Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Life Well Chosen

     Our dining room table is longer than most.  It stretches eight feet and can comfortably sit 12.  It is the heart of our home, where secrets are unveiled and life choices are debated.   It is a solid piece, narrow in width which only serves to bring its diners closer together. The long beaten planks of pine have absorbed tears of grief and uncontrollable laughter.  It bears the markings and scars of many a glass of wine spilled and platter dropped.  It is where unsolicited counsel is given and joys are celebrated long into the night.
     But mostly, it is where the members of our intercultural, intergenerational, blended and extended family come together to break bread and mend hearts.  We are 14 in all, our six collective kids, their partners, biological mother and our new treasured grandbaby who is passed down the chain of arms with the same ease as the bowl of peas.
     Meals at this table are far from elegant sit-down affairs.  They are raucous and chaotic events where steaming plates of food are carried over the heads of wrestling young men and gossiping women.  Where beer and homemade wine flow as freely as the uncensored conversation that runs from wedding arrangements to hemorrhoid treatments to the feasibility of time travel.
     Sara* is a long-time friend who recently spent an afternoon at this same table tearily recounting the impending dissolution of her marriage.  She had just given birth to her third child and was in that all too familiar phase of readjusting marital expectations.
     “But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I didn’t know.  It was supposed to be different!” I take a sip of my coffee to quiet my tongue.  I cannot help but wonder how she ever thought a forty year old man whose mother continued to buy his socks and underwear would easily give up his bachelor lifestyle to change the diapers of the children he had reluctantly agreed to have.  But my heart went out to her as she sat there trying to reconcile the life she had imagined with the one she had created.
     I try to remember my own visions of the future.  As teenagers my friends and I could spend hours talking about our dreams of what our lives would become. We would run these dreams like reels of film in our starry-eyed minds.  I would leave home to study journalism and would promptly begin a skyrocketing career, traveling the world bringing light to the brutal humanitarian stories of those less fortunate. (It was the 80s.  I watched a lot of 60 Minutes….)
     Later, I would settle in some cosmopolitan city and quickly land a job as a columnist for some well-respected newspaper.  I could picture myself strutting to the office every morning, latte in hand while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played in the background. (Somehow in my adolescent imaginings I inexplicably became Caucasian and full-lipped, a cross between a well-fed Angelina and a 1986 Molly Ringwald…). I would rise in the ranks, passionately putting in long hours at a job I loved.  After hours I would banter cleverly with colleagues at the local bar like some rerun of LA Law.
     I would marry a man not unlike myself, a mirror of my own ambitions and interests, a suit-wearing nine-to-fiver who would read the Times with me Sunday mornings before we would head out to brunch and a new art exhibit with our equally hip young couple friends, a man who amazingly knew every Indigo Girls song by heart and would lead guests in a moving sing-a-long on his battered acoustic guitar at parties.
     Once established in our careers, we would go on to have a couple of children.  On weekends, between driving the kids to soccer games and ballet recitals, we’d host fabulous dinners.  While my metrosexual-looking husband artfully whipped up an impressive meal of leek soufflé and home-made crème caramel in the kitchen, I’d copy Martha Stewart table settings that creatively reflected the season and coordinated perfectly with our stylish home furnishings. (Note to self: At next session, ask therapist why in my dreams I seem to have married a character from Will and Grace. I’m also not quite sure how we managed to get all this done in a twenty-four hour day. Interestingly in my teenage version of my future, I had clearly managed to learn how to bend time…it was a futuristic vision after all.)
     (Obscure aside: This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes.  How many Martha Stewarts does it take to change a light bulb? None, because if you carefully use an Exacto knife to score out a quadrangle  from the front of the bulb, fill it with tufts of tissue and chiffon and hang it with a silk ribbon in your garden, you can turn it into a lovely birdfeeder...)
     But life isn’t a John Hughes movie.  It’s a series of karmic forks in the road that present us with choices.  Sometimes the choices induce stomach–churning nausea in their obvious life-altering importance.  But sometimes the seemingly innocuous opportunities are those which most alter our paths- the day you opt to take the bus to work and end up meeting a new job contact in the subway; the choice to buy a cup of a coffee where you run into an old friend you thought you would never see again; the last minute decision to go for an afternoon walk during which you end up meeting your future husband. Each choice leads to another, like links in the chain of moments that lead to your today. 
     My own choices have brought me far from my Diane Sawyer imaginings, but I am proud to own them as my own. I am neither journalist, nor sophisticated world traveller.  I did not imagine that after many stops and starts I would choose an entirely different career path.  That I would make professional choices that sometimes led to doors opening wide and sometimes to inadvertently jumping off such a career cliff that I’d scrape my shins trying to climb back up.
     I did not imagine a life where at times I would sleep-walk through the work day wondering how the hell I got here, or that I would ever feel fortunate to have a job where amidst the pendulum   of stress and boredom I would be happy for that occasional meeting or moment that has me declare “Well, that was kinda cool.”
     I did not imagine finding myself at mid-life, faced with the choice of stepping over decades of paying my dues to completely reboot my career into the teasing potential of the unknown.
     I did not imagine being barely out of school and falling head over heels for an older man.  A man with four children of his own, not much younger than me.  I did not imagine I would fall as hard for them as I did their father, or that I would eventually find myself happily embracing their mother as family.
     I did not imagine that the only art displays I would visit would be those in my children’s elementary classroom or that I could revel in the infinite possibilities of macaroni sculptures.
     I did not imagine choosing to marry he who is at once my complete opposite and my completion.
     I did not imagine I could be...
    ... so happy.
     We are no Norman Rockwell family. In fact tonight, as I carry out steaming plates of chicken curry and gluten free tofu balls (NONE of which were home-cooked by anyone) over the clatter of my rag-tag clan, I can’t help but think our eclectic menu reflects the eclectic mix of characters gathered at our long table.  There are groans and giggles as my eldest daughter reads out puns from her smart phone.
     “Two peanuts were walking down a dark alley.  One was assaulted.”
     I snort and pull up a chair.  Reaching over to grab a nearby bottle of wine I scan the faces of this rainbow coloured Brady Bunch I proudly call my family, and I cannot help but grin, not at the life I imagined…
     ...but at this life I have chosen.
*names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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