Perfect Strangers

When I was a child living abroad, my birthday almost always coincided with a visit to my mother’s family in the States, which meant that any friends I had the good fortune to have were almost always an ocean away on my birthday.  Every year, my mother whose parents bestowed upon her the blessing of being raised her entire pre-adult life in a charming seaside New England town—rather than the altogether different blessing bestowed upon me of vagabonding around the globe—would invite the children of her childhood friends to gather at our lake cottage for my birthday. It was for her, I believe, an attempt to ensure that I felt celebrated on my birthday and continue the tradition of her upbringing, which involved summer birthday celebrations with friends at the lake. 

For me, it was a somewhat awkward affair that we children suffered through with extraordinary good manners and general enjoyment—perhaps because of the good parenting, sunshine, swimming, party favors and homemade ice-cream that accompanied the day. Though grateful for the gesture, I was nevertheless uncomfortable with the fuss. As soon as I was old enough to tactfully alter the obligatory nature of my birthday—maybe nine or ten—I told my mum that I was comfortable being alone on my birthday—and a new lakeside tradition of “just family” celebrations ensued, much to my (and I imagine, everyone’s) relief. 

Thus, it was with some habitual mixture of gratitude and reluctance that I greeted my friend’s, spontaneous and generous invitation to host a birthday party for me. Since most of my friends and family are still far away and many of those few closer to my island home were unable to attend, I had my reservations, sensitive as I am to obligatory gatherings of any kind, but particularly abhorring those in my honor and uncomfortable at the thought of replicating those childhood birthdays where people who didn’t know me were invited (or worse, obligated) to celebrate my birthday. 

But I was and am touched by my dear friend John’s desire to host such a party. I trusted that my friends here would not feel obligated to attend and that those folks invited with whom I am unacquainted would greet the experience of honoring a stranger’s birthday with the same good graces that my childhood birthday chums managed—that you, too, would transcend any awkwardness to simply eat, drink, and be merry.

And so it was. Thank you all for sharing yourselves with me—for offering your birthday greetings, skillful cuisine, and artistic efforts with such warmth and aplomb that one might think that we had met before the event. To those of you who know me well, thank you not only for the gift of your presence at my party, but also for the gift of your ongoing presence in my life. 

Last, but certainly not least, thank you, John, for inviting and organizing such a memorable birthday celebration, and reminding me yet again of what a blessing it is to receive the loving kindness of strangers and kin. It seems that not much separates the two when a willingness and ability for loving kindness exists.  Perhaps a “stranger” is simply kin with whom we have not yet experienced loving kindness—and the strangeness is simply that we don’t recognize each other as kin and offer loving kindness more often.