27 June 2011

The Blue Otter Pop of Happiness

It is hot, the sun intense, and the wind gusts from time to time. We are four families, camping for a weekend, something we haven’t done together since our days in college, more than two, ahem, decades prior. Now, though, there are spouses, and somehow eight children (eight!), aged thirteen to four, between us. Throughout the day, we migrate from campsite to campsite, looking for a shady space large enough to accommodate us all.

The kids flit in and out like butterflies while we adults talk, reminisce, become reacquainted, and laugh. The seven girls go on short hikes – mostly to the bathroom and back, it seems, or across the road to some granite boulders that are just challenging enough to be fun. Seth, the lone boy, rides his bike around the campground.

It’s surprising, really, how easily the conversations flow, how little some things have changed, and how certain things are still funny, even after all these years.

When Sojo, the youngest, commands our attention, the silence is reverent. She announces a joke: “How do you get a tissue to dance?”

“Put a little boogie in it!!”

Sojo is endearing, and probably because she is the youngest one present, we all focus on her. The girls want to play with her and help her meet the challenges posed by playing with kids twice or more her age. I look at Sojo and am astonished at how quickly time has passed since my daughters were her age. They’ve become so independent, sometimes in miniscule increments, sometimes by leaps. It’s easy to lose sight of how different things once were from a parenting standpoint: how my daughters seemed so independent at age four. I couldn’t fathom the level of responsibility then that they have grown to accept so readily now. I don’t really recall relinquishing most of that responsibility that they now shoulder, but somehow they have come so far.

The pack of girls runs off again, and the talk turns to work, travel, and recipes. Since I last saw Tara, Sojo’s mom, she’s lived on three different continents, working in International Schools with her husband, Dale. But somehow, those decades and oceans between us – between all of us – seem to fade to irrelevance. How is it that we might have reconnected and easily planned this outing without Facebook? Or without the Internet, for that matter? I’ve been able to see photos and read blogs of these friends and watch these families from afar, and it’s amazed me more than once that technology has the capacity allow these intimate, familial exchanges to take place, sometimes from half a world away.

I met Tara, Brian, and Jay my freshman year of college – and, let’s face it – there’s probably no other year of one’s adult life that can be so demanding, frightening, and freeing. My only responsibility was me. I was lucky to have connected with these good folk then, and grateful to have this opportunity to gather together now, even though focusing on the passage of so much time makes life appear more frenetic than it actually is.

Being outdoors allows the pace of life to slow. Most of what is extraneous is whittled away, and still we are left with much more than the basic comforts and company aplenty. And this is what I crave when I haven’t been outdoors for a while: a slower pace, easy conversation, watching the day progress with little attention to tasks besides meals, and enjoying simple pleasures with friends and family.

When the kids return again, their faces are flushed and an official Otter Pop time-out is declared. Each kid chooses a favorite color / flavor, and they dig in. Sojo’s face is the picture of bliss as she nibbles away. Sometimes happiness really can be found in something as simple as a blue Otter Pop.

And, I think, too, that this simplicity is what draws me toward the younger kids. At age four, life is pretty simple, things are quite absolute. As I grow older, I realize that less and less about life can be put into simple categories like black and white – the coincidence of what happens to our hair isn’t lost on me. Or maybe I’m just now finally able to grasp those delicate differences and nuances - because, yes, there are so many shades of grey. Would I go back if I could, to a time when I was only responsible for myself? Or to a time when my daughters were more dependent on me? Not a chance. But still, sometimes I yearn for those simple choices, like what color Otter Pop I prefer: I like the green ones.

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