Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Abigail Thomas:
It’s too early to get up but the dogs don’t know that, so we’re all headed downstairs at six thirty in the morning. I open the door and Rosie and Carolina race into the dark, noses to the ground, tails waving in the air, as they track whatever creatures have crisscrossed our yard during the night. They’ll be at it for hours, hounds have a work ethic like you wouldn’t believe. Except for my old beagle Harry, who likes to sleep in.
Cold and gray. Oh dear. I measure the water and the coffee and plug the pot in and worry about the day stretching ahead. If I’m not writing there’s not much point to being me, and I’ve been stuck a good long while on my project—the history of a thirty year friendship, one that withstood a big hole blown through it some years back. It’s a good story, but I’m not convinced it’s ever going to be a good book. I’m stuck at the part where we became friends again because I can’t remember how we did it, or when, or why. Neither can he. I can’t write through it or around it or past it and I can’t make it up so I’m not writing. If I’m not writing, I’m a cat without whiskers. If I’m not writing, I’m depressed. Morbid, even.
I never used to think about dying. Any thoughts of death have really been just that, thoughts, experienced from the eyebrows up, not the hideous, almost Biblical knowledge that jumped me last night. I settled in bed with my three pillows and my three dogs, the curtains pulled, door closed, lights off, everything the way I like it, but this time my heart was pounding in my throat. Out of the blue came a fact: this body of mine, the one in pink pajamas, the one hanging on to her pillow for dear life, these pleasant accommodations in which I have made my home for 68 years, it’s going to die. It will die and the rest of me, homeless, will disappear into thin air. I could actually hear my heart now, pounding.
But hard on the heels of this came a worse bit of news. My beautiful children, now in the middle of their lives, are going to grow old and they are going to die too. I won’t even be here then. When that thought struck, I felt an awful meaninglessness, and then nothing, and that absence of feeling was the worst thing I’ve ever felt.
The coffee is ready. Harry is up. He’s barking at the top of the stairs, waiting for me to wait for him at the bottom, and once I’m there, he makes his cautious way down. He’s less sure-footed in his old age. He wants to go out too, but not before checking everybody’s bowl. Harry’s an optimist. I love this old dog. Off he ambles into the yard, tail held high, head held high. Peeing on everything perpendicular. I settle down with coffee, my notebook and pen. I’ll write shopping lists if nothing else comes. Just keep the pen moving on the page. Eggs butter sugar.
Late in the day I have a bit of luck. Yesterday I discovered a bowl of plums in the icebox that had sat there forgotten for a month, and I took the bowl into the back yard and tossed the plums one by one onto the icy grass near the woods where I’ve seen deer. A dozen dusky purple plums, past their prime: an offering. And this afternoon when I go out to look, the frozen grass is bare, and I am filled with a joy I can’t get to the bottom of.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
- There have been a few contenders–the one that affected me most in the chills and laughter department is Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Afraid Of–which is all about death. argh.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Try and keep the faith. We all have good days and bad days. Keep writing, stay in the habit of writing, even if it’s laundry lists.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I like to paint on the reverse of glass, make a huge mess, and stop thinking so hard.
Books by Abigail Thomas: