We said goodbye to our four-year-old nephew today. We’d kept him for a few days because his parents were out of town. It’s amazing how much having a little one changes the dynamic in a family. With two teenagers in the house (and one who’s almost there) things are different for us than they were an eyeblink ago.
These days our lives are marked by large swaths of the predictable. There’s lots of quiet and a fair bit of angsty journal writing. But four-year-olds need to yell, to jump straight up in the air, to be reminded to go potty. They need eye contact and physical touch and snacks. They need sleep.
As we re-arranged our lives to provide those things for our nephew I realized that my teens need a lot of the same things he does–still, after all this time. I watched them hunker down and watch kid cartoons with the pre-schooler, wrestle till they were sweating, play hide-and-seek, and evil robots. I watched them grab books and blankets during the little guy’s nap, giving in to the old relief of a time-out. I watched them be kids, and also, I saw their rapidly approaching adulthood as they helped meet the needs of someone smaller. Someone they used to be.
And I remembered: deep down, we are all four-year-olds.
It’s almost Christmas. Yesterday I sat down with the kids and told them how this week will unfold if everything goes the way I suspect it will– that there will be fun but also boredom; sweet moments but also snippy responses from siblings and parents with cabin fever; excitement but also hints of the blues, maybe. I reminded them that Christmas morning will come with presents under the tree, but also visits to two separate nursing homes, where my grandparents wait out the ends of their lives without knowing what day it is.
I wanted my kids to be prepared for the everydayness of this week–the truth that, even with the sparkle of the season, there’s going to be plodding and flashes of frustration. Even in the happiness, there might be secret (or not-so-secret) undercurrents of grief and insecurity, as there are for so many of us. I wanted them to understand, when they’re slightly let down after ripping the last package open, that having mixed feelings about all of it is OK.
Because I feel that way, too. And so do most people I talk to about this season of high expectations. It’s only when we accept that joy will steal up on us while we’re not expecting it, that it will be interspersed with normal–even banal–things like loading the dishwasher, standing in the doorway of a hospital room, or serving cookies to someone who can’t quite chew them the way she used to, that we are set free to celebrate the baby who was born in a drafty barn on an ordinary night.
*For another take on helping kids set reasonable expectations of the season, see this.*
I grew up on the stage, playing my first violin recital at age three. I vaguely remember the corsage on my shoulder being bigger than my face at the time, and that I got a white ribbon afterward. Everything else is a blank–including what I played, which was likely three notes.
At six, I switched to the cello. From then on I performed, year after year, in venues as diverse as they were plentiful. It got to be a thing where I felt a little nervous before a performance, sometimes, but usually only if I found myself queued up in an endless stretch of fellow recital-bots.
Weddings, office parties, tours? Not so much.
It was probably good for me to have started so young, to have learned from an early age how to use the energy we call nerves instead of letting it use me. There were crash-and-burn moments, of course, when my bow hand shook so violently it cut audibly anxious paths across my strings. But in time I got less nervous about getting nervous. Or else I got numb.
My kids started taking piano lessons this semester. For one reason or another, my husband and I did not emphasize formal musical instruction with them for several years. For one thing, we wanted to see if they actually wanted to put the time in to practice before we made the commitment. We homeschool, and practicing an instrument felt like one more thing we’d have to “encourage” if it didn’t go well. Then there was the fact that we lived for three years in a remote place where we couldn’t secure music lessons.
But we’re in the States now, and they really wanted to learn how to play the piano, so we let them. The only problem is that they’re 14, 13, and 11.5–old enough to be self-conscious. So I had no idea how they were going to handle their upcoming recital.
Who am I kidding? I had no idea how I was going to handle it.
In the end, they did very well, though my daughter was shaking so bad she had to steady her hands before she began her piece. They didn’t crack under pressure, didn’t goof up, didn’t get up and walk out, or nervous-burp, or barf. Believe me when I say that those things are fairly common, and that I’ve seen enough recital train wrecks to have lost my innocence forever.
So they played while I cried in the audience like some kind of unstable Tiger Mom. And, yeah, I aged a couple of years. But the thing I learned is, they’re really going to be OK, after all.
And so am I.
The first week in December came and went. My sister and her husband and kids stayed with us for a few days, and it was Christmasy to have littles in the house again.
And then, in the middle of Amazon deliveries, Christmas movie marathons, and reminding preschoolers to flush, our middle son turned thirteen.
I won’t spend time dragging out tattered cliches about time flying and all that. But he’s the second of our three kids to cross this invisible threshold in the last fourteen months, and I have to mention it.
Yesterday, we visited my eighty-year-old grandmother. She is still beautiful to me. Her hands shake now, but her nails are painted red and she wears diamonds. We sat out on her sunporch, overlooking quiet fields, and reminisced about my childhood and hers. She chuckled to herself, talked about my kids and me as if we are the same age.
My husband and I haven’t turned forty yet, but we notice the signs of a new normal in the bags under our eyes, in our increasing fatigue at any hour past 9:30 PM. We don’t feel twelve-and-a-half very often anymore.
Then we look at our kids, at how they’re leaving childhood behind at breakneck speed, and we feel older, still–but also younger. Older because, how did we become the parents of two teenagers and one who’ll be there in seventeen months (minutes)? Younger because we’ve crammed a lot of living into thirty-eight years, and, Lord willing, there’s more to come.
So I’m trying to stay present in these actual moments instead of looking back too much, or worse, too far ahead. Because before long, these hours will be replaced by something new. And then something else after that.
And I will miss my grandmother, and the house that used to have kids living in it.
It’s here: The Season. I swore I’d never be one of those people who got caught up in all the mindless busyness of modern American holidays, the hand-wringing over recycled wrapping paper, gluten-free finger foods, and gargantuan expectations.
I wasn’t during our years in India. And I wasn’t before that, when my kids were very small. But since we’ve been back in the U.S. (three years now), I’ve felt holiday insanity sneaking up on me.
Have you seen the movie Alien? I don’t recommend it, but I’ll just say that the raging fever of consumerism and ubiquitous Pinterest Faerie Land Photos feel to me like the hideous thing that attaches itself to the guy’s face in order to lay its eggs in him at the beginning of that movie. (Since I’ll never be able to un-see that particular scene, you might as well see it, too).
And just like in the movie, this craziness means war. A war for peace. And I’m gearing up.
I just got done cancelling the kids’ jujitsu for the entire month of December (boom). And we only have one more piano lesson before we shut down the semester (hooah!). I’m saying no to math.
And you know what else?
I’m saying no to perfect because it doesn’t exist (except in the Person for whom all the fuss exists).
But I’m saying yes to our Advent readings, to my sister and her family staying with us for a week, to a Christmas concert with friends, to fires in the fireplace, to Crock Pot chili.
I’m saying yes to shopping on Amazon and wrapping the boxes as they get here and sticking to the budget as much as possible.
I’m saying yes to donating to our favorite causes, even if it’s only a little bit, and to sharing coffee with our neighbor whose husband died a month ago.
In short, we’re going to have a White Space Christmas season, if not a White Christmas, exactly. I’m finding that it takes guts to carve out time for nothing, but I just strapped on my flak vest.
I dare you to join me.
I’m leaving the country tomorrow (for the third time this year) and it’s the same old thing: the scrambling to get things done while feeling a familiar tightening of chest muscles, the failure to match nouns with verbs.
It’s a privilege to go. I’m aware of that. And I’ll get on board, literally and figuratively, in about 30 hours. Until then, I think about my kids and how they’ll get along while I’m gone. I think about my husband. Will he secretly watch new episodes of The Blacklist without me? I probably would if I were him. And will someone think to put the pink coat on our dachshund, Amy, if the weather gets colder next week? She needs that coat.
I studied in Vienna when I was in college. I remember feeling trepidation when I boarded the plane to head overseas with a fellow American student from my university. But it wasn’t because of all I was leaving behind. It was because of the future.
That was years ago. Since then I’ve traveled to five different continents (and lived on three), so I don’t feel those travel butterflies quite like I used to. Now I head into the air trying to send one more I love you text to the people who are holding my heart until I come back home again.