Birthday Lessons

In late October Helen and I flew to the mid-Hudson Valley in New York State, a place which had cradled us for some thirty years, to celebrate my 80th birthday. We could have waited until late December to celebrate the occasion (the actual date), but flying in mid-winter is likely to subject travelers to weather delays, cancellations, and white knuckle flights. By staging the event in late October, the weather added to the fabled colors of the Catskills, their parting gift before winter.

Helen and I were returning to the communities where we had worked, raised our children, made our closest friends, and prepared for retirement. 

Helen has a genius for bringing our East Coast friends together in environments that are warm and welcoming. It’s hard work - and she pulls the gatherings together with warmth and love. To me it had the feeling of a courtesy lap around the track as friends offered stories, experiences, and interactions from our past, some of which I remembered and some of which I wish had been true.

For weeks before we traveled East, Helen had been rummaging through boxes of photographs that reflected our recorded history. She selected some twenty images. The final cut included images my dad had taken of me when I was five, as well as family images of my mother and my brother. Some of those images are more than 75 years old. In one photograph, I am holding my two daughters in my hands and in another image both girls are resting in my lap. I think to myself  “how young he looks.” The camera has captured me at thirty. I am growing older but with a casualness that belies how quickly we change.

As I chuckle at the memories these pictures evoke, I see that Helen has included a photograph of my giving a talk at the Sanctuary, a retreat facility on the grounds of the Omega Institute where I worked for more than twenty years. I see that my facial hair now includes a mustache and short beard. My daughters are part of the twenty photographs selected by Helen. Their images cut across a wide swath of their history- first as babies, then as pre-teens, and lastly as as young women with husbands. When I study these candid shots, I still think – “how young he looks.” Finally there is a photo of my sixteen year old granddaughter – Natalia. In two images my arm is around her. I am savoring the intimacy in both pictures.  I think to myself “how old he looks.” I imagine Natalia thinks the same.

Helen’s selections show a pictorial gambol through a life that is now more complete than incomplete. Regrets morph into acceptance and acceptance piques memory. In turn, memory stokes emotions, and emotions form an interlink with history. In the end, all we have is our history – in this case his-story.

Do those twenty photographs tell my story – those people closest to me, the ones that understood my aspirations and values, those who were part of my orbit when I was deciding on where I wanted to live, who would be my life partner, what would be my life’s work, how would I grow, what influence would I have in the lives of others?

Would a different twenty photographs tell a story that is substantially different, or just add color and hue to the same story These questions make the difference between biography and memoir. Biography requires someone else to find the right twenty photographs in order to capture the essence of your architecture. Memoir involves self-reflection, self-protection, and self-confession. With memoir, each photograph is air brushed, doctored, fabricated, and focused, until there emerges a story you can live with. It may be gentler or harsher than a biography. If it doesn’t fully express who you are, at least it describes who you wanted to be.

Everybody starts work somewhere, and what you learn, what you teach, and what you explore, become part of the twenty photographs that reflect your life. Work takes place in cultures run by those already there. You can either blend in, rail against values that clash with your own, learn on the job, or search for an environment where workplace values and your own beliefs intersect. 

Home is the environment where you have the greatest opportunity to shape, mold, experiment, listen, learn, and practice the values that matter most to you.  All of those qualities need time and space to flourish. Too often the loudest voices get the greatest allocation of time while the neediest voices get shut out –if not shut down. How much time do you spend on self-discovery, how much time do you devote to family, to work, to serving others? Small voices need three qualities: trust in order to be heard; love in order to be felt; and safety in order to be seen. These voices influence your path and your priorities, and how you allocate time describes the person you are at the moment the photograph is taken. 

Find the twenty expressions of your life that have mattered the most and lay them out. Is there humor in those photos? Sorrow? Joy? Longing? Fulfillment? Disappointment? Innocence? Commitment? Service? Daring? Hope? Love? Holiness?

I write this essay on the eve of my eightieth birthday. I look at my twenty photographs and ask myself “What’s missing?” “What’s present?” “What’s next?”

So long as you draw a breath, you are practicing your values. Use them to make a difference. Even if age has limited the ways you can now express your values, try anyway. Use those values to help others. Be engaged. Stay relevant. Stop counting the minutes of your life that have gone by. Focus on the ones you have left.

George Kaufman

December 2018 ©