I recently finished reading “Johnny Cash: The Life,” Robert Hillburn’s expansive new biography of the iconic singer.
While there were many takeaways from the book, one detail that stuck with me was Cash’s annual, New Year’s ritual of sitting down to write a letter to himself, celebrating the past year’s successes and setting goals for his next 365 days. While a good number of these letters are excerpted in the book, detailing life events staggering in their depth and breadth, there was one particular letter that I reflect on when I remember the book, a self-addressed message that can be paraphrased with three words: “Blah, blah, blah.”
While I usually have a hard time identifying with Cash, a personal hero who dwarfed my entire life’s existence on his least productive day, this dismissive, disenchanted man in black is one with whom I can start to relate. I mean, I don’t sit down to write myself a letter every January 1, but this time of year, when the grass begins to send spindly shoots from the soggy, thawed ground; when songbirds, dressed in vibrant colors, find their way back to my property, I look on it all and say, “Blah, blah, blah.”
You see, it’s my birthday this month. I don’t like birthdays, mainly because all those self-reflective feelings people naturally associate with the beginning of a new year that I can’t seem to muster—these thoughts and emotions find me when I attempt to celebrate that fateful day when I took my first breath. During a time of life when most folks demand attention, confection and contributions, my main goal is just to get through the day without feeling special. It confuses the hell out of my kids, which only makes the sour emotions worse.
A quick Google search reveals I’m not alone in my birthday-hate, which I guess is kind of a relief, even if most of the hits are paired with the phrase, “Am I normal?” Scanning through the search results, I see a few different reasons emerging as common themes, most of which I don’t relate to in the least, such as social anxiety over large birthday parties, suspicion about significant upticks in personal attention and a dislike of cake. These are all valid reasons, but I live in relative isolation, with limited social interaction, and I think cake is delicious.
And then there’s that other reason, the one that’s got “me” written all over it: The mournful passing of another year. While I’m not afraid of seeing my age tick forward another year — I’ve long since come to terms with my mortality and even cheer the stray, gray hairs I find in my beard during grooming — I do viscerally feel the loss of one of my finite number of years on this earth when faced with candles shoved into icing. I have a hard time celebrating my status as a living person when I’ve let another year race by without crossing all of my existential “to-do’s” off my grand, unwritten list: No books published, no “Ring of Fire”-caliber songs written, no joyrides in a flying car taken. (I blame society for that last one.)
I understand that I did do some things this year that you maybe didn’t: I moved to a farm and filled it with chickens, cows and pigs. I built a modest, utilitarian building on our property and a few modest, utilitarian pieces of furniture for inside our house. I was assigned this solipsistic column and have managed, thus far, to get it turned in on a monthly basis, kind of close to my deadlines. I chopped a bunch of wood. And the other day, I actually finished writing that young adult novel that’s perpetually referenced to in my byline. But you probably did a ton of things I didn’t do so, you know ... “Blah, blah, blah.”
But in seeking out fellow birthday-haters on the Internet, I came across a quote that, quite unexpectedly, gave me some new perspective on the growing pile of numbers left in my wake as I move through this world. The quote is attributed to Pablo Picasso, and while I can’t assure you it’s not one of those “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. -- Albert Einstein” deals, it does seem to reflect the artist’s increased joie de vivre in his later years.
Anyway, the quote goes, “It takes a long time to become young,” and it has the potential to be a game-changer for me and people like me who look back on life as a series of goals unmet. Maybe, as one grows older, he or she becomes less concerned with gaining these out-of-reach achievements and learns to appreciate the emerging blade of grass and the songbirds’ lilting melodies for the earthly pleasures they are rather than the perceived personal shortcomings they represent.
Of course, Picasso had already revolutionized the art world when he was about a decade younger than I am, and I’ll bet his birthday parties were awesome. Blah.
/ Rodney Wilson is an aging freelance writer who can still be found slumped over his laptop, rewriting a young adult novel and, as always, listening to Taylor Swift.