Giving in to Birthdays

Four years ago while studying in Québec, I managed to celebrate my birthday without a single Bonne fête or cake. None of my classmates, instructors, or housemates knew — that is, until the next day, June 6th, when one of my classmates (whose Facebook friendship I forgot I ratified) blew my cover. Some friend. “Why didn’t you tell us it was your birthday?!” they all asked in rapid-fire French. I shrugged my shoulders, I didn’t know enough French yet to say why.  

***

This year, I pencilled June 5th into my calendar as travel day. It had to be. It was sandwiched between the celebration of my Jesuit brothers’ June 3rd ordinations, my blood brother’s June 4th high school graduation in Wisconsin, and the June 6th-10th summer camp back in South Dakota. A birthday-travel day was the price I had to pay.

11:40pm, Sunday, June 4th: Standing in line, with a bag at my feet and a bag on my back, I watch a woman take an elegant and swooping Snapchat video of herself posing with a screen-printed shirt reading, IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, BITCH.

“Today or tomorrow?” I ask.

“Today!”

“Well, enjoy your last twenty minutes! Mine’s tomorrow!”

I stop in shock. I just told someone it was my birthday. What’s gotten into me?

“Honey, I celebrate my birthday all month,” she said, reaching over Greyhound’s retractable queue lines to give me a hug, “Happy birthday to you.”

I just told someone it was my birthday. What’s gotten into me?

***

2:40am, Monday, June 5th: I wake to the sound of air brakes, flicked lights, the voice of the driver saying, “Tomah, Wisconsin: Thirty minutes here, there’s a Burger King and a gas station, make sure you’re back on the bus at 3:10.” Blinking off the quick wake-up, my first emotion is pure and unbridled joy: I slept the whole 150 minutes. I’m not always so lucky.

2:50am, Monday, June 5th: I got a small fry, played harmonica by my favorite red maple, talked to the smokers, then slept till Eau Claire.

4:45am, Monday, June 5th: Woke up in Eau Claire. Went back to sleep just as soon as I woke up.

6:00am, Monday, June 5th: Woke somewhere between the Mississippi River and Minneapolis, rubbing my eyes to cornfields and wooded hills, standing rocks and every warm shade of red, orange and yellow in the tray. Blinking to free eyelids from eyes, mind from short dreams to this glorious sunrise and my upcoming bus transfer in Minneapolis, I checked my phone. We’re on time.

We’re on time. This is notable only for its brutal alternative: if you’re not on time, you’ll miss the connection. I exhale in relief.

6:05am, Monday, June 5th: 5 miles down the road, I check my phone after sliding my earplugs and eye cover into my backpack’s side pocket. Rivaling the before-my-alarm waking surprise to the perfect sunrise, I catch messages from Indonesia west through the Middle East, Eastern Africa and into France. I take a long scroll down my homescreen, birthday notifications chasing the sun east to west through lunch breaks on the other side of the world.

All this love and nowhere to hide. I had the next 12 hours on a bus across the expansive Great Plains: just me, my companions, and all these birthday wishes against a blank canvas.The grace poured in slowly.

6:45am, Monday, June 5th: The two curly-haired Amish children wake up, climbing the chairs in front of me, peeking and smiling as they eat their packed snacks and sing songs with their parents.

I read for most of the next two (three? four?) hours until Albert Lea, Minnesota.

The children always seemed to be smiling at me when I looked up between pages.

12:10pm, Monday, June 5th: Arrive in Sioux Falls. Depart 30 minutes later after doing absolutely nothing.

12:40pm, Monday, June 5th. After 12 hours, everyone starts to talk to each other. I trade two Kazakh college students some South Dakota indigenous-colonial history for central Asian geography lessons.

…In between reading, smiling, geography, silence, and cornfields I take texts, messages and phone calls, enjoying one of the happiest birthdays I’ve ever had. Every message and call lands with the time needed to savor it. With no other distractions, I couldn’t hide from thirty years’ worth of blessings from friends and family.

6:15pm, Monday, June 5th: Clare, Maka, and Sarah find me barefooted at the park in Rapid City. I even let them take me out to dinner before catching a ride back home to Pine Ridge, another 90 minutes away.

***

16 of the 24 hours of my 30th birthday on a routine Greyhound bus from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Rapid City, South Dakota. In the days leading up to this trip, however, I spent at least this much time answering “Why the bus?”

Greyhound does not typically have a high reputation among travelers. Reviews online range from “not particularly pleasant” to “dreadful and “horrible,” employing words and phrases such as “cringe” “fee-ridden and unfriendly” “worst experience of my life” and “I hate it.” Most USA Jesuits only know Greyhound from their pilgrimage experience, which many would cite as the the most uncomfortable portion of their Jesuit formation and/or life. But with at least seven years and counting of practice in Greyhound apologetics, though, I’ve got my answer down pat.

Simply put, I like the person I become on the bus. I talk to strangers. More than just small talk. I lend money. I ask questions. I read books. I look out the window. I think long and hard. I do nothing. I go with the flow. I say yes. I get there when I get there. I tell people it’s my birthday. I let myself be loved a bit. But until this year, I’ve never gone so far as to celebrating a birthday on a Greyhound bus. And I’m glad I did. Sixteen hours lets in a lot of love.

Maybe next year, I’ll pencil June 5th in again as a travel day. But, maybe I don’t need to- maybe Greyhound really is changing me for good.

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user SounderBruce.

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