Reading: Ditch the Birthday Party. Do THIS Instead

Finding Purpose

Ditch the Birthday Party. Do THIS Instead

What happened when one writer didn’t want to celebrate her big 4-0 with balloons, cake, and cocktails?

By Emily Grosvenor

Dread is usually a sign that you should be making a different choice. So when my 40th birthday loomed, I knew I was never going to have one of those big blowout milestone parties with the entire cast of friends and family, the Mylar (and I love Mylar!), or the cake with the sparkler candles.

I didn’t want to have a party because I didn’t know how I was going to explain my absence.

For more than a year, I had been mostly housebound with a pelvic nerve injury I got while doing aerial yoga. I was still teaching one writing class at the local college and editing a magazine from home, but I was spending most of my days laid out in front of a gas fireplace, one leg hiked up the wall. 

What was I supposed to do? Stand up there with a microphone and go into the details about how a combination of poor connective tissue, two giant babies, and a one-time attempt at being a Cirque du Soleil performer had made it impossible to sit without pain and even more impossible to leave my own home? 

Was I to be my own party pooper?

How To Not Celebrate a Birthday
I simply didn’t want to celebrate my 40th birthday with a party. But because I can’t do anything without making a project out of it, I decided to mark the occasion by taking 40 people to coffee instead. 

By then I was making short drives. I couldn’t handle a crowd, but I could handle another human being, one (or so) at a time.

“Great idea,” my husband, Adam, said. “It’ll probably cost less, too.”

I started a week before the 2016 election. I took Adam out for coffee, we took a picture, and we filled out our mail-in ballots for the election together.

The next day, I made my small class of writing students meet me at the coffee shop for class, I bought them all coffee, and we took a pic. They were all like: OK, weirdo!

Later that day, I posted on Facebook with pictures and a little story and invited everyone and everybody I was connected to.

Let’s just say people really like coffee.

I quickly had a list of about 20 people who would be willing to help me fulfill my project to have 40 coffees with 40 people for my 40th birthday.

40th birthday

Rich, coffee date #3

The third person I met was my friend Rich. Oh, Rich! Rich, a health warrior himself, got the full story. Rich got to hear about how my family — Adam and our two boys, Dash and Griffin, then ages 3 and 6 — had been eating while standing at our kitchen counter so we could have dinner together.

He heard the tales of all the things I was figuring out how to do while lying on the ground. He got to listen to me wax on about me picking strawberries splayed out like Bathsheba the summer before. I got to hear about his move from his farm to the suburbs, his garden.

The whole time I stood there, amazed, that someone I hadn’t ever exchanged such private details with would sit with me for an hour to hear this garbage.

The next date was my friend Meg, a businesswoman whose child went to my son’s school. She got about half of the story before we started creating a media plan for the Nasty Woman wine label she was launching. (Remember? It was 2016.)

I met my bestie Jill, who didn’t need to hear about any of this because she was living through it with me. And I met my friend Emily, who worked with me on the magazine I edited. We talked mostly about work, and her amazing ability to express her sense of self through her wardrobe. 

40th birthday

Melissa, coffee date #7

I was getting more bold as I booked more coffee dates.

I had discovered Egoscue postural training and began doing about an hour of exercises every day at home to align my spine and pelvis.

It was working… so I booked a trip to see my best friend from childhood, Melissa, and her husband in Houston just to have coffee with her.

We had coffee, but later she got sick, so I took her husband out too. 

How Coffee Dates Became a Cure
The coffees rolled on. A friend from church. My son, Dash. My birthday twin, Amy. My first friend in Oregon. Someone I wrote with for an alternative weekly.

My mom.

birthday coffee dates

coffee date #16, with Mom

My other son, Griffin.

“Why do people do this?” he asked me.

“To get to know each other better,” I said.

“That’s silly,” he said. “Mama, you already know me.”

Some were people in my closest circles, some were people I always wanted to know better. All of them got some version of the same story.

The story itself was changing. First of all, it was getting shorter. Entire scenes disappeared. The drama petered out of it. Some of the worst of it went poof.

My Greatest American Health Novel was becoming a haiku. 

More coffees ensued. My best friend, Sam. My pelvic floor therapist, Molly, got to talk about something other than my obturator internus. My friend Sherrill, who started my kids’ school. My mentor, Lisa. A lady I had just met at the coffee shop I frequented. 

coffee with family

coffee #23 with Marijke

My friend Justin — to talk about the Game of Thrones ending. My cousin, Marijke, who was visiting from Seattle. My friend, Luke, who I had met at the same coffee shop. Two religious studies professors who were there on a break. The entire editorial team I worked with remotely. My acupuncturist.

At this point, I was having a lot of coffee and sometimes just showing up at the coffee shop for random coffee encounters.

So I would end up talking to my pastor, or the coffee shop owner, or both at the same time. 

I was starting to have coffee dates where I didn’t say a word about being in pain. I met my friend Kent, a retired city manager and one half of our two-person Penn State alumni group.

At this point, I was barely talking about my pain. I still had it, but it wasn’t the only thing I cared about. Now, I wanted something. I wanted more from the coffees.

birthday party

Nick, owner of Flag & Wire, and pastor Erika, coffee date #28

I wanted to meet people in person whom I only knew online. This is how I got to meet my friend Stewart, an interior designer in Portland. I just reached out — you know, invited him to coffee.

coffee dates

Jocela, coffee # 33

Eventually, I was in the 30s and I was running out of spots on my list, so I had to block off numbers.

I had a Zoom coffee with someone I worked with in D.C. in 2003. I wore matching scarves to a coffee date with my friend, Ken. I brought coffee to another friend who was stuck at home. I invited a soul sister. I met with an octogenarian (he took his first selfie with me).

A student took me out for coffee. A friend I knew only from Instagram fit me into her romantic weekend getaway in my town.

And then I stopped. 

At #38.

I couldn’t finish it.

I refused to book another coffee date to be posted online. 

I had got what I needed out of my emergence from convalescence and solitude — a project I didn’t want to end. 

You see, my life is not some almost-full dance card. I am not some exclusive club that only has room for people who care that I did something as mundane as age a year. 

And I was not just one more person who did some zany birthday project to go viral.

I knew that I would, from that day forward, go out for coffee with nearly anyone I knew even the tiniest bit.  

I’m not done with getting to know people, and I like coffee that much.

And I’ve learned this about tough times and stories: 

Tell the story — and tell the long version. Tell it again. Tell it to anyone who will hear. Tell it with all the flourishes and scenes and heartbreak. Tell it until it only takes a single sentence to get it out and all the disappointment and the pain and the sorrow have evaporated. 

Tell it until it goes poof.

Would it surprise you to find out that I seldom paid for any of these coffee dates? That many times, the people I met wouldn’t even let me pay, though I had invited them?

That’s the thing about coffee. It may seem like such a small gift — a shared $5 drip of caffeine tucked in between more important things to do. But the coffees were really about how these people all stood with me, literally, at all of those coffee counters — how they gave me a part of their day while time did its thing.

Emily Grosvenor is author of Find Yourself At Home: A Conscious Approach to Shaping Your Space and Your Life (Chronicle Prism), editor of Oregon Home magazine, and the voice behind the Substack: ★ I would do it differently. ★

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