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Chapter Seven: Today Is My Birthday
A child’s birthday is the central organizing event of his year, often superceding all major holidays, national and religious. By celebrating a child’s birthday each year, parents reaffirm the joy of that child’s advent as well as mark his progress–physical, psychological, social, and intellectual–on the path from babyhood to adulthood. Birthdays also provide untold opportunities for aesthetic experience.
Homemade Paper Flowers and a Pool of Tears
My special love of birthday parties came, not surprisingly, from my mother, who orchestrated superlative celebrations year after year on the occasion of her children’s birthdays. One, in particular, endures in my memory. For my tenth birthday, she took the theme of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which she and I both loved, and created an event of legendary proportions. Although we were living at that time in an apartment with limited space, she managed to transform it into an enchanted realm. The invitations requested that all my friends arrive in costume, and I later found out that my irrepressible mother had actually possessed the temerity (a quality never in short supply where she was concerned) as well as the maternal prescience to telephone each mother to say that the birthday girl and only the birthday girl would come dressed as Alice.
I can still remember my thrill, surprise, and delight as we opened the door and each child entered in masquerade. Some of my friends had been transformed almost beyond recognition. My mother’s invitation had placed a covert demand on the other mothers and children to become inventive, and they truly responded. Although some may have felt it a burden, the quality of the results would seem to affirm that dreaming up those costumes was a great deal of fun for all concerned. One blond friend named Carlyn came as the Duchess. Appropriately coiffed and stuffed with an enormous pillow, she wore a handmade habit sewn of stiff fabric that hung to the floor. Several other girls came as the Queen of Hearts, but each had conceived her costume differently. A little boy (my then-current beau, named Jonathan) came as the entire pack of cards, wearing them pinned from top to toe all over his leotard-like costume. I welcomed also a natty Mad Hatter, a Cheshire Cat, and even a Tweedledum and Tweedledee (although technically they must have been crashers from Through the Looking Glass). My younger sister, garbed in white from top to toe, with stand-up ears, a fluffy tail, an enormous wristwatch, and bright red lipstick (her own idea, I’m sure), was a spiffy White Rabbit. Others, I can no longer remember. As for me, my mother dressed me in pale blue with a white apron. She brushed out my long hair, which she then uncharacteristically left unbraided, and transformed me into an unmistakable Alice.
How my mother must have reveled in the pleasure of turning our apartment into Wonderland! I can still remember the chaotic mess we made beforehand and how we were working right up to the day of the party. She taught my sister and me how to make brilliantly colored iridescent flowers of various sizes and shapes by taking rainbow-colored tissue and crepe paper and carefully cutting, folding, twisting, pressing, and tying, then gathering our blooms into many-splendored bouquets, which we attached to every available object and surface throughout the apartment. On the party table my mother had placed little cups labeled Drink me and cakes that said Eat me. There were ornamental signs directing children To the Pool of Tears, which turned out to be our bathtub filled with water, in which amazing lilies and strange aquatic toy creatures were swimming about. A tiny key opened a door to a make-believe garden, and somehow Rabbit’s house had also been constructed. We went outside for part of the time (the apartment building had walkways, bushes, and manicured gardens) to participate in a caucus race in which all of us ran about until we were exhausted, and everybody, of course, was given a prize (treats for the guests and a silver thimble for me). The experience as I recall it today was one of utter joy. Metamorphosis. Theater. Normal everyday reality had completely receded during those precious hours while the party lasted. My friends simply became the characters they represented, and all of us had entered an enchanted realm.
I suppose I grew up with the wish to repeat this experience somehow and, if possible, to give it one day to my own children. So, later on, there were others: a circus clown party; a Peter Pan party replete with Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, Nana, the crocodile, Captain Hook, Smee, and a treasure hunt that involved finding Peter’s shadow; a Wizard of Oz party for which the basement was entirely remodeled to resemble the Emerald City; a Raggedy Ann party with a cake in the shape of the giant doll herself with her carrot-colored hair, red-and-white striped stockings, and candy heart that said I LOVE YOU; a storybook party to which each child came as a character from his or her favorite book; and a nurse party where–instead of playing the usual pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey–ten blindfolded children were given Band-Aids to stick on the bruised knee of a blown-up little girl with tears I had painted beforehand on an enormous piece of posterboard. For that party, we also fashioned little first-aid kits filled with special treats instead of the usual birthday party goody bags. In each case, I think it fair to say, the majority of invited children seemed eager to plunge in, and these parties were, for them, a source of active pleasure. (I often wondered afterward what stories were taken home and told to parents.)
To my own family, of course, the parties have always meant far more. The occasion of a child’s birthday has necessarily entailed a large expenditure of time and effort, as well as negotiation and cooperation, not all of which ever goes smoothly. There are always differences of opinion and disagreements. But even the rough spots are a crucial element in the learning process because they form an integral part of any creative effort. Children gradually realize this. Some of their ideas, for example, have to be rejected because they are impractical; in such cases, the children are initially disappointed, but then, when an acceptable compromise is found, they discover that the solution can prove surprisingly satisfying.
Each party, importantly, occurs in three temporal phases, and this is one of its most salient features. John Dewey also differentiated the aesthetic from other forms of experience with a triadic analysis. I referred to this in regard to preparing children for events in the performing arts. He speaks first of anticipation, then of the actual event itself, and finally of recall or recapitulation, which, he says, becomes a source, spur, and stimulus for ongoing aesthetic engagement in the future. The aesthetic entails what he calls “consummated experience,” by which he means that which involves all of these three phases. Percolating in us over time, aesthetic experience is that to which we attend on many levels–the emotional as well as the perceptual and the rational–and that in which we actively participate rather than passively undergo. This latter is an especially important point for Dewey. Unconsummated experiences are, by contrast, for him, those that simply happen to us and are, without reflection, abandoned by us for whatever comes along next. They involve no processing over time, no internalization, no strong emotional, physical, or intellectual investment, and no conscious reflection. They can, indeed, hardly be called experiences. They use up time but add little richness to our lives.
Making, Not Buying, the Party
It is sad that so many American parents celebrate their children’s birthdays in commercial venues–at fast-food restaurants, for example, or amusement parks–where everything is standardized and predictable, because the practice seems to lend itself to just the sort of “unconsummated experience” Dewey decries. These events, after a while, bore even the children who attend them. They seem a lost opportunity for imagination and creativity. After all, a birthday is a celebration of the existence in this world of a particular individual. Shouldn’t that celebration logically reflect the current interests, accomplishments, tastes, or pre-dilections of that individual? Unlike nearly all other holidays, which concern groups of persons, a child’s birthday is really all about honoring just one. To stamp the party somehow, even in small ways, with the uniqueness of that birthday child is to endow it with important meaning, not only for the child but also for all the other children who attend.
Parents need not be especially gifted artistically or have vast financial resources to help children come up with ideas for games, homemade invitations, and simple decorations, all of which can be pursued together in advance. Even the youngest child can take part. I remember a first-birthday celebration for a baby in Rhode Island. The grandparents and neighbors were invited to a celebratory clambake, and the baby’s not-yet-three-year-old sister was so excited by the prospect of a party and her mother’s preparations that she wanted to be consulted about the prettiest napkins and even choose the color scheme; on the day of the party, she insisted on helping to set the table. In another family, a little boy who played the recorder was willingly conscripted to provide accompaniment for all the musical games at his older and younger sisters’ birthday parties.
Fathers, grandparents, uncles, and aunts also often prove ingenious at these times. They can help hang streamers and balloons in high places. They can clown and act and draw and sing and perform amateur magic tricks. They sometimes come up with the cleverest ideas for charades or treasure hunts and lend their talents to construction. What matters is not how elaborate the results are but the involvement in the preparation of everyone who wants to participate. Homemade parties are inexpensive. One year, by contrast, we departed from our usual practice and took a small group of boys to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City for a birthday celebration; the cost that year was considerably higher than other years. The party was enjoyable, but it seemed a bit lackluster. Without a real preparation phase, it receded into being one of those experiences one lives through without its making a deep impression. It might have worked better and proved more meaningful for those little boys if they had been, at the same time, studying astronomy in school so that they could have looked forward to the party more concretely, followed through with activities afterward, and discovered connections between the birthday excursion and another quadrant of their lives.
What counts most, it seems to me, is that the child being honored be encouraged to express herself in the choices that are made with respect to her party and that parents regard birthdays as annual opportunities to afford rich and meaningful aesthetic experiences. On a child’s birthday, she is fully present and attentive. She cares. What occurs matters to her. When, on these special days, parents collaborate with their children to imagine, construct, and perform together, the pleasures that accrue are, as I have learned by watching the results in my own family, readily passed on from one generation to the next.