My dear friend Philippa’s birthday was on October 13. We made a huge deal of it last year because she had just received a breast cancer diagnosis, was staring down a double mastectomy, and was more conscious than ever of making the most of the life you’ve been given.
A dozen or so of us marked the occasion by holding a good ol’ fashioned bra burning. The goal wasn’t to free ourselves of societal constraints but rather to show of solidarity for our friend who would no longer need the famously female undergarments. (Unlike standard-issue boobs, fake ones don’t need a restraining device to keep them from migrating south late in life like anatomical retirees.)
Philippa had never really cared for bras, so on the one hand she wasn’t sorry to set a bunch of them ablaze. On the other, whether she liked ‘em or not, those undies held up a part of her that undoubtedly formed part of her identity as a woman. I can’t imagine what it felt like to let go of them and what they represented, and not by choice.
When I try to think of a single word to describe this gathering that blended support, concern, love, determination, optimism and fear, the one that comes to mind is: reckoning. Being on the cusp of a long, difficult journey made Philippa take stock, and I think it had that effect on the rest of us, too.
A year later, Philippa’s physical recovery was complete. But I still broached the topic of birthday plans with care, recognizing that emotional recovery goes at its own pace. My friend said she was torn, and I could understand why. She survived an ordeal–clearly something to celebrate—but was forever altered. What type of gathering commemorates that?
After thinking about it for a few days, Philippa said, “Let’s have a beach bonfire.”
“Sounds great,” I said. Of course, I would have forced myself to react with great enthusiasm to anything she suggested, including a quilting bee, but another big burn sounded like it could be therapeutic.
A slightly smaller group than last year’s trekked from DC to Dewey Beach on a beautiful Sunday morning and were rewarded with clear skies and temps in the 60s. We spent the afternoon on the beach and then came home, put on some music, and started making dinner. After a few minutes of cutting up vegetables, we decided to cut a rug instead. Yes, a dance party broke out right there in the living room in broad daylight. (I say this as if the dance party acted alone, but it had an accomplice: the apple cider/rye concoctions that had quenched the group’s thirst while out on the beach.)
There I was, dancing in the living room of a beach house with mainly middle-aged people, belting out Michael Jackson songs, when suddenly “All About That Bass” came on. You might not have thought Meghan Trainor’s bubble gum ode to bubble butts would appeal to our demographic, but the whole room sang it loud and proud, especially Philippa. After a year that was all about her treble, I guess she was glad to focus on the bass for a change.
When the sun had sunk and with it the mercury, we bundled up and returned to the beach. This bonfire was far less somber than the previous one. But it did have some things in common with last year’s. It, too, had a strong “letting go” theme. And it also involved reckoning, as in Philippa and a few other people reckoned they should let go of their clothing. (I reckoned I would keep mine on, thank you very much.)
And off went a small and very merry Birthday Suit Brigade, dipping the skinny while the rest of us stayed on shore and chewed the fat, thrilling in watching our dear friend live large.