Late yesterday afternoon, I surprised myself by writing the final page of my novella, The Occasions. I didn’t expect to finish it. Not yet. I was sort of caught up in the whole ecosystem of the story and I knew it could go one way, with particular consequences, or it could take a turn that would lead, well, I wasn’t sure quite where.
But it ended up in one of my favourite places, around the fire circle near my vegetable garden, late at night, after a party. When I say, “my vegetable garden”, I mean something like it. I’ve set the novella somewhere very similar to where I live and some of the characters resemble people I know and love. But they’re not those people, in significant ways. They fit together in ways the people I know don’t. But I loved writing something set in this part of the world, even if the house was a little bigger, the family differently configured, and the trajectory of both the plot and the narrator’s life very different from my own.
The central event is a party. The narrator wants to do the flowers for it herself. Does that sound familiar?
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Mrs. Dalloway is a book I read once a year. I think it’s a brilliant distillation of marriage, friendship, a changing world, how we remember and reconcile the past, and how we carry important values forward. The flowers. Friendships. How we reconcile ourselves to our aging bodies, the uncertainty of the world around us, where returned soldiers cope or don’t cope with shell-shock, and how we try to preserve what we love.
Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Occasions takes place on a single summer day. Children have returned to the family home, friends are expected, and everyone is preparing for a party. There are not chapters but sections, some of them very brief, some of them arranged as calls and responses
Now we are going out to the long table by the garden, glasses in hand, Rosie racing ahead, Tom playing the prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G minor. Now we are finding our places, with the help of Anna who holds the seating plan in her hand by the head of the table. Just there, she says, her hand on Molly Kovac’s back, and the children a little farther down, we’ve mixed you up a bit! Alex helps the children to their chairs and squats to talk to them quietly.
Now we are all seated and Rob is taking bottles of white wine around, Gareth the red. We’ll pour your first glass and then you’re on your own, says Gareth to Sunnera Bhatt, who smiles her wide smile. Adam and Arden are placing platters on the bright French cloths, the bowls of salad, baskets of bread. Water is poured for those not drinking wine. Rosie has been chased away. Twice. Now Nick is rising, asking for a moment to share a poem he considers the appropriate invitation to the evening. I’d like to have printed this for you, with a woodcut or something, he says, but somehow it didn’t happen. The first stanza has us all quiet:
It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies
or going ashore
to rest, regard the leaves
We listen to the poem, its simple mysterious language, and we want to be at the place described. We want to be there, “the river…muscled at rapids with trout”, and then we are there, here, as the poem reaches its conclusion:
there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among
the insects: come.
(lines of poetry from “Visit” by A.R. Ammons)
The party in The Occasions takes place outside, at long tables laid for dinner under the honeysuckle, and after the meal, there is dancing on the grass—one son plays a cello and his wife, an oud—and chairs are pulled close to the fire when the sun goes down. I began it on July 3, 2019, and I finished yesterday afternoon, and all fall and winter I spent time smelling the honeysuckle, smelling the cedar smoke from the fire. A summer day, in both memory and in imagination. A summer evening. The people gathered and the owls calling (not in Greek, not in Sanskrit, but simply their own sound). I’d thought there might be a late swim but then I realized everyone had had wine, and there were children to consider. Instead, there’s music, and Laphroaig.
So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too ‘that is all’. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.
–from Mrs. Dalloway