Birthdays to kids are like mountains of foil-wrapped chocolates to Willy Wonka — they just can’t get enough. Case in point: Ask a third grader how old she is, and she’s likely to reply, “9 years and 3-and-a-half months.” As in, she’s literally counting down the calendar days until her next annual celebration.
As we get older, however, birthdays have a tendency to evolve from anticipated extravaganzas to necessary evils — those days when we are forced to acknowledge just how long we’ve been trudging around the earth and what we’ve done with all that time. For so many of us constantly juggling laptops and smartphones (along with a couple of kids), there’s always still more to do and accomplish, making it difficult to look back on the past with more fondness and less regret.
Milestone birthdays (typically those ending in “0”) have a tendency to trigger more reflection than usual and that was exactly the case for Elyzabeth Wilder as she began approaching her 40th birthday. But this wasn’t a time of sadness or mourning or of birthday cakes decorated with tombstones. No; Elyzabeth, a successful playwright, writing coach and teacher, wanted to celebrate her 40 years of life by taking a close look at the events and experiences that helped form them.
“When I started thinking about what I wanted my 40th year to be, I really took some time to look back on the first 40 years,” Elyzabeth explains. “And the theme that kept resurfacing was, ‘Who were the people that helped shape these first 40 years?’ People come in and out of your life and there certainly were a lot of people who were still a big part of my life. But I had this real need to go back and reconnect with a lot of people — and to say, ‘Thank you.’”
Elyzabeth’s self-appointed mission: to take 40 people out to lunch — people who helped shape her first 40 years and people who she hopes will inspire the next 40.
Admittedly, the idea wasn’t completely unique. “I have to give a shout-out to a woman I know in Mobile who turned 40 and invited me out to lunch,” Elyzabeth explains. “We didn’t really know one another but she was sort of the original inspiration.”
Still, though, Elyabeth has attacked her project with vigor, breaking bread with folks she has lost contact with over time, as well as those who, like her 101-year-old grandmother, have been there all along. “I think sometimes, especially when people are part of our daily lives, we take that for granted,” Elyzabeth says, “and we forget to let them know how important their role in our life is.”
The result, of course, has been endless conversation with lots of laughter and joy. There was lunch with a fellow playwright who provided early career inspiration (“Seeing her play was the first time I really realized that I could do that, too — I could write something and it could get produced.”). And there was Wilder’s lunch with her best friend from middle school who’s also a writer now, as well as a meal with a couple of family members who were able to help Wilder achieve some much-needed closure. “My dad died when I was really young,” she explains. “I think when you’re a kid, you know your parents as parents and as you become an adult, you get to know them as people. I never got a chance to get to know (my dad) as a person, so these two women were able to fill in some big parts of his story.”
As for those who Wilder hopes will leave an indelible mark on her 40 years to come, she says she’s looking for people doing inspiring work who can inspire her going forward; people who take risks and follow their heart. Wilder hasn’t completely filled in the guest list yet but based on her own criteria, she is sure about at least one person with whom she will meet: the head prison chaplain for the state of Alabama.
“It’s interesting because I’ve known him pretty much my whole life but, again, he was always someone’s dad and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I sort of realized what he did,” Wilder says. “I really respect the work he has done and the dedication he has made in his life to that work — and I’m really looking forward to sitting down one-on-one and hearing his story and how he got to that place.”
And all the while — from lunch to lunch, small-town diner to corner bistro — Wilder will be ready with notebook and pen in hand, eager to record the best and most enlightening parts of her midday conversations to later share with the world on her blog, 40lunches.com. Wilder’s had at least one person so far request to be kept anonymous in her online musings but more often than not, Wilder’s guests are more than happy to not just be a part of their private lunch conversations but also the wider discussion around friends, family and relationships.
“We live in such a digital world,” Wilder says. “First, I feel like we stopped seeing each other when we started talking on the phone; and then the phone turned into email; and the email turned into text messages; and I think our direct communication with one another has become so much more disjointed.
“I think also that a lot of these stories are stories that people can read and relate to,” Wilder continues. “I think we all have the friend that we lost along the way, the people who played a big part in a really specific moment in our lives. And I felt that was just something that would resonate with people and something that maybe would inspire them to call someone up and say, ‘Hey, let’s go have lunch.’”
Thanks to Eric & Jamie Gay for today’s beautiful photography.
Keep up with all of the amazing things going on around the South — follow us on Instagram!