And then there were 25…

I over-picked the peaches. In fact, I don’t even know how many I picked, only that there are 25 left. Already I’ve grilled them, put them in baked oatmeal and ate two this morning alone. Tonight, there were 33 staring at me from the table, ripening rapidly. Four people divided by 33 equals 8.25 peaches apiece. It didn’t seem possible.

In a baking frenzy, I dispatched with eight. Six went into a yummy cobbler (though not the awesome cobbler that I use when I have an abundance of berries), and two went into my top-secret muffin recipe.

Now I have a cobbler and 21 muffins. And 25 peaches.

It would be ridiculous if weren’t a tradition of sorts. When my husband and I moved to DC from Michigan in 2004, we headed up to Homestead Farm, 50 minutes away in Poolesville, MD. It is a fantastic pick-your-own farm, and we picked so many apples that I was begging relatives to eat them. That trip spawned homemade donuts.

The next year it was blackberries. I was nearly nine months pregnant, sweating like mad, and going bonkers with the delicious berries. Cobbler, muffins and a pregnant appetite dispatched with those pretty quickly.

And so on, and so on – and so on. Last year, I hit the apples once again, and used the yield to master pie-making with much success and help from the little ones.

My crazed fruit-picking has become our family tradition. While we joke about the bounty, we’re making loads of memories. It’s a good thing we burn a lot of energy around here. Enjoy the pics, made more beautiful by Instagram.

I can reach them, so I have to pick them.

Plentiful peaches.

Blackberry buttermilk cake (yeah, we picked some berries, too. See the July Bon Appetit for the recipe).

Peach muffins.

Echo chamber

Once in a while, my brain starts running the lines to Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb:

“Hello? Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?”

Not that the message of that song is exactly what I’m feeling, but when it comes to the freelance life, sometimes I feel like I’m shouting out into the wilderness and all I hear is my own voice echoing back. Love/hate relationship is how I often describe my feelings about freelance, but sometimes that description feels a tad inadequate. You feel all warm and fuzzy – sometimes downright ecstatic, depending on the paycheck – when you land an assignment. But during the dark weeks of sending pitches into the ether, it can be damn depressing. Even a nice note of rejection would be a welcome addition to all the spam in the inbox.

I know it’s not just me. The freelance life is notoriously unkind. Some people toss in the towel early, unwilling to wait for the occasional sweet reward. I’ve been hanging on for a long time, despite the echo chamber. I just remind myself of the perks, like being able to take a hike with my kids in the middle of the workweek, knowing that I can work on my freelance assignment (yay, I got one yesterday!) in the cover of night and still get the job done well. And then there’s the sweetest reward of seeing a good story published, like the one I wrote on a sampling of best practices in today’s K-12 classroom.

Happy proof of my existence out here in the wilderness. Now it’s time to hang with the kids in their fort. My 5-year-old says they just added a hot tub.

First tomato

The day's yield – minus the one that succumbed to the ants.

Sometimes, balance comes in the form of food. Stepping into the garden and plucking those first tomatoes. All you need is a little salt. Never mind that the garden is disasterously overplanted, with zucchini and cucumbers tangled up with melons of unknown variety, and tomato vines twisted up around the corn (9 ears are growing!). Biting into a fresh tomato slice evokes good feelings. There’s a children’s story by Rosemary Wells that I love to read to my kids, called First Tomato. The little bunny girl has a horrible day, and the weather is snowy and cold. She daydreams about the perfect day – one that centers on spending time with her mother and picking the first ripe tomato of the season.

A beautiful fruit from the garden is one of the simplest pleasures. And some days, that’s all we need.

The luckiest black cat in the world

Before I had kids, before I had a husband, even, I had a cat. I was three months into a move to Tucson, Ariz., and had one friend, a tough school schedule and a terrible smoking habit. I needed something else.

It was November, 1996. Nearly 15 years later, I still have that cat – Gatsby, a humane society find with seven toes on each of his front paws. Today, I had to consider whether it was worth $650 to keep him alive a little longer.

Gatsby, nesting

The sadness overwhelms. It’s not the first pet I’ve loved, nor the first pet I’ve been faced with losing. But all the same, the prospect of Gatsby – who’s been my furry, somewhat pain-in-the-ass companion through bizarre work hours, move after move, and then, tail-pulling children – actually dying is indeed incredibly sad.

Worse, though, is knowing that when the time finally does come, I’ll have to choose whether to let him suffer or put him down. My dad recently pointed out that this is a choice we have with our sick and dying pets that we don’t have with our sick and dying relatives. I don’t deny that truth. But it doesn’t make the choice any less difficult.

In the struggle for balance in our lives, we juggle our jobs, spouses, children, friends, personal time and money. Our pets, though, are ever-present as part of that balancing act. We find people to watch them when we’re on vacation, we buy them little toys to play with and we clean up after them. They are part of the family.

Even so, at a time when money is horribly tight and I’ve carefully choreographed all of our bill payments, Gatsby’s timing couldn’t have been worse. We returned from vacation to find that he’d lost weight, stopped eating, and seemed to not know how to find his litter box – and not in his usual, naughty-cat-peeing-on-our-stuff-because-he’s-annoyed way (I’ll save those stories for his eulogy – like the time he knocked over a bachelorette party penis cake, after peeing on my roommate’s sweater. Or the time he peed on my husband’s coat, after what was just our third date).

When the vet called today with the results – kidneys shot, but a weekend of IV fluids and other assorted meds could help – my heart said pay for it. Just one last shot to keep the family pet around.

It was a hard choice among the many we make to balance our lives. My husband and I chose today to keep our cat alive. Perhaps we’re prolonging the sadness. Or maybe we’re creating an opportunity to talk to our kids about death – and giving all of us a chance to say goodbye.

Running in a greenhouse

I started running in 2001, as part of an effort to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress that couldn’t be exchanged. I started out on a three-mile route, walking, then jogging a block more every time until I could finally jog the whole thing.

It took about a year, and with every block I huffed and puffed and ached and felt like a superhero for persisting in something that started out so slow.

Somehow, I’ve come to enjoy a morning jog, but in the Maryland swamp, it can feel a lot like running through a greenhouse. On this day, with a heat advisory in the forecast, I made myself go out and sweat and puff through a morning run. I did it because it feels good in the end, and it motivates me to do more – run farther next time, end my day with yoga, take a short walk to the store rather than drive the car. Exercise spurs on more exercise. And of course, I won’t see any results if I don’t sweat it out.

So it is with freelance. There won’t be work without, well, work. Last weekend I flew across the country to attend a conference that I hoped would be motivating as hell – and it was, as I jotted down dozens of story ideas, some with real money-making possibilities. I even figured out target publications and planned to crank out the pitches as soon as I returned.

But when I got home, it was back to making school lunches, washing endless piles of laundry and cleaning up after a cat who keeps peeing on my shoes. I had previous assignments to get through already, and as the week went by, my motivation slipped right out from under me. The air in the greenhouse was too thick.

Ok, that probably sounds bad, like my family is somehow stifling me. The real deal is that writing up story pitches is hard work. Anyone who’s spent time in the freelance life, or had to sell their editor on every story they write, knows that a good story pitch is a mini-article, with research and reporting behind it. The end result might look like a masterpiece to your eyes – but the odds that every amazing idea will get accepted are slim.

Faced with the prospect of putting together a half-dozen pitches conjured during my motivating weekend away, I instead threw myself into the domestic life. At least there’s some acknowledgment of the effort – my son loves it when I wash his favorite Phineas and Ferb t-shirt, and my husband appreciates that I also wash his shoes when the cat pees on them. It’s a tedium of the mindless kind. But it’s a bit of cop-out from doing the tough work of a freelancer.

I thought about that this morning as my eyes burned from allergies and the air felt so hot it was better to run and get the breeze than walk and feel the stifling stillness. I returned home to my laptop and started tapping, feeling a little more inspired with every keystroke. Several hours later, I’m still at it.

Writing, after all, spurs more writing. Let’s see where this takes me. In the meantime, I’ll pretend not to see the laundry.

GI Joe vs. The Bad Man

This morning, while my husband and I sat glued to our phones, the TV and the radio – simultaneously – our 5-year-old son asked us to play with him. “Honey,” I said, “mommy and daddy need to listen to the news for a while.”

I paused, and then plunged in with an explanation: A very important thing happened yesterday. A very bad man who killed a lot of people was finally caught in a secret hiding place. He was killed.

Our instincts as parents require us to protect our children from the ugly, scary, mean things in the world. My children have always lived in a post-9/11 world, and the war on terror has raged on as they’ve gone through preschool. But war is not something we talk about as a family. The battles in Iraq and Afghanistan affect us in the grander scheme of life, but in the immediacy of our daily living, they don’t. I know for many families in this country, the opposite is true, as loved ones have died and children have lost mothers and fathers. In our house, though, the concept of war is a remote one for our kids.

Last week, my son asked to go hunting. I asked him if he knew what hunting meant. His answer: “It’s when you scoop up the animals and take them to their real home.” When I told him that it involved shooting an animal and killing it, he nearly started to cry.

And so I took pause before I tried my on-the-fly explanation of why it was good that Osama bin Laden was shot – that it was an important event for the world. For an adult, that’s easy to understand. For a 5-year-old saddened that someone would shoot a deer, it’s not. Yet, this is the world we live in, and sheltering our children from all that is unpleasant isn’t possible. It defies reality, even.

I told my son the military shot the bad man. Like GI Joe, I said, except they were specially trained guys called Navy SEALS. They shot the bad man in the head twice. They got to his secret hiding place on big helicopters. He nodded. I went on: Killing is wrong, I told him, but sometimes in war it’s necessary. This man killed a lot of people.

I had him repeat it back to me. Then he dumped out his Legos and built a helicopter.

Sibling envy

If I had half the talent for writing that my brother does for painting, my freelance life would surely be a lot more interesting. Two miles down the road, this stay-at-home dad creates in his basement studio while his 6-year-old twin boys are at school. The last time I was over I caught sight of his latest work and tried to drop hints about needing new art.

This would look fantastic in my living room. Or yours (hey, shameless plugs are part of what makes blogging so much fun).

All sibling promotion aside, it’s true that I envy my brother’s artistic talents. But I also envy the ability to keep creating even when you’re not getting paid to do it – sure, the hope is always that someone will pay big money for the art, but not getting paid doesn’t stop the process. For me, the process has slowed to a crawl. I love the craft of writing, but the driving force has always been the paycheck at the end. Even this blog was born out of a desire to show off my skills to would-be editors.

My little brother’s creations remind me that I’ve been a little lazy in the craft of writing the last few months. The paycheck is always nice, but the craft itself can be cathartic. I need to remember that.

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