de(tales): birthday cake
Kat and I met in the backyard of our wonderful friend, Nicole, on a summer night, preparing to watch a movie on a big screen. Now, we attend the same church and move in many of the same circles. But it's more than that, of course. There is something about meeting a kindred spirit, someone who understands things that you say because they resonate deeply within them. Kat is just such a person. She is also a talented poet (a fellow reader at the Advent reading). I have convinced her to play with the essay form for a de(tale). She's telling a story that brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it. Enjoy, friends.
When you’re a worrier, the worry seeps into many corners of your life. It inserts itself into everyday encounters, into places that do not merit worry. It keeps you from speaking up, even when it’s the right thing to do. Worry cannot help itself.
If you hadn’t guessed, I’m one of these. I’ve also been blessed/burdened with the desire to make the world a better, kinder place. Life is difficult, and I want it to be easier, for everyone. But I worry about doing it wrong, about offending someone by trying to be generous. Which is stupid, right? But like I said, worry cannot help itself.
Recently, I stood in a grocery checkout line behind a man purchasing a small birthday cake--enough for two servings--and a carton of ice cream. The checker asked him whose birthday it was. Had she asked me, I might not have answered. I’d probably try to push the question aside. I hope that doesn’t sound rude or cold. But ask this introvert a question of the prying small-talk variety, especially if you’re a stranger and she’s focused on the task at hand, and you’ll likely flummox her. When grocery workers ask if I have “anything fun” planned for the rest of the day or the weekend or what have you, I feel strangely pressured to come up with a good answer. Do I lie and say I’m going skydiving? Do I say, yes, but it’s none of your business? What’s the right way to answer? And how likely is it that this person actually cares? I mean, what’s the point of asking?
In this case, here’s the point:
“Whose birthday is it?” she asked.
“It’s mine. Or it will be. It’s tomorrow,” the man said.
“Happy birthday!” the checker said. Then, pulling her debit card from her pocket and swiping it through the card reader, she said, “I’m buying this. Put your card away.”
I didn’t quite catch what he said in reply, but he was confused and surprised and maybe hadn’t quite understood the meaning of what she said.
“No, I want to buy this for you. It’s your birthday!”
I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about the transactional nature of this show of generosity. Our society often interprets “kindness” in terms of cash. When we define generosity in dollars and cents, we deny human needs that exist outside the scope of finances, and we deny those without money the capacity to give in other ways. We are all needy in some way or another. We all need help sometimes navigating this world. We all have gifts and experiences that can help one another do so.
I don’t think this birthday cake purchase was about money--not really. It was about one person wanting to celebrate another person’s existence, one human being affirming another human being and saying, “You are special.” After he thanked the grocery worker, the man with the cake turned to me and said in a joking whisper, “Tell her it’s your birthday!” I smiled and laughed, and as she rang up my purchases, the grocery clerk and I had a pleasant exchange that probably wouldn’t have occurred had I not witnessed this moment of kindness and been invited into it.
Many days, the world overwhelms me--its prejudices, its violence. I see so much evidence that human beings do a lousy job of taking care of one another. And some days I’m proved wrong in the checkout line. I’m trying to believe that if you put kindness out into the world, the world becomes kinder. And I am trying to act on that belief, rather than be stymied by worry’s inaction--both when it comes to showing kindness, and when it comes to receiving it. Yes, maybe I’ll do it wrong. We all do it wrong, every day. And then we help each other do it right, whether or not it’s anyone’s birthday.
Kathryn Smith has an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University. Her poems have been published in several literary journals, including Rock & Sling, Third Coast, RiverLit and Floating Bridge Review, as well as several anthologies. She works as a newspaper copy editor and lives in Spokane, WA, with her spouse, an elderly cat, and a motley trio of backyard chickens.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.