I’m working on it
There’s no gardening leave, or leaving the garden or the house to tend to itself for this writer, who constantly wrestles with the art of relaxation.
A writer’s conundrum
Last Christmas and most of January, much of my time was spent at work on a book. That’s not unusual for a writer. It’s about then that you need to be writing so that the finished book makes it into the shops for the following Christmas. What was unusual is that the subject of my last book was the beach. So while the country was resting up at the beach, I was working long concentrated days in a small, hot, room. I admit I could have planned it better, but those crucial signpost deadlines that keep large projects sane had largely been ignored and I had few options but to knuckle down and write. There were compensations, mostly photographic: handsome lifeguards, beautiful houses and, with all the neighbours away, it was peacefully quiet. However, nothing quite makes up for missing out on those crucial energy-restoring moments of summer because you have to work. This summer, Beach Life is out. I hope that having been under a few Christmas trees it is now on the table at baches and holiday houses around the country. My next book, still being researched, is comfortably a while away. Back in November, I kept telling myself that this summer I was going to have a proper break and, just like everyone, do nothing at all. Doing nothing. It’s a seductive proposition, something to work towards, but I know that summer breaks, full of extended nothing, hover just out of my reach like a mirage. Something in my programming has an issue with doing nothing, while at the same time yearning for the state of mind it promises. Along with many of my generation, I wasn’t brought up to rest. Resting, it seems, needs to be learnt early. With parents who believed resting and being lazy were, in their children at least, interchangeable, it never made it into our family curriculum. Perhaps because of a physically active youth, I still struggle to sit still. Neither am I very good at lying down, either in the sun or in the shade of a tree. The result is never relaxation but a state of heightened mental activity and the urge to turn that into immediate action. Over the years I’ve noticed that although the green summer lawn might call like a soft carpet laid out in the sun, once lured there, you end up looking at the house in which you live. Then it begins. One of the things that plays in the mind of any sufferer of ‘summer-relaxation-induced anxiety’ is household maintenance. The truth of it is that fitting those things in around two-day weekends is difficult. So when you sit there and look at the house that needs washing or painting, the days around December and early January seem the ideal time to get stuck in. It doesn’t matter that it gets too hot and that you should be relaxing – you will eventually pull yourself up off the green carpet and go in search of the hose or a paint brush. Then, a week or so later with the holiday over, you’ve forgotten to relax and no one much notices that the house has been painted. Of course, one of the ways to avoid maintenance is to plan an alteration. A few long days staring at things that need doing can so easily translate into ‘what say it wasn’t there at all?’ Even now there’s a building plan hovering in the deeper reaches of my mind – a need for more space that’s been discussed periodically over the year. But what space, what kind of space? How
I’ve even been caught out weeding in the cool of Christmas morning. My neighbours, having already had their first relaxing Champagne, staggered out to an early brunch: “Working on Christmas day?” they asked. “It’s relaxing,” I said.
would we do it? Give it an hour or two sitting under the fig tree and out come the pencil and paper. Out come the magazines, books, measuring tape and calculator. Could we do this? Could we do that? Why don’t architects answer their phones in early January? Oh that’s right – they’re relaxing. Turning away from the house, your eyes come to rest on the garden. It doesn’t matter that the height of summer is the worst time for gardening of any sort: it’s when most of us find time to get out there and do it. Probably because winter weeds are now waving at you, signaling that they’re at the point of sending seed heads into the atmosphere. Get up, get out there and weed – the urge is too strong. I’ve even been caught out weeding in the cool of Christmas morning. My neighbours, having already had their first relaxing Champagne, staggered out to an early brunch. “Working on Christmas day?” they asked. “It’s relaxing,” I said. I’m now going to take the oldest route to relaxation that I can remember and read. Discovered in childhood – although reading was then considered inactivity and a close cousin of laziness – it remains a summer pleasure. What will I read? I am too much of a snob for those big, thick summer novels and too flighty for Proust, but the pile of to-be-read-for-enjoyment books at my bedside (novels and biographies), now numbers 12. At least one is a Christmas present from last year. It matters little that, for a writer, reading is a big part of work: I shall relax, take a busman’s holiday and, sitting under the pohutukawa tree, only occasionally peek over the top of my book to consider the state of the house or the possibility of an extension. And the weeds – well, I sort of have to deal with those.
Despite his best intentions to join the nation in its annual summer lie-down, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins worked on his next book.