I’ve always been fascinated by “in-between moments.” Snippets of time after one thing and before another appear, to me, to be where the living really is, or at least where the opportunity exists to think about where the living really is.
Right now I’m sitting on an old hot tub deck in the backyard of my parents’ house in upstate New York. The deck is weather-worn, and dark green moss bulges out of the some of the seams between the boards. The hot tub is empty, as it has been for the last few years; my parents treated themselves to it for their 40th anniversary, and for years it provided entertainment and helped to ease their sore backs. But it’s been a few years now since either was physically able to get in or out of the tub. My father passed away in April at eighty-four, and my mother, who is eighty, would never be able to climb into the tub now. Jean-Paul and I, or my brother, wouldn’t use it often enough to make it worth filling it and managing the upkeep. So it sits there, silent, while spiders build webs in the corners of the closed plastic cover. I remember enjoying the tub’s soothing heat and bubbles amid the strong smell of chlorine, a hot mist rising around me, and staring up at a dark night sky filled with bright stars. The hot tub’s past is a pleasant memory, and its future is undetermined. In the meantime, it sits.
Summer is ending and a new month, school year, and season is about to begin. This summer hardly felt like a summer for me; I worked, as usual, combining a morning office job with some freelance writing and editing work. I finished a new personal essay that I had been working on for several months and sent it off to a journal that solicited it from me. I haven’t heard yet if it met their expectations of my work; if so, I’ll share the news here. I started a few other new personal essays, too, with my eye on the next collection. But essays take time; I find them, personally, much harder to write than fiction. So I’m trying things in several steps. Sometimes I freewrite with pen and paper in the early mornings, just to get some ideas or a basic story out on paper. Sometimes I write about an incident in a journal entry that will be read by a friend who has been reading my journals since we were kids. I find that the conversational, non-literary tone of writing to a friend sometimes helps me get a full story out before I have to worry about how it’s crafted.
In a week and a half I’ll start another semester at Lasell College, where I’ll teach a seminar in writing creative nonfiction this fall. I’m looking forward to the course; I’ll be using the textbook edited by Michael Steinberg and Robert Root: The Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. The book is filled with interesting readings and commentary, and is a nice introduction to both the genre itself and some of the literary conversations going on about the genre. I’m planning some interesting in-class writing exercises and hoping the students will drive their own discussions. As a teacher, I’m discovering more and more that a student’s personal involvement in the material and interest in being in the room is more important than almost any other aspect of their learning. The general lack of those things is what, for me, makes teaching basic required courses a challenge — many of the students in those courses seem to be more invested in fulfilling the requirement and getting whatever grade they are reaching for than in learning the actual material. This creative writing course is the first class I’ll be teaching that is not required, so I’m hopeful that the students will feel more engaged. I’m also excited and honored that two students from previous course have signed up; they’re both talented, hard-working students, and it will be nice to see their familiar faces on the first day of class.
But none of that has begun yet. Summer still lingers during this end-of-August day, and right now, sitting here, I can hear a bird calling from somewhere in the thick green trees that surround the yard. I can’t identify the call or see the bird. The trees have grown so much taller, and their branches so much thicker, since I was a child growing up in the house that stands behind me. The general buzz of insects fills the air. The golf cart that my father bought a year or so before his death to help him get around the property when it became too difficult for him to walk is parked in the woodshed beneath the deck at the side of the house. My cousin’s son, Matan, enjoyed tooling around in the golf cart when the family visited a few weeks ago from Israel. But the cart sits there now, so quiet, so still, my father’s time to enjoy it over, its future also undetermined. It seems to be waiting for my father to return and drive it up the hill at the side of the yard and out onto the dirt road in front of the house. But that will never happen.
A train is passing by at the bottom of the valley; its horn echoes mournfully and I hear the rhythmic sound of its wheels turning on the rails as it chugs east across the valley. Soon I’ll hear the horn again as it approaches the tunnel beneath the hill on Tunnel Hill Road, just a mile from our house. There it is…so predictable…the train on its way from somewhere and to somewhere. When I was 13, I rode my banana-seat bike to take horseback riding lessons at a horse farm at the top of that hill. I remember having to get off the bike and walk up the steepest parts of the hill and greeting the big, old dog that lay in the front yard of one of the houses near the farm.
But those days are gone, and the fall semester hasn’t started, and here I am. The sky is cloudy and it looks like it might rain. But for now the breeze is quiet, the groundhog that lives in the yard is sleeping peacefully beneath the boards under my feet, someone is trimming trees in the cemetery at the bottom of the hill with a chain saw, and two chipmunks are arguing behind the wood shed.
It’s an in-between moment, and I’ll just sit here and let it be.