I couldn’t help but grin today at the contrast between the cozy Advent post I wrote before the children awoke, the one celebrating the best moments of the past week, and the complicated, messy, full-of-friction day that commenced as soon as the first child staggered out of bed. The thing is, every day is complicated, messy, and full of friction. And every day has glorious or cozy moments worth celebrating. I seldom bother to chronicle the friction and the mess because writing time is fleeting and precious—and childhood even more so. I’d rather capture the small joys that I might forget—or take for granted—if I don’t take time to set them down in words.
Pondering this, something that struck me was the difference between blogging and real-life conversation. If a friend calls me on the phone, I’m unlikely to say, “We just had the loveliest half hour while Jane played carols on the piano, and I curled up on the sofa with a quilt and the laptop, and Rose was at the other end reading Betsy-Tacy, and Wonderboy was next to me looking at family pictures on an old cell phone that isn’t a phone anymore, and Beanie was dragging Rilla up and down the hall on a blanket and Rilla kept shouting, ‘Faster, Mama Duck!'”
All that is true; it was a lovely half hour, and I Twittered some of it so I wouldn’t forget it. But it’s unlikely I’d have said anything of the sort on the phone. Somehow that just isn’t how phone conversation works, or face-to-face chat, either. No, in person I’d have been much more likely to tell my listening chum about how my hips are killing me, KILLING me, to the point that by the end of the day I can barely walk, much less stand over the stove, which is why my children had to make themselves oatmeal for dinner tonight. And I’ve got this cruel little cough which has caused a bit of cartilage (so I’m told) to pop out of place in my rib cage, so that every time I cough there’s a fierce stab of pain, and I’m desperately hoping it goes away before I go into labor because the thought of pushing through this rib pain…I shudder to think of it.
Or: I figured out that the coughing started the day I brought home the Christmas tree, so we moved it outside and I bought a tiny little inglorious fake tree to replace the tiny little inglorious real one I’d picked up at Fresh and Easy the week before. And we decorated the outside tree—it’s by the front steps—with a beautiful string of fake cranberries I bought on clearance at Joann’s after Christmas last year. But then it rained. And rained and rained. And the deep red berries are now bright pink. And mushy. They’re still kind of pretty as long as you don’t touch them, but Rilla must touch them every time she passes by, and then she winds up with smears of fuschia-colored mush on her hands, and her clothes, and my pant legs, and anything else she can manage to touch on our way to the kitchen sink.
Or: You know how Scott’s car got hit in that parking lot last month? Big truck pulling into the lot caught his front bumper and peeled it halfway off? Would you believe the other guy’s insurance company says he isn’t at fault?? (Though he totally admitted it, himself, at the time of the incident: there was no doubt. Scott’s car was parked. The truck hit him.) And if we can’t get this decision reversed, we’re out $500 for the deductible? Can you believe that?
Or: So I went to Confession today and of course I had all the kids with me, and I left them in the cry room which is all the way in the back of the church, and I was all the way in the front where the confessionals are but I could hear Wonderboy shrieking. He was inside a soundproofed room, but I could hear him. So I got out of line and walked back to the cry room to see what on earth was the problem. Turned out Rose and Rilla were playing tag. Which would be okay, more or less, since they were alone in a closed and did I mention soundproofed room, and it’s not like Mass was going on or anything, but Wonderboy was totally shattered by this breach of churchy decorum and he was howling at them to stop. And then after Confession he cried all the way home because I am trying to ease him out of his fixation on this one particular Sing ‘n Learn cassette he expects to listen to every single time we’re in the van, and the rest of us are all sick of it (though we’ve all got the state capitals down pat, that’s for sure). But he is convinced that the sky is going to crumble and fall upon our heads if we do not listen to that rassafrassin’ tape every single second we’re driving. And then Rose brought up the question of how the seating arrangements will change after the baby comes, and she was furious to learn that she’ll have to move to the back row because the infant seat only fits in the middle row, and Wonderboy has to have the other middle-row spot because he gets into too much mischief if he’s sitting within pinching range of one of his siblings. But Rose despises the crowded back seat, and she is livid at the injustice of it all, disgusted that we aren’t getting a bigger vehicle, completely unswayed by such reasonable explanations as “with the economy the way it is, now isn’t the time to take on a new car payment, and the minivan is almost paid off.” “So we won’t be able to ride ALL TOGETHER as a family anymore?” Rose wailed—because the minivan seats seven and we’re about to become eight. And in case you’re wondering, a cheery pep talk about sacrifice and frugality and ‘just think of all the making-do Kit Kittredge’s family had to do during the Great Depression’ is not likely to meet with resounding applause at such a moment. I’m just saying.
Or: Is it just me, or are your kids bickering a lot more than usual too, the closer we get to Christmas? And why, why, WHYYYY, was I ever so foolish as to begin the gingerbread house tradition? Because every year it becomes a giant sticky thorn in my side. There’s no going back, though, not after the precedent was set ten years ago. But at least this year Jane did most of the hard part, the housebuilding. We’re going to decorate tomorrow but this is a kit I picked up in that same after-Christmas sale at Joann’s last year, and the gumdrops are hard as rocks, and if you can’t eat half the decorations as you’re working on the house, most of the fun is gone. So I guess I’ll have to run out tomorrow and buy some new gumdrops. Arrrgh.
So there you go. That’s what you’d get if you were Alice, calling me on the phone. And you would very satisfyingly commiserate by firing back with similar anecdotes of your own. (“I’ll see your hip pain and raise you four sick kids, a doctor’s appointment, and a car encased in ice.” At which point I fold. Because the cranberry-melting rain is gone, and we had a gorgeous blue sky and sweater weather again today.)
Life is messy, and complicated, and full of friction. That stable in Bethlehem must have smelled like manure. Was the manger clean? I had to scrub so much grime off the infant carseat yesterday, and it had only been sitting in a closed garage for a year. Not even a real garage—it’s just a storage room, really. But the parts of the Nativity story we celebrate are the shining star, and the awestruck shepherds, and the singing of angels. The image of the baby swaddled snugly, sleeping in the hay, with His mother smiling down at Him in wonder, oblivious to the muck and the grime and the prickling straw and the snorts of the livestock: that’s the image we’ve carried in our hearts for two thousand years. That doesn’t mean the muck wasn’t there. It’s just not the important part of the story, the thing worth holding on to. The muck is always there, always here. But so is the radiant star, the heavenly choir, the sleeping Child so full of promise and hope.
My children may bicker, and I may—almost certainly will—complain. But the bickering and the griping are chaff, and what’s left when the winds of time carry them away are the golden kernels I want to savor: Carol of the Bells ringing out from Jane’s piano; my little boy leaning against me and laughing for joy at a picture of his daddy; a girl-child lost in a beloved book, her fury long forgotten; riotous squeals up and down the hallway from a toddler on a magic carpet pulled by a giggling, curly-haired Mama Duck. Colored lights gleaming on a cute little tree that, if you squint just right, almost looks real, and doesn’t make me cough. Headlights in the window: that dear red car, its bumper restored, pulling into the driveway next to a soon-to-be-too-small-for-the-very-best-of-reasons minivan. An infant carseat, scrubbed and ready, waiting to be buckled into place and filled with our own little bundle of promise and hope.
I Guess I Didn’t Need to Look Under the Seats
Letters from Thailand: the Second
january 3: “I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it”