Let’s Party

As a parent those words don’t mean what they once did.

Recently we were at birthday party for one of Levi’s friends.  They had a children’s musician performing.  He was really good, very entertaining.  Levi was loving it, so therefore I was loving it.  But there was this moment when I was kind of floating outside of myself, scanning the room.  I saw my son twirling wildly with some jumps thrown in, and I saw his little friends bopping along to Old MacDonald.  Then I saw the birthday boy’s dad in his plaid button-down, toe-tapping and head moving up and down in time to the music.  If you took the music away, it would have looked as if he were at an actual concert.  And there I was in my geeky glasses and weekend-casual, hooded sweater sitting on a floor drumming on my leg, upper body swaying forward and back.  I looked around at the parents — some were singing, others were clapping.  As I took all of this in, I became a little freaked out:  like who am I?  And how did I  get here?

As someone who never wanted kids, someone for whom having a kid just wasn’t even the smallest blip on the radar, being at a child’s birthday party and “rocking out” to some Old MacDonald, just didn’t feel real or even quite right.  Now perhaps all parents feel this sense of discord in some moments regardless of whether they wanted kids or not.  It just suddenly hits you that this thing you’re doing, which seems completely “normal” in the moment, isn’t normal at all.  In fact, it’s just weird. And it’s just weird because it lacks any kind of harmony with the sense of self you once had.  And have you figured out a new or different sense of self that feels at all logical?  No, because you don’t have enough time to realize how strange all of this is.  As a parent, you just keep moving forward.

I came back into my body.  I wasn’t trying to fight my way through a crowd to the stage at an Ani show.  I wasn’t consuming illegal substances at a Phish concert.  I wasn’t getting caught up in mosh pit at any number of hard core shows.  Hell, I wasn’t even sitting in a seat listening to Tori Amos or Neil Diamond (even though there were disco lights) or Dar Williams.  I was sitting on a basement floor at a children’s birthday party trying to figure out how I became this person that I never in million years anticipated becoming.  And I’m wondering if the lip syncing Old MacDonald-ites around me are trying to work out this same sense of confusion.

And the tree saga continues….

We got our tree home on Saturday, placed it in the stand, added water, did the necessary vacuuming of needles, and then called it a day (as far as the tree was concerned).

On Sunday we got as far as stringing the lights but no further.  At this point we were feeling good about our tree selection.

From Sunday to Wednesday the tree stood bare except for the tiny colored lights.  It looked really good though, appealing to my minimalist tendencies. In my head, I thought about how nice it would be to just not bother with the ornaments (I always have to do them by myself, and then Dawn critiques the layout).  At one point, Dawn said, “We should just be really different this year and not put any ornaments on the tree.  It looks so good the way it is.”  (I have now picked up on this pattern:  Dawn articulates out loud the things I think in my head).

On Wednesday, after I left Dawn and Levi in his room for bedtime, I went out to the garage and grabbed the ladder.  I slid the box of ornaments over to the tree and got to work.  I felt the pressure of societal norms when it comes to Christmas trees:  they are decorated with ornaments that is how it has to be. (For a writer and self-proclaimed “free thinker,” I disappoint myself often with how easily I slip into these truly noncritical ways of thinking.  While I encourage (beg even) my students to “think outside the box,” I frequently remain firmly locked inside it.  Someday I’ll have to tell the bench/TV stand story…).

Since the tree looked good in its simple form, I decided to keep on going with that minimalist look.  While I didn’t have the resources for one of those beautifully styled trees with color themes, and ribbons, and matching ornaments, I decided to attempt “styling” what lay in the box in front of me.  I created three categories:  balls, stars, and candy canes.  If the ornament didn’t fall into one of these three categories, then it didn’t belong on my minimalist-styled tree!  I sorted through all our ornaments, carefully selecting the ornaments that made the cut.  This technique seemed potentially effective, as it left the tree still pretty bare looking.  I added some strings of red and silver beads (of which we didn’t really have enough to fully cover the tree) and stepped back to take a look.  My heart fell.  The tree had indeed looked better with only the lights on it!

I argued back and forth with myself over whether I should strip the tree back to its previously lovely state.  I left the ladder where it was and decided to ask Dawn what she thought I should do.

“The tree looks great,” she said, when she reached the bottom of the stairs.  I was shocked.  First of all, she never says the tree looks great after I put up the ornaments; second, the tree did not look great.  It looked better before. Fatigue got the better of me (I was just so over the damn tree at that point), and I decided to put away the ladder and boxes and try to accept the odd looking tree as another imperfect moment in my life.

Last night a friend was over.  She admired the tree, and we had a great conversation about tree decorating (yes, she’s one of those kinds of friends with whom even a silly conversation about tree decorating can be great!). She told me that her belief is that a Christmas tree looks lovely in all its various states of dress, but that it only gets better the more you put on it.  Having grown up in a structured Christmas tree decorating home, she described how she revels in the freedom to put whatever she wants on her tree in whatever fashion she chooses.  All Christmas trees, she insisted, look perfect however they are decorated (or not).  And I chose to believe her.

OH Christmas Tree…!

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We were more than an hour off schedule when “the guy” (as Levi likes to call all males) finally loaded our Christmas tree onto the top of the mini-van.  I sat in the front seat drained of energy while Levi pressed all the buttons on the dashboard.  I looked with horror at the needles falling into the van and thought ahead to the much worse mess we would have to clean up later at home.  I fretted that we had chosen the “wrong” tree (I was wrong), and I fretted that Levi wouldn’t fall asleep at such a late hour (I was right).  I fretted because I had no energy left, and we were only half way through the day.  None of this was in keeping with my holiday season motto:  “be excited, not stressed.”

Tree buying should be fun, right?  Or am I wrong about that?  Does everyone find Christmas tree selection as stressful as Dawn and I do (and they just take pictures where they are proudly beaming because they too have to prove that it is fun)?  Two Christmases ago (before Levi, but while nearly full term) we ended up going to five different tree farms/sellers before finally settling on a tree.  The Christmas before that we also did a fair amount of traveling from place to place.  What we seem to be looking for is a real tree that looks artificial.  We are searching for perfection in nature, which is based on chaos.  All tree farms/sellers basically have the same thing:  trees.  Some of them are full, some skinny, some tall, some squat, some have gaping holes between the branches, some have branches that jut out at impossible angles.  Not one of them is (or ever will be) perfect.  When we will learn this? And learn to embrace it?

Last year, after our tree dropped almost all of its needles before Christmas arrived, we considered buying an artificial tree, thinking we might get a good end-of-season sale.  We didn’t follow through.  This year on Cyber Monday I started half-purposefully browsing through artificial trees online.  There were some good deals.  It was tempting, but I just couldn’t do it.

I grew up with live trees.  It was never a thought to have a fake tree in our house.  The first Christmas that Dawn and I were together (thirteen years ago), we went to our local city park and bought a tree off of the tennis courts, under the lights, sipping hot cocoa, while snow gently fell.  It was romantic and, well, perfect.  Her house was so tiny that we could only really fit a Charlie Brown sized tree in there, but the tree we bought that first year was huge.  It wouldn’t stay standing, so we tied it to the ceiling.  It took over the entire living room, but we didn’t care (ah…young love…).  Every year after that we’d return to those tennis courts and get our tree.  We got better each year at selecting a size appropriate tree for the house.  The year they stopped selling those trees in the city was the year our downward spiral of Christmas tree selection began.

On Saturday we vowed that our Christmas tree shopping would be quick, fun, and stress-free.  We both agreed to keep it simple, go to one place, make a quick decision and be happy with it.  After all, Levi is still too young to really enjoy the event, and the past four years have proven that the fun has become lost on us.  After striking out at the first seller because they didn’t have any trees tall enough (well, they had two, but they were so, so sad looking), we went to a local gardening supply store.  They have an abundance of live trees and an abundance of artificial trees inside.  As we stood out in the cold, hefting tree after tree off the stand, while Levi crawled onto every available surface when he wasn’t squishing his little body in between the trees, I couldn’t help but fight off this urge to just march inside, grab an artificial tree and be done with the whole thing.  While I stood there having this argument repeatedly in my head, Dawn kept muttering, “We are just too much perfectionists to have a real tree.  We are artificial tree people.”

And that is the existential problem I am grappling with:  Am I a real tree or an artificial tree person!?  Should I let my desire for perfection get in the way of my core belief that having a real tree is inherently “better” for a whole host of reasons ranging from family tradition to environmental and economic?  In the end, I don’t think we will succumb the allure of the artificial tree with its needles that stay put and its perfectly distributed branches (sigh).  We want Levi to have the real tree experience that I had as a kid.  We want for perfection to not rule our lives always (did I just say that?).  We want to smell the inviting pine as we crawl around with the dust-buster beneath the tree.

Most of all though we want to say happy holiday season one and all!