(“Bill Crosby” by Stan Payne, October 24, 1958. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 004-10655.)

The Middle Distance 4.8.11: Cause for Celebration

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photo by Sean Cayton

I remember when birthday celebrations were small, personal events where the cake was the star. Our birthdays were celebrated around the kitchen table, the neighborhood kids who couldn’t fit around the table propped atop the washer and dryer. My mother baked and iced the cake, lit the candles, and presented it on a rotating, wind-up aluminum stand with a jangly music box that played “Happy Birthday To You.” A couple of small gifts to open. A puddle of melted ice cream on a paper plate.

We were most impressed, and envious, when our next-door neighbor Marcia, whose daddy Joe drove the Sunbeam bread delivery truck, had the Little Miss Sunbeam carousel parked in front of her house for her birthday party one year. This was a promotional tool of the bread company, a miniature six-pony carousel that frequented grocery store parking lots. And here it was on East 18th Street, groaning beneath the weight of Marcia and her friends as it twirled in slow motion beneath its yellow umbrella top.

By the time my children were of school age in the 1980s and ‘90s, birthday parties had evolved into theme-based events. Mothers racked their brains for fresh ideas. When my daughter was in second grade, we pushed all the low tables in the house together and put cushions on the floor for her party, a crafts extravaganza with piles of beads and glitter, buttons, ribbon, artificial flowers, and lace doilies. The girls glued and stapled together bonnets built atop paper plates, then played dress-up for the rest of the afternoon. My twin sons had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle birthday party one year; their brother, a model airplane blow out that concluded in the back yard with an explosion of rubber band-catapulted planes shooting skyward and landing in tree limbs, on gutters and the second story roof.

Last Saturday I had a birthday blowout, a grand sweep of a party that swirled around me for hours as I observed from the middle distance, shuttling between guests, the kitchen sink, the mountains of food I’d set out, and the garbage cans. Our original intention was to host a housewarming party, celebrating our new home. Then we set it on the weekend of my birthday, and the party morphed into a hybrid. The internet and email made it easy enough to invite 100 or so of our closest friends. I cooked for three days, stuffed clutter into drawers and closets, pulled out the card tables, and prayed for good weather.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, the throng emerged. Warm embraces, beautiful faces, congratulations, welcome, happy birthday, happy home. Gentle breeze, sunshine and open doors. Bottles of wine in shiny gift bags. Pots of tulips, purple and orange, an elegant orchid with gnarled stems, a branch of apricot blossoms in a glass jar. Cards and gifts piling up on the entry hall table. Sweet hellos. A coconut cake wrapped in kitchen towels, pulled from a basket. Stately, four-story cakes, raspberry cream and German chocolate, from the neighbor next-door. Her arrival, late in the afternoon, prompts applause. Oh, we are gifted and joyous and amazed at our arrival in this happy place after a year, two, three, four, of loss and bereavement. We are born again; spring has arrived for this glorious afternoon, this pink sunset.

Late in the evening, when the last glad guests have left and we have packaged the leftovers and washed the dishes and battened down anything outside that might fly away in the careless night wind, I survey the gifts left behind. Personal, thoughtful, hand-made, well chosen. A blue glass ball that looks like the world dangling from a white ribbon. A glass prism on a string of irridescent beads. Collectors of light.

Finally, before I collapse from exhaustion and gratification, I unroll a scrolled piece of marigold-colored paper, a poem, Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life,” transcribed in black ink, delicate handwriting.

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light … it begins.

…O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows …
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops … it continues.

Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born …

The poem is a mystery gift with no name. Outside, tall trees whip in the wind. I climb the stairs and thank the night for this birthday housewarming, a consecration of continuous life.

The Continuous Life
By Mark Strand

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for sighs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost — a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


9 Responses to The Middle Distance, 4/8/11: Cause for Celebration

  1. Paula says:

    Hope springs eternal

  2. Cindy says:

    Bless you and happy birthday, Kathryn. You deserve the MOST lovely of Springs!

  3. debbie swanson says:

    A huge sense of contentment flows from this. This is the basis of life.

    • Ricky Pass says:

      This so captures the everydayness of adulthood…loved it. One of my favorite things is to sit, BY MYSELF, and listen/read your column on Friday…your music choice at the end of each piece is a smile waiting…

  4. Bill Oliver says:

    Thanks for sharing your passion for CO peaks and pix, Matt, which I also have. Can you tell us the peak near Gothic that has that great view of the backside of the Bells?

  5. Ellen Troyer says:

    Happy Belated Birthday!!! Love this week’s column. So sorry I missed your party. I picked up a nasty high fever flu bug from an airline seatmate early last week and have been down for the count. Talk soon. Ellen

  6. Del Hokanson says:

    Happy Birthday Kathryn,
    On valuing celebrating, I just received an email from an Australian friend and thought you would truly appreciate it…please check youtube for “surprise wedding reception”- just so delightful and it actually happened here in Denver. A couple who just got married and were invited to “their” surprise reception just outside of cityhall…enjoy…just as you value celebrating…valuing the moment…hope you are having a wonderful Saturday.
    Del ( the FCC children’s programming coordinator..we chatted in Manitou over lunch about a summer writing possibility..will catch up soon)


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