Tomorrow I turn 61. It feels less dramatic than the switch from 59 to 60, but hey, they’re all just numbers. My friend Kofi from Ghana is baffled by our obsession with birthdays and I can see his point. But when you’re an American from a Baby Boomer generation and in a contemporary society where everyone is the star of their own movie, complete with personal soundtrack, such things take on large proportions. It’s probably safe to say that there has never been a more narcissistic couple of generations and it’s just getting worse. People assume that others are fascinated by their Facebook posting about their salmon dinner or the details of their child’s toilet training progress, get angry at the weather when it interrupts their plans and feel personally affronted by the world’s non-cooperation when the train runs late. And to set the record straight, I am one of these people.
On the generous side of this trend, we all need to make sense of our lives, search for some hidden meaning in the things that happen to us and the things we choose to do. And so a birthday or a New Year’s celebration or an anniversary serve as markers in our evolution, a time to pause, reflect, take a moment’s rest on the plateau and look back at where you’ve hiked, take stock of where you are and look ahead to what’s coming up. And invariably, our emotional brain attaches some kind of judgement to it all. It was a good year, a bad year, a confusing year, a revealing year, all of the above, none of the above.
For my part, 60 had its share of significant markers. There were numerous hard goodbyes— to my dear friend Luz from Spain, my cat Chester, to The San Francisco School Elementary building, to my teaching colleague and alum student Nova unjustly let go from the staff, to my mustache and about 20 pounds (well, that was a happy one), to my friend Ed at the Jewish Home and almost to my mother-in-law who announced her departure. And then some glorious welcome hellos and new beginnings. First and foremost to my granddaughter Zadie, but also to my first jazz group, The Pentatonics, to my new book All Blues, to my alum students from 40 years ago at the Arthur Morgan School Jug Band Reunion, to nephew Ian’s wife Madeline, to my daughter Talia after 16 months apart, and to my mother-in-law coming back from the edge to join us for what we hope will be many years to come.
And then all the ongoing things that continue to bring pleasure and fulfillment—my 38th year teaching kids at the school, playing piano for my Mom and other friends at The Jewish Home, traveling and teaching, writing this blog, playing jazz, biking, zazen, reading, movie-going and so on. My teeth are a wreck and my hernia operation is now scheduled, but all in all, a year of good health and energy.
Duke Ellington once was asked which was his favorite composition and without missing a beat, replied, “The next one.” My former image of 60-years old was sitting on the rocking chair on the front porch basking in the glories of your younger years and chewing on your accomplishments like a contented cow. But all I can think of is how much more I still want to do. Not exactly the Bucket List of seeing the Pyramids or Macchu Picchu, but all the books I’m still hoping to publish, the jazz concerts I’d love to give, the talks at Education Conferences or Ted or Oprah, the opportunity to work with college kids, the musical studies I still dream about. My gaze is more forward than backward, looking ahead to what’s next on the list rather than back to what I’ve done.
When I was younger, I was a slow developer when it came to ambition, just kind of knocking about in college and the few years after it. But once I found something I was reasonably good at, I developed a hunger for more that continues unsatiated. Or rather satiated in each opportunity, but then eager for “the next one.” Not for fame or admiration or personal glory and certainly not for money (wrong field for that one!), but simply for the chance to keep honing the craft on the sharp edge of diverse opportunities, to be of service and give what I can in only the way that I can do it. If I have anything approaching a birthday wish, it is simply my hope that this work can continue and grow.
Now who wants to hear the details of my birthday dinner?