Alan threw another log onto the fire and sat down with a glass of wine. I curled up in a nearby chair and covered my legs with a blanket, and we started looking backward on the year. It was a time of reflection, that lost soul of a week between Christmas and New Year’s when practicality takes a back seat to contemplation.
It had been a hard year, politically. The country felt divided, and we mostly felt helpless. Alan lamented that an entire year might have been lost due to us fretting over things outside of our control. He hated to look back and think we’d spent our time so pointlessly. But in hindsight we’d accomplished a great deal, if you just looked at the numbers. He’d changed jobs, I’d had a massive commission, he’d built a greenhouse, I’d bought a car, we’d given to charity, finished various projects… we took a few moments to take stock of it all.
I’d heard someone once recommend reflecting on a year by naming your top three moments, but do so rapid-fire, so as to stay clear of cliche accomplishments and all their trappings. The thought was that you might surprise yourself by having truly enjoyed something much more prosaic.
Alan went first. He only had one, but it came to him immediately. I tried to guess – his new job? The promotion? I ticked off the obvious contenders. The campers, he said and smiled wide. The best thing about his year outside of the two of us. He started naming the new friends we’d made. Susan, the farmer from Toledo. The college kids from Case. Andrea and Georgina, her little cattle dog. The cross-country newlyweds on their honeymoon. The vegans who demolished the farm breakfast we’d agonized making. The reunited friends from several states and two countries who spent the day taking selfies with Buck. The couple with the young kids who squealed in delight when they picked raspberries for the first time. The college friends who went swimming in our pond and asked us after the fact if we minded. He named as many dogs as people, as he so often does.
It was late in the summer when he’d put the word out online. He didn’t think we’d get any takers the first year, but there we were turning people away by the fall. It had been his idea, and he worked out all the logistics – making the campsites, potable water, the facilities, firewood and picnic tables, the welcome basket that included a water dish, tennis balls and treats for those who brought their pets, and even a guest book for campers to leave comments or drawings. When we got our first bookings, two at once, the look of thrill on his face was contagious.
I remember trying to explain it all to my stepmom. You mean they pay you to sleep in your backyard? In a tent, I explained. Like, camping. And… it’s a really big yard. It’s not for everyone, I conceded. But we had a lovely time, and so did they. They were so grateful we had opened up our property to them. They posted photos online, and we got to see our farm through new eyes.
We learned that late at night the fireflies light up the back trees like Christmas. We’d never stayed up long enough to see them. And that the metal roof on the horse shed echoes when it rains. And that in the event of inclement weather, the work table in my studio can be transformed into a giant breakfast table with one mad dash of a cleaning.
We met so many wonderful people through the campsite, and it kept us grounded. Things couldn’t all be awful if what we saw from our own eyes was kindness, excitement, and compassion. We received back from the world what we put in.
The whole process became so streamlined and felt so natural, like regular family gatherings, that when it stopped for the season it left an emptiness in its wake. The winter evenings came earlier, and we had more time on our hands with less people to share it with. We saw our now distant friends post photos online from their new adventures while we watched from a bittersweet distance.
Alan opened the wood stove door and gave the log a poke and we watched the flames slowly rekindle. Perhaps that’s what memories are, warm embers of a fire now departed. Spring would come soon enough, and we’d start all over again.
Your turn, said Alan.
My first two were easy, and unsurprising. That massive commission I’d been so proud of, that had taken up nearly a quarter of my year. The framing for the addition to my studio, which I’d looked forward to for so long. They were both obvious choices, but for good reason. Game changers, we called them. Alan nodded in agreement. But the third one was a bit more obscure: that time I did nothing. And a whole lot of it.
After the big commission was over I was exhausted and sore, worn through to the core of my being. It wasn’t burn out; I love what I do. But it’s physical work and my body can only do so much, and adrenaline is only productive in small doses.
During the final days of installation, I remember my friend and colleague asking what I would do next. As in, did I have enough work lined up on the horizon? There was concern in her voice; perhaps she was asking herself the same question. But in that moment I realized that I both didn’t have anything of significance in the queue, and didn’t want to. One of the downsides of working on very large projects is that I don’t often have enough time or energy to keep other wheels spinning, but it was no matter. I was ready for a break.
One of the more challenging aspects of a freelance lifestyle is that your days off wander by like a surprise visitor, and you never know exactly when they’re coming until they’re there. Years ago this would have bothered me as I am a planner and I like to see into the future, as much as anyone can. But I’ve learned to let go. When I am given the gift of time, I greet it at the door and welcome it in. I’m not perfect – sometimes I resent the timing or wince at the clutter lurking behind me when I’m caught unprepared. But I try. Letting go is so much more difficult than clinging tight.
But when the big project ended that July, I was ready. I had gone to the doctor to repair an injured back, and he small talked as I winced through his contortions. What do you do for a living? he asked predictably. I’m an artist, I replied. I cut metal. He didn’t need me to elaborate; he could tell which muscles I used by how much I recoiled when he touched them. What do you do for fun? he kept going. Fun? I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the closest thing I had to a hobby was building the studio where I cut the metal. I worked on the place where I work. For fun. It all suddenly seemed so absurd. And it made me realize what he likely already knew – that I needed a break.
I took a long, hard look at the numbers – the amount that was left in my account, the final check that was in the mail, and the money I’d spent on supplies. I had enough left from the project to pay for the studio addition plus my salary for an extra month. A whole month. It seemed like such a nice round number; it was magnetic. The visitor of time had come to my door, and he was prepared for a long stay. So it was settled then – I’d take a month off. I invited him in and set out to do a lot of nothing.
Nothing was surprisingly difficult to do, at first. My first week was spent catching up on things I’d neglected – the phone calls I’d been avoiding, the toner I hadn’t had time to buy, the straightening and tidying of all the disarray. Alan would quiz me when he got home on what I had done that day, and ask which part of that had been relaxing? I could use some retraining, for sure.
I made a list of things I might do – go out to lunch, read a book, reconnect with friends and family, and so on. I told myself I’d just pick one a day and do it. Until I was struck by the sheer idiocy of needing to write a list of things to do to relax. I was clearly not good at this.
So I changed the rules. I could be as productive as I wanted, but I couldn’t tax my body. I could tidy until the cows came home, and make list after list after list, but no lifting or cutting. I make my living making physical things, but this time had to be spent on more ethereal options. Digital. Conceptual. Verbal. It was a whole side of my being unexplored.
I sat down at my computer. I spent the first few hours organizing photos and culling files, but eventually settled into my chair and started writing. It was awkward at first, clunky like a toddler’s first steps. But after a few days I settled into a rhythm. And I wrote my first story.
I cautiously showed Alan, and analyzed his eye movements as he took in the words. Had he liked that phrase? Did he wince at that line? When he’d chuckle, I’d look over his shoulder in desperation, trying to figure out which bit of humor had landed. I scrutinized his every reaction, and in the end garnered his approval. It was really quite good, he said.
Alan was a literature major in college, and has a proficiency in writing that is virtually unmatched in his corporate world. He doesn’t write much for fun these days, though he talks about it wistfully sometimes. His heart is more lyrical than his job title would have you believe. His praise meant the world to me, as while I know he loves me and would probably tell me my cooking is good while he chokes it down, I trust his opinion. He’s not afraid to recommend an alternative if something clearly isn’t working. And he said I should write more.
So I did. Over the next few weeks I poured myself into writing, inspired by the farm, our lives together, the weird transition from a “normal” city life filled with bustling people and cars to the country, filled with fields and chickens and campers. Stories of the time I was on a business call and my colleague stopped me to ask Is that a rooster I hear? Why yes. Yes it is. Stories of the strangeness of a life that felt so disconnected in some ways yet deeply grounded in others. Writing was a way of resting and healing, but also processing and understanding. There were parts of farm life that still felt like a foreign country, and others that felt so much like home. It was all so difficult to describe, but I set out to at least try.
I wrote story after story, sometimes completing a whole piece in a single day. I plied Alan with their pages when he’d come home. He’d give suggestions and make edits, and I’d cringe like a grade schooler whenever he requested a pen. But I took it all to heart, even if I winced as I reworked them.
This is a perhaps an odd analogy, but writing felt like braiding a young child’s hair. Maybe because I was never very good at braiding. My daughter’s baby fine locks would slide out of whatever shape I put them in, no matter how hard I tried. But she pined for that braid, so I did my best. I’d take a small segment of her hair and gently fold it in, tightly enough that it kept its place but not so tightly that it felt unnatural or forced. Then I’d take another, and then another. And eventually she’d have a tiny little braid down the back of her head that didn’t fall apart terribly, but then again it didn’t matter because no one would see it anyway.
It was that last part that I related to most, that no one was going to see it anyway. That’s both liberating and dispiriting at the same time. Creativity needs quiet to flourish; I knew that enough from my work as an artist. Sometimes you have to turn down the volume on the rest of the world in order to hear your own inner voice. But it also needs to be seen in order to truly be alive, or else what is the point?
By the end of the month I had amassed quite a collection in various stages of completion. I laid the pages out in front of me and tried to decide what to do with it all. Alan suggested I send them to magazine publishers and the like, but it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t ready for submission and rejection – I had enough of that already in my artistic life. And wasn’t this all supposed to be just for fun anyway? Besides, I’ve lived my whole life as a creative person, and have long since learned that my best work is born when I don’t seek permission from others.
I decided to put them out into the world in my own way, on my own terms. I built a website where I could share them as is, not polished in a professionally edited veneer. I left them raw, thick and whole, like tectonic plates to slowly shift and take form over time. At the time I didn’t know what they’d become, if anything. Or if they’d remain unseen, like the disheveled braid at the back of a young child’s head. For me, it was enough to know that they’d exist. That they’d have a home out there in the world, somewhere to live separate from inside me.
But as I sat there with Alan that December evening, warmed by the fire and reflecting on the year gone by, I realized what only a bit of time and distance can teach you – that I had put something out into the world, and it had worked. I looked across the living room and saw the little writing room we’d made that fall, where Alan and I could work side by side. I saw the writing desk I’d built from hemlock and fir, its top planed smooth and blackened with fire and buffed to a silky finish. I saw the mason jars sitting neatly on top filled with colored pens and pencils that glistened in the moonlight. I saw the old typewriter keyboard with the clicky round keys that I’d treated myself to once I hit a milestone 100 pages. And it all felt like home.
We had accomplished a lot that year, building and making and buying and doing and giving and connecting. It had been a hard year for sure, but a fulfilling one as well. We’d enjoyed so much more than our list of accomplishments would have conveyed. Alan gave the fireplace one final stir and planted a long kiss on my forehead as we headed to bed. I let out a deep restful breath and as I watched the embers fade, I realized that my favorite part of it all, the one thing I was most looking forward to in the new year, was a whole lot more nothing.