Excitement builds all day long. I rush through class, after boring class, watching the big white clock above the teacher’s head, waiting for the bell to ring. This is unusual. With the exception of math class, most days, I genuinely enjoy school. It is one of the only things at which I excel. Today, however, I have got something way better to do than school. It is my sixteenth birthday party, and I have a surprise for the few people whom I’ve invited to my party. Finally. The last bell rings, and a crowd of loud teenagers pour from every classroom door in the two-story school. They stop at the lockers (one of which I never had McGavock. Who had time to go to a locker when you only had seven minutes to get from McBee and Wright’s Biology class, located upstairs, far East corner, to Astronomy, located downstairs, far, far, FAR West corner?), couples hug and kiss and do other completely alien-to-me things. Normally, I whiz right past them, out the doors and into my mom’s waiting car. But, today, I am already smiling, my head held high, excitement oozing out of me.

When I walk through the double set of doors to the patio, I see a big, black limo parked in front of my school. My friends began to find their way out of the school building and crowd excitedly around me. We have a limo for a ride today! The limo is stocked full of soft drinks and, as we drive, we laugh and talk and pull pranks on unsuspecting drivers next to us (think of a teenage boy rolling down the window of a limo, looking at the lady in the car next to him and saying, in his most serious voice, ‘Excuse me. Do you have any.. grey poupon?’). Soon, we arrive at the horse stables and mount our horses. This, in and of itself, was pretty hilarious, as several of my friends had never been that close to a horse. One insisted he received a “demon horse” for the rest of our high school career.

This massive celebration was for my sixteenth birthday. Traditionally, sixteenth birthdays are big. But, in my family, every birthday is big. Birthdays are supposed to be massive celebrations, designed to make the birthday person feel needed, special and loved. We’ve continued the tradition of having large scale birthday celebrations for the girls, every year. At Breathe’s Sweet and Sassy birthday party last year, one of her friends’ mom remarked to another, “I mean, I’ve been to birthday parties before, but not like this.” Each girl received her own pampering with make-up, hair style, gown, tiara and chance to dance. A huge birthday cake is part of the deal. Endless number of presents included, too. Alight’s experienced large-scale birthday celebrations too.

But.

It had been awhile (read: never) since I’d actually stopped and examined the purpose and motivation behind birthday celebrations. I knew I held cherished , wonderful memories of my birthdays. But I wanted to dig deeper (imagine that).

Recently, Joe celebrated a birthday. I knew what he wanted me to give him. Unfortunately for him, a big screen TV was not in my plan. Instead, I told him to be ready bright and early and pick me up. I did not tell him why, or where we were going. First, we stopped at the Frothy Monkey for breakfast. We took our time, which set the stage for the rest of the day as well. Then we got on the interstate. I put in the address for our next destination into the GPS system, and he followed the instructions, still having no idea where we were going. Finally, he realized we were headed to Louisville. Our first stop was supposed to be to the Muhammad Ali Center; when we discovered that it was closed for the next few weeks, we decided to explore the city. We went to the waterfront and had a relaxing early morning, wandering around the city. Finally, the big surprise: a stay at The Brown Hotel, and reservations for dinner at its fancy restaurant. By the end of the following day, he assured me that this was a better gift than the big screen TV he thought he wanted.

And that made me start to think.

 Why was it better than something he’s wanted for a long time?

Because it made him feel special. And that is human nature. We all want to feel special and needed and loved and appreciated. I don’t dread birthdays. I don’t fear them, either. I will be 30 this year, and I really don’t care. I feel no panic attacks on the horizon. Indeed, I almost look forward to it, because I know that my family has a history of doing our best to ensure that your birthday is your best day of the year. It’s the day I get spoiled, attention lavished on me. While extravagant, it has also, over time, created a feeling of security. I may get older, but I don’t get any less loved.

Holidays are special because they only occur once every 365 days. Christmas is special because it is the one day that is set aside specifically to remember Christ’s birth and the amazing redemption He was to bring. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to express gratitude to people we are perhaps occasionally guilty of taking for granted. Memorial Day is a day set aside to honor our men and women who constantly protect our country. The fourth of July is a day to be thankful we live in this country, a day to remember that the American spirit is defined by courage, faith and loyalty. Birthdays are days set aside to remember the multitude of gifts that other people have given to us, and to do our best to thank them, to honor them. Birthdays are days set aside to show our appreciation for someone, or something, else, to say in whatever way we can, that our lives have been enriched by the fact that someone else was born.

Tonight was the conclusion of the (recorded) “America: The Story of Us” series, as presented by the History channel. It made me sad that it was over, it was so good. And it was good because it reminded me that, even through its flaws, even through its economic and, at times, political errors, good things happen here, in our land. Soledad, from CNN, reported that, after the 9/11 attacks, New York was “quiet.” She recounted that people would “give up their seats” and “make room” for others on the subways, almost as though everyone were “aware of how fragile everybody was.” Sometimes, Americans’ sense of independence and free will can create a rushed feeling. I have visited places that seemed as if no one saw anyone else, because they were so in a hurry. But that’s just the goal-directed, ambitious part of our spirit, hungering after the next dream, believing that we can make it happen. Underneath that time-conscious mindset are people with compassionate, generous and kind hearts who seem to intrinsically believe the best in everyone else.

Recently, my state was under a terrible, terrible flood. Lots of people were hurt. But we rallied back, and used our volunteer spirit to begin the healing process. Our mayor commented, in fact, that not as many governmental dollars were having to be spent on re-building Nashville because our churches and neighbors were reaching out, taking care of our victims. This is who we, as Americans, are. Each of us has been positively impacted, at least once, by a stranger. Each of us has had our lives touched, our bridge to healing strengthened, at least once, by someone who could have very easily looked the other way. “Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be friend. I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on” — this seems to define us, as a nation. We help, and then we look to each other for assistance when the rain falls on us.

For all of these reasons, tomorrow, when I wake up, I will give gratitude to God for allowing me to be born in the United States of America. It was in this land that I met Joey, the homeless angel who left his footprints all over my heart. It was in this land that I met the stranger whose name I never knew, the one who held a door open for me and forever rocked my world. It was in the backseat of a car, or the cramped space of a hotel room, where my sister and mother and I formed bonds that no one can break. It was in this land I first felt loved. It was in this land I experienced the joy of being a mother. It was in this land that I first saw a rainbow. It was in this land that I experienced the power of education. It was in this land I first learned to write. Every other day of the year, it is easy to take America for granted. But the fourth of July is a birthday. It’s just as important a birthday as my own because it is a day set aside to acknowledge the many gifts that America has given me. My whole heart should be involved in the birthday of America — and it is.

Thank you, America, for your soft blades of grass that tickle my feet when I walk outside. Thank you for your dirt roads and yellow fields of vegetation. Thank you for your rolling hills, and your mountains. Thank you for your oceans and all your wild animals. Thank you for your people, who have always, still do and will continue to enrich my life with their presence, compassion and optimistic spirit. Thank you for your history of faith in God, and your determination to provide me the free will to worship without fear of prosecution. Thank you for your cabins, which grant my soul rest. Thank you for your beautiful sunrises and for the shapes your clouds make. Thank you for the sense of unity and comradeship you make me feel. Most of all, though, thank you, God, for creating such a land as this, and for letting me live long enough to appreciate it. When I sit on my porch swing, rest my head back, and feel the gentle breeze tomorrow, my heart will overflow with appreciation. We’re not perfect, but we are resilient. We’re not perfect, but we are compassionate. We are not perfect, but we try to care for the rights and souls of our people. We are not perfect, but we are accepting of that. We are not indestructible, we can be attacked, but we are strong both in might and in heart. I might go pick some peaches tomorrow and, if I do, I will pick those peaches knowing that our land is rich with health and beauty, and I will say a silent of prayer of thanks to God for America’s bountiful, nourishing, beautiful land. Above all, though, the reason I most love America, the greatest reason I will celebrate her birthday with hot dogs, marsh mellows, ice cold Coke, hamburgers, family and fireworks is because of her acceptance. Unconditionally, this land has accepted me as one of her own for the last 29 years and has never made me feel unwelcome. Indeed, her arms seemed to stretch out wide for me, seemed to invite me to rest my head on her soft grass, or dance in her rain, upon my overseas return.

America is my home. She is the place of my greatest memories, the location for all my triumphs. And I love her. Birthdays are just and beautiful things. And my family’s tradition of hosting big birthday celebrations is just and right. It is right to do all we can to make sure our loved ones have a day set aside just for them, a day where we tell them in words, presents and deed that, whether they be five or a hundred, our love remains stable and secure, and that their gifts to our past, present and future will not go un-acknowledged. Birthdays are our chance to pay them back for the intangible, but crucial, gifts that have enabled us to write our own success stories. Happy birthday, America. May you revel in all the celebrations, be they simple or elaborate, that await you tomorrow night. May you feel the love of your people, as they tell you in song, dance and act that they are thankful for you. And may you always be the home of the brave, faithful and free.

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