Today I took down the tomatoes. That is to say, I diligently undid all the things I so diligently did last Spring. I untwisted the twist ties, unsnapped the cage cross-bars, pulled up the stakes. I unearthed the plants and clipped them into manageable lengths, and dropped them into the compost bin, where the compost in which the tomatoes thrived so happily all season was produced. The bed is clear now except for the parsley at one end and at the other, the stripped Brandywine plant I left standing like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. After Halloween, we’ll retire our Jack-o-lanterns to the tomato bed, where we can watch them fold in on themselves and decay.
Dirt to dirt. It was just after noon, but the angle of the sun was low. The air was warm, but the breeze was chilly. This was a spectacular year for tomatoes. We ate them in salads, on bagels, in eggs, as part of sauces and straight from the bowl, as snacks. The vines I was uprooting were covered with flowers and fruit small as grapes and hard as rocks. With two weeks of warm sunshine, they would ripen. But they don’t have two weeks. I usually take pleasure in working outdoors and in following the progress of the seasons. But today’s chore left me sad.
I have been thinking about time lately. Or, more specifically, deadlines. Today’s to-do list was driven by deadlines: finish mowing the lawn; clean up the tomatoes; pull down the storm windows. Tomorrow I’ll buy the Halloween candy and the pumpkins. On Friday I’ll pay this week’s bills. By the end of the week I need to get to work on my November column. By five-thirty I need to start making dinner.
And floating through and beyond all these deadline-driven tasks is what I consider my “real” work, which is writing my next book. On the one hand, I have all the time in the world to do it. If I wanted to, I could devote eight, ten hours to it five days a week. And on the other hand, no one is expecting it or telling me to do it or waiting for excerpts. All my adult life, I have dreamed of having this kind of freedom. But the blessing of unlimited time can also be a curse. Back when my writing time was precious – when I had to squeeze it in while the kids were napping, or before they came home from school, between freelance assignments or on days off from my day job — I was a lot more productive.
How do you keep working when all your motivation is internal? I have tried various tricks over the years – scheduling writing times; giving myself deadlines or word quotas; exchanging chapters with a critique partner. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Yesterday I sat at the computer all morning, doing everything but writing, and despairing of ever producing another word. Then I went outside and did some yard work, and when I returned to the desk, the words just flowed. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t.
Maybe taking down the tomatoes made me sad because it reminded me that my sense of unlimited time is an illusion. Maybe it reinforced my wish that my writing had a deadline. That someone was expecting it, that someone other than me was counting me to be as diligent about my paragraphs as I have been about those plants. That I felt as proud about my prose as I have been feeling about my produce. Or maybe my low feeling was just a temporary chemical ebb. Or else I was just really sorry to see the last of those delicious tomatoes.