Oliver's 7th birthday fast approaches and he felt very strongly (cause that's the way Ollie feels things!) that he wanted to research motorcycles on the Internet and draw a unique one for each of his friends in the form of his birthday party invitations. Sometimes I feel just a bit stunned at this boy's artistic abilities and just wanted to take this opportunity to trumpet it around to all the land. I've mentioned how cool this little kid is, right?
We're not unique in this. Families everywhere congregate to eat together at night. I had a friend once who teasingly lambasted me for taking pictures of and then scrapbooking about ordinary blips of life. This friend thought my penchant for doing so was the silliest thing ever. He thought photos were for documenting the more unique events in life. I've not changed my ways, though, as you can see. I'm still the frantic Weirdo Mom wielding her camera at the most mundane - and sometimes inopportune - of times. These photos show (some of) us eating a regular, old family dinner together.
I feel a compulsion to document these ordinary days because I can see already that they are fleeting. I know the day will come where the dinner hour won't be a noisy cacophony of extroverted people competing aggressively to share about their respective days. The Quiet will be so sad. And so in the meantime, I comfort myself with the taking of countless commonplace pictures. And I laugh when Oliver triumphantly informs us all that Lola wasn't closing her eyes during prayer.
I have several girlfriends now who have gone in for plastic surgery of some sort. All of them looked conspicuously better than I do now when they went in to have the ostensible damage rectified. I’ve tossed the idea of following their lead around in my head ever since I had Anabel and saw what the housing of her inside my belly did to the skin enveloping the outside of it. You’d have to look long and hard to find someone with stretch marks to compare to mine. And it’s not just stretch marks, either. It’s also the fact that the surface area of my skin is now significantly increased. When I bend over, I am an accordion. Nothing is tight about my midriff anymore. When I run, I have to have good sturdy running pants or shorts to keep me all tucked in and secure or I can actually hurt myself with all the waggling and jaggling. When I dress in the mornings, I have to carefully steer clear of jeans that have a low-rise, for fear of the infamous muffin top that seems to have multiplied exponentially in this mommy-generation (is it because we’re fatter now than ever before or is it because we’re all desperately trying to squeeze ourselves into our daughter’s jeans?). I have to shop in obscure stores to find underwear that are neither a skimpy thong of no use to me at all nor the stereotypical grandma underwear that my own mother wears. I spend exorbitant amounts of money on these hard-to-find body shapers. I am that strange woman you sometimes catch a glimpse of in the public swimming pool, the one that strikes fear into the hearts of all the adolescent girls who’ve caught sight of her that day in her bathing suit. I’m not overweight (or not very much, anyway) and yet my pale skin, for lack of any real elasticity, doesn’t fit my body anymore. My pregnancies have stretched it beyond what any poor skin should be expected to bear. I try to be discreet while exposing my nearly naked self in places like public swimming pools and yet I can see the quavering fear in the eyes of all the 15-year-old girls, wondering if someday this will be their tummy, too. I want to reach out to them, comforting them and assuring them otherwise and I would too, if only I weren’t sure it would alarm them further. I remember when I was their age and I was terrified to think that my own positively hideous body might possibly become more so one day. I want to tell them not to worry and to be kinder to themselves. I want to tell them that they’re perfect and strong. But of course I don’t. And in the meantime, I make sure I always use the private change rooms, so as not to further panic them, poor, dear, cruel things.
And so I contemplate plastic surgery. I don’t judge women who’ve resorted to it. They want to feel their best and they believe that looking their best is a tangible step toward procuring this evasive, idyllic state. There are some plaguing questions that bother me though. I see my two little daughters watching me. Unlike with the girls in the pool, I can reassure Anabel and Lola that it’s very unlikely that their tummies will ever look like mine. I elaborate at some length about the perfect skins of their grandmothers and of their aunties and assure them confidently that undoubtedly their genes, too, will be so inclined. They ask me all about mine. They love the butterfly-wing softness of my belly and love to touch it. When they were little, they would press their tiny faces into it, rubbing their cheeks back and forth on its velvety surface. The excess skin untouched by sun made for the very most satisfying zerberts. I think I’d be more inclined toward the nip and tuck were it not for the fact that I have my daughters. They don’t miss a thing and I don’t know what I’d tell them, in explanation. The message they would hear would be a fight upstream from what I’ve always told them about loving themselves, cherishing themselves, accepting themselves and being kind and gracious to themselves. I think - for the time being at least - of my battle-scarred stomach as a testimony of the rigors of a life well lived. It’s imperfections remind me of the poignant sadness of losing two unborn children before I had the chance to hold them in my arms, before imprinting the sweet-smellingness of their newborn necks on to my brain. My sagging stomach and the stretch marks meandering their way across it like dewy spider webs in the early morning trace the intimate history of the four perfect, healthy children that I helped usher into the world, of the attendant joys of raising them into beautiful people. It reminds me that I’ll always be imperfect and that for now, I’d rather work on perfecting my insides a little more. I’m inclined, just now, to be kind to me and to be gentle. I always find that there are harsh critics with exacting standards in abundance out there in the world and so right now, for the time being at least, I’m going to choose to just touch that sagging old stomach and appreciate all it has done for me and for mine and leave it alone in peace.
I hit 38 this month. I'm finding that the latter half of the thirties mark the beginning of the time where you really don't care all that much what people think of you anymore. JoyBoy calls it the inexorable march towards one's own grave. But he's cheerful that way when it comes to the aging process.
The other night, I was the ultimate geek and threw myself a "world's colliding" birthday party. JoyBoy was out of town and I thought that rather than sit at home, feeling sorry for myself like a giant suckie baby, I'd take matters into my own hands and invite over the most beautiful women I know. Though it was short notice, I was thrilled to find that almost twenty of them were able to make it. Just look at some of my riches!
I tried to make a point of walking each of them to the door as it came to be their turn to leave and in doing so, was struck by how many of them commented on how lovely the rest of my friends were. It was a tangible reminder to me of the caliber of woman congregating in my life. I had to give my head a non-literal shake or two over the course of the evening, they were all so fab. This has been my favorite birthday ever. It seems that with each passing year, God gives me more and more beautiful people to surround myself with. How did I get to be so lucky?
He doesn't travel all that much for work anymore which, compared to the days of old, I like very much. But every now and then, he finds he needs to zip off somewhere or other. This time it's Orlando, Florida for six days. Amazingly, he's staying ON the Sea World property, but only without the traditionally accompanying children. He says the breakfast buffet each morning is peopled almost exclusively with vacationing families. We make do with the daily phone calls and texts and emails and just pretend we, too, are schmoozing with Shamu (does Shamu still hang there at Sea World?).
I find that my life without him is extremely orderly. Everything is clean and no one leaves their belongings in a happy trail, indicating tangibly where the Leave-ee currently is. He and his aftermath are like a giant connect-the-dots puzzle. If you ever need to find the JoyBoy, just follow the myriad gear he's left behind. Start with the shoes and move along to the keys, the wallet and the IPod. Then cast your eye about for his pants and his balled-up work socks. They punctuate where he's been most recently.
But you know, my recent life is also kind of colorless. He is the Spice and the Flavor. He is the italics function on our keyboard. He is the neon light flashing in the window, beaconing us all to come in here right now! It's fun and loud and action-filled here! There has been very little dancing around these parts. We're not all groaning in exaggerated (but secretly delighted) disgust as he thunders out his Frank Sinatra albums with accompanying JoyBoy song and dance. Only he can pull it off. It'll be officially good to have him home again.
Has it ever happened to you where you thought you were very settled in your friendship life - fulfilled even - only to discover a really fabulous new friend? Well, dear Internet, it's very recently happened to me. I find the elementary school line-ups to be extremely helpful in this department. All we mommy-uniformed mothers chat endlessly there to one another. My new friend surprised me the other day with these beauties. Neither she nor I know what they're called, but aren't they pretty?
Oliver's worldview shows us that sometimes one needs to.
I used to think parenting was easy. I used to think I'd have five or maybe even six kids. I used to think I rocked at this whole parenting thing - that it was satisfyingly easy, even. And then God sent me Oliver. It's not that I don't love him as much as I love the others, or even that I like him less. It's not that at all. It's that with him, I'm forever finding myself having to teach things I never imagined I'd have to teach a child.
Like, for example, it's not OK to belly-buck your friend on the school field. Sometimes - I'm beginning to find - belly-bucking, because it hurts more than one might expect, can escalate to a full on wrestle match on the ground with your friend during recess. You may have intended to begin and end with happy, laughing belly-bucking, only to find yourself sweaty and dirty and being pulled along to visit the principal by a concerned teachers' assistant. Theoretically speaking, of course. If you are one of the lucky ones and you have a principal who understands your heart and the fact that you are a physical little boy who needs a physical outlet and who believes in you, you may well be OK. But not all principals have the requisite time or energy to get to know your beautiful heart and so, one might think, you'd be wise to learn early on to be less physical in your play. Are you reading between the cryptic lines yet?
With Oliver, we have to explain why it's important to be mannerly and patient. The other joykids understood these things instinctively when they were his age. Their own internal policeman informed them all on his own. With Oliver, we have to painstakingly walk him through why you shouldn't impatiently tell your friends off when you feel the first stab of irritation with them. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. Where Oliver is concerned, I don't wonder at his long-term success in life. I know he'll be a world-changer. I admire him and his indomitable spirit. He loves God and his family with a cement-like fortitude. No one can push him around on the inside. Oliver is an incredible person who insists upon doing things well or not at all. He's diligent, careful and he prides himself on his competence. He's smart in a way that has you always writing emails about his aforementioned intelligence to your mother, because you can't believe it sometimes and everyone needs a grandma to brag to with impunity.
But the journey between Oliver's adult self and the little six-year-old we see before us today is fraught with hills to be climbed and valleys to be carefully descended. But I have noticed that when you get to the top of one of the more daunting hills - one of the ones you where you wondered if you'd ever reach the summit - you notice that the air is clear and bracingly beautiful. You wonder if maybe you can't see to the ends of the Earth. There is real clarity there and because it's been hard-earned, it fills the lungs.
I adore my Oliver and I respect him so much. I've never liked anyone more. Shepherding his young heart isn't easy. But maybe the things in life really worth having are the things that require that you invest all of yourself. Who needs five kids, anyway?
These pictures represent the naivete of the attitudes of the childless. Insofar as they depict a little creature who is now indisputably a part of our lives, though I'd never have forecasted such a thing. Before the sight of my sweet eldest daughter begging me for him, I wouldn't have imagined that I'd allow such a creature into my home, most especially in a voluntarily sense. But he's ours now and we really kind of love him. Especially when he shoves big bits of food in his cheeks. That's pretty cute.
My new project is to experiment with writing. It's something that from the beginning of time (or Grade One, anyway), I've thought I'd someday like to do. I remember telling my little best friend that someday we'd be roommates in university and be teachers together and that I'd write a book. She nodded her head in vigorous agreement and we knew we'd rule the Earth. When you're six, there isn't anything you can't do in your bright, shiny future. You can even be a fairy and woe be unto the adult person who tries to tell you otherwise.
What I'm learning about writing today is that the transition to becoming a writer is a lot like switching from the passenger's to the driver's seat, from the perspective of a voracious reader. Even though you've traveled along those same roads hundreds and maybe even thousands of times before, suddenly when it's your turn to make those same turns and to exit off onto those same byways, everything feels different. You have to pay attention now in a way that you never had to before.
While growing up, my parents owned a lake front property. We spent a tremendous amount of time there, but when I turned 14 (goodness; the thought of a 14-year-old me driving around on public streets stills my modern-day heart.) and it was time for me to sit in the driver's seat for the trip, my Dad was endlessly frustrated because I had no idea how to get there. I didn't have even the vaguest sense, in fact. He couldn't believe anyone could be so dense. And a current, more literary version of that dense 14-year-old is emerging a lot around here of late. Sometimes I can't believe how stupid she can be. Hasn't she read books in abundance ever since she's been able? Surely she's picked up on a literary thing or two in all this time? Hasn't she? Isn't this partly how she's defined herself in her own mind? As a very gung ho reader?
All of a sudden, I realize that I'm unclear as to how to handle dialogue. When I research it, I'm befuddled to note that many authors choose to handle it differently. Standardized rules of grammar don't always seem to apply in modern literature. When I note discrepancies like this, I ask myself, what would Carol Shields do in Stone Diaries? I've loved Carol for decades (She wasn't aware of it during her lifetime, but she and I are on a one sided first name basis). Her other books are good, but when I first finished Stone Diaries, I sat stunned. And uncharacteristically quiet. I felt like this, too, when I read Andrew Nicholl's A Good Mayor. I've been eagerly awaiting his second novel ever since. But I digress. My point is, I'm not always sure how to use quotation marks and in fact, see now that maybe they aren't even all that necessary anymore. Or at least to Miriam Toews and her ilk.
I'm working through a lot of frustration these days. I guess I thought writing would be easier than this. I'm finding out - quite emphatically - that it's not. I'll write for days (my baby-steps goal is to complete one page per weekday) and realize at the end of it that I'm in a hazy fog and I don't even really remember the plot line because of all the meanderings filling up the pages between then and now. I frequently have to go back to re-read things so as to keep it relatively linear. I'm struggling with a whole lot of things that I assumed were non-issues. But for the most part, I think I could really get to like this lifestyle. I like it both more and less than I expected to. It's truly a journey and for the time being, I'm happy it's mine.