In the bedroom in the cottage where I'm staying there's a sign on the wall that I see first thing on waking. The sign reminds me of my childhood when my mother would barge into my room early in the morning with a litany of complaints. Her shrill voice was a bucket of ice water over my head.
One moment I was in the middle of a soft, warm cloud of sleep, the next I was being shouted at for some long-forgotten offense. I became a child with stressed-out buggy eyes and strange facial ticks, jumping at the slightest noise, convinced I could see my own nerves twitching under my skin.
Sometimes, when I would pipe up from underneath my covers to complain, my mother would bellow, "Relax!"
Which is what the sign on the wall at the cottage says. Relax.
All day at the cottage I try to relax. But it's no use. It's as if it, the sign, is my mother shouting at me, urging me to do something that is the exact opposite of how I'm feeling. I'm not complaining, I like being at the cottage. I'm lucky to be at the cottage. I'm lucky to be surrounded by the instruments of relaxation: Muskoka chairs, books, magazines, beers, TV, beach towels, the beach, water. On the second day after a long sunny interval at the beach, I even felt myself slow down while walking, as if my body got weighed down by bags of sand.
"I think the sun made me tired, "I quipped to my equally unrelaxable partner whose voice was definitely shaded with envy when he said, "Tired? That means you're finally relaxing." "You think?" I said and immediately felt the pressure to stay relaxed and wished for a cigarette to elevate me to the familiar jittery level -- that's what I'm used to, after all.
I normally live in a city, not in a nice, relax-o-conductive cottage. I live in a city that makes me crazy with its noise and traffic and the way it brings out the strangest feelings in me -- the desire to shout at driving offenders, the wish to shove people who suddenly stand in the middle of sidewalks, the muttering of death threats at children who scream in restaurants, or imagining the open-mouthed corpses of the elderly who dig in their change purses forever at cash registers.
When I leave my house, it feels like I need armour to be able to deal with what's outside. In fact, I do wear a helmet since I like to transport myself through streets filled with a forest of waving, dangerous giant metal cans known as cars, to work and everywhere else I need to get to. I shout rarely but there's always a shout in my head, a siren going off as I bullet-pedal my way to the next destination. I dread leaving the house but I have to leave the house and my body is an alarm going off morning till night.
I used to be upset with my mother for her morning barging in but now I know that she was just training me to be able to deal with the world in which she grew up. And now that I'm a mother myself I suppose I should begin similar training with my son though I still have it in me to shield him from the world falling to pieces around us and naively I hope to keep my stress gauge to myself.
My son is at the cottage with me. He sleeps in the room next to mine. He sleeps with his chubby arms thrown over his head, an embodiment of relaxation. He wakes up screaming happily, "Mommy wake up," and it's the best kind of morning shouting in the world. I run to his room, completely unrelaxed on my own accord and scoop him up in my arms and tell him that we're going to go to the beach where I can, hopefully, eventually get so weighed down by all the sand and sun that I will finally naturally and magically calm down.
I only have about five more days left to do this properly, to unwind, which is the kind of a deadline I can work with -- as a city person I'm all about deadlines. And I know from the past holidaying experiences that I will get there on the last day, before stuffing myself and my suddenly slacker family into the metal can and driving back to the city that beckons with its promise of unrelaxing me immediately.
But that one day, the final day, will be the happy feeling in my mind for a long time, a true idea of what the wall at the cottage is suggesting.
And that will do, hopefully, till the next summer.