Change is an inevitable part of life. Time makes you bolder. Children get older. The soreness you experience after playing a tennis tournament lingers for several extra days. On the other hand, things that used to bother you, suddenly don't seem so important anymore. Like dirt. In particular, your children's fascination with it.
You might remember that dirt was my parenting kryptonite. No more! Well, at least for a few days and hopefully long enough to write and publish this post.
It struck me one morning recently when I was playing with my two-year-old in the backyard. The boys were at school, so it was just the two of us. We'd already watched TV and played with Peppa Pig toys, so naturally the only thing left to do was chase bubbles barefooted.
As I dipped the little plastic wand into the container of bubble liquid and blew one bubble after another, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. I watched my little girl chasing bubbles around in the damp backyard. Running after them as they floated on the breeze. Batting at them with her little hands or clapping to pop them. Smiling and laughing the whole time. She stopped occasionally to crouch down and run her fingers through the dirt, as one does. It was one of these times while she was digging, thick black dirt becoming lodged deeper and deeper under her fingernails, that I realized what was missing: my annoyance and dirt anxiety.
I didn't care that her feet, legs, hands, face, and every other body part were filthy. I was enjoying the moment for once.
Well, for the most part I was enjoying the moment. It's hard to enjoy much when you're constantly being regaled about your failures by a person half your size, but that comes with the territory. What was I doing wrong this time? When it was her turn to blow the bubbles and my time to pop them, I wasn't using the proper technique. At first, I was using my hands, which looking back on it now was clearly ridiculous. After receiving swift correction, I switched to using my feet, swinging them around wildly like a crazed karate white belt. This was also wrong. It turns out what I was supposed to do was pop the bubbles by stomping on them once they had landed on the ground. I should have known. Of course, if they popped before I got to them, it was my fault and I was reprimanded harshly. Tough, but fair.
The next evening, the other children got in on the filth. It was a lazy Friday afternoon and once the boys had tired of Minecraft and the two-year-old had enough of her inane YouTube videos, they all migrated outside where I was playing tiki toss by myself. They straggled out one-by-one until everyone was assembled. Then for the next hour or more they worked on building a campsite in the dirt patch that serves as the centerpiece of our backyard.
The campsite construction went well despite a good deal of dirt flinging and some unwanted assistance by the two-year-old. Eventually, I had to distract her by fetching her giant purple ball and allowing her to kick it, chase after it, and flop down on it repeatedly all while taunting me for being so slow. This did the job. As I've chronicled, she'll never pass up an opportunity to dominate me in any competition. Meanwhile, the boys completed the campsite, complete with a tent, fire pit, and squirrel/bear traps around the perimeter.
Once again, I was unbothered by the mess and was enjoying the moment. Then, the oldest made me do improv. I've obviously never taken an improv class (duh, social anxiety), but I follow a lot of comedians on Twitter, so I think I have a rudimentary understanding of how it works. My role in this case was a bear attempting to enter the campsite.
"Now, pretend like you stepped into the trap," my instructor advised.
"OK. Now pretend like the trap has lava in it. What would you do then?"
I kind of limped around half-heartedly. That wasn't good enough. The instructions came one after the other in a seemingly endless stream. I have to say, my son probably has a better grasp on the art of heightening than I do. Later, when I was playing a different, human role and I had to speak, he also gave me very specific notes on inflection to make my dialogue more believable. It was basically a master class.
Needless to say, I was too immersed in my craft to worry about all the dirt in the hair and inside shirts and between toes. With years of parenting experience comes wisdom: the ability to more easily recognize the things that matter and the things that don't. A little bit of dirt — well, a lot of dirt — isn't important in the grand scheme of things. Little kids should be covered in dirt. Because the grime easily washes off, while the memories created hold fast. I'm glad I've finally figured this out. Or perhaps I'm just getting lazier and always looking to take the path of least resistance. Either way, the result is the same. Children with dirt perpetually lodged under their fingernails. And a slightly more relaxed father trying his best to pop bubbles properly, master improv, and never forget those dirt-smudged smiling faces and grimy little feet lost in their own magical worlds.