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 BK Loren.
I’m not one of those writers who is concerned with “truth and fact” in nonfiction. The master artist Degas said, “I don’t paint what I see. I paint what will enable others to see what I’ve seen.” Any further discussion about “truth” in art barely interests me. That said, I have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth right now: Today was one shitty day.
I won’t go into why it was a shitty day. Suffice it to say that a congregation of first world problems decided to hold church in my brain, and apparently, I agreed to put on the swishy gold choir robe, snap my fingers, and sing along with them. Stupid choice. So, as the daylight waned and any chance of getting any real work done trickled through my doubled up fists, I made another choice. I went for a walk.
I’m guessing that many folks who read my work think I live in some wild place at the foot of majestic mountains. I don’t. I live in suburbia, one house slammed right up against the next. It’s that grain of sand thing that matters, to me. Even the smallest patch of open space fills me with the same awe I feel when I walk in a National Forest. Heck, a tree in my backyard can hold my imagination for hours. Put a downy woodpecker in the tree, and I’m good for half a day of reverie. My life is like a Mary Oliver poem: formulaic and repetitive, but somehow beautiful all the same.
So about six, during the non-daylight savings dusk of November, I set out. It was a mundane walk—dark night, white sidewalks, cars passing. My destination: a pizza four miles away.
Block one, my brain was still using my body as a battle zone. Anyone driving by would have thought I was boxing as I walked. Or not. Maybe that’s just the way I looked to myself, like Rocky jabbing at apparitions that dodged every punch.
Block two, out of breath. My body needs my brain to shut up if we’re going to continue up the next hill at this fast pace. So it wrestles my brain into submission. We walk, and right about then, I shift into present tense, because, at last, it’s okay to be where I am.
Block three, it’s November, the most graceful month, the opposite of cruel April with its habit of breeding lilacs out of dead earth. November lays those lilacs down to rest, the first blankets of snow covering them. It’s the month of grace and gratitude, beginning with a bow to our country’s veterans and ending with a day of thanks.
Block four, the dark suburban street becomes a pop-up forest of memories. I walk with Verne, who has not crossed my mind in decades. The sidewalk becomes the white linoleum floor of a military hospital where I visited my twelve year-old brother every day for a month. But it’s 1965, the peak of the Vietnam war, and the other beds in this barracks-style hospital are filled with wounded soldiers. My parents chide me, because I want to talk to the guys, not to my brother. I sense the men have been someplace I can’t imagine. I live on a military base, and every morning when I go to school, I am required to stop and salute the flag as it crawls up the flagpole. I know there’s a war going on, but I’m eight, and war is a word that lies flat and grey on my tongue. I know the dictionary definition, but it does nothing to make me understand why all these beds are filled with men missing arms and legs.
The guy in the bed next to my brother’s has both his legs, but they are cemented in a half-body cast. There’s a cut-out area in the cast, and a small metal cage rises up around an oozing wound. It looks like a small animal in there, blood-red, white and furry around the edges. And it has a smell to it. The caged leg belongs to a man named Verne. During the month when my brother is hospitalized, I see Verne daily. We play Rummy and Password. Verne imitates Allen Ludden (the TV host of Password) when he plays. He says, in a deep whisper, “And the password is…gallop,” and it makes me laugh. It’s our favorite game, and after about a week, I tell Verne he’s my boyfriend, and he says, “Okay,” with this huge smile that puzzles me. I sit with him on his bedside, his arm around me, and the smell of his wound crawls in my nostrils like little worms. I love that smell. It’s the smell of Verne.
Once my brother got well, I never saw Verne again. But here he is, tonight, on this street, on a day in November when my trials and tribulations are becoming more laughable with every step.
Block eight, or whatever (I’ve lost count, my brain at rest), I’m fifteen years old, a hippie kid in California. I hitchhike up and down the coast, and I “practice” walking long distances at night, because I figure this is how I’ll spend my life. I can’t dream a future for myself that includes anything other than walking the peripheries of life. I haven’t found where I fit, and so I put my thumb out, and a car pulls to the side of the road, and I hold my backpack down with one hand, run along the gravel shoulder of a busy LA highway, and I hop in. A stranger drives me to a place I’ve never been before. When I get there, I walk.
Next block, I dip into a dark curve lining a golf course. The eight year old me, the fifteen year old me, and Verne are gone. It’s just me, walking. And this: a red fox, not in my memory, but there, on the snowy sidewalk that is, right now, beautiful. The fox looks back at me, and then he just keeps walking, same pace, as if he doesn’t see me. And the grain of sand pops open to a world I love: my world, with the suburban homes and the trivial problems that sometimes pin me against the gym mat for a silly amount of time.
When the sidewalk rises to the road again, the fox looks both ways and, like a creature more comfy on paved earth than I am, darts between cars, masterfully. I worry for him. But he knows his way. I watch him disappear into a snowy corn field, and I open the door to the pizza place. Lisa, love of my life, is standing there.
“You dope,” she says. “You walked to pick up the za?” She smiles.
With our flat cardboard box in hand, we drive home, and the heater blares, and my face and cheeks thaw out, and the fox is gone, and it was a sweet visit I had with Verne and my old self. It makes the visit I’m having with Lisa and my current life all the better—a congregation of pasts all rolled up into one huge beautifully complex Now. The arc of November: Veteran’s day through Thanksgiving. Yeah, I’ll don a swishy robe and sing along with this choir any day of the week.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- I’ve never learned my manners, so I’m going to cheat. The best novel—or at least my favorite novel—of the past few months is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I chose it because I’ve read a number of Doerr’s works in the past, and I can count on him to be lyrical and substantive. All the Light We Cannot See is, I think, his most lyrical work to date, at least to my ear. I just loved it. My favorite book of poetry is Gray Matter by Sara Michas-Martin. Michas-Martin’s work very clearly embraces the classics, but is altogether new, altogether her own. I loved the references to neurology in her poems. But I also just loved the poems. She’s a master of sound and image. I selected it because I was on a panel with Sara (whom I had never met before), and I liked her presence and her mind.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- One piece of writing advice. Hmmm. I’d say this: don’t listen to the people who say you have to write every day. Broaden your definition of writing. I think a writer is constantly writing. Some of the very best work is done off the page, in the random thoughts that tumble through an otherwise busy mind. Chop wood, carry water. Consider that writing. Cook, and consider that writing. Swim, and consider it writing. If you read a lot, and you are listening in your non-writing moments, then you’re doing the right work. Sometimes the daily kinetic activity of writing can stifle the very rich thoughts that come to a mind that is engaged with something other than words. Those non-writing activities are the foundation, the earth, so to speak, the fertile ground necessary for planting ideas. A field that is constantly planted never produces a rich crop.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Another Hmm. Well, everything is pretty strange. The act of sitting at a keyboard trying to make images palpable using arbitrary scratches on a page is pretty strange. But I guess maybe my habit of lying underneath my desk is a little unusual. Lying in other places doesn’t produce the same effect. When I’m stuck, I lie underneath my desk with my feet propped up on my office chair. Sometimes I just fall asleep. But sometimes a great notion comes to me. And sometimes, I can come close to capturing that great notion on the page.
xBy BK Loren