Karen Rivers

summer is a string of beads

Karen Rivers

Let's make each bead an event:  a trip to Parksville, a week of being lazy, a trip to the grandparents' cabin.  This summer camp and that one.  Edits and revisions and the desperate struggle to find the time to write the new...  A vacation at the lake.   Jumping from the dock.  Swimming.  A new bike.   A birthday party.  Clean closets in all the bedrooms.  Another cabin stay.  Rain.  A pod of whales.  The tree that didn't crush you when it fell.  An elk so close you could touch it.  Black bears.   A fair.  


At the beginning of the season, you naively but genuinely assumed that the beads would be perfectly formed blown glass happiness, each one unique and magnificent, like a marble containing a swirl of colour that you can never reach.  In real life, the beads are shaped by tantrums and bad weather and tears and frustrations and falls and bloody knees and hurt feelings and ISWEARTOGOD I AM GOING TO RIP THAT XBOX OUT OF THE WALL AND RUN IT OVER WITH MY CAR IF YOU GUYS FIGHT ABOUT IT and now I hate myself for teaching you both to be as angry as I feel when you fight about the Xbox and actually, the thing is that parenting doesn't get easier and it never looks like perfection when you look back on it.  It's not glass beads.  It's a macaroni necklace that's been left out in the rain, crooked and flecked with something that might be toxic mould and there's a spider hiding in the rainbow noodle and great gaps of string where you forgot to put anything.  I'm not saying the spider is a black widow, but it might be.   Watch your fingers.


Also, it goes by too fast.  Summer, that is.


Much like life.   


Grapple with that.


You think about the word grapple, which is a good word, and you pause to read it out loud and feel gratified when the birds in their cage chirp approvingly.  


Grapple, you tell them.  It's all about grappling.    


Chirp, chirp, they agree.   Hello, they say, or something that sounds enough like hello that you pretend they can talk, pretend that you remembered to take the time to teach them.  



You are grappling with the idea that you thought adulthood was an extra-long sentence that scrawled itself over many blank pages in the book that is you, chapters long, and as it turns out, it's just a sentence of regular length, fitting itself into regular sized paragraphs that seem to be leading too rapidly towards the exciting conclusion and denoument.   And here you are, still vaguely wondering if it's too late to go back to school to become a lawyer or someone who dabbles in interior design or visual arts.  


You are grappling with the fact that you accidentally forgot to do some of the things you meant to do when you were of the appropriate age to do them.  This list includes, but isn't limited to, going to your prom, taking a gap year in Europe, improving your posture, falling headlong in love with someone who loves you back, teaching your now 8-year old to tie his laces, and learning to speak French such that you can live in France sometimes and not feel alone while you're doing it.  


People say that it's not too late, but the reality is that if you went to prom now, people would stare.

And you still don't have a date.


You grapple with dating at middle age because gradually you've realized that all the self-help books that work on ways to "make him love you" have nothing to do with you.  What you need is a book that "makes you love him" because you can't find it in you to fall in love again, or for the first time.  But you (sometimes) want.  You (occasionally) yearn.  Just to again be part of something that resembles a team.  Or maybe just to have someone to be annoyed with when he forgets to buy the milk or someone who wants to hear your minutiae as much as you want to hear theirs.  


And then you remember how much you like to be alone, grappling.



Every night, you wake up like clockwork at 3:45 to stare out the skylight at the stars or the trees or the clouds and to think, yes, it is 3:45 and here I am, awake, and waiting. 


But waiting for what?



On your daily hike, more often than not you feel dizzy, the world spinning too fast, the woods around you changing in fast-forward because there you are, walking through the seasons, leaving home in the spring inhaling air that smells like something is about to happen, sweating through the summer only to then feel the crunch of dead leaves underfoot that, before you know it, are covered with dancing frost patterns, your breath hanging in front of you in an exhalation that came before you were really actually quite ready to think about Christmas.



But first, Fall.   


If summer is a string of beads, fall is suede boots that make you feel taller, prettier, better until you realize that they really aren't designed for the hiking that is going back to school, making lunches, catching up on missed work, catching up more, and oh, the catching up on work, the work, the catching up, the school, the lessons, the new skates for this one, the tennis racket for that one, the hurt feelings, the ebb and flow of kids' friendships, the teachers, the homework, the appointments, the worrying, the playdates, the bedtimes where you stand in their doorways and say, again, you just HAVE TO GO TO SLEEP now or in the morning you'll be exhausted, the mornings (with them exhausted) and you shouting even though you said that you were never shouting again and if they were late it was their own fault WE HAVE TO NOW GET IN THE CAR RIGHT NOW and the way your heart pumps faster and squeezes, and it's all uphill and craggy and those suede boots quickly become slippery on the bottom and rub blisters as big as balloons along the sides of your feet, but they still look good.




What if the dog dies?  your son asks.   We never should have got a dog!  I love her!  What if she dies?


Well, you say, it's part of being human.  Loving things that die.   (You think you stole that from a poem, but you don't know which one.)


If you die, I'm going to kill myself, he says, matter-of-factly.


And just like that, you are crushed again by the weight of it all, the love and the fear and the fact that it is, most likely (hopefully) true that of all of you, the dog will die first.  And the fact is that if (well, when) the dog dies, you will be shattered.  


Shattered is a word like grappled, one that you like the feel of, sharp and clattery as it is on your tongue.


Hello, say the birds.  Or maybe it is "help".




There you are, tall, and wrapped in a thick wool sweater, a cup of coffee heating your hands as you watch the sunrise from the front porch.  Picture the steam, swirling into the fall air that always smells like school starting and something burning on just-turned-on heaters, flecked with summer's dust.  

You will think:  I should go in and wake them up and start this thing again and maybe today they will be happy all day and maybe today I won't shout and maybe today I'll finish the book and maybe today there will be good news in the form of a lottery win or a clean bill of health and maybe today I'll actually do that, get up early enough that I can have my coffee on the porch, but first I have to pack away all the summer things into the crawlspace because there is not enough room out there for me, my sweater, my coffee and the sleeping bags and wetsuits and backpacks and coolers that block the front door from view, so actually maybe that will be tomorrow.


Don't think about the hike, think only of how your legs feel afterwards, achy and grateful, and the way that when you walked, you thought of the best idea ever for the next thing that you'd do if you had finished the first thing, which you will finish this fall, yes you will.  Think about the fires in the fireplace and the colour of the changing leaves and rice krispie treats and the way suddenly the kids will understand multiplication or how to jump off the ice on blades.  Think about those first days back at school and the way the words sparkle out of the kids like pop rocks on your tongue, I MET A NEW FRIEND or GUESS WHAT I GOT ON MY SPELLING TEST? and MRS WHOEVER SAYS THAT SUCH AND SUCH IS TRUE AND IS IT?  or YOU WOULDN'T BELIEVE IT, MUMMY and DID YOU SEE ME?  DID YOU SEE THAT?  WERE YOU WATCHING?  DID YOU SEE?   Because they are just at the start of their sentence and their books are mostly blank even if yours is half-written and you want so badly to rewrite parts of it -- big chunks -- but you can't, that's the thing with life, it is already lived and done and there's no point in editing it because there isn't time for that, there's only making the next sentence better than the one that came before until eventually it takes on a new rhythm, better sentences flowing together to make the next chapter so rich and magical and good that the last few fade in memory until they are nothing but the things that happened before you got to THAT part, the part you can't stop talking about, the good part, which is as likely to happen in Fall as not, with you there in your nice boots wearing the necklace from summer, which is as beautiful as anything ever was, now that you think about it, the way your kids' faces light up when they understand that you think that it is perfect, the best necklace in the world, after all, and actually all that you ever wanted, a dream come true.