I was never keen on celebrating my own birthdays when I was younger — never saw the point. The first time I uncharacteristically had a big birthday bash was when I turned 30. It felt more like a grand funeral — marking the end of my youth, which to my young arrogant mind meant the end of everything.
When the big 40 came around, Angela was three and half and I was huge with Audrey. I was too busy, exhausted and preoccupied to bother celebrating. The next ten years I measured time by the birthdays, growth charts and milestones in the lives of the girls. My own birthday didn’t seem to warrant much attention. Peter and the girls would make me a card, or buy me roses and we would have a cake after dinner, but the celebration, on my part at least, was usually perfunctory.
For my 50th, Peter took me to Big Sur and stayed at the Post Ranch for a few days. As I often refused to travel alone with him without the kids, he simply said to me on my birthday, “Let’s go take a drive.” Knowing that I was not comfortable being the center of attention in a crowd, he arranged a surprise party just for the two of us. The peace and quiet away from the children in Big Sur allowed me the time and space to contemplate about life. And for the first time, I appreciated the marking of time with my own birthday.
Nowadays, I don’t take it for granted that I lived another year; neither do I take it for granted that I have one less year to live on earth. On my birthdays, I am reminded of the gift of time. According to Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, the finite nature of time is the very essence of existence: “Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm… To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.”
In writing a three-act script, the 2nd act takes the most skill to develop and to make exciting. You open with a bang and close with a blast, but the middle act, which carries the substance of the whole film, often threatens with boredom. In real life we spend most of our time in the 2nd act, day in and day out. And there is not necessarily a breathtaking chase in the finale. It is within and through the everyday tilling of the middle act that we leave legacies and reach transcendence. Mostly, we just live the best we can.
I spent my 54th birthday on location in Tian Jin, where I took a cooking class in pork bun making from the most famous pork bun restaurant in the entire China — Gou Bu Li (狗不理). If this isn’t nice, what is? For me, life is worthwhile as long as I can continue to explore, to learn, to love and to contribute. And of course, let’s not forget, to eat!