“I can’t have this conversation again”, I said to Nick, “I just can’t do it…”
We had just come home from another child’s birthday party. I can’t remember which child. It could have been a child from our extended family… it could have been a child belonging to one of our friends, heck – it could even have been Morgan’s birthday party… or Joah’s…
We all know about kids’ parties, don’t we? Whether you’re a parent or a reluctant aunt, uncle, cousin or friend – you’ve been to a child’s birthday party.
As parents, we’ve all thrown birthday parties for our kids. It’s one of those done Parent Duties… and I get it. It is a celebration, after all… it’s something for our kids to look forward to and get excited about… it’s an important milestone… it’s a time for us to take lots of photos for the family album – so we can look back on these important milestones and say to our kids: “See that? You probably don’t remember it, but it was your second birthday party. You got lots of presents and you made a lot of mess. See how loved you are? See all the people who care about you?”…
It’s nice gesture, I guess. Kid’s parties are nice enough (well, for the kids, anyway) … so… this post isn’t about the parties themselves (and I am not – repeat: not – trying to infer that there’s something ‘wrong’ with throwing birthday parties for children)…
The problem (or, at least, for me)… is what happens at these parties.
(And I’m not talking about what the kids get up to…)
It’s almost like clockwork. It happens again and again… whether at one of the parties that we’ve thrown… or at a party that a relative throws… or at a party thrown by one of our dear friends.
This is what happens: you see familiar people… familiar faces… people that you haven’t clapped eyes on for exactly a year (because the last time you saw them was at – surprise! – last years’ party!). And – when you see these familiar people… you have to have that familiar (and very dreaded!) conversation…
… and it goes something like this:
“Oh hi there… long time no see…”
“Yep, long time… about a year ago…”
“Yes – exactly one year ago…”
“Yes… how time flies…”
insert brief awkward silence here
“So…. how’s life?”
“Life’s good… it’s all fine. Same-old same-old, you know?”
“Still working at the same place?”
“Yep… still working there. Nothing new to report. What about you? How’s life for you guys?”
“Oh, we’re fine… doing fine, thanks. Plodding along as usual, you know?”
“Yep – I know…”
insert another awkward silence
“Anyway… gotta go… think I’m needed in the kitchen…”
“Sure… see you around….”
And with that, we make our excuses and hover elsewhere (pudding table, perhaps?)… trying to avoid eye-contact any more awkward conversations with the Familiar Faces Folk.
But they can’t be avoided – those awkward conversations… they just can’t. If you’re at a kid’s birthday party – those awkward conversations are GOING to happen. Introverts (like me) can whinge and cringe all we want – but if we’re doing a party For The Kids… then, along with the territory comes everyone’s relatives and friends and all the unwelcome bloody mingling too.
I have done 8 years of children’s birthday parties… and, over the past 8 years, it felt (on many occasions) as though I was living in some kind of eerie Groundhog Day movie. The parties (whether our parties – or the parties of relatives and friends) had that same familiarity…
Same venues… same guests… same party food… same off-key happy-birthday-song… same jumping castle company supplying the jumping castle…
Little changed. Except, of course, the kids… who were getting bigger by the year. And the grown-ups… who were getting bigger too (but probably not in the way we’d have liked). And we were all getting greyer too. We were all getting noticeably older.
And yet – the conversations were all the same.
The married couple who had been fighting and nagging each other a year ago… were still fighting and nagging. The man who hated his job and bemoaned his long working hours was still bitching about his job a year later (and a year later… and a year later….). The women who discussed diets and weight-loss solutions were still talking about diets and weight-loss solutions! The people who complained about the government were still complaining about the government. Those who enjoyed gossiping were (you guessed it!)… still gossiping!
Groundhog Day, I tell you!
I could almost predict what would be said… who would whine about what… who would gossip about whom… and who (inevitably) would say the fateful words: “Ah… yes, well… some day…”
Because… apparently… SOME DAY it was all going to change…
And SOME DAY life would get better…
And SOME DAY they’d quit their awful job and find something they’d be genuinely interested in…
And SOME DAY the weight would be lost…
And SOME DAY they’d have enough money and/or time to do what they really wanted to do…
And SOME DAY everything would all-work-out-for-the-best…
And don’t get me wrong, I have made many “Some-Day” promises to myself (and others) over the years! I’m certainly not immune to all the Some-Day’ing…
But eventually… it started grinding on my nerves… like sandpaper…
And I often had to restrain myself from shouting: “DO… or do NOT. There is no try. There is no some day. Either we change… or we DON’T. Either we MOVE… or we don’t. The rest is an illusion! If you don’t like your life – then, for God’s sake… CHANGE it! I beg of you!”
But I couldn’t say that… because, it would have been rude… but also very hypocritical. I too had talked-the-talk on many occasions… and I had also sounded like a stuck record: “Yeah, we’re changing things… yeah, we’re selling our stuff… yeah, we’re getting outta here….” (and sure enough – I’d be at the exact same party a year later – spouting forth the exact same diatribe).
But then, one day…
We DID change.
And we DID sell our stuff… purge our debt… take our kids out of school… rent our home… and embark upon a long-term nomadic existence.
A part of me (reluctantly) credits those awkward party conversations for giving us the push we needed to change. When I said to Nick that I couldn’t do those conversations anymore, I meant it. I was bone-tired of feeling as though the years were just tick-tick-tick-tocking by and that nothing and nobody seemed to change (apart from our physical appearance). Almost everyone seemed to be… I dunno… waiting for something to happen… for life to change on it’s own (without needing to sweat and struggle and fight for something different and new).
Dr Seuss calls it “The Waiting Place” (which he describes as ‘the most useless place’)… and I quote:
“…people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go,
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting”
Perhaps the awkward conversations I’ve had at so many children’s parties reminded me so poignantly of The Waiting Place. I recognised it in others… but even more disturbingly, I recognised it in myself.
And so… eventually… we packed up (literally)…. and left The Waiting Place (although, I suspect I’ll be back for a few more visits before my life is over).
I type this whilst holed up in Amish country, Pennsylvania… far far away from Johannesburg and all the familiarity of home… including the Familiar-Faces-Folk (whom I can now comfortably and politely avoid without having to invent any far-fetched excuses).
A part of me is filled with sweet relief… to be far away from the almost-strangers and their awkward, Groundhog Day conversations…
But I also know I can’t avoid them forever.
Or maybe I can…