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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Extending the Celebration: my birthday month

Linda admiring a glass birthday turtle from Suzan.
. . .
I highly recommend the Birthday Month, introduced to me by my good friend Suzan.

The idea of extending a birthday is not about getting more material goods as gifts. Instead, the extension allows me time to accept the gifts that arrive every day, special occasion or not.

Suzan and I have joked that we adopted the birthday month because, as we age, celebrations take longer. When we were twenty, we could pack enough fun into one day of birthday celebration to last us a whole year. But aging and, one hopes, increasing maturity, mean one learns to slow down, to take more time to appreciate just what “fun” can mean.

One might do this in an orderly fashion: a Birth Day in one’s twenties and thirties, for example, followed by a Birthday Week in one’s forties and fifties. We weren’t that organized; I leapt right to the Birthday Month as soon as she suggested it and now that I am officially “in my seventies,” I find the concept particularly appropriate.

Instead of material goods, the gifts I receive derive from the way we usually behave on our birthdays. A birthday is traditionally a time to feel special, to relax into enjoyment of the day, whatever festivities are planned. I try to give in to impulses that take me out of my daily routine. In the darkness of my bedroom, I reflect on age and what it has brought.

Celebrating my birthday month, I’ve begun each day since my natal day with a short reflection on what it means to be 70 years old plus one day, and so forth. I’ve recalled my mother’s stories about my birth. She said she was really tired of being pregnant and unwieldy in the heat of a Texas July. Her doctor had planned a vacation, so with her agreement, he induced my birth.

Birthdays after we moved to the ranch sometimes meant that after a day of haying, and after eating supper, opening gifts and sampling the birthday cake, we would drive into “The Hills” and enjoy the cool of the woods.

Extending my birthday this year has taken several forms so far. First, yes, I’ve bought one or two things I might not have bought otherwise. But I followed my usual practice of giving to the local second hand outlets more than I purchased new. I learned this from a student at Christian College for Women in the 1960s. She said that every time her daddy bought her a new dress, which was often, he marched her to her closet and she had to choose right then two dresses to discard. Then he marched her down to the sharecroppers’ cabins on their Arkansas farm and she gave her dresses to one of the girls her age.

More birthday celebrations: I took the scenic route to Hill City to deliver a package to a friend, walked through his gardens and enjoyed a long, relaxed visit. And he’d baked me a cake! When a meeting was cancelled, I spent extra time in the library, taking notes on my day and people-watching. And while I watched people, I tried not to be critical. The thirteen-year-old girl in the off-the-shoulder blouse that exposed her bra strap and most of her left bosom tested my resolve greatly!

I re-read all my birthday cards and wrote several letters to friends and relatives. Looked through a magazine and found a recipe for roasted vegetables and shrimp that I served at lunch today.

Made honey butter, a treat I recall from my childhood. (1/4 to ½ C honey to each stick of butter. At room temperature, cream together until well mixed. Store in refrigerator. Heavenly on toast, biscuits, even potatoes.) I seem to remember honey peanut butter too, hmm.

Headed home from town, I took the road along the creek that I never take because it’s often hazardous with deer, joggers and golf carts. I drove five miles under the speed limit, mightily frustrating the folks behind me. Inhaled the scent of mint growing along the creek, the flavor of hay curing in the fields. Heard a golfer curse. Laughed. Remembered making this drive once very late at night and knowing I was nearly out of gas; remembered that I got to within a mile of home, tucked my car into a side road and walked across the pasture in the dark, hoping I didn’t fall into a badger hole.

With Jerry, I sat on the patio (an elegant misnomer for the concrete slab outside our basement) and just looked at the tomato plants, honeysuckle bushes, bachelor buttons and sweet William, potted herbs, and other plants. OK, I lasted two minutes before I leapt up to water them, but I plan to repeat the experiment every night until I can sit still for longer than five minutes. Listen to the nighthawks peent! and boom. Inhale the sweet scent of autumn clematis. Sway with the breeze through the bee balm and black-eyed susans and sage.

I’m a collector of apt quotations I can never remember when I’m speaking, so I keep them in files. Here’s one that summarizes how I’ve spent my days since my birthday.

Go on listening, carefully, respectfully. After a while the earth feels free to speak. It's the way it is in a trance, when everything and everyone speaks freely. The things you'd least expect speak. There they are: speaking. Bones, thorns. Pebbles, lianas. Little bushes and budding leaves. The scorpion. the line of ants dragging a botfly back to the anthill. The butterfly with rainbow wings. The hummingbird. The mouse up a branch speaks, and circles in the water. Lying quietly, with closed eyes, the storyteller is listening. Thinking: let everyone forget me. Then one of my souls leaves me. And the Mother of something that is all around me comes to visit me. I hear, I am beginning to hear. Now I can hear. One and all have something to tell. That is, perhaps, what I have learned by listening. The beetle, as well. The little stone you can hardly see, it's so small, sticking out of the mud. Even the louse you crack in two with your fingernail has a story to tell. If only I could remember everything I've been hearing. You'd never tire of listening to me, perhaps.

--- Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller

Happy birthday to you, too.

--- Linda M. Hasselstrom, aged 70 years and 5 days

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For more . . .

See the Home Page Message Archives to read Linda's essay on friendship and aging. Look for "The Glitter Phase of Life" written for the fall equinox, September, 2011. This essay includes two poems inspired by Linda's friendship with Suzan, mentioned in the blog above-- "Dear Suzan" and "We're Sixty-Eight."

See the archived Home Page Message "Summer’s End: From Magpie Mind to Turtle Tranquility," written for October, 2012, to learn about Linda's connection to turtles.

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Birthday Week (Complete with footnotes!)

. . .
I was not feeling well on my actual birthday. (1)

But Jerry and I went for a lovely drive: up to Roughlock Falls, where we enjoyed a picnic, and then walked the fenced sidewalks to look, with hordes of other tourists, down at the falls. As is my habit when visiting the Falls, I explained to Jerry (quietly, so no one else could hear) how George had showed me how to walk behind the falls the first and every time we visited there. (2)

We sat on the benches at the top of the falls, feeling the spray on our faces, while Jerry smoked a cigar. I watched people arrive, peer over the edge for 30 seconds, and leave. Some took pictures. The longest anyone spent looking at the falls was less than a minute.

Back in the car, we drove for several more hours on well-maintained gravel roads, looking at the cows grazing on the national forest, mostly alone with our thoughts and the scenery. Sometime during the drive, I began to explain to Jerry my concept of the Birthday Week.

I believe this to be a unique idea (3), based on the fact that age encourages us to a deliberation in our actions. We are not merely slow because we can’t move faster; no, we are often contemplating the feeling of every move, what it will mean to our bodies. Perhaps we are remembering past experiences. Hmm. That leap hurt. I wonder if it will hurt that much if I do it again. I used to be able to jump that far a hundred times a day.

In order to properly celebrate an important milestone such as a birthday, particularly after more than six decades of birthdays. one cannot be limited to a mere 24 hours, or the much shorter span of twelve hours during which most of us are awake. Even the twelve hours is frequently interrupted by a nap or two, so our time to celebrate our natal day becomes even more brief.

In addition, of course, few of us in our sixties are willing to celebrate quite as vigorously as we did at younger ages. I like to do something special, see friends, call more friends, dine well, open gifts-- far too much excitement and activity for a single day.

For that reason, then, I’ve begun to introduce the concept of a Birthday Week. You will notice that the week of my birthday was tentatively blocked on the list of "Available Retreat Dates," so we would schedule no retreats during that time. We’d planned a more extensive trip, but when that didn’t work out, I chose to celebrate in smaller increments.

The drive on my actual birthday was terrific, a restful day of enjoying the Black Hills at its most beautiful and serene, since it was a week day. I wasn’t feeling well enough for much dinner, but managed to scrape up the energy to open a lovely collection of presents. (Among other things, Tamara gave me potting soil, walls of water, and mystery books; Jerry gave me tomato cages and 8 pounds of salt water taffy. Jerry’s folks gave me a gift certificate to a gardening catalog: do you see a theme?) I spent the day after my birthday quietly but the sense of relaxation allowed me to search some storage and finally find the letters Badger Clark wrote to me in 1957; more on that in a later blog.

Then on the third day of birthday week, I called a friend my age and we chatted for an hour about our lives, including recalling our friend Winston. Her father raised Winston, a beautiful Hereford bull, on his ranch near Newcastle, WY, and his children rode the bull the whole time he was growing up. By the time my father bought Winston, he was a massive breeding machine, with the white curly face and immense circle of horns that mark a true Hereford. I loved taking my friends to the corral to see him, and then casually climbing on and riding him around. Naturally, like the self-centered little monster I was, I allowed my playmates to think I was responsible for the bull’s kindness, but his innate Hereford gentleness kept him calm.

That afternoon, Jerry and I continued our policy of getting acquainted with the near neighborhood and I took him to see the Norbeck Information Center in Custer State Park, an incredible building created by the Civilian Conservation Corps out of native rock and ponderosa pine. We dropped into Coolidge Inn, and I signed copies of my books for sale there, though the clerk was not at all sure I should. Then we dined at the Game Lodge. Sadly, the kitchen couldn’t manage to cook my buffalo steak the way I wanted it, so Jerry ate most of it.

On my fourth day of birthday week, I went to 4 garage sales and an auction/estate sale, spent $1.36 and acquired enough pots and peat pots to fill my greenhouse needs, possibly forever. Then I had lunch with good friends and lots of laughter, and sat in on a private showing of the recent paintings of my good friend Tom Thorson.

As the sun was casting long shadows, a UPS truck roared up the driveway bringing the complimentary copies of the newly-issued paperback edition of No Place Like Home. The cover has been made darker and more dramatic, the spine is a prairie-sky blue that makes the title stand out, and the back cover features my photograph plus the usual collection of great things said about the book. In this case the quotations are from Judy Blunt (whose book Breaking Clean is great writing about ranching) and Booklist.

To top off the day, we got a cooling trace of rain. Now, on the fifth day of my birthday week, I’m going to till the garden; celebrating my birth also means proving I can still do some of the work I love. I plan to call another old friend today for a long chat, and have lunch with a high school classmate next week, just before my birthday week officially ends.

I might note that one’s endurance also builds as one ages, so a week of celebrating a birthday becomes possible. One does not, however, celebrate with the excessive consumption we might have achieved in our younger days.

Calm, quiet delight in living is the theme. May you all experience the same, aging happily.


Footnotes to Birthday Week:

(1) I have reluctantly concluded that the reason for the illness might be because I ate a large quantity of raw red onion in a tuna salad sandwich the day before. The discovery that eating something in particular causes heartburn and a sleepless night is one of those things about aging that nobody ever mentions when we are young. I now know why some of my relatives wore those twisted smiles when I chomped onto a hamburger with raw onions when I was about nine.

(2) I won’t detail the technique of going behind the falls here, lest I encourage some reading daredevil to do it and draw down some official wrath on their heads. A few people walking under the falls didn’t seem to hurt the falls much, but if one person were seen to do it, others would surely follow and someone might get hurt. George and I were doing this before Political Correctness started trying to make it illegal to do dangerous things. And it wasn’t really very dangerous. Standing under the falls, out of sight of all but the most alert observers above, was incredible. Leaning back against the damp walls, I could feel the thunder of the water pouring over the edge above us, feel the chill of centuries in the wet sand under my feet. I know I started a poem about it, but don’t believe I’ve ever finished it. I'm glad to have had the experience and perhaps enjoy the fact that few others will.

(3) I thought I’d invented the birthday week until I received my annual birthday call from my friend Suzan, who has been my friend for about 50 years. "Humph!" she said. "I’ve been doing that for years. Birthday Eve, Birthday Week. Lately I’m plugging for a Birthday Month!"

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