“It’s a surprise,” Flora told me as we sat in her parents’ sunroom together. “Can I tell you?”
I shook my head. “Oh please don’t tell me; I really, really want to be surprised.”
“Well, can I just tell you a little bit?” Obviously, she’s already excited about whatever her parents and she have planned for tomorrow, and I suspect it will be as much about her delight in hosting a little birthday party for her grandmother than anything. But that will be part of the fun—making different memories of my birthdays as I grow older.
“I’m hardly ever surprised,” I told her as she tried not reveal what was planned. Memories of birthdays past flashed in front of my mind’s eye. Memories of birthdays past flashed through my mind’s eye—the one genuine surprise my daughters managed to pull of over a decade ago, and the excitement of childhood celebrations between pre-school and perhaps, 3rd grade, even some dismal ones in young adulthood, before I had children and experienced the joy of their excitment. In each birthday memory, there is a story.
A few years ago, I read Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class. Among the many nuggets of wisdom about teaching creative writing, he described one exercise that never failed to inspire his students’ writing:
I…then burst into song: “Happy Birthday to You.” They [his students] give me the he’s-gone-nuts look I’ve come to cherish over the years. I sing it again. “Happy Birthday to You. Anyone had a birthday recently? Anyone about to have one?” …just sit back and see what comes of listening to this irritating, celebratory song you’ve heard all your lives” (pp.39-40).
Search the internet and you’ll quickly discover that Rosenblatt and his students weren’t the only ones using birthdays for inspiration. Go to www.poets.org and you’ll find poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others who used their birthdays as inspiration and reflection. Ted Kooser’s “A Happy Birthday,” captures that moment of introspection triggered by his birthday:
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
Poems about birthdays reflect the passage of time, aging, even the opportunity for change, for example, Joyce Sutphen’s “Crossroads:”
The second half of my life will be black to the white rind of the old and fading moon. The second half of my life will be water over the cracked floor of these desert years.
Although I am not ready to refer to this stage of my life as “desert years,”–far from it–I’ll confess that I’m at the stage in life where I’d rather the numbers are decreasing in size than increasing. Nevertheless, I’ll share in the delight of a birthday planned and hosted by a six year old granddaughter, and who knows, I might have something to write about after the celebration is over.
Whether you’re soon to be celebrating a birthday or waiting until 2018 to do so again, why not do what so many other poets and writers have done: used the advent of or a memory of a birthday already passed to inspire your own writing. “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you…” What memories, good or bad, does that little traditional ditty evoke in you? Write about one.