Work has been running away with me.
This summer it’s been difficult to get anything done. I intentionally scaled back a little, said I was going to spend most of the summer working on research, which has been fun (and addictive…I don’t know if I’ll ever be done with research).
I’ve been researching pirates, madhouses, carnival architecture, the Industrial Revolution, science, legends and myths, everything about the 1930s, P.T. Barnum, witches, and the expeditions of Captain Cook. These may seem like they have nothing at all to do with each other, but that’s the best kind of research a writer can do. The greatest stories come from the intersection between seemingly unconnected ideas and things.
I tagged this summer as a research summer, because I know how hard summers are with all the kids home from school and fighting and asking for more food and tearing the house apart.
But when I don’t get a chance to write, the words start building up inside me, and I start feeling like a clogged pipe. The pressure is immense. I need an outlet.
Not to mention, notes came back from my publisher, and I needed time to make the edits. A deadline was looming.
So I started stealing moments where I could. The kids were out playing for a few minutes, and I would open my journal and start writing, and then one of them would come in to tattle on his brother, and I’d be annoyed that he was acting like a kid.
They’d be happily playing with the Legos on the floor, and I’d boot up my computer with the intention of breezing through the edits, and someone would interrupt me with a question, to which I would respond with annoyance—because he was displaying the curiosity of a kid.
They’d sit down to do their silent reading, and I’d pull out a book so I could make a little extra progress on my research, and as soon as I opened the book, someone would tap me on the shoulder, smile, and show me a page from his own book, and the look on my face would communicate my annoyance.
The other day I was cooking dinner, listening to a collection of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, and the back door kept opening so that boys could come in to tell me about the grasshopper they’d caught and the rabbit they saw and how the birds were eating the bread they left out. I kept feeling that familiar flash of annoyance every time they interrupted—because my hands were messy and I had to push pause on my audiobook. So inconvenient.
And then one time they all filed back outside and I stood there working in silence, thinking about how I hadn’t been able to stop and look at my kids for the entire day. I dropped the dishes I was washing and stepped out onto the porch. They were all crowded in the middle of the yard, by a rock they’d lifted, under which were all sorts of fascinating bugs. I watched for a while.
And this is what I noticed:
A little boy’s feet streaked with dirt
Long eyelashes splayed against a smooth cheek
A brilliant smile from the one who successfully captured a grasshopper
The studied concentration of a boy trying to poke holes in a plastic container so the grasshoppers could breathe
A Batman cape, whipping in the wind
The exuberant laughter of a boy on a trampoline
These words now live in my diary, and I jot some down every day.
Our lives are full of inspiration and illumination. They are full of beauty and encouragement. They are full of LIFE, if we can only stop long enough to see it. It’s not easy. I know. There’s so much to do, all the time. How will we ever do it all?
I’m not convinced we will. And that’s okay. The important thing is that we’re living a full life—and the only way we can do that is by stopping, looking, listening, breathing, being.
Summer unfolds hot
and endless, it seems, but it’s
gone way, way too soon.
Summer forgets its
structure, in favor of long,
lazy, fluid days.
Summer likes to play
games on the floor, do puzzles,
and most of all read.
Summer has a quite
distinct volume about it:
loud, louder, loudest.
Summer offers days
of building amazing things
on a Lego mat.
This is an excerpt from Life: a definition of terms. For more poetry, visit my starter library, where you can get some for free.
What stands out most about As Brave as You, by Jason Reynolds, is that the main character, Genie, is a well-drawn adolescent—a quirky, innocent, curious boy who is stretching into himself.
Genie keeps a pocket list of questions and observations that are interspersed throughout the story—questions and observations like:
“#460: Poop. Poop is stupid. Stupid poo. Stupid. Poopid. Poopidity. Is Poopidity a word?”
I put this book on my 10-year-old’s summer reading list, because I knew he would love it. And I was right—he burst out laughing at the first line. Genie’s recorded observation was followed up by a scene that included, you guessed it, poo.
Perfect for a boy.
Here are three things I enjoyed most about it:
The bond between Genie and his brother, Ernie. Reynolds expertly portrayed the relationship between two brothers—how they could occasionally get on each other’s nerves but very much loved one another.
The overall premise. In As Brave as You, Genie and Ernie were two city boys going to see their grandparents in the country. They did country things—picking sweet peas, flinging dung, going to the flea market—and it all contributed to stretching them into stronger and braver boys. It was charming.
The voice. Every character Reynolds writes has a distinctive voice that rings through the pages. I loved getting to know Genie and his hopes, dreams, fears, and questions.
My favorite line in the book was this one:
“When it comes to devising plans, well, that’s for detectives and criminals. But when it comes to executing plans, well, that’s for ninjas.”
As Brave as You, is all the wondrous language, adventure, and real-life characterization that I’ve come to expect from Reynolds.
The book mentioned above has an affiliate link attached to it, which means I’ll get a small kick-back if you click on it and purchase. But I only recommend books I enjoy reading myself. Actually, I don’t even talk about books I didn’t enjoy. I’d rather forget I ever wasted time reading them. (But if you’re curious whether I’ve read something and what I thought about it, don’t hesitate to ask.)
Since our first son started school five years ago, we have come to equate summers with looser time constraints, creative projects our boys will complain about doing (one of these days they’ll think it’s cool…maybe), and the supreme enjoyment of family togetherness. Boys have the wide open space of a day to do whatever it is their hearts wish (usually that’s complaining about how they’re so bored), with few requirements beyond chores, tidying, and daily reading time.
The problem is that, right around August, we all start singing the summertime blues.
It’s not just because it’s so hot here in South Texas (105 on a good day). It’s also because we get a little tired of each other.
The last few years have been tight budget-wise as Husband and I have worked relentlessly to build businesses from the ground up with a bunch of crazy children interrupting us at inopportune times. That means we haven’t been able to justify the expense of any extra trips or special activities, which means we’ve mostly stayed around the house, all cooped up inside together, because if you go outside, you disintegrate.
You can measure how tired of each other we are by the number of arguments that happen in the course of a day and the volume of our voices during those arguments. Parents are short with children, children are short with each other, no one listens to anyone anymore. We live in a relatively small house, so there aren’t many places to hide from each other.
One of my boys, the one who loves the Great Outdoors, takes refuge outside. He’d probably sleep outside if we let him—but, again, the danger of disintegration looms. Another of my boys closes himself in the garage, which is a playroom of sorts and has become exponentially messier as he’s spent more time there (he says it isn’t him). Another two with identical faces are usually sent outside to play on the trampoline and talk about how unfair it is that they have to play outside on their trampoline and their swing set all the time.
I haven’t yet found an adequate hiding place. I’ve tried the laundry room, the library, the game closet, my bedroom, my closet, and my bathroom. When I huddled in the shower once, one of my boys came in and announced, “You’re way too big to hide, Mama. We’ll always find you.” I tried not to take offense.
No solace for me in the summer.
Here are some things that have begun to crawl under my skin as we close out our seemingly endless summer:
1. The complaining.
I’m not just talking about me. I try hard to have a good attitude about everything, but when you have six children talking all over each other and trying to tell you a story they made up or, in intricate detail, this dream they had last night while, at the same time, two of them are whining that they’re starving and why can’t you just get breakfast on the table while another is complaining about how he doesn’t even like what you’re cooking, even though he doesn’t know what it is (you’re not even sure), it’s hard not to complain. Complainers beget complainers.
I’ve started a complaint jar, where they can now write their complaints down for Husband and me to read later, but, you know, it takes way more effort to write them down, so the boys will typically just close their mouths instead. Which also works.
2. The heat.
It is ridiculously hot in South Texas this time of year. It’s so hot that my boys will go outside with the full intention of playing outside for the rest of the afternoon, and then they’ll come in half an hour later with blood-red faces, gasping about how it’s too hot to play outside. You know it’s hot when kids actually notice the temperature.
It’s not unusual for me to get weather notifications about how the heat index is off the charts, which means it’s dangerous to play outside for any length of time. No one feels like a good mother when she pushes her children out into a heat that would make her cry if all her tears hadn’t dried up on contact with today’s oxygen (is there oxygen in this summertime fire? I can’t really tell.). So we get a little more family togetherness inside the house. Just what I always wanted.
3. The mess.
My boys don’t put anything away. We recently had almost a whole week without our children, because Husband and I needed to do some organization work that is impossible with kids underfoot. The house was immaculate when they returned home—and ten minutes later, in their excitement at the new organization, they’d made a grand mess of things. Honestly, I’m surprised we even got ten minutes.
The other day, I told my 10-year-old, who was this week responsible for cleaning up the dining room, which includes an art table, “No one gets to use the paints anymore.”
“Why not?” he said.
“Because you used them five days ago, and they’re still out.”
“But Daddy’s the one who got them out,” he said.
And therein lies the problem. My boys operate on “Whoever got it out has to put it away,” instead of “Whoever was the last one using it has to put it away.” They see no fault in this logic, mostly because it benefits them. It doesn’t benefit them any longer. I’ve been quietly amassing points for every item they leave out, and at the end of the month, when they have their allowance payout, you’ll be able to hear the explosion from thirteen miles away.
4. The noise.
Six boys, as you might imagine, can make a whole lot of noise. Sometimes I can’t even hear myself think because of all the voices competing to be heard. The noise continues to steadily build all summer, because as they get tired of family togetherness, they start fighting more, which raises voices and word count, both.
I’m an introvert living in the middle of a zoo.
5. All the lights burning.
Every time I come into an empty room, all the lights are blazing. The other night the last of four lightbulbs burned out in the boys’ bathroom. Based on the number of times I found that bathroom light left on, it made sense. So I left them in the dark for a while. And then, when I remembered that boys already have enough trouble getting excrement in the toilet, I went with LED lightbulbs.
They’re still blazing every time I pass, because my boys are under the mistaken impression that they live with a light fairy who follows behind them and turns off the lights for them so their little muscles don’t have to expend the extra effort. And she used to, but no more. Now I just put another mark on the tally list. They’ll likely be paying the entire electricity bill this month.
6. The extra pounds.
You’re supposed to lose weight for the summer, but I did the opposite. Why? See all the above.
School starts in another two weeks, and I will be glad to return to the regular routine and the structured way of life. I thrive on routines and predictability.
Of course I will miss my boys when they go back to school. These summers aren’t endless; my sons are fast growing up and will soon look for any opportunity to be away from home.
So, for now, I will bask in the requests—not requests for something to drink or more screen time or a dinner that tastes better. I will bask in the requests to sit on my lap or read another story or spend a little extra time coloring a picture with them. And when those requests come, I will allow myself to get carried away—start thinking that I could do this all year, maybe I should homeschool, I could get used to this chaos. Because it won’t take long for the next slap-fight to break out and shake me out of my sentimentality.
There’s nothing like the summertime blues to drive you crazy and fill your memory bank all at the same time.
freedom of speech
does not grant you
the right to forget
who you are
who I am
who we are
freedom of speech
does not grant you
the right to hurt me
in the places
one can’t see
freedom of speech
does not grant you
the right to
there is responsibility
that comes with
freedom of speech
it must be used wisely
it is no excuse
it is no justification
it is no reason
for filthy words
that attack another
take care with words
take care with hearts
add to the conversation
from the dignity
to each other
this is how
to be human
This is an excerpt from This is How You Know: a book of poetry. For more poetry, visit my starter library, where you can get some for free.