Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Turning 41—The Art of Aging

Today I turned 41. The day started promptly at midnight with a call from my Grandma, who began our conversation by singing the customary birthday anthem. I then logged into my e-mail account and read two birthday transmittals, posted by my Mom and my friend Steve, both timed at midnight. It probably sounds like there are a lot of people bubbling with energy late at night. Not quite so. All three of these good people live along the West Coast from Southern California to Portland, Oregon. So, as I read their good wishes at midnight in Washington, D.C., their nights were only beginning.

For the most part it was an unremarkable day, which is perhaps as it should be. I wondered if the art of aging doesn't involve integrating the passing of one year and the beginning of the next into the routine fabric of one's day. I used to think it was important to take the day and reflect on my life. I'd take a day off work and sit in the Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral and appreciate the quiet or the moments interrupted by kids laughing or people trying to name all the herbs or remarking on the unusual odor of the dozens of boxwood shrubs scattered throughout the garden. I'm not saying it wouldn't be wonderful to revisit that tradition. It's just that it's maybe not always necessary.

Instead, today I drove to Baltimore to attend a meeting. Nobody there knew it was my birthday. I enjoyed the anonymity of it. Celebrating internally and secretly. I knew that later I'd be going to dinner with my friend Jeff. I'd already spoken with my Mom and my friend Paul. Important people had remembered me.

At 7:00 p.m., I arrived at Jeff's house. He opened the door and sitting in his living room were our friends Rick, his partner Shawn, and Paul. I was completely surprised and thrilled to see them. Rick, Jeff, Shawn, and I have known each other for more than 13 years. At dinner we reminisced about where our friendships began and some of the people we've known over the years. We laughed together. Although the sentiment went unspoken, I think each of us looked acround the table at each other at different moments and marveled that time has treated our friendships tenderly, respectfully, and kindly. We've known good times and difficult times, and we manage to love each other and accept each other despite the idiosyncrasies that make us unique.

When I finally got home, I had some phone messages waiting. My friend and colleague Greg called and sang a splendid rendition of the birthday song. Ada, another friend that has come into my life since I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1991, called and recited a favorite poem, Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Afternoon on Hill." This particular poem recitation has become a tradition, and when I called her later, I told her it had crossed my mind to read it with her earlier in the week. Since I'd forgotten, I was glad she remembered and called to share it with me.

Everybody knows that the passing of time and the capriciousness of everyday life with its myriad responsibilities and routines can interrupt friendships. If you're like me, hundreds of good intentions for keeping in touch with friends are piled in the dark corners of your subconscious. One of my best birthday surprises was a message from my friends George and Dawn Opie. Their birthday wishes were especially welcomed and appreciated because so much time has passed since we last communicated. Our friendships know a lively history. George and I met at the University of Illinois in 1985. We shared a room together in a cooperative living situation along the lines of a fraternity. Somehow our paths separated, and years passed. Then, we renewed communication when each of us lived in Southern California after college graduation. By that time, George had married a lovely girl, Dawn. We took advantage of living on the coast of California by going to the beaches together. Again, life's detours separated us.

Several years into my time in Washington, I heard from George. He had finished law school at Southern Illinois University and he was working for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City, Virginia, only three miles or so from where I lived. Again, he, Dawn, and I renewed our friendship. And, later, again, time and life interfered with us. So, their call today was the perfect conclusion to a remarkably unremarkable day.

I've been wondering what is different for me on the first day of my 41st year. Visibly, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically I feel just as I did yesterday. I reflect on what's important and know that the answer is also unchanged with the passing of a day, and a year. The relationships I share with my family and friends are the most meaningful things in my life. They are beautiful, satisfying, often complicated, and sometimes imperfect amazing works of art. The really wonderful thing for me to comprehend is that, as I get older, they will age with me.