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How to Celebrate a Birthday with 72 Delights

Birthdays are a funny thing. When I was six, a birthday expanded my world. It meant more adventures, a later bedtime, and an allowance. But at sixty, my birthday felt less promising. The end horizon on life felt so much closer.

How do we celebrate that?

With style, I say, or, everyone in their own special way.

The first step in any birthday celebration is to acknowledge and embrace our age. Jack Benny might have gotten away with saying he was 39, but I think it’s weird to try to hide who we are—or act as if older makes you “less than.”

When someone says, “You look good for your age,” I say, “Thank you.” But I think, what the heck is “my age” supposed to look like on me? We are all so different. Let’s claim our ages—and show the world that it’s an honor to be older.

In her podcast series, “Wiser Than Me,” the irrepressible Julia Louis Dreyfus asks all of her guests, “May I ask your age?” Guests, of course, know the question is coming. Hearing the ages of such remarkable guests tunes us into what’s possible as we become older.

Celebrate in your way

Celebrations help us mark the transitions in a year, and potentially lift us out of the murky waters of news, grief, or too much routine, at least for a moment. But I’m not a big party-going, nor party-giving animal, and when it comes to my birthday, big parties sound exhausting. My mantra recently has been “smaller-closer-personal.”

Still, this week I wanted to mark my birthday, at least briefly, with something that would fill my heart. Good thing, it turned out; my sister-in-law died on the morning of my birthday, so the day included lots of special tears.

When I was turning 60, I invented a practice I loved. I made a list of 60 things (mostly low-cost experiences) I wanted—and then gave them to myself over the course of the year. A walk in the woods. Coffee with a friend. A long phone call with an old connection. A clowning class. It all felt yummy, and the exercise was a super success, even if I only ended up making it to 49 items.

This year, I didn’t feel the need for things or new experiences. Frankly, publishing a book is all the new experience I need for a while. So I created two practices that helped me celebrate my 72nd birthday—by noticing delights.

Making a list of delights

Because life, as you may have read, has been a bit heavy recently, I started by making a list of 72 delights. Focusing on what I loved lightened my heart without asking me to not feel grief.

Making the list was easy—so easy that I quickly reached 72 items and then doubled that number.

  • Rotting logs (I’m crazy for old wood).
  • Summer rain in the Northwest.
  • Swallowtail butterflies.
  • Fresh-picked blueberries (whipped cream optional).
  • Mussel shell purple (great new color).
  • Quinacridone red acrylic paint.
  • Woodchips in the garden.
  • Figs.
  • The opening riff in “When the Streets have no Name” by U2.
  • Almost anything by John O’Donohue.
  • Big, soppy tears for someone I loved.

I’ll stop there because the list went on for a while. Often, the thought of one item would send me thinking of five more. I created a variant that was like an improv game: Take any item and think of five more that are somehow related.

At the end of a half hour, I had a smile on my face, a great list to come back to, and a practice that could be helpful in the future.

72 More Delights

After creating my list, I decided to invent another game. To begin, I gave myself a big present: time in silent wandering. I took my iPhone and stroiled around our property. The idea was inspired by a practice the late artist Sister Corita Kent used with her students. She’d send them into the world with a viewfinder—a 2″x2″ hole cut into a card. Seeing the world through a viewfinder forced students to focus on the small and sometimes unusual around them and taught them a lot about the art of noticing.

I decided to use my iPhone like a viewfinder and find 72 delights to photograph during my walk.  As in the 72-things-I-love exercise, I easily found a multitude of small wonders. I became fascinated by stuff I might not normally like, such as the ji-normous ant hills that regularly send their members on missions through my garden (and yes they do bite, at least a little). Or the discarded wire on a stack of rotting posts.

My goal, in photo shooting, was not to create art but to see more. And it was so much fun. In just 30 minutes I traveled to a new world and watched my life grow richer.

After both of my 72 delights exercises, I felt abundant, surrounded by benevolence, and grateful.

Expanding as we age

72 is a good number. And so is 90—which will entitle me to put LOTS more items on my list. Because when our world is full of noticing and appreciating, life keeps expanding.

Whatever our ages.

9 Responses

  1. Happy birthday Sally! And thank you for the gift of this post and idea! Sending wishes for an inspired year ahead. xoxo

  2. Happy Birthday, Sally,
    I so enjoy your engaging Presence writings, but this one sent me to reflecting on my own (about to be in November) 85 things to treat myself to on my next birthday.

    I am an a founder of Life-legacies, a facilitator, and author too (mostly books about writing legacy letters). I recently began a column at SubStack titled Reflections at 85, and am really enjoying it. I would love it if you would subscribe (at no cost) though SubStack would like people to join with a paying subscription. There is a place to comment on each “post” and I would love to be in dialogue with you as we age.
    Also, you may want to consider putting your “blog” on SubStack too … opportunity for many many readers.
    Happy birthday again, Rachael Freed .

    1. Rachel, I remember our interview some years ago and your presentation at Sage-ing. I’ll definitely subscribe and look forward to your reflections!

    2. I am subscribed and I look forward to reading! I hope you’ll read my book as well when it comes out — a brief review would mean the world to me. Always nice to hear from you.

  3. I just sent you my mathematically graphic reflection on the number 72. I think it came out of me this morning because of your post. In spite of how difficult this year has been for many of us, 72 is a mathematically pleasing number, so I plan to celebrate it with you.

  4. Happy birthday Sally. I’m going to make on list of 72 in a few weeks. What a wonderful idea. I love reading your posts. So thoughtful and genuine.

    1. Thank you John and lovely to hear from you. Happy Big 72 back to you! And I hope you’ll read the book! Big hugs!!!

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