Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Icing Magic

When Maggie was in kindergarten, she attended a birthday party with at least 50 children and their parents. I'd never seen anything like it.

Gifts covered every surface inside the house. Screaming children swarmed the pool. A chef grilled burgers, chicken and hot dogs. An ice cream vendor dipped cones and sundaes. A bartender poured wine for adults. An artist oversaw bead and paint crafts. A pirate organized sword fights.

It was a suburban festival, not a child's birthday party.

Maggie, always a quiet child, spent a lot of time on my lap. Frenzy was never her best thing. Overwhelmed myself by the increasingly inebriated adult chitchat, I was relieved to sit quietly with her in the shade, remembering my first birthday party.

When I turned six, we had only lived on that street for a month, so I was basically unknown. But my mother figured out who had children my age and made contacts. Social media was different back then. Mothers were home all day, for one thing. It was common for people to knock on the door and for residents to answer. Our neighborhood had a telephone party line, so you waited your turn to make a call, but you also might introduce yourself and excuse yourself at the same time if you interrupted someone's conversation. Mothers were often outside, hanging laundry on the clothesline, getting freshly delivered milk from the porch, sweeping the sidewalk, sharing baked goods with a neighbor.

I honestly remember borrowing a cup of sugar from next door. It really happened back then.

I'd never had a birthday party and couldn't remember the one I'd attended when I was four, so I had no idea what would occur. Six children arrived with gifts. I was astounded. They just showed up with wrapped boxes and cards for me. One gift, an Anchor Hocking dish set, is still with me because my mother and I believed I might have a daughter who would enjoy it, too.

We played pin the tail on the donkey, tossed pennies into bowls, and dropped clothespins into milk bottles. My mother awarded dime store trinkets to everyone, careful to find a way for each child to win. My dad blew up balloons and we all jumped and laughed as my mother tossed them to us.

We were extraordinarily happy in that backyard, just six little children and two devoted adults. I was so proud of my parents, that they knew how to create joy on the lawn for me. It couldn't have been a simpler party. It couldn't have meant more.

But there was more.

As we sat at the picnic table, my parents emerged from the kitchen, carrying a white bakery cake. Although I could barely print, I knew THAT was my name in pastel script. There's something about a capital K in sugar curves and loops that thrills me to this day. Some people fly to NYC or enjoy spa retreats for their birthday bashes. All I need is my name glistening in candlelight on a white cake. It's hardly a remarkable thing these days. But it reminds me of being dearly loved by two people who wanted to see me be surprised by the happiness that was possible because of my birthday.

When I see my cake each year, I see them. Betty and Bill. All over again. That's who deeply loved my birthday. In those icing letters, they magically return to me every September.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Be Surprised

I think I know almost everything.

Even so, I believe if I googled one more thing or finished one more book or attended one more conference, I'd discover the truth. The ultimate answer. The pivotal secret. The knowledge that would allow me to sashay down a straight and narrow road with white doves fluttering beside me and a radiant sun before me.

I spend so much time in front of a screen, trying to think myself out of whatever paper bag that consumes me, that I forget to look up. I know so much that I forget about the power of being surprised. And I mean the kind of surprise that makes you blink. And then blink again.

I saw it yesterday on a county road in Minnesota. Out of nowhere, a leaning village of tangled sticks stopped me cold. (Yes, it was sponsored by grant money and took three weeks to build, but that's beside the point. Stop over thinking. That's too much like what I do.) I was completely surprised. That predictable catch in my heart between beats opened up, and I slid through.

I was transported. I walked through its round, woven rooms and had no reference point.

I was Alice, free falling down a rabbit hole. I was Dorothy, inching along a yellow brick road. I was delighted. This structure was the stuff of myth, but elves are not common in the Midwest.  It was a living fairy tale, and I was in it.

Mystery and amazement are rare in my life. I miss that. Knowing a lot of facts gets to be a burden finally. It makes you responsible, which is an overbearing nuisance when you get right down to it. It forces you to put every square peg in its square hole. But as I stood at an oval window in a basket-ish wall that overlooked a meadow, I remembered driving with my daughter when she was four.

We lived in Rockford, Illinois, a city surrounded by cows and fields. One day she pointed to the round hay bales scattered cross the landscape and asked, "What are those?" I explained, and she was quiet for a long time. Then she said she always thought they were a sign of magic. "How so?" I asked.

Maggie believed that cows in a field were turned into round bales of hay. She didn't know how it happened or why, but she thought I would know the answer. Her sweet certainty made me blink. Twice.

No answer would ever be equal to her innocent assumption that something that fantastical was possible. My logic couldn't hold a candle to her imagination that created something adorably impossible as a way of understanding the world. At four, everything was a surprise. She stepped into each one with an eager heart.

Yesterday, I did, too. For the first time in a long time. The view was incredible.

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