What I Learned on My 50th Birthday

Time to come out of blog-hiding. And what better first post than to tell about my 50th birthday – an event that continues to give me so much to reflect on and smile about, even 2 weeks after the fact. As my colleague and friend, Mark Riffey noted after I had described my birthday to him, “You’ve got seriously great friends!” And he is so right!

So here is just some of what I learned from my 50th birthday.

Asking For Help
This whole notion that being an adult means being strong and independent and not needing help – what a silly thing! It is so hard for us to set aside our pride and just ask for help, and I am among the worst at this, for sure. But my birthday was an object lesson in what can happen when we do so.

Almost a year ago, my house had a minor plumbing flood which became a HUGE project – all the floors had to be ripped up and replaced. The good news was that I got all my floors replaced! The bad news is that between my travel schedule and my writing schedule, I have not had time nor energy nor attention to move back into more than one room of the house. Seriously. One room.

And it doesn’t help that I lack the home improvement gene. The words “All you need to do is ______” could just as easily describe how to prep and paint a room as how to split an atom – I am inclined to do neither, and don’t seem to be willing or able to learn. I joke that my home improvement skill is ordering the pizza, but it is not so much a joke as an honest description.

Which explains why, for almost a year now, I have been living out of boxes, with walls still unpainted (it makes no sense to move into a room without painting first…). My dresser is in the living room. I have no idea where my dark blue denim shirt is. And I have the vague notion that in a box under a box there is an incredible bottle of tequila, which, by the time I get to it, will have been well aged.

So when Dimitri, my daughter (Lizzie), and my best friend (Nanette) asked what I wanted for my birthday, I said, “I just want my house back.”

And that’s what they gave me. They had me list everything to be done, and they invited everyone I know and love to come pitch in.

As I look around now, a week or so later, my house is painted. My bathtub is re-calked. The light fixture in the back bathroom and the faucet in the kitchen have been replaced. All the big and little nagging things – no “extreme makeover,” just stuff that needed to get done. I feel like Cinderella.

The important thing, though, is that not once did I feel anything but thrilled to have all that help! No pride, no nothing – just so much fun to have so many people all over the house. Some dove in to tackle tasks, while others just stopped by to visit. Every single person who walked through the door made me simply feel loved. And they made me feel like I should have asked for help a long time before now!

People Love to Share Their Skills
In his book, Infinite Life, Robert Thurman says, “The feeling of wealth is enhanced when you give, since, subliminally, giving means you have enough to share.”

My friends shared their wealth for my birthday – shared a wealth I had no idea they had in such abundance. Bill spent a whole morning spackling, finding water valves, prepping plumbing. Mike, a young artist, painted flowers above the windows and doorways in my kitchen, using the flowers in my garden as his inspiration. Erin and EJ painted all the small places the rest of us couldn’t fit into. My brother flew in from New Jersey for just 36 hours, and spent 5 of those hours in my bathtub, spackling, stripping old calk to prepare for new calk, scraping 30-year-old epoxy off porcelain. Mito chose “anything but painting,” and installed electric fixtures, ran myriad Home Depot runs, repaired window screens. Priscilla taped off windows for painting. And Lizzie’s friends spent an entire Sunday painting the living room, the hallways, the ceilings.

Then there was Mike, who stopped by to say, “I am great at moving stuff. When you’re ready to move back in, let me know – I’m there!” And Melissa, who said, “I love doing all this house stuff. I can’t stay today, but call me with whatever isn’t done, and I’ll just get it all done.”

Through the whole two days, everyone was smiling. Ok, so a number of people confessed, “I love to do this stuff, so long as it’s not at my house.” But everyone was so happy to share their talents.

And sometimes those talents were not what folks thought. Nanette coordinated the social side, decorating a beautiful box for donations to a couch fund (among the items that never got replaced). And as friend after friend stopped by saying, “I can’t stay, I just wanted to see you,” Lizzie told them all the same thing: “You’re doing the most important job – keeping my mom occupied so she stays out of our way!”

Use Drop Cloths, But Remember What’s Important
This could also be called, “It’s only stuff.” Yes, there are paint spots on the floor, that I will be scrubbing up (a paste of laundry detergent and water works well to remove dried latex paint from stained concrete – your household hint for the day…) And yes there was a door that got painted that probably shouldn’t have been. And yes, more and better drop cloths, used BEFORE the paint dribbled, and not once the dribbles were noticed – yes all that would have been smart.

But in the big picture of what matters, it’s only paint. It’s only a floor. There were 20 or 30 or 40 people in and out of my house over the weekend, all to give me the best gift in the world. As I look back at my life in another 50 years, that is what I will remember, not the paint splotches.

So yes, prevention is a good thing. But in the end, it’s only paint. It’s only stuff. It really doesn’t matter.

Surprises RULE!
Lizzie knows I love surprises. And so she had warned me to drop everything at 4pm on Saturday, to get cleaned up, and that was all she would say.

As we got into the car, she told me we were going to Phoenix, 2 hours up the road. My mind started working – perhaps a concert? It was not until we got to the parking lot of the Scottsdale Performing Arts Center that she handed me an envelope with a card. And inside were 2 tickets, 4th row center, to Eddie Izzard.

For those who do not know Eddie Izzard, he is one of the smartest and most hilarious comedians I have ever seen. He has won Emmies for his HBO special. His comedy is never mean, always aware and ever so human. Eddie fans can identify each other miles away by single lines from his routines. He is brilliant.

The show was incredible – I laughed so hard for 2 straight hours that I was sore. But the best part of the night was the sheer surprise. From the time Lizzie gave me those tickets, to the time the show started, I could only repeat one phrase, over and over like a 14 year old girl – “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh My God!”

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So thank you to all who made my 50th one to remember. (And thanks to all who couldn’t be there, but who sent Home Depot Gift Certificates – the thing Dimitri and Lizzie had wisely requested instead of silly gag gifts. Please know that those gift certificates were put to good use!)

But mostly, thanks for giving me the things that will last far beyond having my house done and seeing Eddie from the 4th row. Thanks for reminding me of what’s important as I head into the next 50 years. That is the best gift I could have asked for.

(Photo credit to the Ghearing family, licensed under the Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

5 Responses to What I Learned on My 50th Birthday

  1. Thank you so much for your insight and wisdom. I want to be your friend! I look forward to seeing your posts and comments and books, and wish you the best for the next 50 years!

  2. Barbara – How sweet of you! With friends like those I have met while blogging, the next 50 will be a blast. Thanks for your very kind wishes! HG

  3. Hildy — Thanks for the link to read this entry, which I had missed.

    Now I HAVE to listen to some Eddie Izzard. You see, that’s my husband and girls’ last name, and no one has ever described him in such clear and wonderful terms. I can’t wait.

    And I am thrilled to imagine you at home, boxes all put away!

    Now, back to Gloria’s story…

    Elizabeth

  4. I have learned over the last 50 years that you get what you give, so I am sure you would have done the same for your generous friends.