Walt Whitman and National Celebrate Life Day
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
How an expert on celebrating may be missing the point
January 22nd is National Celebrate Life Day
Whenever I hear the word “celebrate,” I can’t help but think of one of my literary crushes. It’s been going on for a long time, this love affair that defies logic. It’s an intense and passionate relationship caused by my reaction to the poems of a grizzled, white-bearded, controversial old man. His silver-sharp-edged-words cut to my core.
Yep. I’ve got a major thing for Walt Whitman. He wrote the inscription I want engraved on my tombstone:
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
(OK. I know that the quote is too long to fit on my tombstone, so I’ll just take the first line…or maybe the last line…or maybe the middle line. Hopefully, I’ll have time to make that decision.)
Walt wrote other verses that touched me, including the one that says,
“All goes onward and outward, Nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
Reading this, you may think I’m terribly depressed and obsessed with death. No way. In fact, the opposite is true. I am obsessed with living and celebrating the simple pleasures of the world before it’s my time to depart. Whitman’s words remind me to appreciate life NOW.
Whitman describes the writer’s need to utter a primal scream that everyone can hear, sounding the “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” He’s famous for the phrase that begins Leaves of Grass:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself…”
Today is National “Celebrate Life” Day, and I’m thinking of Walt Whitman. As much as I love him — and while I understand that it’s important to “celebrate yourself” — I’m thinking that maybe Walt was missing the point. Celebrating is a lot more fun when you’re rejoicing in something other than yourself.
Take, for instance, the incredible birthday party that I attended one summer. It was a lovely affair that included a walk in a gorgeous country garden, appetizers served on the porch, luscious international cuisine arranged on fine china, and the warm and enchanting camaraderie of good friends. As part of the birthday gift to the guest of honor, we were told to come prepared to share a story about our friendship with the “birthday girl.” We went around the table and one-by-one honored our friend with our narratives. It was not an isolated celebration of self, but a bountiful celebration of love with others. Without question, that was the best party I’ve ever attended.
Once, on a nice September evening, I was lucky enough to be part of a special celebration with my friend. We were two single, independent, professional women, and we decided to follow Whitman’s advice. We weren’t just observing her birthday, we were celebrating “ourselves.” Dressed up in little black dresses, we took ourselves out to a nice dinner and talked about the hopes and dreams of the upcoming year. In a night I’ll remember fondly all my life, my friend and I — without alcohol, without the company of men, and without a huge party — laughed so hard and so much that my stomach muscles were sore the next day. We had celebrated ourselves, TOGETHER.
That night, I began to believe that Walt misled me. Celebrating “self” may be OK once in a while, but it can’t hold a candle to celebrating life in the company of friends.
Every day should be a celebration of life, but if you want to officially acknowledge it today, consider doing these things:
Walt Whitman also wrote about being surprised by his friendships:
“I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends.”
Having friends, however unworthy he felt, was a cause for celebration.
A friend recently said that he and his wife were both attending the same “pity party” last week, but he won because his “pity party” had more balloons. I had to smile. Even a pity party is more fun when there are TWO people invited!
Walt and I may have to break it off. While he’d rather be off “celebrating himself” somewhere, I’ve decided that I’d much rather make an occasion, plan a party, and socialize with friends who make me want to celebrate life, today and every day.
Buy Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass