fed right. So as we grow older, our circles of friendship reach further and further, and on such days they spring back to gently remind you of the places you've been and the hearts you've connected with. Mushy stuff, I know, but then life does have its real Hallmark moments (is that a contradiction of sorts--you can't have a 'real' yet branded moment?).

And why guilt? Well, this works in at least two ways. One, birthdays give us an opportunity to throw away guilt or at least lay it aside for a while. We pick up the phone and call that elderly aunt we had been meaning to ask after for months, or we re-connect with a friend whose emails have gone unanswered for--has it been a whole year? Some of us wrap this guilt in fancy paper and others simply decide to make up and resolve to not let another year go by before picking up the phone. It's also about dealing with or facing up to another sort of guilt--the guilt of promises made to yourself and not kept. And the older you get, it's this sort of guilt--maybe a better word is regret--that catches up on you more often.

So what I decided to do this year was to revisit some of those promises and see if I could make good on them and give myself a big present: the time and the space to try and deliver on these. I don't want to face the next birthday with too many regrets--while we all know that "would have if I could have" is something that we can't entirely avoid,  we also know that many of the "can'ts" are really only because we don't make them happen, that the excuses seem too many to brush away.

Birthdays also offer us an opportunity to reminisce.
Where was I when I turned 10 or 20 or 30? 
Who was I with? 
What was I doing?

What are the milestones by which we mark our progress through life? Those of us who keep meticulous photo albums probably just need to turn back a few of those old black pages and look at fading pictures, or the younger among us flip back through Picasa albums. But the rest of us must make do with delving into our storehouse of memories and trying to identify the significant moments. That can be fun, and also a bit painful, because one of the things that happens as one gets older is that many of those we've grown up with, many of those who have played important roles in our lives, can only be recalled in memory.

So, reinforcement, guilt/regret, milestones and all, what does it mean to be 50? Indeed, what does it mean to be any age?

It feels good to have lived so many years without too many regrets and still a lot to look forward to.

It feels great to know that you are keeping pace with life (despite having to be told by your 18 year old daughter how to use your cell phone) and still making new friends and that relationships continue to deepen and grow.

And fifty is a nice round number, what? (and in case you get the wrong idea, I say that not because I am round, though I will admit to being nice!)