Meaning Mondays: The Birthday Edition

Birthdays are on my mind.

My husband’s arrived a few days ago, and mine is soon to follow, next month. Pisces and Aries, if anyone is curious. A little fish and a big ram. I stopped reading my horoscope years ago, but still, that sounds like the oddest of couples, don’t you think?

Nevertheless, this big ram wanted to make a meaningful moment for her little fish on his birthday morning. Because as much as I talk here about creating my own meaningful adventures, sometimes we experience the very essence of meaning when we do it for someone else.

So after I nagged gently coaxed Dave along to an early bedtime (Honey, you do look tired, and you want to feel rested for your birthday, don’t you?), I slipped out of the house and made a quick trip to the local market.

I filled my shopping basket with flowers, a silly singing card, his favorite coffee and breakfast foods, and a little balloon on a stick. The stick balloon was an unexpected addition, providing a bit of whimsy as it hovered gamely above the vase of flowers.

Back at home, I carefully staged it all on the kitchen counter, to be discovered by Dave when he awoke.

It worked its magic. An experience of meaning for both of us, giver and receiver.

And Dave felt special. Because that’s how we’re supposed to feel on our birthdays, right? Or is it?

OK, here’s where the story turns. But don’t worry, the turn isn’t about Dave and his birthday. That day unfolded quite nicely.

No, the turn is about the larger meaning of our birthdays. And what, exactly, it is that we’re celebrating.

For a long time I thought birthdays were all about special. In the spotlight. Red-letter days. Cake and candles. Make a wish. Gifts. The works. What else could they be about? I even went so far as to proclaim that no one should have to work on their birthday, if at all possible.

Until a few years ago, I didn’t question any of it. But as I approached a milestone birthday, something shifted.

All around me my peers were celebrating their own milestone birthdays in big ways. Lavish parties. Dinner for 100. Live music. Dancing until dawn.

Don’t get me wrong. All that can be really fun. And I’m not a stick in the mud. But as I contemplated my own big celebration, I found myself resisting. In the end I decided to go to Tucson instead, rent a house with a pool, and spend the week swimming, journaling, reading, hiking, and stargazing above the wildflowers-in-bloom desert.

On the day itself, I walked out into the desert and performed a ritual. I scraped a rough mandala in the dirt, filled it with rocks, buried a few drawings around its outer edges, and set fire to some of my writings. It signified letting go and moving on for me, and although it sounds a bit dramatic, it was actually pretty low-key.

Then we went back to the house and I finished a book by Jungian analyst Robert JohnsonContentment: A Way To True Happiness.

In it he discusses the danger of inflation, a kind of puffing ourselves up, a distorted sense of who we are. He cautions that there is always a price to pay with inflation, because “every inflation is followed by a deflation, and then the hot air balloon comes crashing down. A deflation is thinking and acting as if you are less than you really are, a feeling of not-enoughness.”

It occurred to me then that my hesitation to throw a big, blow-out birthday party was perhaps a way to skirt the too-muchness/not-enoughness, inflation/deflation cycle that we’ve all experienced at one time or anther. And wouldn’t you know it, I had my answer a few chapters later, when I came upon this passage about the gift of ordinariness:

Oddly enough, birthdays and holidays are among the most depressing times of the year for many people. One reason is that we turn them into celebrations of our specialness. Today we need celebrations of ordinariness…You too can share the gift of ordinariness. On the next birthday, substitute ordinariness for the desire to be special. This could be as simple as pulling weeds in the garden, straightening your closet, performing a service for someone else, or making a basket of paper flowers. Keep your expectations low and your contentment high.

As I closed the book I knew immediately that I wanted to scrap my plans for dinner out to celebrate my birthday. We ate leftover spaghetti instead. And went to see a movie. It turned out to be one of the more meaningful, yet ordinary, birthdays I’d had.

And I’ve never thought of my birthday in the same way since.

What do you think?

How do you create meaning on your birthday? And does it make sense to celebrate our ordinariness on that day?



37 thoughts on “Meaning Mondays: The Birthday Edition

  1. Actually that is a good combination “IMO”. Cardinal Fire and Mutable Water. Of course we must remember that the other aspects of rising and moon signs in both people, contribute to the relationship dynamic. We are both double “Fixed”, water and earth, with compatible moon signs.

    Here is what someone wrote about Aires, see if it fits, I think it does, how about the rest of your readers?; ( written by a female so forgive the “He” it applies equally to “She”)

    “As the cardinal fire sign, Aries leads others with his spirit as the element of fire has to do with spirit and transformation. In this way, Aries will inspire others with his ambition to initiate new surroundings. His power is often so strong, he can move mountains. He is known for his vision and his determination because he is driven by being both a cardinal sign and a fire sign.”


    (Astrology is one of my pet passions “Nuff” said about that…)

    Anticipation, Execution, De-compression Anticipation is the “expectation”, Execution is the participation, De-compression is the resulting anti-climax, akin to depression. Not unlike “Battle fever” I would say.

    When I was running my graphic company and involved in “event planning” I would see this all the time. Both from the clients perspective and my own. I refer to it as, “being caught by the event”. (I have written a couple of posts on this)

    Lovely ladies in their fine evening wear, a little tipsy trying to save the last vestiges of the event. They did this by shielding and hugging the decorative installations, from the guys I had sent to “tear it down”.

    You could actually see, the negative emotions setting in upon their faces. The realisation that it was over, against their desire to prolong it. When this happens we are caught by the event and controlled by it. Take children post Xmas, or any other celebration and you can see where we learn it. (especially when we “Hype” them)

    I learned this a while ago, when in the military where there is a high degree of Anticipation, Execution, De-compression. Life is not always kind in military situations. I had to learn not to be caught by the event, both celebratory and disastrous. There has to be a separation at the point of incoming impressions, where one realises at some place in the “Event”, that it is “just an event”, among which there are hundreds in our lives. In any event, we can enjoy it, as long as we are not caught by it.

    That was a Great Quote. Thanks for sharing it.


    • Great story, Eso. And children post Xmas is a perfect example of what I was writing about. These days there is just so much in the world, events and otherwise, that have the potential to lead us into inflation. But as Robert Johnson says, what goes up must come down. He’s all about living in the paradox, the in-between space, and your anticipation, execution, de-compression fits right in with that. I like that – enjoy but don’t get caught in it. As far as the horoscope goes, I love the word transformation, but not sure I can move mountains, even metaphorical ones! But that description of Aries is far deeper and more spiritual than most I have read, so thank you very much for that my friend!

  2. We’d recently spoken about my 40th, and about how I’d hope to have a little celebration–which was derailed because my wife had to go out of town. Honestly though, I didn’t miss it, and the quote about depression, birthdays, and specialness really hit home.

    What happened was others tried to impose [I’d originally written “force”] the day’s specialness on me. A close friend, who means very well, took me out for a very nice meal and gave me a very, very good bottle of scotch. Taken together, his “gift” flew well beyond his means and, rather than making me feel special, made me feel guilty, especially as I haven’t been able to spend any time with him for over a month.

    I like the idea of celebrating ordinariness. I long ago asked people to stop giving me gifts – that their company over a meal was all I needed. As you might expect, no one has bothered to honor this request.

    • Thanks, John, for reminding us of the other side of this. I’m guilty of it too. In spite of approaching my own birthday from a different place, my conditioning has taught me that everyone else still WANTS the big deal made out of their birthday. But in the end, isn’t sitting down to a meal with those we love and care for the best gift ever?

  3. I have long transcended the traditional birthday celebration. I acknowledge the day now, however there is no part, no big to do. I simply celebrate my birthday as I do every day. I no longer look for gifts or even let people know it is my birthday. I let it come and go without fan fare. I love that you went into the desert and did a ritual. I can see doing something like that as a way of letting go and moving forward.
    The other thing about birthdays is that they are only a celebration of this human part of our journey. For all we know we could thousands of years old in spirit.

    • Ah, very wise, Mark, thanks. Who knows how old we are in spirit? I just love that. I’ve stopped letting people know it’s my birthday too, and I find I like just being plain old me that day.

  4. I love birthday celebrations! They don’t have to be lavish, but when I have a birthday, I want to celebrate. I think of it as a gift…another year of learning, loving and discovery.

    For me, the meaning is in the anniversary of my birth. I was born into this world and, at this time, for a reason. Birthdays help remind me of that:~)

    In addition, while gifts aren’t essential,I consider having cake, icing and ice cream essential to any birthday celebration:~) I suppose this is because I was scarred by being given a watermelon with candles for a cake one summer. You see summer birthdays create birthday monsters:~)

    • That has quite a nice ring to it, Sara: “another year of learning, loving and discovery.” Doesn’t sound inflated at all. And I remember what you said last week about the watermelon cake. So really, this is just your way to make peace with your past!

  5. “Celebrations of ordinariness”… now that really stood out for me. It sounds like the kind of wisdom that I want to embrace right now, because I often get depressed when I don’t get puffed up by others and have to do it myself. Dangerous waters to be getting into, so this would be the sane response to that…

    • You hit it exactly, Tony. We can get hooked on that puffing up, and when we don’t get it, sink into deflation and depression. I think it’s especially hard, though, because we live in an ego-driven world where being puffed up is presented as the norm. But when we go home to just to ourselves, we can feel so ordinary as to wonder what’s wrong, why don’t I feel special? But ordinary is good. In fact, these days ordinary is extraordinary in my book. I’m all for celebrating it.

  6. What a great way to make your husband feel special on his birthday! Personal, relatively easy execution, high impact. And I love that you celebrated your milestone birthday without giving in to the pressure or expectations of others to throw a big bash. If there’s a day of the year we get to do whatever we want, it might as well be on our birthday.
    Me, I like birthday parties as long as they’re not for me. I used to love going out to dinner somewhere fancy. But this year, I wanted to include my son so we went to a casual place, had a nice dinner with a nice glass of Malbec and just had a no-pressure, but thoroughly lovely celebration. It was a perfect way to feel loved, to appreciate the abundance I have, and to usher in another year of being alive.

    • Hi Belinda – No pressure can feel so great, can’t it? And I love that idea of appreciating the abundance we have on our birthdays. Nice! Thanks.

  7. Keep your expectations low and contentment high. I love that line and want it tatooed on my forehead!

    My birthday was Friday and we went out of town for the weekend and had a great time.

    I love the way you spent your week in Tuscon. What a gift to you!

    I feel like Sara and have never once dreaded a birthday. Never. I feel like it is my day, a gift to make all about me and putting myself first. It may come from being one of 10 kids. We couldn’t afford a lot of extras but on our birthdays my mom went all out for us and we could bring a friend home from school to spend the night. With a large family there was a party every month and we learned to celebrate life and each other on those days.

    What kind steps you took to make your hubby’s birthday special even with dinner in;)

    • Isn’t that an amazing line, Tess? It would make a good tatoo, now that you mention it. Sounds amazing how you celebrated your birthday growing up. Beautiful! Thanks.

  8. Patty –

    Great post – glad to hear from a fellow Aries! These days, I tend to see my birthday as not much different from any other day. I’m trying to make the most of every precious second on this planet, why on earth would I only pick one or two special days a year to live. That is like limiting ourselves to 1% living.

    Birthdays are a chance to reflect though – to be grateful for making it through another year of life and to look at the amazing things that have happened. Sometimes it is simple – getting closer to a family member or friend – sometimes it is larger – making a change in career or life that will shape our future. Every year has its share of triumphs and disasters, yet to find the learning is a great way to spend the day.

    Thanks for a great post – and happy birthday in advance!


    • Hey, Phil, how nice to know you’re an Aries too. So true about not limiting our enjoyment of life to just a few days per year. I think Robert Johnson would say that requires being in that zone – not too high nor too low – in order to reap all the precious moments of life. At the end of last year I wrote something similar to what you say about each year having ups and downs, but celebrating that fact that it was enough and just as it should be. Oh, and HBTY too! Thanks.

  9. You did a wonderful job honoring your husband’s day of birth!

    I use to never celebrate my birthday. Now, I push it a bit more – not because I am older but as my own thumbing of my nose to the world. You see, I turned 40 on Sept 11, 2001. All of my big, milestone birthdays will be associated with big milestone anniversaries of that day. So, to be me, I started celebrating my birthday.

    • Wow, Nicki, that must have been incredible. I can totally see how that would have shifted your perspective. Thanks so much for sharing that story.

  10. HI Patty! Oh YAY this was fabulous! Years ago I read Mutant Message from Down Under about the aborigines. They ascribe to only celebrating accomplishments and don’t consider the anniversary of one’s birth to be a big deal at ALL. I really liked that! 9 times out of 10 I’ve been up at the lake alone on my b.d. and I usually take old journals, purge them, and burn the stuff I won’t use for any writing – much like your celebration. Love it! The most I do to “celebrate” is to go have a massage. This works for me.

    Then there’s the fam. Hmmm. Expectations galore. Though over the years my non-event attitude has toned them down. As for holidays – UGH. Other than Thanksgiving (which, although storied away from historical truth but at LEAST has a good intention focusing on gratitude) I do my best to ignore them all. I’ve been called the Bah Humbug lady by some but really, to me, EVERY day is special! I don’t need some old history story telling me what I should be doing/buying/expecting. You, Miss Patty, are special EVERY day!

    • Why thank you so much, suZen. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, hands down. I so get what you mean about holidays. And your lake/purging ritual is right up my alley. I don’t do rituals every year, but you know, I’m thinking I want to start doing them more often. Robert Johnson actually talks about how we need to do rituals after dream translations, in order to “dream the dream into the world.” Hugs to you!

  11. I share my birthday on World AIDS Day. That has always been a bit “sobering” for me. Thanks for putting into words and bringing to the surface what I have been subconciously feeling.

  12. Hi Patty,

    Every five years, Thanksgiving shows up on my birthday, Nov 26. I am also an advent baby. You’ve certainly given me a new way to look at my birthday, as I generally compete with a holiday for attention (please don’t make me pie and put candles in it 🙂

    The last five years, though, celebrating my birthday has more to do with celebrating being alive.

    But of all the ordinary gifts I’ve ever received – it was my husband giving me a year’s membership to the Christa MacAuliffe Planetarium (now the Shepard-MacAuliffe Planetarium). I think I’ll take him there for his birthday next month.

    • I never thought of that, Peggy. My bday sometimes falls on Easter, always falls on Tax Day (not a holiday but a day that has a lot of drama for people), so maybe that’s given me a different perspective too. I love the idea of celebrating aliveness. Your husband’s gift sounds wonderful, and I adore experience gifts. The very best! Thanks.

  13. We’re probably more concerned about birthday anniversaries in the west, but the rest of world is catching up to this tradition. Any occasion to celebrate life is wonderful of course.

    “Today we need celebrations of ordinariness…You too can share the gift of ordinariness.” Beautifully said!

    • Yes, and now that I’m thinking more about it, the traditional birthday celebration doesn’t feel so much like celebrating life to me. Thanks for the visit, Kaushik!

  14. Interesting, holidays and birthdays can make us depressed.
    I remember the time when I was still living in Holland in an apartment building with no nature to speak of in sight.
    Holidays were very important for me then as I finally could spend 7 glorious weeks in nature, camping outside the busy holiday season. During holiday I could soak up what for the rest of the year was outside my reach.
    The last few days were always horrible, I did not want to leave and drive home to concrete’s ville.
    The gap between what I experienced on my holiday and what I had at home was so big.
    It however compelled me to go for more of those holiday experiences and to move to another country that would allow me to live in an environment in which I once holidayed. Despite the depressing home journeys, or may be thanks to the inflated after nature of those experience I am now extremely happy and no longer feel so hungry for holidays.
    I do like special holidays though, just for the fun of it and feel childlike again.
    xox Wilma

    • Good point, Wilma. If we can do it in a way that is play, fun, childlike, that truly is a celebration of life. And thanks for sharing that fascinating story about how you transitioned from the woman yearning for nature to the woman living in nature. Hugs to you!

  15. I love the simple things you did for your husband for his birthday. It’s the little things that seem to have the most meaning for me; like the icing on the cake. He’s already got you… you’re the cake 🙂

    My birthday is coming up in about 3 weeks so both you and I share the Aries sign. On my birthday I want the whole world to know it’s my birthday; I’m funny that way. But it’s not because I want lots of presents. I just feel excited and want to share “my day” with people.

    • Aw, that’s so sweet of you to say, Davina. Thank you. And glad to know you’re another Aries kindred spirit! HBTY in advance!

  16. This emotional Cancer was very worried about the story when it took its turn…but I so appreciate this post about birthdays because I sort of have a thing about them. Love celebrating them for others, but have always hesitated to claim my own celebration. I feel a bit too much like a braggart, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I remember being at a writing conference one year and not even telling anyone it was my birthday. Maybe this all has to do with that “too-muchness, not-enoughness” you mention. I’m going to have to ponder that. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

    • You’re bringing up a really good point, Charlotte. Sometimes we tend more toward the “not-enoughness” side. That may be part of what you’re experiencing when you feel like a braggart. A mentor once told me that I was too humble, so I do know it’s a struggle to settle in that middle point between being self-effacing and being too boastful. Thanks for the comment.

  17. Patty, I’m delighted to have come across your blog through Belinda and The Halfway Point. This post is especially meaningful for me, as I have a birthday coming up at the end of March. I agree with your assessment that birthdays and holidays are stressful times, largely because we expect and attempt to create some “special.” But I love your phrase: “celebrations of ordinariness.” That is what I will aim for this year!

    • Hi Eva – Welcome, thank you so much for stopping by. And an early HBTY! I’m so glad to meet you, and I look forward to visiting your blog.

  18. Patty, thanks so much for the common sense you expressed – the grounding in everyday realities. I have been “celebrating” ordinary birthdays for years, and they are special precisely because they are centered in this ordinariness of things in the day. No fuss at all, and the deep appreciation of the simple and ordinary is so much there it is barely noticed.

    From Japan, Happy Birthday to your husband, and a pre-Happy Birthday to you – Catrien Ross.

    • Thank you Catrien! Finding the special in the ordinary is such a wonderful thing. Interesting you should say it that way, since it’s kind of related to my next post.

  19. Pingback: Casual Friday: Reads of the Week « Eva Evolving

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