Poor Man’s Feast: On the Noise of August

Posted inCreative Voices

I have been complaining about there being too much to do.

I dream about being in Maine, and remember Merwin’s words, from his poem Waves in August:

I thought I was getting better
about that returning childish
wish to be living somewhere else
that I knew was impossible
and now I find myself wishing
to be here to be alive here
it is impossible enough
to still be the wish of a child

Ram Dass’s Be Here Now incantation: I spend way too much time thinking of other places the way I did in the seventies, when I was a teenager standing on my Queens apartment’s terrace after returning from eight weeks away at camp. I wanted to be back there in rural Pennsylvania, and a hint of the urban honeysuckle that was growing in the empty lot across the street from my building was picked up and carried by the wind but only very faintly, and I could smell a hint of sweetness despite the piles of garbage waiting for the morning’s trucks. Summer in the city means heat radiating off the sidewalks and everything John Sebastian said it was; it also means garbage and stench and bags torn apart by pre-dawn rats the size of small dogs. Back then, I couldn’t wait to get out, and when I did, for a very long time I couldn’t wait to return.

The nature of summer days is that they slip through our fingers. At the end of every evening, I lie in bed next to my wife, who is already sleeping, and I go through the hours and the tasks still waiting for me: the eldercare paperwork to sort through that is taking over the desk on which I am writing my next book; tax papers that come in all year; a notification from the DMV; printouts of blood work orders; stacks of books on recovery and yellow stickies with a dozen phone numbers of strangers; a list of the three essays and their due dates; two contracts for upcoming writer’s workshops I’m teaching; a note to remind myself to have the newer car — the one with 130,000 miles on it — checked because the air conditioner has died again for the second time in two weeks; a recipe for the blight buster that we have to mix up for the tomatoes, two of which are now dead from blight; a reminder to order the dog’s anxiety medication and the cat’s thyroid medication; a reminder for tomorrow’s doctor’s appointment, during which she will doubtless tell me that I have to get more exercise. Or at least some.

Where I live, a lot often feels like a competition — the more balls one keeps in the air, ostensibly the better the person, according to some arbitrary universal score-keeper.

Instead of counting sheep, I work my way backwards: if I get up at 6:15, I can get to an early meeting, get to the gym, get back in time to deal with the eldercare stuff and the busy work before noon, when I shut everything down, unhook from social media, and write my daily thousand words for the book, and draft the essays. By the time I’m done, it’ll be 9 pm, so I push the clock further back. If I get up at 6, I’ll be done by 8:45. If I get up at 5, I’ll be done by 7-ish. Which might leave me time to get to the gym, or take a walk or play the guitar. I should add: I am not, nor have I ever been, a morning person. My wife gets up very early and takes the dog around the block, spends some time reading, gets to work by 8 am, and has been making dinner most nights. I could stay in bed easily until 10 and on days when my other dog, the black one, threatens me, I do, but I’m trying to change. We’ve been thinking about intermittent fasting but who the hell are we kidding: that would mean having dinner by 6, and my schedule would be shot to hell.

Years ago, when I lived in Manhattan and worked in publishing, I managed more: I lived a few blocks from my office and had a seven minute commute. I worked through lunch unless I had a meeting, left the office at 6:30, played squash three times a week, went out with friends after that, went out for dinner after that, came home, read until midnight, went to sleep, and repeated the whole thing the next day. If it was one of those times when my mother showed up unannounced at my office and waited for me in the old HarperCollins gallery at 10 East 53rd Street — sometimes for hours — until I appeared at the end of the day, all of my after-work plans would be tabled; if she showed up unannounced at my apartment and waited for me in the lobby, changes to my schedule would depend on it being a weekday or a weekend. If it was the latter, any catch-up work for my job would have to be bumped forward, and my own writing, shelved. These days, if my mother calls me during the day — anywhere from ten times to fourteen — it wreaks havoc with my plans, but I have the ability to silence the phone or let it go to voicemail because I now live two hours away from her and an Uber to my house would cost her $200 one way, I would have to pay for it, and she doesn’t have a set of my keys.

The sound of a hard August morning rain on our roof sounds exactly like bacon frying in a skillet.

Psychically, professionally, physically, emotionally, this is a lot, but we live in a world of a lot. Where I live, a lot often feels like a competition — the more balls one keeps in the air, ostensibly the better the person, according to some arbitrary universal score-keeper — which inevitably gives way to the need for self-care, which has also become a competition, and therefore, often performative.

Courtesy of Elissa Altman

It poured this morning, hard and loud and relentless.

The kind of early August rain that we desperately need because we often don’t have time to water the way we should, but also the kind that flattens flowers, pounds my hydrangeas, blankets our vegetable garden with the weeds that we just paid someone to pull last week because we didn’t have the time to handle them ourselves. I took Petey out this morning after Susan left on the 6:54 train for an appointment in Manhattan, ran out into the front yard and pulled in the corn hole set that we’d put out for yesterday’s visit from our little Massachusetts cousins. I was soaked to the skin after three minutes outside, and we looked at each other, Petey and I, blinking in the rain. He’s ancient now — almost fourteen, which is hard to believe — and suffering from a chronic cough, and medicated for anxiety related to his having gone deaf, which is hard for any dog but especially a terrier/herder whose hypervigilance is dependent upon his seeing and hearing us clearly for cues about what to worry about and what to let go, and who is friend and who is foe. But the rain calmed him, somehow, as it did me, and when we came back into the house and dried off, I went into my office and took a few minutes before turning on my computer to just listen. I remember hearing this description somewhere — I think it was Hawkeye in MASH, after a flash explosion temporarily blinds him — and it is true: the sound of a hard August morning rain on our roof sounds exactly like bacon frying in a skillet.

I’ve come to realize that if and when we move to Maine, my frantic self will just be living by the sea, but it will still be frantic, unless something else changes.

Next month, we will be in Maine for three weeks with Petey; we both suspect that it will be his final trip there, which breaks our hearts. We imagined that we would move there while we all still had the time to enjoy it, although the idea that Maine will be a place where we will be less busy, less frantic, is myth.

But place seems more important to me than ever before; maybe it’s age, maybe it’s experience, maybe it’s the promise of some sort of recompense for years of looking elsewhere, for not having my feet where my heart and brain are. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole with the writings of my friends Katherine May and Maggie Smith, and also Amy Liptrot, Linda Cracknell, Kerri ni Dochartaigh, Jericho Brown, Robert Macfarlane, Margaret Renkl, who all write about being exactly where they are, and place as a breathing, healing construct. In Cracknell’s Writing Landscape, she talks about Susan Sontag’s advice to Love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world. It is impossible to do that when one is always running, always looking to the next thing and the next place, scratching off entries on long lists of things to do. I’ve come to realize that if and when we move to Maine, my frantic self will just be living by the sea, but it will still be frantic unless something else changes. My sober friends all tell me the same thing: get to a meeting every day for ninety days. I scoffed at first; pure bosh. Who has time for such a thing? And then I realized what it was about: the dropping of one’s anchor, the forced and required spiritual pause in the middle of an otherwise hectic day that may spill over into the desire for anesthesia, a cessation of running, running to the next place and the next thing: always looking, grasping, craving.

Courtesy of Elissa Altman
Pete at thirteen.

In the dog days of summer, when the storms are ferocious and tornados touch down in the most unlikely of places, the pause is necessary however it arrives, and aids in one’s ability to listen and listen closely: rain sounds like bacon frying in my mother-in-law’s 1934 Griswold skillet. Carolina Wrens call Cheeseburga Cheeseburga Cheeseburga Cheese. If you’re infuriated by your neighbor’s use of a power tool on an early Sunday mornings before seven, it might be a Northern Flicker. The violent fluttering you hear near the eaves where you have the hummingbird feeder hanging is the sound not of insects, but the tiny birds ramming into each other midflight, as though they were warplanes in the skies over Belgium during World War II.

My life list is long, and likely, so is yours. It seems that the only way to get through it is not to push and forge ahead, but to stop, at least for a little while. I tell this to myself daily, between emails and calls, appointments and meetings, dog walks and dinner.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The James Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy.

Photos courtesy of the author.