The Shadow Side of Birthdays: The Side We Can’t See
I grew up listening to “Keep On the Sunny Side” as I helped to milk cows morning and night. It was the intro to the local radio station’s country and gospel music program.
I never saw the Carter Family in person, but here is Mother Maybelle and her famous guitar and famous daughters.
Look at her face when she starts out singing about the “dark and troubled side of life.” Even though she sings about the sunny side, we can hear the dark and troubled side in her voice.
I instinctively seek “the sunny side.”
That’s why I love the name “Jubilación” for the “third act” of life, the one we enter at about age 55.
That’s why I love late July and early August when our family celebrates so many good things.
Last Saturday July 30, I turned 68 years old. It was a perfect day. Stuart and I started early and ended late, moving from one simple pleasure to another:
Good coffee and free breakfast sandwich, garden produce lunch, huge bouquets of roses, winning numbers at the sidewalk sale, finding half-off petunias to replace the dead flowers in the planter,
Driving to Charlottesville for dinner and a movie, holding hands as we walked the mall, listening to the happy birthday song from loved ones in faraway places: Lancaster, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey.
If you no longer have a living mother to sing your song, you can listen to mine, and claim this message from yours.
It’s so easy to feel grateful when so much joy, love, and beauty abounds.
Yet under all the joy, the “dark and troubled side” of life still lurks.
I spent an hour on my knees replanting the petunias into this pathetic planter in the backyard.
I vowed to take better care of the petunias. I gave them organic plant food full of little beneficial bacteria.
I watered them carefully and placed them in the sunshine.
Then I tackled the violets growing in the back yard. Violets are wonderful, beautiful flowers that send out the most amazing roots, making them great ground cover — until they overflow their boundaries and take over other plants.
Rooting out violets growing in the wrong places is like discovering the “dark and troubled” sides of ourselves. Egotism, racism, all the cardinal and ordinal sins. They are hard to extract.
You have to pull out the whole root, or it comes back.
How satisfying it is to extract one flower attached to a three-inch root!
I was so engrossed in finding new roots that I forgot how long I was bending over.
When I tried to stand up, I couldn’t. At least not without pain.
I probably have the same condition, spinal stenosis, my mother has. At 68, I can avoid pain by resting and by being careful about movement. At 88, that little trick may no longer work.
Which is the shadow side of birthdays.
The more birthdays we have, the more likely we are to experience losses or to be reminded of losses in the past.
I don’t plan to stop celebrating. I can’t keep aging and death at bay forever no matter how much care I take, and I can’t extract all my deep-rooted dark places.
Ironically, the more I feel my finitude, the more precious is every day, whether birthday or not, and the more willing I am to relax into the great, infinite, love of God.
John Updike started writing poems about his birthdays at the age of 70. He continued writing them until weeks before his death at age 76. They are collected in his last book Endpoint and Other Poems.
His very last one is a combination of the dark and sunny in his life. You can read it here in the New Yorker.
It starts with surliness and mocking the religion of his youth and ends with these words:
Surely — magnificent that “surely” —
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever.
John Updike was not instinctively drawn to the sunny side. Quite the contrary. He was drawn to irony sometimes to the point of cynicism. Yet he didn’t stop going to church and he found comfort in the end in the “papyrus pleas” that he had heard over and over again from the great book of both Jews and Christians. His roots were deep.
I will be reading Endpoint as I think of Jubilación this fall. I’d like to celebrate this birthday all through the year. The sunny and the dark are attached to each other in my life. They can’t be completely separate.
Perhaps I’ll write a poem about it.
How about you? How have birthdays changed for you after, say, the age of 55? If you are younger, what do you hope for as you continue to add numbers to your age?
I am celebrating my eight-sixth and marvel at the way fresh insights on issues that matter most to me continue to open up and present themselves to me.
Marilyn, thanks for starting our conversation here. Congratulations on year eighty-six!! And how encouraging to know that you are continuing to be awed by growth in your life. May you enjoy many more and always be ready to marvel.
I’ve always loved July and hated to see it go for several reasons. On the farm, things felt finally under control then. In August, you noticed the shortening days and knew what had been working was about to change.
My wife Kathy is a July baby, too. Breaking with the past, this year I got her a card that wasn’t a joke, and wrote of my gratitude to her. I’m not sure that’s a new tradition, but it might be!
Happy birthday to Kathy. I actually like the funny cards. This year’s was really good. But I like the serious ones too when they actually describe me or us instead of a mythical perfect person I don’t recognize.
You ought to check out Updike’s Endpoints. I think you might like it.
Oh yes, and the farm memories are very strong as the lightning bugs decrease and the cicadas increase, the light fades, and by late August, a little chill appears in the night air. One never gets those sensory memories out of the body.
Thank you for bringing the Carter family into this topic. I always enjoyed the singing and clogging on Saturday evening at the Carter fold, during my sojourn in Kentucky (with Mennonite Disaster Service and at Pine Mountain Settlement School). I recognize the shadow on Mother Maybelle’s face, no doubt because those shadows cross my own face.
Each year Dave and I celebrate our birthdays exactly two weeks apart, his in July and mine in August. In our Mediterranean climate, as the dry season progresses, our back yard gets dustier and dustier. Along with another birthday, the dust is an invitation to keep death before me each day, as is recommended by the saints. Dust if you must/let go all but trust.
This year two friends, with whom we enjoyed the growing up of our children, have made a 3-week trip back to California, from their farm in Vermont. Currently, at ages 66 and 63 (also my new age), Larry and Karen are finishing a 12-day backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park. I enjoyed seeing them packing up for the trip, and I can’t wait to hear about it.
I heard my mother’s voice in your mother’s song. Thank you Shirley. Blessings on your new year.
Dolores, I’m so glad you were able to hear your own mother through that voicemail my mother left on my phone. She also shared a memory she had written in her journal about holding her first-born child at the age of 22 and being terrified. I put her birthday song here partly so that I’ll know where to find it some day if I miss it sharply. I was very aware this year that I may not always be able to hear it on my birthday.
I remember that we have “birthday season” in common. I hope you had and are having wonderful celebrations also.
Keep on the sunny side. Your knowledge of the dark and troubled side makes the the sun’s rays even more precious, and your singing more like life itself.
Yes. That message and voice is a keeper!
Shirley — I resonate strongly with your observation: “…the more I feel my finitude, the more precious is every day, whether birthday or not, and the more willing I am to relax into the great, infinite, love of God.”
We’ve got birthdays coming down the pike: Len turns 61 in two weeks, then two weeks later Evan turns 33, then two weeks later I turn 59. Birthdays have, indeed, changed for us. Our celebrations are simple, yet the simplicity makes them more profound.
Another friend with a family season of celebration. I’ll send all three of you advance greetings.
Each year is a little different, isn’t it? And simple can be very, very good. It was for us this year.
Good luck with the goal of getting your book into airport bookstores. If anyone can do it, Laurie can! I would always bet on you.
We just had a five day visit from a wonderful friend and her daughter who have journeyed with us through most of our married life, first in Africa where we began our married life, then in Ontario where our husbands continued to work together on Bible translation work. Our friend is 80 years old, and lost her beloved spouse when he was on the cusp of retirement. Her daughter lost her husband through suicide a few years ago. Keeping on “the sunny side of life” has not always been easy for them, nor for us for that matter. We laughed a lot, and shed a few tears as we reminisced and looked at the beautiful album our friend’s daughter had made of her parents’ life together. It’s so wonderful that at our age we can almost see the whole story of our lives!
I love this sentence, Elfieda: “It’s so wonderful that at our age we can almost see the whole story of our lives!”What a beautiful way to look at aging. Life is a story, and we get to look back and enjoy every chapter: the sunny, the dark, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m guessing your hospitality meant the world to your friend and her daughter.
I felt pops of joy, both audio and visual, reading your post and the hopeful comments following.
Soon I will box up my autographed copy of Judith Viorst’s Suddenly Sixty. As you may know she’s also published I’m Too Young to be Seventy and recently, Unexpectedly Eighty and other Adaptations. Into the box will also go Pennsylvania author John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies who died at age 76. Since we are into confessing our ages, I’ll say this. “If I were he, I’d have one more year to live.”
I know you savor each day, but I have to say the next decade is hard to beat. Lights and shadows are foils for one another. Without each, life would be bland.
Keep on the Sunny Side was pure pleasure to listen to and your mother’s recording a treasure. Here’s another blast from the past you may have heard in your youth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-8EcPA34mI
I can tell you enjoyed creating this piece. Merci beaucoup!
It’s time to re-read Judith Viorst. Thanks for that reminder, Marian. I just ordered I’m Too Young to be Seventy. 🙂
Thanks for the old hymn. I don’t remember singing that one. Maybe I just couldn’t identify with it. 🙂
I did enjoy writing this post. It was a delightful birthday, and I had a hunch others share the mixture of joy tinged with pain at this stage of life. Can’t wait to see the new place and to rejoice with you when you can sit down again.
I, too, turn 68 this year, Shirley. With advancing years, I find I appreciate more how my parents lived their lives, the smiles that were always on their faces, the involvement and caring for others that filled their days, their interest in living life fully as it came each day. I remember (or try to) to appreciate the beauty of each day and every moment with family and friends. I also feel a sense of urgency to do the things that have been on my list for years but never made it to the top. I know I am responsible for my own happiness and as my mother often said, “Happiness is a choice. I choose to be happy.”
Thanks for sharing your mother’s lovely voice singing to you. That meant a lot to me.
Carol, we have so much in common. So glad we can travel the road together, albeit with hundreds of miles between us.
You made your parents come alive in your memoir Growing Up Country. They are still a presence in your life and in mine through the power of language. Glad you enjoyed hearing my mother sing. And she thought all she was doing was leaving a voice mail. 🙂
Keep choosing happiness and keep moving through your list. Can’t wait to see how much more you will write and how many more lives you will touch.
Thanks for this post Shirley! I am 54…so getting close to the ‘sunny side’.haha. I realize since becoming a serious author that my writing is one thing that makes getting older much more tolerable. I am not normally a sunny person (more melancholy) but at least I realize this:) I appreciate the poetry so much. I am publishing my second poetry collection and I am realizing I can turn my ‘darkness’ into fun and lightheartedness too! thanks again for this blog post Shirley!
Michelle, I enjoyed going to your blog in the links you provided. Congrats on publishing your poetic memoirs. And for recognizing your tendency toward melancholy without judging it. I think most writers have a pretty deep streak of melancholy somewhere inside. But I don’t know any writer who isn’t happy when a book is published. You are welcome here any time. Thanks for stopping by.
Oy! The two sides to aging can sweep us away into moments of unutterable darkness when our health or our spouse’s health begins to decline. But there are the other moments of astounding joy when we are able to look back and see the map we created with our lives and all of the wisdom we have gathered over the years.
Bill and I are both Scorpios with only 4 days between our celebration days. I will be 74 and Bill will be 76 this year. We’re noticing the changes our bodies are undergoing, live with the pain of arthritis, and joke about how long it takes us to do things these days.
But at the same time I’m noticing we’re more grateful than ever before for everything we’ve been gifted with in life. We celebrate and laugh harder and louder than ever before at the wonders we’ve accomplished and missteps we’ve taken … and still do. We celebrate our years with humility and the knowing that it’s all been a very good life.
Blessing to you Shirley for a year filled with more wisdom and joy than ever before!
Joan, you are showing the way into the next stage — with your usual combination of honest and grace. I loved this line: “astounding joy when we are able to look back and see the map we created with our lives and all of the wisdom we have gathered over the years.” This is indeed the reward and mitigates the pain and fear that we can’t avoid.
Thanks for the good wishes on this year. And I wish you a fantastic book launch and Bill a 100 percent successful surgery and both of you the opportunity to travel together even during the recovery period.
I’ll join in the birthday discussion too. I gave myself a new writer’s gift for my 71st birthday in May – a course through Jerry Jenkin’s Writer’s Guild. (I had been more or less bedridden and confined to a wheelchair since a fall in January.)
I’ve been writing on and off for years – the pauses caused partly by illness and partly by other people’s needs. I was an MK and was later a missionary. I seldom celebrated a birthday in the same house all through childhood and youth. I moved numerous times as an adult as well. I had to leave Asia aged 44 due to illness.
I see my life with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis as a gift.
After writing several books in Swedish, I returned to English – the language of my youth. I finished my first book in English last year.
Now I’m facing the challenge of writing a memoir I never thought I could: The conflict caused by my relationship with my missionary father who was absent very often, his expectations for my life – and God’s call in my life. I’m challenging myself to write more.
Lisa, thanks for your visit here today. What a fascinating life you have led. I admire the way you describe the shadow of illness in your life and then go on to say that you see it as a gift.
I also admire that you can write in two languages (and probably speak in at least one more). I regret that I never mastered a second language despite taking classes in four of them.
My very best wishes to you as you write your memoir. I hope this site might be useful to you. Here’s a post I thought of: http://shirleyshowalter.com/bo-caldwells-city-of-tranquil-light-a-review/
I would love to visit the Scandinavian countries some day. In the meantime, I’ll think of you writing.
Okay, so I’ll hit “only” 47 on September 3rd, but I feel much older. I don’t mean in a negative way. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that “age” as a concept is loosening inside of me. I’ve been cultivating a more contemplative life. Author Fr. Richard Rohr might call it “non-dualistic”, but I don’t make any claim so grand! A lot of my feelings temporal dislocation may be due the difficulty of the past few years culminating in the death of my husband at only 48, and also that my mom and stepfather (68/71) are getting ill far younger than most of my friends who happen to be considerably older than I am (60, 64,76,78). I watch my friends entering a calmer, more introspective phase of life–even with the inevitable physical changes–and I find myself drawn there, on a soul level anyway, as well. This leaves me a bit out of step with my peers at times. Michael, my late husband, was worried for me. With my friends being older and my congenital shyness, he worried I’ll find myself more and more isolated as time passes. I hope not. I hope my heart will remain open to new friends and new experiences. Heaven knows, I don’t want to fear the shadows, but rest in them as securely as I rest in the sunshine.
Reading this description of your relationship to age made me feel very tender, Carrie. I smiled when you rejected “non-dualistic”as too grand a claim to make. You have definitely known many shadows at a young age.
This sentence is beautiful and works at any age: “Heaven knows, I don’t want to fear the shadows, but rest in them as securely as I rest in the sunshine.”
I’m glad you weren’t too shy to join this conversation, and I’m hoping that you will be able to share your wisdom with some other forty-something person around you who needs to learn exactly what you have learned both from loving older people and from probing the depths of your own spirit.
A lovely, thoughtful post, Shirley.
I suppose as I get older, birthdays are both less important and more meaningful. It’s less important to me how I celebrate my birthday, but significant that it’s one more year. At the same time, I love our goofy traditions, birthday crowns, songs left on the answering machine, and chocolate cake. Light and dark. I’m conscious of my age in a different way than I used to be. I feel great that I can keep up in the gym classes I do (and even do more and better than some of the younger members) when I’m often the oldest one there. I’ve seen some of the people here though in action, and you’d leave me in the dust. 🙂
We will be celebrating my mom’s 94th birthday this month. So many changes in her lifetime.
Exactly, Merril! “Less important and more meaningful.”
It does feel great to still be in decent shape and to enjoy stamina, hula hooping, and other physical exertion. The back pain last Saturday not only reminded me not to take this feeling for granted but also to keep moving. I’m grateful to be fully recovered now.
Your mom turns 94 this month. Happy birthday to her!
If she leaves you a voice mail, you can save it. 🙂 I was thrilled to figure out how to do that.
Shirley, happy birthday! Your reference to “Keep on the Sunny Side” brought me back to a summer with friends when I was in my early 30’s. A young man playing the dulcimer was singing that song.
As for the “dark and gloomy side of life,” those moments in our life are the character making, sometimes ugly and painful, and other times the opportunities for transformational breakthroughs. I do not welcome them or always meet these dark moments in a courageous way. I am grateful that I know now, that this too will pass.
I am a year your junior (67 this past June) and at this point thankfully only minor aches and pains. My aunts on my mother’s side had severe Alzheimer’s. My mom at the time of her death at 88, only suffered slight dementia. I hope that Alzheimers will also forget my sisters and me.
Thank you for your beautiful post. And your mom’s birthday singing to you brought tears to my eyes. What a precious gift!
Thanks for the good wishes, Audrey. I hope Alzheimers will forget my family too and the whole world. What a horrible disease.
I love the honest way you describe the role of the dark and troubled side of life. Sometimes waiting and enduring is all we can do, but I agree with you that the potential always exists for transformation, and even when that doesn’t happen, we are made stronger by endurance.
Happy birthday next June!
Your mother’s song is touching. It is so much easier to keep on the sunny side when we have roots to go back to, people in our lives who love and support us. I hope, as I continue to add numbers to my age, that I can look at my life and say that I have been roots for someone who might otherwise have been left rootless.
Lucinda, I love the idea of being roots for someone who might otherwise have been rootless. I imagine that you have already done this and that your writing will bring others into your life who need your rootedness. I am reminded of the Emily Dickinson poem:
IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin 5
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Today, August 5, is Wendell Berry’s 82nd birthday. Here is a quote from him that applies to birthdays, age, and the issue of sunny/darkness:
“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”
All I can say is, “Yes.” … “Ironically, the more I feel my finitude, the more precious is every day, whether birthday or not, and the more willing I am to relax into the great, infinite, love of God.” … “Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”
Thanks, Kathleen. You know whereof you speak.
Berry reminds me a little of another favorite poem. I’m sure you know it.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.
7. God’s Grandeur
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
I turned 73 this year and, yes, I do notice some differences. Fortunately, my health remains excellent! I have seen myself become much more nostalgic, though. I miss my parents and other family members, and regret that I didn’t ask more questions before they left me. I find even more solace and support in my love of music. And there’s my family – I wish I could have more time with them!!!
Donna, thanks for offering these candid views of your own birthdays from just a few steps ahead of me in years. I’m glad you have music as a life-long companion. It too can hold the shades of light and dark that age deepens.
Younger people might be surprised at the fact that older people miss their parents. Even if they have lived to a ripe old age.
May your times with children and grandchildren help console you for other losses and allow you to love them all the more.
Thank you, Shirley. What a gorgeous birthday. Simple, loving, spacious. The Carter Family was part of my Missouri youth.
I’ll never forget the magnificent surprise party with over 100 people that Vic pulled off on my 45th birthday. When I turned seventy last year, I had no heart for big celebration so spent the day alone with a few phone calls from family and dinner a few days later with friends. Vic and I didn’t make a big deal about birthdays or buy each other fancy gifts, but we gave each other time for an extra long walk or talking about dreams. There is still much to celebrate in this life. I can still lift weights and take vigorous walks, and my hearing hasn’t gotten worse this year. The back pain I had last year resolved with chiropractic help. (Sending your back a wish for more ease and comfort.) I’m grateful for my garden which is at its most productive during my early September birthday. I’ll cultivate gratitude that day, even if I choose to spend it alone. And I’ll miss the guy who hugged me on birthday mornings.
Love is the biggest gift of all.
Amen to love as the biggest gift, Elaine. I just now found this comment when I was writing a new post, so please forgive the great lapse in time.
The quiet celebrations are often the best, and your description of how lonely birthdays can be after the death of a spouse remind us all to cherish the biggest gift, those we love, every day!