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February 1, 2009

BRING ON THE CAKE! Musings on Birthdays and Celebrations

Special Birthday Greetings
to Marylinn Kelly and Laurey Foulkes!

“It takes a long time to become young.”
- Pablo Picasso

The world, as you might notice, is divided into two distinct groups: those who love birthdays – and those who do not.

You know them well, for they are all around us. They are the same people who claim to hate holidays of any sort and who would balk and grimace at the mere mention of a homemade card. I really have nothing against birthday bah humbugs, but if you’re one of these curmudgeons, don’t give up. Keep reading . . . you may find something you like.

I happen to be a birthday person. But, truthfully, it has nothing to do with presents or crepe paper or confetti. For me, there is something primal about the smell of real buttercream frosting; of kneeling at the altar of a cake ablaze with candles (the more the merrier); of knowing that a surprise of some sort or another is at hand.

Perhaps it is some unconscious memory of ancient fire rituals, for when the cake is brought out -- in that breathless hush just before the traditional off-key chant is begun to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ and the face of the recipient is all aglow with candlelight -- I get, well, a little choked up.

It’s rather like being suddenly, unexpectedly stirred by singing the National Anthem at a baseball game, or the moment before a couple says, “I do”, or seeing your baby take their first wobbly step. It’s a sense of promise, I suppose, of all being right with the world at least for that one moment in time.

It hasn’t always been that way. On my third birthday, I was so terrified of all the people and commotion, that I stubbornly locked myself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until they’d all gone away. (This was to be sometime after my teenage years.) As a college student, immersed in angst and existentialism and Zen Buddhism, I resolved that birthdays were for the overly sentimental and therefore to be shunned at all cost.

The truth was, I didn’t want to acknowledge getting older, for I equated that with losing spontaneity and to a young writer that seemed a fate worse than death. I wanted it all – experience without the telltale wrinkles. Birthdays simply depressed me. They reminded me of all I hadn’t accomplished and all the projects I hadn’t even begun. This just got more intense the closer I crept towards 30.

But then, something radically changed. I lost a dear friend to cancer, and then another to a drug overdose, and yet another to suicide. I had a child, which of course completely altered anything and everything I knew about life. The clock was ticking and suddenly every moment with those I loved became precious and something to treasure.

I began to wonder at how so much of our attitudes towards birthdays are tied to our sense of personal history and self esteem. I realized how much of that story is lost or misconstrued (even in our own minds) over time and how critical it is to find some renewed reason and medium in which to tell it in a fresh way.

Now that we have become a mostly non-agrarian society, our earthy ties to seasonal celebrations have all but been broken. There’s not much left collectively in American culture to give us true pause to think about life in general; to examine or core philosophy and our mortality. There’s New Year’s, of course, but even that has now become a kowtow to materialism and commercials.

In our culture, birthdays are one of the few opportunities we have to celebrate each other’s individual stories. Hallmark’s stranglehold on sentiment aside, it’s perhaps the only time we have to gather friends and family and rejoice without religion or government or media corporations intervening and telling us what or how we should to do it.

Extra chairs are drawn up, candid photos are taken, gooey frosting-laced kisses are given. In the comfort of informality, “Remember when . . .” becomes part of the conversation. Our stories are revived and told in the spirit of celebration. Your life, your journey becomes the focus, if only for a short while. The telling of it becomes a gift in itself.

There’s a purity and about this. It’s perhaps the only time we are prepared mostly to receive, (unless of course you’re inclined to throw your own parties), reversing the Judeo-Christian ethic of it being better to give to others. This act of reception is an important distinction – for to be able to receive graciously and openly from others is just as sacred. And birthdays are one of the few times we get to practice it.

And so, slowly, I became a birthday fan. Or some might say, fanatic. It isn’t just my own birthday that gets me excited. If anything I find other people’s special day more fun. Over the years, my zeal has become a creative quest. There are two criteria: How can I make this person’s birthday both meaningful and fun? and How can I do this on a budget? The answer to both questions turned out to be identical: doing something that that no one had done before and having it be completely handmade.

Some simple, silly and sometimes over-the-top examples:

• For my best friend’s 40th birthday, a cake decked out with yellow ducks, represented her four “duck-ades”.

• For my daughter, Meadow, a room-sized Alice-in-Wonderland tree out of cardboard, complete with a smiling paper mache Cheshire Cat.

• For my youngest child, Marina, a Wizard of Oz themed cake, complete with a hot air balloon hovering over it.

• For a friend, a Mad Hatter Party where all the guests created their own chapeaus – and drank libations from old tea cups from the dollar store.

• For a nephew who had just returned from navigating the Colorado River, a perfectly scaled dining room table sized representation of the Grand Canyon – in cake of course.

And the list goes on. Admit it, doesn’t it all sound fun? Isn’t there just a small part of you that longs to blow on a noisemaker and don a goofy hat? (If not, don’t worry all’s not lost. There’s always next year. That’s the never-ending optimism of birthday people . . .)

So, aside from feeding the hungry children of the world, that’s my mission now – to spread a tiny bit of joy, to reignite the flame of delight whenever I can. Secretly, of course, I hope that somewhere I am building up some birthday karma, so that when I hit 60, someone will remember to send me a card, even if it says, ‘You’re over the hill and picking up speed.”

Because it’s true. In part because of birthdays, I am finding my stride and rediscovering my fascination with the beauty of nature, of humanity, that is all around me. Within that is a spark is my hope that all my birthday craziness will inspire others to celebrate their personal stories and to find creative ways to tell them, too.


If today is your birthday then let me be the first to say, “Hooray!” for there’s never a better reason to celebrate than the day you came into this world. For on this day, your spirit became a creative force with the power to transform this world into something even more magnificent. The future and the story of the future, for all of us, has become something new.

So, thank you for being here! And if today is not your birthday, then “A Very Happy Un-Birthday to You.” (And many more, on Channel Four . . .)


Jonni Good said...

What a great birthday party. I've been thinking about doing a three-foot tall paper mache Puss 'n Boots for my grandson's second birthday, and you've given me the inspiration. Thanks for a wonderful post.

Patti said...

you might have mentioned that the duck in each corner of my birthday cake were partially in honor of the baby I was 8 months pregnant with - and was surrounded the big black candle in the middle!
great post, funny how we love to celebrate and surprise but deign getting older!