girl with long stick and star-shaped piñata cracked in half with pink dots falling out on blue background
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

At first, birthdays were
reserved for kings and saints.
But it’s rainbow sprinkles and
face painting for everybody
these days.

The best way to avoid having
your birthday ruined is to avoid
having any expectations for
your birthday.

Without the delineation of
years, time would become
an expanse of open water.
Horizonless, shark-filled. One
of my biggest fears.

A rush of Orange Crush—that
sparkle on the tongue—and
“Make a wish!” shouted at the top
of tiny lungs are a couple of things
I recall. Balloons and streamers
and the first piece of cake. Conical
hats with elastic chin straps.

Is a birthday party an instance
of what Durkheim meant
by collective effervescence?
Profane tasks cast away for
a sacred second?

Whence my ambivalence about
birth as a metaphor? Birth for
entities not brought forth from
a womb?

“Happy Birthday to You” is
a bit of a dirge.

It’s said that the party hat may
have originated with the dunce
cap. An abrogation of social
norms? Not punishment in
school, but foolish cavorting.
Worn for the pinning of tails on
donkeys. The tossing of eggs.
Sported for a sack race.

Don’t say “A star is born” unless
you’re talking about the movie.
Don’t tell a woman her books
are her babies.

For my next birthday, please
remember that I love getting
mail. You could send me a
funny card, and maybe a
package. A package full of
money. Or a necklace made
of lapis lazuli, believed by the
ancients to ward off melancholy.

What an ego boost, to have
one’s birthday suit evaluated by
another person as cute.

“Today is the oldest you’ve ever
been, and the youngest you’ll
ever be again.” Supposedly
Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

I wouldn’t say I have a problem
with mortality. If anything,
I tend to gravitate toward the
timeworn: a neighborhood
where the roots of the trees
crack the sidewalks.

Birthdays are about pleasure—
excess and decadence.
But pleasure is painful.
Because memento mori.
Because hoary cliché: We’re
not getting any younger.

The candles gutter; the candles
go out. Better to blow them
dark yourself.

Birthdays are okay, but what
about death days? Of the
365 days we cycle through
annually, on one of them,
we’ll cease to be alive.

Should the hour of arrival be
more of a factor? Should some
of us have birthnights?

Mayonnaise is my favorite
secret ingredient for cake,
birthday or otherwise.

There’s no predicting the
days of greatest significance.
Best simply to be vigilant.
Like my friend Beth said, not
even trying to be wise, “In
my life, the piñatas come
around pretty quick—I just
swing at them with my stick.”


This poem appears in the December 2021 print edition. When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.