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 Erika Anderson.
For the first time in months, I wake up happy. Everything that has stopped me from writing this book will not stop me today. Over the weekend, the competing voices in my head—I must write this. I cannot write this—fell away when I realized what I lacked was not time or ability but patience.
I have always valued my worth in relation to others. If I give enough, if I do enough, I might be enough. Yet in this moment, I am stepping out of one commitment after another: putting the reading series on hiatus, taking a semester off teaching, walking out of roles at one magazine after another. The sense of obligation that led me to each one is gone. Even the obligation to socialize is disappearing: instead of going to an Oscars’ party, I do research for my book.
In my case, research looks like talking to my parents. Or more like listening to them. Hearing about how they went to the first Rainbow Gathering, lived on one commune after another from Colorado to Tennessee, picking fruit in between, knowing they could pick up the phone at any point and call home, but they never did.
Out the window the sky is alpine blue and the sun is shining through the bare trees. Today the low will be eight. Winter teaches me to base everything on the low.
My mother would always come back from the road with a stuffed animal for me to hold during the long stretches when she was away singing. Ruffy lies beside me now. I found him underneath the Christmas tree when I was eight years old.
I tiptoe through the morning routine, wanting to be my own ballerina. I find a workshop-appropriate dress for my evening class, a blend of casual and professional. Then it’s sweater, scarf, calf-length coat, elbow-length gloves and earmuffs.
The first train is bursting with bodies. I stand back and watch it pass. I take the next one, and transfer to another line at Jay Street. My morning hop-skip-jump for three years running.
When I get out at Delancey, I stop at a Chinese bakery for a cheesy bun. A few blocks over, I walk three flights up to the warehouse where I work, where male models used to box in underground events and, before that, garments were made. I’m one of the first to arrive—almost everyone else who uses the space works for a startup, but doesn’t start the day till 10 or 11.
I type up my pages of notes from the night before about how my parents found themselves in Tennessee, visiting The Farm for the first time, and another commune, Spring Hollow. For my mother, Spring Hollow Farm was love at first sight, a family she’d been waiting for. My parents move there, and weeks after, they join. It works until it doesn’t work anymore—if you want to save the world by creating the world anew, spending your days canning tomatoes falls short.
Come evening, I’m sitting at the end of a table in a conference room, leading students through an essay by Robert Vivian. We always start the workshop by reading aloud a sentence we love. It’s so much easier than diving into meaning.
Because meaning often fails us. Or we search and find none. Or the meaning shifts. Meaning is what we attach to what we see. The workshop demands it. My book demands it.
What did my parents’ lives mean—to them, to me, to then, to now? How is it that they ended up on a historically significant commune, where there were so many unspoken rules? How is it that they gathered the courage to go in the first place and later gathered the courage to leave? What does it mean that I was born there? What is the legacy?
My students and I listen to George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From.” We copy the format and create our own.
I am from cloth diapers,
from soy milk and nutritional yeast.
I am from the forest that was our front yard.
(Tall grass yearning,
trees touching down.)
I am from the wilds
That were subdued into rows.
When the dumplings arrive–pork and chive, peanut, shrimp, and mushroom—we discuss the students’ work. By the time everyone leaves, it’s reaching toward 11, so I take a cab home. I have too many bags. It’s too cold. It’s too late. It’s less than $20.
We drive over the Williamsburg bridge, and I look at the dots of light I call home. Twenty minutes later, we’re on my block, where I brace myself for the low.
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?
- Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Her previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was a revelation. I didn’t know you could match image with lyricism, or that you were allowed to go public with loneliness—I thought that was something to hide. Rankine’s is a voice that I trust. I want her to narrate the world to me, which is what she does in Citizen.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Find a way to calm the dragon that says you can’t do it. Feed it ice cream. Read it a story. Say shhhhh. Then sit down and write.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Giving up. If I’m reading something that doesn’t resonate, I put it down. I might be halfway through a book. I might be three quarters of the way into an essay. As a former “good girl,” it’s a relief to have found the wherewithal to walk away.
You can read Erika Anderson‘s writing here:
—Other Writers in the Series—
Oh, I just love “the low” and everything about this piece, which I needed to read today. The dragon is rearing and may need buckets of ice cream. Thank you for the advice.
Loved this piece. I wasn’t familiar with Erika Andersons’ work. I’m now following her on Twitter, and I can see many of my bookish and writer friends know of her. Loved her writing here; loved these sentences, “Because meaning often fails us. Or we search and find none. Or the meaning shifts. Meaning is what we attach to what we see.” Also loved the idea of copying and recreating Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” which I will now do. Such riches. Thank you.
This is a great piece, and I’m so glad to be introduced to Erica’s writing. I too grew up with parents who created a very alternative life style, around the same time, and I’m inspired to read Erica’s story and her efforts to understand the meaning in her own parents’ choices. I really look forward to her book!
By the way, I’m still a loyal reader of this series, Cynthia, though it’s been months and months since I commented. I still love coming here, knowing that on the first of the month there will be a new writer to meet or connect with. Thank you!
Willow, I’m so happy to hear from you! Periodically I will check to see if your blog is back up. I bet your little boy is not so little anymore. Stay in touch!
Thanks so much for reading this, and for your kind comments. While I might not live on a commune anymore, I am always searching for community, and I feel grateful to find it here.