Birthday Poems

For Olivia, On Your 18th Birthday

Hey, you with the cat tattoo! It’s 18 years 
Since we first met, and a thousand miles due south. 
The room was more hotel than hospital,
With lights and monitors stuck snug behind 
Nice hidden panels, and a passing nurse 
Who told us twice Madonna had given birth
Here once upon a time just down the hall. 
Another nurse had told us meekly all
Was wrong in how she had been measuring
Dilation, which I will admit, made for 
A less amusing tale, but so it goes;
Eventually you graced us with your grand 
Arrival, and I held you softly, wrapped
Up in a blanket, tiny hat atop
Your head, the moment I consider best
Among the many great ones in my life;
Your tiny face there staring up at me,
Your eyes were studying me as I too
Was studying you; it seemed quite clear
Your mind was fiercely sharp, and you and I
Were going to have some great adventures soon.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 17th Birthday

The other night we watched some silly films,
If you recall.  Quite silly, but they have
Been staying on our minds these past few days… 
So, if The Fast & The Furious have taught
Us anything, it is not merely that
The cast was less than stellar in the field
Of acting (though we’d not deny their charms),
But also — and, hey, this is the thing 
To actually pay attention to here, right? —
It’s that the bonds we have with friends as well
As those of family are holding us
Together as a species, the mortar, strong,
Unbreakably strong when we want, that holds
Us up high, brick by brick, like a fortress wall 
Against outsiders who would tear us down, 
And like a sea wall holding back a storm
That crashes mighty waves against us
And would have washed us each away, 
And tossed us one by one into the depths,
But we are not alone; together we
All hold each other fast, our friends, our group,
Our kin, our blood, our heart. There always will
Be forces furious to pull us all 
Apart, and when we look at them we find
That often they are simply us ourselves
A bit confused about humanity
And wanting just to see us put in tribes,
Divided into silly this or that, 
Because of how we say the names of God
Or how our hair, complexions, eyes, or what 
Compare to someone else’s. We are strong
Together, stronger than the storm can be 
No matter how it scares us, stronger still
Than doubt. And let me tell you, when the clouds
Are breaking and the sun shines down, you look
Around at all those who were with you through
That mess, and then you’ll feel true victory 
As good as anything you’ll ever feel,
Like you’re Vin Diesel rushing past the cop
Who soon becomes his brother, or the Rock
When a torpedo needs a righteous shove
Away from pals, or Lucas Black alone
But in his father’s car and drifting through 
The night in shiny Tokyo to stop 
The mafia. High five, brah. You won.
And that triumphant feeling can’t be beat.
Embrace it! Yes, embrace togetherness,
Furiously, fastly, and without irony.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 16th Birthday

Here’s a year when all went upside down,
A nutty, silly year, the dumbest year.
And look, we’re all agoraphobic now,
Anthropophobic even, strange to say;
Behavior that’s against the very core
Of things in our humanity: “Wear masks…
No touching… Stay six feet apart or more…”
And yet. And yet this year there is at times
Great beauty — as there often is in life —
Of calm, of stillness, set apart from all
The crises of the daily news alerts
That yell at us (when we will let them). Time
Together, time alone, to stop and think,
A chance to breathe deep breaths, a chance to hold
Our breaths, a chance to hold each other too,
And to reset our lives. We should have done
This years ago (and should do so again).
It took the earth to do it for us first,
Which just is how things go sometimes, a push
From where you least expect, but when you need
It most. And — boom — a time to start afresh.

Reminds me of when you were two; we spent
A year together, you and I, a year
Of peace, and laughs, and tears, and diapers. Yes,
There were a lot of diapers. (Plus, there was
A little freelance work from home like now
As well.) And if we let them, years like these
Can teach us wondrous lessons on the ways
To listen, really listen, to the purrs
Of cats all stretched across your lap or chest,
To listen to your own deliberate steps
And hear the sound of gravel underneath
Your feet along our walkway, and those breaths
You take as you read in Northwest sunlight here
By our front door in your great-grandma’s chair,
And the soft and wild breezes that can lift
And carry neighbors’ voices to us. May’s
Last days will lead to summer soon. The earth
Spins on. The clouds float on. The trees like years
Reach up and out to higher things than us.
And look! The birds all spin and dance in air
In dawn and dusk. Their message, if you want
To hear, is things that can go upside down,
My dear, can also go up-right again.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 14th Birthday

This year you are a world traveler. Up
And down the Pacific Rim you go. First stop:
Japan. (You stood below where Little Boy
Departed the Enola Gay to change the world
Forever in a flash.) With barely time
To catch your breath, you found yourself beside
The sloths in Costa Rican jungles. Where
To next? It’d be no lie to answer just
“My high school!” right? After all, it is
Its own chaotic jungle full of strange,
Exotic creatures speaking languages
That no one knows, and dressing on the edge
Of what we might call fashions. Oh, the joys!
The sighs! The pains! The challenges! The hopes!
The changes! Every day, they wash across
You, waves of changes, oceans really now.
Embrace the weirdness — mohawks, miniskirts, sports,
And that thing, oh what’s it called? Homework, yeah.
For even on the longest days, when you
Can count the endless times a dust speck floats
Down, up, and back across a ray of light
In a Friday morning study hall, please know
So very, very soon it all shall pass
(And yes, you’ll pass your courses, do not fret),
And college waits with new and wilder lands
With jungles all their own for you to roam.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 13th Birthday

A cool day with blasting sun,
13 years ago, awaiting you.

Twilight fell and you announced
With vigor your imminent arrival.
Contractions were close apart,
The doula timing them with Swiss precision.
(She was after all from Interlaken.)

Los Angeles glowed its dirty neon glow
As we drove to the hospital.
The longest drive of my life
Was really only seven miles long.

Space and time will stretch and bend
To play with our awareness.
Years can jump by in a blink,
And then we can enjoy
Adventures in a single moment.

This night of yours, so long ago, so close at hand,
I merely close my eyes and I am there.
I relive it, that wild night, that happy instance
When I met you.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 12th Birthday

12! The duodecimal girl.
Sassy and witty and confident
All that I could ask for in a tween.
The year’s a blur for us, the boxes
Everywhere, boxes. The movers,
The chaos, the dust, the spiders.
The year’s a blur, but I hold you tight,
My eye in the hurricane,
The calm in the center of it all.
Our new house is still so new
We can hardly catch our breaths.
Where will everything go?
Where will everything fit?
Who says we need forks?
It’s a new town and you call it the country.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 11th Birthday

There’s nothing better than the human heart.
The driving, rolling passions moving us
To write a poem, to sing, to reach the moon,
To move a mountain (or at least to pull
A steamship over one like in a film
I love so much called Fitzcarraldo). We dance.
We laugh. We bend and break. Collapse. Endure.
A man without a heart’s a mannequin.
There’s pain in life; embrace it, yes. There’s joy
Beyond joy, if you let it, if you dare
To open up your heart and feel the flames
That glow inside. A little sun within
Us. Yes, it burns you sometimes, but it gives
You warmth. A life in ice is not a life
At all. Be warm instead and melt the ice
And wax. Be human, in all our dazzling downs
And ups and shimmerings in between. You’ll hear
Folks telling you to stifle it, to push
It down, repress it all. They’re wrong. They’ll say:
“She is 11 now, almost a teen,
Almost a drama bomb, almost a wild,
Annoying, sassy monster.” But again,
They’re wrong. I say that finally your life
Is starting; finally the craziness,
The swerving rollercoaster-bumper cars
Of happiness, confusion, anguish, angst,
This cornucopia called grown-up life
Is starting. And it can’t be stopped. Embrace
It. Laugh. Cry. Dance. Scream. Climb a mountain. Reach
Your fingers up and scratch at the moon. You’re alive.
You’re loved. You are 11. You’re alive.

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your 10th Birthday (Petite Madame Maelstrom)

This weekend two new lives entered our lives,
Two tiny-but-growing creatures, mewing, full
Of vim, electric, whirlwinds. I had thought
Your sister and you were whirlwind enough, but they
Are great additions to the family,
These kittens. And, dear 10-year-old, you’re great
At taking care of them. You have arrived
At last at the land of double-digits, sweet
Petite Madame Maelstrom, whirl-girl,
And it would be quite difficult to see
How I could be a prouder father. I
Suppose you could have had a few more huge
Accomplishments under your belt: you could
Have won a marathon while running back-
Wards; or you could have built a rocket by
Yourself then orbited the moon; you could
Have also won a slew of Oscars just
To have a showy way to hang up all
Your Nobel Prizes. Really though, I doubt
I would be too much more delighted than
I am with you in truth. With ease, you make
Me laugh each day so much my sides can hurt;
I’ve seen you like this with your friends as well.
You worry when it’s worth it; otherwise,
You keep an even keel (which Kipling taught
Us is as good a quality as one
Can have). My whole heart swells with joy
When I tell someone, “I’m Olivia’s dad!”
Because you always seek to do your best
And push to become better than you were
The day before. What more can I ever ask?

Birthday Poems

For Olivia, on Your Ninth Birthday

Hey, there, nine-year-old! You’re pretty special,

With your sassy sophistication,

Your biting sense of humor, and

Your ever-growing list of skills that I

Don’t have like sewing your own clothing and,

Wow, speaking Japanese. I am impressed.

I did not have my act together half

As well as you when I was turning nine.

Perhaps my favorite thing about you now
(Beyond how sweet you are) is that you share
My love of books, and every single night
We read our books together side by side,
Silently trying to push ourselves to learn
New things and become more than we were before.
In these moments it is not at all
Uncommon for me to stop my reading, watch
You for a while, and say: I’m honored to be your father.