As soon as she asks me the question, our conversation dies. Sitting at the side of the pool, swirling our feet in the water, she says, “Tell me about your your life. What’s new?”
I wrack my brain but quickly realize I have nothing to say. What could I say? My life, in comparison to hers, is so normal. With three well-adjusted kids, a good husband, and a comfortable home I feel, well… boring. Grasping for something that might sound engaging I blurt,”I taught struggling readers a year ago!” Does that count? What else? Should I tell her I read interesting books*? That even though I don’t appear interesting myself, I’ve read about interesting people?
“Do you guys live in the country?” She tries again–we’d been talking about permaculture and the crater garden she recently built on her farm.
“Uh, no” I answer lamely. I launch into a spiel about how no rural properties had been available when we were looking, when Vivian interrupts us before I finish.
“You should tell her about our garden. And the park behind our house,” Belén whispers to me. But by then, our conversation is over.
I met Barb when we came to fiddle camp two years earlier. Now we were back again, reacquainting ourselves with old faces and meeting new ones. Before the pool conversation I’d seen Barb at her trailer, her silvery hair pulled back into a low pony tail, feeding their adopted crow. They found the crow with a broken leg weeks before camp and even though she had 6 of her own children to pack up, she knew she couldn’t leave the bird on its own.
“Of course!” I joke when she tells me about bringing the bird, “You need more to do.” But as far as I can tell, nothing seems too overwhelming for her. As a single mother, raising permanent foster children, she also runs an organic farm, home schools the kids, and makes sure they are steeped in music. While passing bread crumbs to the crow with one hand, and carding raw wool with the other, she explains how music affects the brain and why she thinks it has something to do with the reason her children don’t exhibit the typical symptoms of FAS, even though they were exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero. Later in the day, after supper, I see her spinning wool with a drop spindle. And why not? Why not spin your own wool after making a bonfire, roasting wieners, and kayaking with a pack of children?
She’s not the only one at camp I want to find more about. While Michael designs my latte with steamed milk, he tells me he used to preach, instead of grind coffee, for a living. “Owning a coffee shop is a lot like being a professional Christian.” I look confused so he explains, “Professional Christian? Oh, that’s just what I call being a pastor.” He goes on, “I talk to a lot of people every day. You know, planning funerals, marital counseling… I do it all over drinks. I guess if anyone wanted to hire me as a professional Christian again I’d ask them if I could just go ahead and keep baking. Keep making coffee. Keep doing what I’m doing.”
Then there’s Easton, a twenty-something from Florida who just spent a month at a Zen monastery in New York, decided to wwoof in Canada, and landed up here at the Kitchen Party to learn the banjo. I also meet Anna; she tells me about living in Ecuador with her children and the ten-day canoe trips they take every year. One evening, during an outdoor concert, I share a picnic bench with one of the instructors. Cara Luft, singer-songwriter, banjo and guitar player extraordinaire (also founding member of the Wailin’ Jennys), tells me about life in the music business. “I live in Winnipeg but I’m not there much.” She travels across the globe, as do many of the musicians who instruct at this camp, and I feel a little star-struck. We listen to the band playing on stage and between songs and I ask her as many questions as I can. I’m curious about what it must be like to be her; famous, talented, and so very… interesting. Then she asks me a question.
“Are you here with anyone, or just your kids?”
“Oh, yeah… I mean, no. I have a husband, but he’s not here. He’ll come for the concert on Friday night.”
She nods in my direction and I look at the smile lines around her mouth. She must be around my age. Maybe forty?
“Nope, I’m all alone.” She fakes sobbing, her eyes still twinkling, and I laugh but suddenly I’m less star-struck.
The band on stage is introducing their next tune–something about performing it in Tasmania this winter. Then the blue-eyed fiddler starts singing his heart-breaking song, and when all the teen-age girls swoon I think about the people around me: the woman who invests herself in her foster children, the pastor-turned-barista, the canoeing family, and all the traveling musicians. There are many ways to live. So many ways to be. Famous, single, married, musical, generous, rich, poor…
Stan comes on the last evening like I said he would. He leans forward and watches our daughters with a wide grin as they perform what they’ve learned this week. When Vivian gets tired I leave the crowd and stroll her under starlight while string music floats on the warm wind. Soon camp will be over; there will be goodbyes and promises for next year; musicians will pack up instruments and head for the road. We will too; but we’ll be going home, back to our own life. And I’m so glad it’s ours, boring as ever.
*This well-written memoir by Alabama lawyer, Bryan Stevenson angered, shocked, and inspired me all at the same time. I’d be curious to hear how a Canadian lawyer with experience in our criminal justice system might respond to his stories. Hint, hint 🙂