Monday, December 7, 2015

The Traveling Zoo

I'm sure I'm not the only parent who feels this way, but sometimes, whenever our family treks around, doing the things we have to do or want to do, I feel like we're the circus coming to town. Or a traveling zoo. It's like I can hear zany trumpets playing and a voice heralding, "Look out! They're here! You've gotta see what happens next!" Most likely it's going to be loud, and most likely it's going to be messy.

Exhibit A: Our Friday night and my early birthday dinner at On The Border. Yeah, I know. It's a chain restaurant. It's not "authentic" enough. But if sodium and fat content were of no concern, I'd eat On the Border chips and salsa for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Of course, so would my kids...which is why once we got seated at a too-small table everyone started devouring chips like a pack full of hungry wolves. Including Chloe. Not only that, but she was double-dipping in the salsa. We got her her own little bowl so she could double-dip away. Ethan got up twice to use the bathroom and kept watching the TVs to comment on the football scores. Anna kept screeching every time we teased her about her "boyfriend" from art class. We all had to eat quickly because we had to get gas afterwards and drive back through highway traffic and make sure Anna wasn't late for her "middle school extravaganza" at the local community center at 7 p.m.

Every time we leave a restaurant these days, I end up pausing to clear the worst of the mess from under the table. Then I slink out of there quickly, my tail between my legs, silently apologizing to the waitress. This time thanks to Ethan's spilled salad dressing we had a sheen of oil spilled all over the table. God bless that woman, who is probably still marveling at how we all consumed THAT many chips.

Saturday turned out to be the only day in the next two weeks when we could get our Christmas tree. So at 9 a.m. we ended up at this tree farm on a back road where there was no one except a farmer sitting in a run-down barn, looking surprised to see anyone.

We have a knack for finding these out of the way, small (read: lame) tree farms in which there seem to be more dying trees than healthy ones and we walk around for waaaay too long trying to find something, anything that's passable. The owner is usually right there next to us, so eager to make a sale that we don't dare turn around to leave and find a better option, and so we kind of grin and bear it and mutter under our breath and cut down something that usually starts shedding needles about the time we bring it through the door. I should be completely honest here and say that Dan LIKED this year's tree farm and thought it was just fine, thank you, and that Anna and I are being "tree snobs."

So we had our tree, and the only tantrum was when Chloe learned she had to go back into the car instead of exploring and trying to play with the hand saws.

Dan had to attend to some work things, and next on my list was Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, on a Saturday, before Christmas. Not only that, but we had to go to the Vision Center, because someone had stepped on Anna's glasses and broken them at the "middle school extravaganza" the night before when she took them off to go into a bounce house. Why she decided to leave her glasses on the FLOOR was a discussion that we indeed had, heatedly.

I told the kids, and I was in no way being facetious, that we needed to say a prayer before we went to Wal-Mart. Every time we go to Wal-Mart, I end up angry with the world. And so I asked for grace, patience, and self-control. I think we all need to say the Wal-Mart prayer before we go.

At the Vision Center, a guy cut me in line and I bit my lip, scoping out the situation. Somehow I had forgotten Chloe's snack. An old Dixie cup in my purse meant I could send Ethan for trips to get her water from the water fountain. I spotted a candy jar on the counter and decided that would be our last resort. Anna looked at lenses. Chloe kept drinking water and spilling. Ethan kept trying on glasses (another one of those things where, if I only had one kid with me, I would say hands off, but was trying to buy my sanity). We waited and waited. I plied Ethan with coins to feed into the Children's Hospital coin gadget. Chloe's sleeves were soaked. The fussiness began. "Anna, go get those Hershey kisses," I hissed. One kiss for each kid. Again, never would I have plied my older two with chocolate at Chloe's age. Soon chocolate was all over her face. Lovely.

We managed only about a half-hour wait at the Vision Center, then we dashed about Wal-Mart grabbing tree decorating items. Score! We made it!

Then came Chloe's nap and tree decorating, done quickly so we could get to the living nativity we wanted to attend followed by dropping Anna off to sleepover with a friend. "Do you see now why we HAD to get the tree when we did?" I asked Dan, looking for praise. Sometimes parenting seems to mean planning with military precision. We'd even managed to have some homemade hot apple cider while we decked the halls.

Ahhh, the nativity. Easily my favorite family tradition of the Christmas season. It's set in a park, just after dark. There are hundreds of luminaries leading up a hill to where you visit Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and all in a "stable" complete with wise men and animals. There are also shepherds in the fields who tell the Christmas story, Christmas carolers, a bonfire, and a warm indoor spot to get warm drinks and sweet treats.

When everything falls just into place, visiting the living nativity can feel like a sacred moment. The sky is awash with stars, the sound of carols rings out over the night, and there's nothing more beautiful than hearing little voices say, "There's baby Jesus!"

Our visit this year did not feel very sacred. For whatever reason, this year Ethan was more into jumping over the luminaries in their white folder paper bags as if he were clearing hurdles. As we passed the nativity he loudly announced, "The best part of this is the hot chocolate!" and another time just as the carolers had finished whined, "Can we GO now?"

Chloe, on the other hand, was TOO into things (yeah, we foolishly left her stroller in the car). She started yelling "Jesus! Jesus!" from the moment we got there, although I'm not sure she even knew exactly what was going on. At the manger she wanted to crawl over the fence and into the stall with the sheep and wasn't happy when we told her no. She ran away from us in the cookie room, and then we reached the carolers.

My littlest one loves to sing more than almost anything. Not only that, but the group was singing some of the same carols I'd been practicing at home for our church Christmas show. She recognized them. Slowly, she inched closer and closer to the area where they stood. Then she weaseled her way among them. "FAAALLL ON YOUR KNEES, and HEAR, THE ANGEL VOICES!" they were bellowing, and she was attempting to as well. At first, this was very cute in a "let the little ones come to me" kind of spiritual moment. Childlike innocence and all that. I let her go. Only -- she didn't want to leave. And she kept darting about around people's legs. One woman had a cane and I was afraid she was going to knock it over. I wondered if people were going to stop participating in this "holy moment" and focus only on the little one who was overstaying her welcome.

Meanwhile, Ethan was twirling around in circles, dancing and mock singing, almost running into other families. "Stop that!" I hissed. He wouldn't stop. Dan grabbed him by the hand and yanked him away, as he yelled "Nooooo!" I waited for yet another song to end and whisked in to get Chloe. "Noooo!" she also yelled, thrashing about and spilling the hot chocolate that was in my hand.

We headed away from the blessed event, the silent night that was not so silent, as Anna slinked behind us, embarrassed. Yup, here goes the zoo, I felt like saying as we walked by the crowds. Entertainment's over for now, folks. Go back to focusing on the true meaning of Christmas. 

As we drove to get Anna to her friend so they could eat pizza and talk boys and Minecraft, I felt sheepish but not mortified. I figured that was an improvement. This parenting thing is not for the faint of heart, and the more I share stories and the more I listen to others', I know that we are SO not alone. So maybe we are loud and messy. So is life. So someone judged me and I didn't make all the right parenting choices? There will be tomorrow.

And like that Christmas story that we were trying to convey for the kids, God is here for the messy and stinky and hapless, the obnoxious and distracted and selfish. Me included. Thankfully.

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