Last week I turned 51. A rather humbling number. Not the exciting turnstyle year of 50, with flashing disco lights, dancing and partying until 3, but rather a stumble over the precipice of middle age, into the next decade. The next ‘0’ birthday for me will be 60. The decade of grandparents and false teeth. Sheesh.
Last year I rocked in my birthday with a group of friends and family invited from the five continents of my life. The night started with a toast in puddles from the just-departed rain as fifty of us studied photos of the lovely folks who have peopled my life over those years. Old family photos from my Connecticut birth through my early Michigan years; later ones of a best friend and a future husband in Kenya; our wedding photos from Germany with all the friends I married into there; my father-in-law with us in Australia and Ethiopia; new friends from Berlin opening that new chapter of my life. All faces in the photos, looking younger than they do now, were reminders of a well-peopled life. Less a looking back than a summing up. A mid-life of fullness. A happy place.
It was good to cast my thoughts this year, back to then. How open the world was! People traveling from all states and countries. A world taken for granted for far too long.
Last August, after a late night of multi-generational dancing and a few skits (“I thought it would be an early night but once the muppets started dancing to Rocky Horror, all bets were off,” the caterer told us later), my birthday guests joined me the next morning at the edge of the River Spree for a tromp through my favorite views of Berlin.
We started at the Berliner Dom, an evangelical church in the middle of a godless city, with its stunning views over my beloved yet, un-beautiful, favorite city. Berlin is not Paris or Prague. Its beauty comes not from well-groomed gardens and gorgeous old buildings, but from its history, its decay, its stories. The way it’s never given up. From the top of the Dom you can look in all directions over a once-destroyed, once-walled city and see neither–but feel it all.
After the Dom, we alighted a boat to tour the city by water, floating down the Spree; past the train station where families were split between East and West; past the markers for those who were shot trying to escape; past the Reichstag, whose burning brought Hitler to power before it sat, half a century in disrepair, born again only after reunification and now capped with a glass dome to symbolize the transparency and rebirth of democratic governance.
Where the river curls along the banks of the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), we disembarked and strolled through a thick, dense forest of trees that during WW2 were hacked, split, and stolen for firewood. A living message of regeneration now. Gathering in a secret rose garden hidden deep inside the park, we stood for pictures at the fountain: a smiling pack of disparate souls all brought together by friendship and love. From there, we continued to a small lake at the edge of the green, the closest Berlin gets to a real Beer Garden, and feasted on bready pretzels and potato salad and that strangest, most thirst-quenching of German beverages, a Radler; part beer, part lemon-lime soda. I watched each of the faces around me, smiling, chatting, laughing, collecting more memories for going forward, happy with each of my 50 years.
Flash forward to this week.
Three of us sat on our Ithaca front porch as we ate cake and fielded phone calls from many of the same souls from last year. The connections are still there. The people, in person, are not. Our world, everywhere, has contracted. Things we so long took for granted, we cannot. Flying here and there; being part of a global life; seeing who we want, when we want—it all works a little less well this year. So, it was a quieter birthday. Less planning. Less dancing. Less meaningful in some ways—and yet, still satisfying. Still surrounded by friendship and love, just more of it from afar. But still reflective, too. At 51, there’s probably more looking back than forward. There’s maybe more pessimism where there used to be more naivete. Definitely more fear. More uncertainty. And yet, 51 is nothing to spit at, as my grandma would say. Maybe this year, that’s my lesson—not to take that for granted, either, given all that’s happening in the world. Be happy enough with my smaller life and find ways to still seek joy. What brought me the most joy last year? People. A well-peopled life.
That’s maybe this year’s takeaway. People. A well-peopled life. That’s the thing to celebrate.