Birthdays here are celebrated with dinners, in the kitchen where we take all our meals, but birthdays are a bit more. The cooking is more involved, the table is set more formally and it’s set for more people. More time is spent, more laughs are had, more thoughts are shared. The most recent of these celebrations was no different. Except for the masks.
As part of the evening we read, aloud. Some during the fruits and cheeses, the nuts, the breads, the baked this and the roasted thats, the whites, the reds, the somethings stronger. But mostly afterward. We pass around a book of poetry or sometimes prose and take turns reading from it.
The Library of Congress has a website, of course. It has a section dedicated to the Library’s “Poetry & Literature” Program. There, former poet laureate Billy Collins explains “How to Read a Poem Out Loud”. He suggests giving the title of the poem then the poet’s name, offering an introductory note, then giving the title again, then reading the poem, and ending with the title and the poet’s name. He admits it sounds confusing so he gives an example and it sounds rather natural. When Billy Collins does it. In our kitchen, it would go something like this.
“This poem is ‘The Summer Day’ by Mary Oliver. It’s about Oliver’s wonderment of life heightened by a death in her own. ‘The Summer Day’.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
‘The Summer Day’, by Mary Oliver.”
That’s what it would have gone like if we had read that poem, but we didn’t, this time. In fact, we didn’t read a poem at all. Or we did. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” is hard to categorize unless “novella” means anything to you. Here, around the table, the reading was prefaced with a quote, from Saint-Exupery, but not from “The Little Prince”.
“A few lines from ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Exupery’s a young pilot at the time, carrying mail from Toulouse in France to Alicante in Spain. It’s dangerous. They’d fly through the night, over mountains and across deserts, in every kind of weather. On this night a storm’s approaching, Exupery’s on his way to his plane outside. He has to pass through the warm, sheltered confines of clerks ‘talking to one another in murmurs and whispers’ of illnesses, money and other ‘domestic cares’. From ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’.
‘Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.’
From ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’, a prelude of sorts to Saint-Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince’, which is a favorite of this evening’s woman of the hour.”
The woman of the hour was a grown-up by the way, but not the kind who never understands anything and always and forever needs everything explained. Like whether a story about the human condition was written for children or adults. Adults hear the prince warn of the tragic peril in letting giant baobab trees sprawl unchecked across a tiny planet. The correct pronunciation of giant baobab trees was a matter of some humorous disagreement at the dinner. Children know. Its phonetic spelling is na:zis. But there weren’t any children there to explain that, just a bunch of grown-ups celebrating a birthday in a way we have found meaningful. Reading. To each other. Having removed our masks to eat. And commune.
Robert Frost was eleven when his father died. One of America’s most endeared poets had a lot going for him – born into the white middle class, some ivy education, a prosperous grandfather who gifted him the farm on which he would write much of his work – but he had a lot go south, hard. Frost wrote against a backdrop of personal loss. Both his sister and a daughter were committed for mental illnesses, Frost himself suffered depression. One son died of cholera, another of suicide. A daughter died a day after birth, another would die giving birth. Asked to sum up his life, the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal said he could do it in three words. “It goes on.” Bully that, may as well do it right.
Another couple of lines from ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. He’s still speaking of the clerks. ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’.
“You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller on an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers.”
From ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
But we are, dwellers on an errant planet. W.S. Merwin was right, remember? We are all here together without knowing it flying at a speed beyond thinking. So we must ask ourselves Mary Oliver’s question. What is it we plan to do with our one wild and precious life? The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ answer reads more like an admonition.
“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do. Otherwise, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived, and you will not have a pleasant death.”
We didn’t read that at the dinner, it being a birthday and all, but for anyone who’s forgotten they were once a child, that oughta do. We have to kneel down in the grass, be idle and blessed, stroll through the fields, reach, appreciate, live, totally live. Even while wearing a mask and frequently washing our hands always standing six feet apart in well-ventilated spaces voting to staunch the sprawl of giant baobab trees and other existential threats.
Lest one thinks our birthday dinners – a dozen friends sitting around a farm table breaking bread together and taking turns reading aloud – are conjured out of some movie on The Hallmark Channel, know this. We did not finish “The Little Prince”. We left him talking to the fox. By then, a drawing of a small sheep, three volcanoes, thousands of roses and six planets after the plane crash, one of the guests had drifted away and another had drifted off, right at the table. Grown-ups.