The Back Page

THE SECOND CHANCE

Last fall, we all promised to slow down and savour life. How many of us did?

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON August 5 2002
The Back Page

THE SECOND CHANCE

Last fall, we all promised to slow down and savour life. How many of us did?

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON August 5 2002

THE SECOND CHANCE

The Back Page

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

Last fall, we all promised to slow down and savour life. How many of us did?

THE SNAKE is back. Of course, I can’t be sure it’s the same snake, but I’m pretty sure it is: almost four feet long, plumper than a garden hose, resplendent with black and gold stripes. The same female garter snake that first showed up a year ago. There I was, drinking coffee on the cottage deck, staring into the middle distance, waiting for the barn swallow to dart from the eaves, or a fish to break the surface, when I glimpsed some movement in the window box. Movement beneath the frilly petticoats of white petunias. Movement which morphed into a snake. A huge snake. I jumped. She disappeared.

But not for long. This snake, as it turned out, had no intention of moving on. She had dibs on the window box, and dibs on the warm rock by the path. With languid self-possession, she made herself at home. Even her boyfriends—two smaller snakes—knew where to find her. Only the nervy crew of neighborhood ducks, crashlanding on the deck for their daily snack, made her skittish. But me? I didn’t scare her one bit.

And slowly, it turned out that she didn’t scare me either. I began to warm to her presence. Which is remarkable, given the fact that, up until last summer, I thought I was terrified of snakes. When we moved to South Africa in the Sixties, one of the first things my father showed us was a snake-bite kit in the kitchen cupboard, an ominous white box with a little knife and a tourniquet that we were to use if we were bitten in the backyard. (I made a secret vow that I’d die of snake bite before I ever willingly carved up my own arm.)

One morning last August the snake shed her skin, leaving a transluscent remnant with diamond detailing by the cottage door. I picked it up and took it home, placing it on my bedroom windowsill. And then came Sept. 11, and nothing was quite the same. That night, I dreamed that the ashes from the World Trade Center were piled by my window. I woke instead to the snake-

skin, ghostly and strangely reassuring.

Last September, when so much of what we value seemed deeply threatened, and the world precariously balanced, we all made promises to slow down and count our blessings, to love better and live differently. Which is why, when someone e-mailed me the stress-management diet for working mothers, the humour seemed a little tired. Breakfast was spartan: grapefruit and dry toast. Lunch: lean chicken, spinach and a single Oreo. But from there, the diet— and presumably the woman—unravelled. Her mid-afternoon snack? An entire pack of Oreos, two pints of ice cream and a jar of hot fudge sauce. Dinner? A family-size pizza, two loaves of garlic bread, three chocolate bars, topped off with four glasses of red wine. Funny, but I wasn’t laughing.

Have we kept our promises of last fall: to slow down and savour life? That’s a tough one. Certainly, we had good intentions. Now, summer gives us a second chance to mend our ways, offering—as it always has—a refresher course in living.

In my case, it began last month when I

ditched my Filofax for the frayed little timetable pasted on the cottage fridge. It’s a simple chart, designed years ago by my son, when staying up until sunset was still a matter of serious discussion. Breaking the summer into two-week intervals, it lists the exact times you can watch the sunset if you’re standing on the cottage deck, and 15 minutes later, from a spot down the lake. If you’re lucky, and you leave the dock at just the right time, you can watch the day end twice.

Waking is a different matter: I follow no schedule. At some point, nature calls, insistently: the whirr-dee-dee of the whitethroated sparrow, the banging of the minnow pail on the dock as once again, bandit otters steal the bait. Two weeks ago, a bull moose showed up for breakfast in the bay, but he was silent—as was Baby Huey, the new eagle offspring, watching from his nest.

This year the lake is high, and the boathouses sit up to their armpits in water. My friend Anne has arrived from the West Coast, her cappuccino maker in tow. Together we share our version of the working mother’s stress management diet: drinking strong coffee as we watch Anne’s mother make her mother’s gem of a lemonade recipe. While we trade stories of the long winter behind us, and of bear sightings on the lake, Anne’s mother juices 18 lemons in her ancient “Juice-O-Mat.” To this, she adds citric and tartaric acidpicked up from the local pharmacy—along with five pounds of sugar and lemon rind. “It will last us the whole summer,” she tells us, pouring the nectar into empty whiskey bottles. Anne’s mother should know: in 77 years, she’s never missed a summer at the lake.

These are the grace notes of life: unscripted days where the rewards come from watching and listening.

Sometime later this month, there will come a morning when I’ll open the cottage door and the sounds of summer will have disappeared. The whirring and the singing and the croaking will be over for another year. But for the moment, I’m savouring life: the coffee is on, the snake is back and far from the towered city, I’m shedding my winter skin. fifl

Ann Dowsett Johnston is editor at large at Maclean’s. ajohnston@macleans.ca