Yet another year has come and gone for me. Last week I celebrated my 39th birthday. The last before I hit 40. I used to look forward to them with gobs of excitement, these birthdays that are supposed to track the milestones in our lives. I looked forward to the parties, the presents and cake (who doesn't love cake?), the attention, the increased responsibilities with each passing year. But after I became a mom at 21 (just two weeks shy of my 22nd birthday), they sort of lost their luster. I focused more on giving my daughter a better birthday than I could afford and tried my best to ignore that I was indeed getting older. For me, the parties disappeared; the presents became scarce and oddly practical. This year my daughter and her boyfriend bought me a cheesecake for my birthday cake. I'm pretty sure it's been well over a decade since anyone has gotten me a birthday cake of any kind. Most of the birthdays pass with quiet disappointment. And as for the increased responsibilities, I no longer want them. I've got more than I can handle most days anyhow. No, birthdays just aren't what they used to be.
I find that my birthday is one of a handful of days in the year that I wind up reflecting on all that I am and all I have done. And all that I am not and all I haven't done. More so the latter. I usually wind up depressed and trying to pass it off as just another day, ignoring it's presence as much as I possibly can. But in the past year or two, I've been shifting my life into something more meaningful, more beautiful than it ever has been before. I've made progress in my spiritual journey that has me approaching life in a whole new way. For the first time, I am able to find contentment in the mundane, absolute joy in the small precious moments that used to just slide by me unnoticed. I won't go into the details of said spiritual journey because, for now, it is still just mine and deeply personal. But I will say this, as a result of my new-found enjoyment of life, I found myself thinking about this birthday much differently.
Instead of it becoming a day of disappointments (the former sources of which, incidentally, I have now found acceptance and peace with), I decided to make it a celebration. A real one. For me, it needed to be a celebration of what is important in life. What's that, you ask? Why, love of course! And kindness. I have found that if you approach life, people, and all that you encounter with loving kindness, not only do you fill your heart to bursting with joy during the great moments, but even the worst of moments become...tolerable. Sometimes better if you can grasp the life lesson in them. At any rate, I wanted to celebrate my birthday with loving kindness to others. I recently stumbled across a blog article about a woman who had spent her birthday performing random acts of kindness. What a perfect way to celebrate!
I thought of some things I wanted to do on my own, then went to the Random Acts of Kindness website to get even more ideas. I knew I could never get all I wanted to do done in one day, so I decided to spread it out over several days. My “birthday week,” I thought. And this is what I wound up doing:
- I took my daughter shopping and we picked out a bunch of items we thought someone living on the street would like to have for basic necessities. We put it all together and made “Blessing Bags.” They included all sorts of things like snacks, drinks, gum, a personal fan and sunblock (we live in horribly hot and sunny TX, so this is really helpful here), toothbrush and paste, lip balm, band-aids, deodorant, razors, a comb, soap, hand sanitizer, socks, and some change. We made some for women and some for men, then set out to find some people that would like to have one. We met some super nice people and had some wonderful talks. It took multiple days and several locations to hand them out, but every time, we walked away feeling amazing. To see how grateful people were for simple items such as these warmed our hearts and let us know that what we were doing was truly important. We found out that a local church comes down to a spot under a bridge on the same day every month and that homeless people come from all over to hear a spiritual message and to get donations. We decided to do our best to go down there every month at that time and hand out whatever we could: more Blessing Bags, or even a home-cooked meal. We know how much they need and appreciate that sort of thing and it's fairly simple for us to do. Because we ourselves don't have a lot extra, we can't always give anything. But sitting down with them for a long chat is just as nice. We've learned over the years that people are often terribly judgmental and sometimes cruel to homeless people. In reality, most of them are not bad people, they're just trying to survive. A little respect and caring in your heart means more to them than anything.On a side note, one of the men we gave a Blessing Bag to really touched us. My daughter sees him at a certain spot when she goes to pick up takeout with her boyfriend quite a bit. She always stops to give him whatever she can. He was the first one she thought of when I told her I wanted to make up these bags. He was the first one we sought out when we went out to give them away. Sure enough, he was at his usual spot. His clothes were filthy, his body sweaty. He sits on a concrete block all day in the scorching heat, hiding his face behind his cardboard sign as if he can't face what life has become for him. We got out of the car and spoke to him for some time and found him incredibly polite and humble. After several minutes of chatting, I asked him where he sleeps at night and he pointed to a jumble of weeds in the embankment off the highway. I guess my face reflected my thoughts that no person should have to live that way because he quickly assured me it wasn't so bad, he had a piece of cardboard to sleep on and he “keeps it real nice.” Later, when I said I hoped that some of the things in the bag would help him out some, he nodded enthusiastically and said, “Oh yes! You know, all I really want is to brush my teeth.” My heart cracked. We spoke some more, he continued to thank us profusely, we promised to think about him and stop back by when we can, and we got in our car to leave. The moment we started to drive away, he picked up his things and headed to the grocery store nearby. I suppose he went to brush his teeth. Sometimes all a man wants is a way to brush his teeth. I don't guess I'll ever take that for granted again.
- We left a package of baby wipes at a baby changing station in Walmart. As I was walking up with the wipes with note attached (“Please enjoy this random act of kindness. If you are in need, help yourself!”) a women was frustratingly digging through her diaper bag, unable to find her wipes to change her infant son. I told her that I was leaving some wipes as a random act of kindness and she should go ahead and use them if she couldn't find hers. She was incredibly grateful. Talk about timing!
- We left pennies in several parking lots for people to find (face up, of course, for good luck).
- I spent a lot of time on sites that allow you to “click for a cause.” I participated in everything I could on www.thehungersite.com, www.theautismsite.com, www.theanimalrescuesite.com and www.care2.com over the several days I was doing this, with the mental promise not to forget and to go back periodically to do more. I also earned 10,000 grains of rice on www.freerice.com, which allows you to answer trivia questions to earn rice that is actually given to hungry people where ever it's needed. I actually have loved this site for some time and go there sometimes to play. I just played this week more than usual.
- I handed out Popsicles to the neighborhood kids playing outside. As I walked away, I heard one of the kids say, “OHMYGODTHESEARESOGOOD!!!” and several uh-huh's, yeah's, and a “They're so cold!” I think it was about 105 degrees that day. I'm sure they were just what the kids needed.
- I reached out to an old friend I hadn't spoken to in a very long time, calling her to tell her how much I love her, miss her, and think about her. All truths.
- I practiced general kindness by holding open doors for people, being an extra friendly driver, letting someone go in front of me in line, and smiled at everyone, even the kids at the pool at the YMCA that kept splashing me when I didn't want to be splashed and were being generally obnoxious. I was on a roll!
- I made a bunch of loaves of banana and banana pumpkin bread. We took several to the local police department and asked that they be shared. The officers? the dispatcher asked. I told her, “For everybody!” I explained that they all work hard together to serve and protect our community and we just wanted to recognize and thank them for all their hard work. Her distrust disappeared and was replaced by a huge smile as she took the breads and thanked us.
- I left a loaf of banana bread in the mailbox for our mailman with a note thanking him for his hard work.
- We went over to the local firehouse and chatted with the firemen there. We gave them several loaves of the bread and offered to come back with homemade dinners now and then. They were uncertain at first, but I explained that we had unfortunately had to call upon them several times over the years and that they (meaning all of them around town in general) had been so wonderful and helpful to our family. I was grateful that they were there for us and wanted to do something nice to give back to the community. We then spent several minutes in pleasant conversation with lots of smiles and laughter thrown in. It was funny, when we first came in, they all stood up and were very reserved, but by the time we left, they were grinning deeply, waving, and saying, “See you later!” They also recommended that when we decided to come back with dinner, we should make sure they were the ones on shift. :)
There were several other things on my list that I simply could not fit into my “birthday week.” So I'm keeping the list and making a point to pick it up now and then and do something on the list, just to be nice. Now, I should say that I often do these kinds of things outside of it being my "birthday week." I've raised my daughter to be loving and giving, and together we live lives that we hope are filled with kindness to each other and those around us, even to our wonderful planet. In general, I am a big believer in giving for the sake of giving. I almost never speak about the things I do for others lest it become less about doing good and more about the recognition you get for doing good. I don't ever do something for someone else so that I will get a “thank you” or anything else. But I was so inspired by the blog post I read that I felt I should write about what I did. I'm hoping that someone who reads this will be inspired to do nice things in their own lives. Randomly. Just because.
I have been truly blessed in my life. I have endured hardships no one should ever have to endure. But through all of that, I have had people come into my life and do things for me, some big, some small, that meant the world to me. Some of these people were friends, some strangers. I know firsthand how an act of kindness and generosity can affect a person. I understand how something that may seem little to you can mean so much more to the one on the receiving end. Seeing the joy on the faces of the people we encountered this week was a much better gift than anything that could have been wrapped with a bow. I will carry it with me always. And the memories of that joy will motivate me to create it more often. I hope you will be moved to do the same. Many blessings be yours!