It's Friday night, the last Friday before Christmas. The presents are (mostly) done, and (mostly) wrapped, the child is in bed but not yet sleeping and the house is settling into the near silence that it takes on at this time of night. For awhile now I have been composing this piece in my head on the long stretches of highway travel while the rest of the car sleeps, in the moments of conversation with her that cause my mind to wonder and wander, bits of stories and anecdotes that I've hastily recorded on the backs of envelopes, napkins and meeting minutes. For some reason I've been more reflective than usual at this time of year, and the things that I want to record and remember have piled up. Perhaps it's because I've taken on this daily ritual of writing and recording; he jokes to me that I'm always "blogging" in my head, framing a theme or a ritual into a neat sequence of photos and tidbits with a clear beginning, middle and end with bonus points for a clever punchline or private chuckle. The thing is, this isn't new. It's the way my mind works, the way it's always worked, and giving myself the framework and the permission to put "pen to paper" has been a real treat for me. Life is not always tidy, not always photogenic. I'm grateful for that.
This year has been about the messiness. The messiness of transition from one job to another and the difficulty and struggle for me to find balance between those things that I must do and those things that I want to do....trying to get to a place where what I do is what I love. Trying to get to a point where what I do in my down time is a supplement to the creative energy I expend at work, and not merely an escape from it. I'm not there yet, and that challenges me in ways that I've not been challenged before. But with each new moment of panic comes decision, and a stronger sense of self and purpose. I'm grateful for that.
When she was born, as with any monumental life shift, the ebb and flow of daily rituals alter and it takes awhile for those new rituals to shift and bend, slowly settling into new grooves and patterns that erase all traces of the previous path. Some people collapse under this shift, some transition effortlessly, most fake it quite well. I do a little of all three. I have not had to give up what I'm most passionate about. I just can't let it consume me to the point where I forget to eat and sleep. She likes to do both quite a lot, and I've come to love and appreciate this reality check. I still love to get caught up in a project or idea and shut the rest of the world out, but it's also a really good idea to fuel up occasionally or even sleep on it for awhile. And as she gets older, she seems a lot more like me as we work in near silence, elbow to elbow, deep in concentration with the task at hand.
One of the things that I've missed most this year are the Fridays that we had together, just the two of us, to wander around this city and do whatever we wished at whatever pace we wished. Sometimes we'd sit in the sunny corner of the pottery shop early in the morning before anyone else was there, painting. Like me, she loves to talk and talk and talk. Nearly all the time and about anything at all. But when we are busy, when we are intent, we are silent. We rarely spoke during those times, we just painted, drinking up the sunshine and absorbing the conversations that were taking place around us. In October we went back after a long hiatus, found our corner spot still available even though the Sunday afternoon was much busier than our Friday morning private parties ever were. And it was okay, it really was. She made her selections, laying them out in front of her, and I made mine. We painted for the next two hours and I watched her move from one to the next, the patterns she made, never skipping or skimping as she went on. "I think I'm about done, Mom" she said, "How are yours coming?" "Pretty good, I think, just about done." "Great," she said, "This was fun." That's about the extent of what we said and then we selected our lollipops from the gigantic bowl, paid our fee and made one last pass by the window to see the finished products. The talking would start back up again, full force, most likely to the point that I might suggest we listen to music for awhile. But I've thought back to those few hours spent with her many times since then. If I share one gift with her, passed down from me, I hope it is the enjoyment of escape into a task that you love. She seems to get it, and for that I'm grateful.
I have always counted myself lucky to have a partner who does his share and more of those things that just have to get done on a daily basis. No more lucky than in this past year with our busier, more frantic schedules. My projects are not small ones, and they ooze into corners and drape themselves lavishly over surfaces to a point where the living space outside this blanket of craft is so cramped it's hard to function, and sometimes even breathe. He tiptoes gingerly around these spaces, never pushing back against the borders, and effortlessly throws together picnic dinners for the living room when the dining room and kitchen tables are unavailable. They have been that way for the better part of two months, off and on, as they've hosted the snow globes, the Christmas musical props, the holiday cards and presents. As the last piece of the last project was slipped into the last envelope at an hour where only infomercials can string together words into sentences, I collapsed into the coma of the truly sleep deprived. The place was a disaster, and I just couldn't bring myself to clean it up. I might have promised myself as my head hit the pillow to clean it up the next day, but I doubt it. I don't even recall getting up the stairs. And then this afternoon, as I walked into the house, there it was. The space was back. All traces of the effort were removed, and in its place was a spotless room, a sparkling tree and a rousing "Merry Christmas" kick off at the door. Work was done, vacation was begun, and for me, I didn't have to start it out with a vacuum. I never underestimate the power of a clean, organized life and I feel fortunate to have someone who is better at keeping it that way then me...truly, truly grateful for that.
The humor, oh the humor. We laugh our way through most days around here. She takes one idea and mulls it over, spins it around and spits it out at the perfect moment. The child cannot master the simple knock-knock (orange who? "orange" you glad I didn't say orange again? ack, I mean, "orange" you glad I'm not a banana? ack...I mean, uh blueberry?) but she can slay you with the wit. A few years ago, we tried to convince this lover of all things with wheels, that we did not need a van. We're perfectly comfortable with people driving whatever vehicle they wish to, but we gave our reason that we did not need a van...because we have one child. One child fits perfectly well into a car, a car fits perfectly well into most parallel parking spaces, a car's gas consumption fits much better into our monthly budget. She kept producing counter arguments, and they were good ones. But the fact is, we don't like vans, we don't need a van, we weren't getting a van. Finally we just told her if we ever found ourselves with four kids in the house, we'd purchase a van. Until then, any number less than or equal to three was just fine in a car. For weeks she pointed out vans on the road with a single driver. A few weeks ago I came home to find her busy in the living room, couch pillows and dolls everywhere. She had constructed "a van" out of cushions, and the children were strapped into their seats with blankets and string. She had one doll perched on her hip and she bombarded me at the door.
"I made a van, I have a van, see my van I made." I nodded at it, admired the layout. She must have felt that I was not entirely convinced because she kept up her persuasive stance.
"I have four kids now - see? One pre-K, two toddlers and one newborn, this one here - just born."
I admired the family, noted the careful spacing between the siblings. She'd thought this thing through.
"Yep," she continued, " a van. Four kids and a van. Four, whole kids, and of course a van."
Now I could see where this was going. Justification. She'd met the goal, the criteria. She had popped out number four, and down to the Chrysler showroom she'd skipped, barely post-partum. She had arrived. But...there was more, oh so much more.
"Yep. I've got them all...four kids. A van. And a really good man."
Oh I just couldn't take it. She flattens me low with the punchlines sometimes. Grateful, we are, that she gets the jokes.
As we move into this new year, I think a good part of this reflection comes from a place where there is unrest and uncertainty, a place where collectively we all reside. There is relief that the next year brings the certainty of change and the possibility for great change. With that potential comes a great responsibility - to research and to listen to those who are standing up to be leaders for this change, and it's a responsibility that I don't take lightly. We all are searching for something, and often times that something is quite different from other's something. For me, that something is a person who embodies what I hope to instill in my daughter - the tenacity to take on challenges that no one else wants to with the humility of a person who knows she doesn't have all the answers, a person who may be considered by most to hold the loftiest of power positions, but who simultaneously realizes that he is but one of billions at that very moment, and a mere speck in the big picture of this earth we aren't caring so well for. I don't pretend to share a single one of these attributes. I'm scared to even try for them, but it's not stopping me from hoping that she will become them, and even better, acknowledge and appreciate those qualities in others, others who look and speak and eat and pray and live differently than she does. I have a picture on my computer of a friend of ours named Ysa. She's just a few months younger than our daughter, and she is in the arms of her uniformed father, standing in front of a bus that is moments from driving him away. He is doing what he does, overseas in dangerous places, and by default, she is giving of herself as well. When I see my daughter daily in the arms of her favorite person in this world, her dad, I don't have to see the tighter clutch that precedes separation. How does a parent let go from that embrace? For his service, and Ysa's sacrifice, my daughter is spared. It's what I think of in the quiet moments of the advent services and because she may not be old enough to truly understand, in her place, I am truly grateful.
Last Saturday, while we were driving in the car and singing along with our favorite Christmas mix - just the two of us - she asked me not to sing to Away in the Manger. After the first time through she requested it again. I could tell she was really focused on something, but I wasn't sure what it was. After it finished the second time, she asked me who I thought was singing the song. I told her I wasn't sure, but I could check the case when we got home. This confused her, and eventually I figured out that she wasn't looking for the recording artist, she was trying to understand the voice. I told her I didn't know - I had never really thought about it before. I figured it was just a person who was there, or maybe someone who had heard the story at some point in their life and decided to put the words of the tale to music. She was clearly not satisfied with this answer and asked for it to be played a third time. At the end she said simply "it's a mother."
"A mother?" I asked.
"Yes, it must be a mother. She is worried that she can't find a place for him to lay that won't be prickly. She only wants it to be soft for him. And then she wants him to be in that soft place, forever near her. It's a mother who sings it."
She moved on from that place, but I stayed there and I'm still there, in that moment when I sang that song as a mother. In the messiness and uncertainty of life, in the moments of darkest despair and uncertainty, may we all find a soft spot to bed down in, and a nearness to those that guide us through.
Merry, merry Christmas.