Our neighbor, Carrie, celebrated her 40th birthday last night, and several dozen of us–professional colleagues, close friends, and many neighbors—descended on her home to share in the celebration. Carrie moved into her house two years ago and immediately set about introducing herself to everyone on the street. In a neighborhood where residents kept largely to themselves and interaction was primarily a polite “hello” if you happened to meet one another on the street, Carrie’s youthful energy and gregariousness was infectious. We all turned out for her birthday, young and old, and when the candles were lit on the large sheet cake that took up a good part of the table, our warmth and affection for her was obvious. “Happy Birthday to you,” we sang, “and many more.”
After we returned home, I sat out on our deck, enjoying the mild evening and listening to the sounds of Carrie’s continuing celebration, memories of birthdays wafting about in my mind. I thought of some of mine—the happiest between pre-school and 4th grade, some dismal ones spent alone in young adulthood, far from family and friends, the first birthdays of my daughters, the surprise 50th we managed to orchestrate for my husband, on and on. In each memory, a story.
In Roger Rosenblatt’s wise little book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart (Harper Collins, 2011), a glimpse into his “Writing Everything” class, he describes an exercise that always gets 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).
Rosenblatt and his students aren’t the only ones who’ve used birthdays for inspiration. Go to www.poets.org and you’ll discover that poets like William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti and many others have used their birthdays as a time for retrospection. 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.
Whether you’re having a birthday soon, have already celebrated one this year, or will be before 2012 ends, 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? Begin with the memory and write.