Myrl Coulter’s ‘Those Pesky Natal Days’ (one of the essays in her lovely collection A Year of Days) begins like this:
“The human ritual of marking individual birthdays started with the advent of the calendar, when people began to track time according to the sky, to notice when it got dark, when it got light, when the moon appeared, and when it didn’t.”
She continues with some background to the origins of birthday celebrations, considers the idea of birth and what, exactly, we’re celebrating, then moves into her own personal likes and dislikes about the occasion.
This just happens to be one of my favourite things to discuss and so instead of responding out loud to the pages from a park bench, which only frightens passersby, I decided to bring the conversation here.
Warning: the following might not be suitable reading for traditionalists, or anyone who shops at The Party Store.
How We’re Slightly Different:
Coulter says she doesn’t like the Happy Birthday song. Calls it grating and trivial with only five words to the lyrics, and a sixth to be added by the singer. “The sentiment is a tedious repetitive demand to be happy.”
Hard to argue. It’s not the greatest piece of music ever written (she tells us the copyright is worth five million dollars), yet I sing it loud and proud to a circle of lucky souls each year. And they do the same for me. And I kind of love it. When I was a kid the song made me cry. I think that had more to do with how my parents liked to go through the whole day pretending they’d forgotten what day it was and then after dinner a cake would come out, a few gifts would appear, and the song would be sung. Tears of relief followed. To be honest I still weep a little, though for different reasons now.
How We’re Very Different:
Coulter enjoys planning parties for friends and family. I don’t like parties. (Could I plan the party and not attend? Because then I could get into it.)
How We’re the Same:
She describes how kids’ parties have changed, how today they have themes and décor and tapenade and rules about everything. She says it used to be simpler and I get the feeling she prefers the simpler.
Me too. Pin the Tail on the Donkey; pound cake with rosettes and a misspelled name; (what’s a loot bag?? kids go home with extra piece of pound cake)
How We’re Different:
Preference for simplicity aside, she says she’s actually impressed with these parties but relieved that her kids are grown and she doesn’t have to throw them.
Me: I am less impressed than cringey at the very idea. I once organized a birthday party for a nine-year old in a bowling alley. Lunch was included. Plus bowling. Plus a few jokes from my repertoire. And I pretended to enjoy myself. (There was lunch, I mentioned that, right?) When the parents arrived to pick up the little darlings, they asked where was the loot bag… I had no idea what they were talking about. Can’t even remember how I answered. But there was a distinct ‘attitude’ as they left. (Hey, there was lunch!!)
How We’re Really Really the Same:
She says she likes other people’s birthdays but not her own, that the thought of it approaching actually tightens her throat.
I know just what she means. And it’s not an age thing. It’s an expectation thing.
“To distract myself after that initial birthday thought wanders in, I start thinking about how I want to spend my day. My first idea is always the same: I just want to disappear. No obligations, no hanging around to receive birthday wishes, no smiling when I really fell like roaring into the wind”
I get that. I hate handing my birthday over to someone else (shades of childhood trauma, i.e. late-in-the-day cake?)… I think that’s a lot of pressure on the other person and anyway, it’s my day and I want to be responsible for it. I’ll make the dinner or the reservation or run away somewhere, or take a friend… I’ll give the gifts, I’ll bring home a cake, I’ll light the candles. You can sing if you like…
And Here, More Same than Different:
About gifts, she says:
“I don’t like opening birthday presents, especially in front of the people who have given them to me, who sit in my line of vision smiling with eager anticipation.”
For me, it depends on the circumstance, because some people are a delight to share these moments with. But then there are those others, the ones who have pretty much given the gift for what they get out of your reaction, which better be what they expect.
“When I open gifts in front a large group of people, what falls into my hands is secondary, because I’m hoping that my smile is big enough, that I’m not over-reacting or under-rewarding my donor, that I’m appropriately grateful without resorting to an ‘I’ve always wanted one of these’ gusher statements. I wince when I recall times I have gushed.”
Agree. I would love it if birthdays were a time to give rather than receive.
She says birthdays ending in zero or five are toughest.
They make no difference to me. Numbers are not my thing.
Yet We’re the Same (Is anyone Different on this one?):
“The frenzy exhausted me. Surrounded by people I love, I looked forward to the moment they all left.”
“What I do know is that the day after my birthday will be a good day. I will feel normal again, relieved, and somehow refreshed.”
It’s that kind of essay. Sits you down and says, so what about you?
—So what about you?
A Year of Days is available online at Blue Heron Books. Shop indies! ♥