I recently celebrated my sixtieth birthday. I had a very nice birthday party in a local pub with several friends and family members. Having plied them with food and drink I thought I’d earned the right to give a short homily about being sixty. Here it is. At the end are a few photos from the evening.
Sixty doesn’t mean what it used to mean. I’m not sure if that is because the world has changed its view of 60, or because I have gained a different perspective of the age now I am there. It’s probably a bit of both.
As a number, rather than an age, sixty has a certain attraction. I recall learning that it was the foundation of the Bablyonian number system. It seemed an awful big number to be that. I believe that’s why we have 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour.
It’s clearly a largish number, though not as large as 100.
I was a late baby, the sixth and last child in the family, arriving when my parents were in their early forties. Hence in my last year or so at home my parents were turning 60. I regarded 60 as quite old back then. The phrase ‘old age pensioner’ was common and since my father retired at 60 I guess that was what he was, officially. I looked at people who were 60-years old, like my parents, and I saw a huge gulf between my young age and their great age.
One of my best ever holidays was a trip to Pakistan, 17 years ago. I traveled to the Northern Areas, a mountainous region, and did a few guided treks up into the mountains. Rising at dawn and watching the morning sun light up the snowy peaks one by one was a magical experience. Having a cold shower with water piped straight from glacier melt was also memorable.
Eagles Nest Hunza, by @thehunza #GilgitBaltistan #pakistan #tripkar #beautifulpakistan # sunrisepic.twitter.com/GlVc2LcZVR
When you’re at the bottom of a mountain you look up and it seems far off. When you get to the top your perspective is different. You’ve travelled a continuous route from the bottom to the top and perceive them as linked. You can look down at the route you travelled to get there, and you can gaze over a vast area – taking it all in in one view. It feels great to be there. It’s the same with age.
30 years ago I learnt some more about the age of 60. I took a holiday in Thailand and by coincidence I was there in Bangkok at the time of the King of Thailand’s 60th birthday – King Bhumibol who died last year. There were massive celebrations and crowds of people on the streets. I discovered that in Thai tradition 60 years is seen as a very significant age – the sexagesimal person has acquired wisdom and experience, survived the slings and arrows of 60 years, and still has plenty of life left in them. It is an age to be proud of and to celebrate. I thought – “That sounds good! I must try it one day”.
The Royal Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.
Sixty is seen as significant because on that birthday you have been around the Chinese zodiac with its 12 animal years 5 times – one for each of the 5 elements. In Japan this birthday is called kanreki and to celebrate this special occasion, the 60-year-old person wears red clothes. The tradition of wearing red on your sixtieth birthday is also a Chinese thing. A Chinese friend tells me I must wear red every day for 365 days from my 60th birthday. That’s the reason for the red theme tonight. By getting you all to wear red tonight I hope I can have a few days off.
I have now been 60 for nearly 5 days. I don’t think it’s going away so I’d better make the most of it. I have picked up my first free prescription. I have registered for free travel on the tube etc. I will have a free eye test soon. I don’t feel all that different from before, but I feel a certain smug satisfaction at having got here, to the top of the mountain. I am a bit surprised too – part of me feels I’m still 18, part of me feels like 30 or 40 (but not my knees). It does seem incredible that I am actually 60 but I don’t feel remotely like what the term ‘old age pensioner’ summons up.
They say that 60 is the new 40, but I’m not sure what that would mean for our timekeeping devices. I’ll settle for being 60 but now having a better understanding that all ages are really the same in what really matters – enjoying life, expressing love, taking some control of life, using your talents well.
I wish all of us a long and happy life.