October is my birthday month. Maybe it is yours too? Or maybe not. Either way, on my twenty-third birthday I learned a lesson that I have been sharing about celebrating ever since and I want to share it with you.
I always loved celebrating my birthday. Every year my mother would plan celebrations that were easy and fun and full of people and adventures, parties and presents.
At seven my parents arranged a gondola ride for me and my friends. As we headed up the mountain it began to snow in October – it was magical. And we had cake on top of the mountain at a restaurant I did not know was there.
I celebrated a Clue birthday party when I turned nine and all of my friends dressed up as characters from the game – I was the only Miss Scarlet in red and I felt beautiful.
At thirteen my closest friends piled into our station wagon and we laughed our way over to the Adirondacks, taking a ferry, roasting s’mores and playing a rousing game of murder in the dark.
For my twentieth, my friends invited friends and we had tables and tables of people at TGI Fridays with balloons and loud singing. I love a celebration. And being at the center of that celebration was something I thoroughly enjoyed.
Getting out of college and being in my twenties felt invigorating and fun. For my twenty-third birthday I was heading to Colorado, chosen as one of fifty or so upcoming leaders for a leadership conference in the mountains, all expenses paid. And it just so happened that my best friend was living in Colorado Springs at the time – so she picked me up, we explored the Garden of the Gods and other incredible adventures before I headed up to a beautiful mountaintop retreat.
On the morning of October 9th, my birthday, I awoke to incredible views, a delicious breakfast, an exciting agenda and a realization that not a soul there knew it was my birthday. It felt surreal. After over twenty years of awaking knowing that others were ready to celebrate me with presents and plans, I felt a strange emptiness knowing that this incredibly special day actually held no surprises, and in fact, no acknowledgment at all.
This was before social media, before cell phones, before fax machines. Nobody had a phone number for me. I was with people and yet, I was utterly alone on my birthday. At breakfast I contemplated telling the people at my table. I was sure they would all say, “Happy Birthday!” Maybe even the folks in the kitchen would find a candle and put it in a muffin and then I could feel celebrated. I held back. I remember the feeling of choosing to hold my quiet truth and experience the day on my own.
I decided at the table that this was a unique experience, and that if instead of asking to be celebrated, I made my own private choice to celebrate on my own I might unpack something sacred.
And that, my friends, is what I did.
That day no one knew it was my birthday except me. And I chose to celebrate by really relishing in the day and doing the things that felt celebratory to me. I had a cinnamon roll for breakfast and really experienced the joy of that private sweet treat. I paused in gratitude for the gift of sweetness and warmth on my special day. When we sang together as a group that morning, I sang with a depth of gratitude for life and the mountains and singing that I felt in my whole being. As I took notes and allowed the new truths to permeate who I was and who I was becoming, I paid special attention to what resonated with me and offered gratitude for learning and teaching and being a part of something bigger.
And after lunch I went on the most magical solo journey through the woods I ever had. Amongst the trees and rocky paths I heard whispers of encouragement and celebration in the wind and in my heart. When I lay down at the end of the day I felt so much joy and so much celebration. I offered gratitude for each of the gifts I had received that day – none of them bought or wrapped, all of them simply noticed.
I made a private resolution that night that as I moved forward into adulthood, I alone was responsible for celebrating my birthday. In fact no one else needed to celebrate me at all. I had proven that a birthday could feel full and rich and satisfying when I was in a vacuum. I resolved that October 9th was forever going to be a day where I made the choice to notice and celebrate life. And that choice has freed me to choose how I get to feel and live and celebrate not just that day, but every day.
I alone am responsible for my own joy and happiness, and it is always within reach to find something to celebrate.