In the weeks leading up to December 3, 2021, I was haunted by something author Dani Shapiro once wrote about an author’s book Publication Day:
“The loneliest day in the life of a published writer may be publication day.”
Nothing different happens. The sun rises. Coffee percolates. Traffic snarls. The school bells ring. Businesses open. The hawk hunts. Dinner is served. Hearts break. Babies are made. Death opens his door. The sun sets. The moon emerges. All while the world indifferently spins.
A foolish part of me that believe, because I toiled so much, things would be different on my Publication Day.
At 6:35 a.m., on Publication Day, I stagger to the bathroom when Cindy impedes my stagger and hugs me and says, “Congratulations.” A soft gray glow presses the bedroom windows. The sun has not yet risen. Maybe it won’t.
At 6:50 a.m. I lean on the kitchen counter, hold a mug of coffee, watch the kids stare into screens, and listen to them slurp cereal. I clear my throat. I wait for one of them to congratulate me. They don’t. They hustle pass me like I’m some kitchen appliance wearing sweatpants, drop their bowls and spoons in the sink, and rush upstairs to the bathroom and fight over who gets to use the toothpaste first.
At 7:02 am the bus blinks and stops outside our house. Maggie May and I stand in the driveway. The kids rush by again and climb the bus stairs and disappear. The bus driver waves. I wave. She doesn’t say anything about Publication Day. She just releases the air brakes and rumbles away.
At 7:05 a.m. the sun rises.
At 7:09 a.m. I wrestle my hand into a plastic bag and scoop up Maggie May’s fresh shit off a neighbor’s lawn. Someone is cooking bacon.
At 8:12 a.m. I eat a bowl of cereal.
At 9:23 a.m. the friendly receptionist from my neurologist’s office calls and asks if I would like to take a survey about my recent appointment. At the end of the survey she asks, “Do you have any questions?” I want to ask her if she knows today is Publication Day. If she knows she’s talking to an author. Shakespeare. Dickens. Fitzgerald. Angelou. The Obamas. Armstrong. That she should be so honored to talk to the newest inductee in an ancient Fraternal Order of Wordsmiths. But I chicken out. “Uhhh…no,” is all I say. She tells me to have a great day and hangs up.
At 10:16 a.m. outside the local bookstore, my dad calls me. He tells me he is proud of the book. Of my work. Of me.
At 10:19 a.m. I enter the local bookstore and no one notices me. I browse the fiction section and a young man in khaki pants and a blue and white striped hoodie asks, “Do you need any help?” I want to tell him it’s Publication Day and that maybe he should announce over the loud speaker they’re privileged to have an author of immense talent in their bookstore. But I don’t. I give a half smile and say, “Uhhh…no.”
At 10:28 a.m. I pull Matt Haig’s novel, How to Stop Time from the bottom shelf and read the back cover. “Tom Hazard has just moved back to London to settle down and become a history teacher. But while he may look like an ordinary forty-one-year old, owning a rare-condition, He’s been alive for centuries. He has lived history firsthand…”
At 10:29 a.m. I decide to treat myself and buy How to Stop Time.
At 10:33 a.m. I hand the cashier my member’s card. She scans it and doesn’t squeal my name or ask for an autograph. Without looking at me, she says, “$14.99.” I pay, she drops the book in a bag, hands it to me, and tells me to, “Have a swell day.”
At 10:58 a.m. I enter a local restaurant to grab me and Cindy salads. (She has a scheduled half day not because of Publication Day but because of a scheduled faculty meeting.) The girl behind the counter doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t ask to take a selfie. She doesn’t offer a free cookie. She takes my order. When I put a dollar in the tip jar she turns and says something to someone in the kitchen. She tells me that the salads will be right up. I want to tell her about the tip and that my book is the best thing since croutons. But I don’t.
“Uhhh…okay,” I say.
“Can I help the next person?” she says.
At 11:40 a.m. there is a knock at the front door. A woman holding an Edible Arrangement stands on my front step. I open the door, “Hello. Jay Armstrong?”
“This is for you. Have a good day.”
But before I can tell the delivery woman the gift is from a life-long friend, and how the Edible Arrangement is a symbolic gift, an inside joke, because in my new book I write how on the day I retired from teaching no one sent me an Edible Arrangement. But before I can say all that to the delivery woman slams the van door and pulls away.
At 12:32 p.m. I take Maggie May for another walk. She paws at a rolling leaf and I watch a hawk glide in the gray December sky. I think of the line, “Nothing has changed since I began,” from the Ted Hughes poem, Hawk Roosting, a poem I had taught for years. The hawk circles us and I think how small I must look to the hawk. It’s unnerving.
From 1:12 p.m. to 3:23 p.m. I take a nap on the couch.
At 4:01 p.m. the kids stomp through the front door and drop their school bags on the hardwood floor. One kid announces they don’t feel well.
At 4:26 p.m., on Publication Day, a rapid Covid test reveals one of the kids has Covid.
At 4:31 p.m. Cindy calls the restaurant and cancels our dinner reservation. She sends a text to my family and cancels the Publication Day Celebration.
At 4:34 p.m. the sun sets.
At 4:50 p.m. the TV announces there’s an accident on I-95 and traffic is crawling.
At 5:15 p.m. my parents bring over a bouquet of flowers and we talk on the front porch. They say they wish they could hug me but it’s 2021 and hugging is a health risk. So we just smile and part ways.
At 6:30 p.m. my brother and his family drop off gourmet cookies at the front door without being seen.
From 7:05 p.m. to 8:17 p.m. I read How to Stop Time.
From 8:30 pm to 10:00 p.m. I eat cookies and watch three episodes from Season 9 of Seinfeld. Season 9 aired in 1997. I do quick couch math. 24 years ago. I was seventeen-years-old. And now I’m forty-one-years-old, the same age as Thomas Hazard in How to Stop Time.
At 10:03 p.m. I usher Maggie May into her cage, lock the cage, turn off the house lights, stagger up the stairs, take a shower, take my medication, take out my contacts, brush my teeth, shuffle to bed, toss the covers, lie down, stare at the ceiling, and disagree with Dani Shapiro’s quote.
Today was not lonely. I spent the day with people I love. I received congratulatory messages from friends and family and Write On Fight On supporters all day. Messages I’m so grateful for. Messages that edged me to tears. Today was ordinarily extraordinary. The world didn’t stop. I didn’t accrue millions of Twitter followers or take lots of selfies with adoring fans. No. The world was shockingly indifferent that I had spent six years writing and willing my book into existence.
On this day, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned publication and praise are not the point. Proving you can complete a journey is the point. I didn’t climb Mt. Everest or run the Boston Marathon but I did write a book. A literary Iditarod of perseverance and determination and human stubbornness. I went the distance. And yet, at journey’s end, when the dust settles, when the applause peters out, there was nowhere to go but inward.
I was naïve. My aspirations were mythical. I realize how silly it is to want the world to stop and celebrate me. I needed to know my place in the cosmos. I needed to approach grandiosity with caution. Like in a hawk’s eye, I needed to remind myself, I’m small.
We toil because we are the point of our lives. Shaping ourselves into the best version of ourselves is the point of life. To endure loss and regret and difficult journeys, to quake in frustration, to experience crushing self-doubt is ordinary. Yet in spite of all the heartbreak, we rise up, and triumph.
And this is the only way to learn about ourselves.
In the fading minutes of Publication Day, I laid in bed, shut my eyes, listened to the silence of the world, and did something extraordinary.
Need a holiday gift? Bedtime Stories for the Living makes a great gift for everybody on your list!
Check out my author website jayarmstrongwrites.com
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