It’s my birthday, and here’s what I really want


Tomorrow, I turn 55. I can’t believe it’s been five years since I started my “50 thought on turning 50” blog post series, in which I noted that I might be 60 by the time I actually finish the list.  (My Ancestry DNA test came back and said I’m a hearty mix of Irish, Italian, and Procrastinator.)

I don’t mind aging. For me, the hardest part of having a birthday: the presents.

I’ve been told I’m a hard person to buy presents for because I don’t like to get presents. I’m swimming in stuff over here and despite a lot of effort to manage the clutter, it’s a never ending battle. Giving me gifts or knickknacks or books just adds to the stress. I change my mind a lot about where I shop, eat, or get my hair done, so people often spend money on gift certificates I’ll never use.

I know, I know. I sound ungrateful, but I’m really not. I appreciate that people care about me and want to show it on my birthday. And honestly, I’m not opposed to going out to dinner or receiving small gifts of things I really need or want (although right now, I don’t need or want much of anything).

So for those who can’t resist my “please don’t give me anything” plea, here is a list of ideas of things you can do for my birthday.

1. Make a small donation to a charity of your choice, something you feel passionate about (or you can even just drop loose change in a donation can you might come across this week). If you’re stuck, I can give you suggestions, but make the donation in your name, not mine. Bonus points if you donate your time instead of money.

2. Reach out to a friend or family member you haven’t spoken with in a while, just to say hello. If it’s someone you’ve been at odds with in the past, don’t use this time to rehash old grievances. Just pass along a few words of greeting and cheer and move on. Positive energy begets positive energy, and sometimes we all need to reconnect with people who have slipped from our daily lives. If talking is too difficult, send a postcard.

3. Feed the birds. If it’s too much to care for a bird feeder yourself, buy a little birdseed for some neighbors who do have feeders and contribute to their tending for nature. Bonus points if it’s a neighbor you don’t usually interact with. Then, watch the birds as they flock to the feeder. Thinks of it as nature’s Xanax.

4. Find someone really different from you – with different political views or economic circumstances, for example, someone totally outside your usual circle of friends and family – and invite them to meet you for coffee. Let them talk while you listen.  Pick up the tab. Bonus points if you get home and realize you learned something new.

5. You know that one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting off? Do it, for god’s sake.

6. Go 24 hours without complaining. Whenever you feel like you want to bitch or whine, instead think of something good in your life and say it out loud.

7. As you go through your day, try and imagine what other people are thinking or feeling, how their day might have started, why they might be cranky or weepy or stressed or cut you off in traffic – or even why they’re lighthearted, joyful, giving. You don’t need to walk a mile in their shoes; just stand in them for a few minutes and try to see the world through different eyes.

8. Do something creative. Throw some paint on a canvas. Take a paper and pencil and write for 10 minutes, even if all you write is “Joanne is a pain in my ass but it’s her birthday so I’m doing this”. Make terrible sketches of things and hang them on your refrigerator. Do stuff with yarn and glue and glitter.

9. Dance – in public, in the grocery store, in your office – and if anyone questions you, tell them I made you do it. Bonus points if you sing really loud, too.

10. Pet a dog or a cat. Take a nap. Try a new food. Go into the woods and yell really loudly. Ride a bike. Pay for the coffee for the people behind you at the drive thru. Tell a stranger they’re an important part of the community. Hold open a door, even if you have to let 10 people enter before you. Let someone else have the parking space. Do something you said you’d never do. TAKE AN IMPROV CLASS.

And with that, I think I can also put a period on my “50 thoughts about turning 50” series.

Because here’s what I’ve really learned since turning 50.

We get back much more than we give, so giving is a sort of present to ourselves.

We don’t know what we don’t know, so we always need to be learning and exploring, and more importantly, be willing to change our minds or admit where we were wrong.

We need to try – always – to see the world through the eyes of others. Even if we don’t agree with them or even understand their viewpoint, listening and engaging calmly and kindly allows us to see people as fellow humans, instead of just issues we vote against.

Fear if a four letter word – and that applies to fear of failure, fear of people who are different, fear of our own power. (Especially fear of our own power.) Sometimes we’re afraid to step off the cliff because we might tumble into a ravine. But we also might step forward and walk on air. We’ll never know until we make the first move.

If you aren’t living your own life to the fullest, you might be holding someone else back from fulfilling their purpose. As Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, we’re all links in a chain: “I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

So for my birthday, really, just do yourself and the world a favor. Figure out who you are and be more of it. And until you figure it out, just be, one little bit at a time.

(PS: If you do try something on this list, will you let me know? You can reach out to me on Facebook or by sending an email to joannebrokaw[at]gmail[dot]com.)


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