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 Katrina Kenison.
It begins just before first light, like a wave breaking gently at the shore, the slow rising of consciousness. A fragment of self swimming up toward the surface of being, dispelling the textures of dreams. Awakening. The day arrives in shadow and sparse birdsong, the music of bare, wind-rustled branches running with sap. With it, a sense of possibility. Who knows what will happen next? Annie Dillard’s words “How we spend our days” nibble at the ragged edges of my first thoughts, inviting attention. Intention. Or maybe it’s just pressure I feel: Make it good. Make it count.
Today, there’s no place I need to be. Clear space beckons, a parade of solitary hours: a writing day. Already I am itching for it here amongst the warm, tossed bedclothes. I crave the empty moment—the place where stillness meets silence, time unhinges from itself and words begin to stir.
A red sliver of sun inscribes itself across the ridge of mountains, the familiar backdrop to our days here. The bedroom lightens by degrees. My husband rolls over, still half asleep, and lays a hand on my hip, the one that needs replacing, that always hurts, that his touch seems almost magically to ease. It is in these small ways that we care for each other. There’s a part of me that wants to jump up now, spin the shower knob to hot, get on with things—breakfast, coffee, a kiss at the door, good-bye, good-bye, exhale, and breathe it in: the hushed tranquility of an empty house.
But first, this.
A large part of my writing practice these days seems to be about letting go of the idea that if I’m not writing, I’m not being productive. I have to keep reminding myself: meaning isn’t found in accomplishment; one thing isn’t better or worse, or more or less, than another thing. The page awaits. But life is full. And I’m trying day by day to trust that if I’m fully present then I am where I’m meant to be, whether it’s at my laptop composing sentences or in the laundry room folding towels or turning to meet my husband’s sleepy embrace. How we spend our days. . .
The sun inches higher, proclaiming the dawn in a seamless sky. The dog dances her impatient little dance by the bed, barks once, twice, louder, demanding: attention must be paid.
On the bedside table, my phone buzzes. It is not yet seven. A text from a friend: “She died.” This death is not unexpected but shattering nonetheless. The world has lost a person. Hearts are breaking.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes about the possibility of creating, within ourselves, our own monastery. As we work to quiet the inner chatter, letting go of our notions about the way things should be, we create a compassionate space that allows for all things as they arise—sorrow, grief, shame, regret, frustration, joy. Already, the orderly, productive morning I’ve envisioned has shape-shifted.
“This too, ah, this too,” are the simple words Kornfield uses to remind the heart to soften. And so it is that I repeat them now, alongside Annie Dillard’s potent phrase. I need both. For the truth is, my days rarely unfold as I expect them to. But I can choose, again and again, to stay open to whatever the moment brings.
I prop myself up on the pillows, reach for the covers, my eyeglasses, and search my brain for words to peck onto the screen, a few sentences to convey all that can’t possibly be said. “I’m so sorry. I’m here. So sad. Talk later. Love you.”
In the kitchen I make coffee, slice bananas, shake vitamins into my palm, stare out the window at the sky. I think about my friend, suffering the loss of her friend; soon, before I get down to writing, I will call her. I think about beginnings and first sentences and plans for the day, and how they so often get abducted by one thing or another.
My husband props up his iPad at the breakfast table, eats his oatmeal, and reads the Times online. Yesterday morning, I did the same—a mistake. The front-page story was about a young black vet in Atlanta suffering from PTSD who was running naked through his apartment complex. It was perfectly clear to anyone with eyes that he was unarmed. A cop shot him anyway. Twice through the chest. Once my tears began, they wouldn’t stop. I spent the day in aimless mourning, grieving for all that is wrong—with me, with us, with our country, our world. I took a long walk and made soup and talked with both my sons and didn’t write a word.
Today I sit down with my bowl of fruit and the book that arrived in the mail yesterday, Abigail Thomas’s new memoir about aging and writing, illness and grief and friendship. The title is perfect for those of us who’ve rounded that corner into the homestretch of middle-age, who struggle daily to make our own peace with life as it is: What Comes Next and How to Like It. We are all hoping to learn the secret.
“I wasn’t writing all the time,” this marvelous writer admits on page nineteen. “Days, sometimes weeks would go by without my doing anything at all. I began to feel like something left too long in the vegetable drawer. Then I had the bright idea of starting a weekly writing workshop. There would be a point to me!”
No wonder I love her. And oh, the joy of beginning the day with good sentences—priming the pump rather than bleeding the heart.
My husband fills a Tupperware container with the remains of last night’s dinner, brushes his teeth, claps a baseball cap on his head and makes his exit. I’m grateful for his good cheer, his work, his steadiness. It’s not lost on me these days that while I’m between books, he’s earning the salary that allows my life to be what it is: a luxury of time. For the next nine hours, the house is mine.
Resisting Abby’s good company (this is hard, but it’s a writing day) I close my book and survey the scene.
Once, a student in my own weekly writing class told us that she writes every day, all the time—in doctors’ waiting rooms, at stoplights, while on hold on the telephone, in the middle of the night. She flipped open a well-used notebook full of her dense scribbles—snippets of essays and scenes and dialogue and prose poems awaiting her finishing touch. I was in awe of her output. It occurred to me that, really, I should be taking a writing class from her.
Were it not for the words I somehow have managed to write, and the thousands of hours I’ve spent sitting in my kitchen and staring out the window in order to produce them, I could not call myself a writer. I do not write at stoplights or in the middle of the night or while on hold. Not ever. I write in hard-won secret pockets of time, in solitude. I sit still as a hunter perched in a blind in the forest, breathing quietly, waiting for words to come into view.
This morning, before I reach for my laptop, I need to get a few things done. I water the houseplants, fill the birdfeeder, start a load of laundry and vacuum the dog hair off the floor. Scrub the stubborn remnants from last night’s roasting pan, carry the recycling out to the bin, straighten the magazines on the coffee table, scribble a grocery list for later.
Setting the house to rights is unavoidably, irrevocably, part of my process. It’s not always easy to know where to draw the line. The other day my friend Maezen, author of three fine books and an archive of brilliant articles, and a Buddhist priest who knows a thing or two about discipline, posted this on Facebook: “I’ve washed every shower curtain in the house. I think this means it is time to write again.”
My first thought: “No, no, there must be grout to clean yet.” My house is never tidier than when I’m preparing to head off into the silent woods of myself. Before I can slip away, I must always rinse out the sink, fold the dishtowel.
Now, my house-wifely duties done, I stand once again at the kitchen counter, gaze out to the mountains, and call my friend. I listen to a heart-rending account of last days and final hours, family members arriving, memories spilling forth. My task in this moment is simply to be here, phone at my ear, holding space for her tears. It occurs to me that “How we spend our days” goes hand-in-hand with “This too, and this too.” Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin, reminding us simply to embrace all the truths of our lives with wise and tender hearts.
Already the sun has climbed to the top of the pine trees. Slender icicles release a steady stream of drips from the roof; the snow is receding at long last but not soon enough for me. A ravenous hairy woodpecker has made its way through half of the sunflower seed I just put out.
A fox trots by. (I think of her as my totem, this bold, graceful animal, for rarely does a day pass that I don’t catch sight of her going about her own business in the world on the other side of the windowpane.) She glances briefly up at me and continues on her way, alongside the stone wall, down the driveway, across the road. She knows what she’s about, is as much a tenant of this patch of earth as I am. I watch a squirrel poised on the lip of the bird bath, sipping at a bit of ice melt there. Everywhere, life is resuming, poised to be quickened by warmth and thaw and rain.
Across town, my friend Maude is presiding over the daily births of spring lambs. My laptop pings with the arrival of her photos, newborns so impossibly delicate and adorable they defy description or belief. She sends videos capturing first steps, hops, tiny bleats. And then, inevitably, emails entitled “sad news.” Each lamb lost is another small heartbreak; she feels every death deeply. The mothers cry piteously for their babies and Maude weeps with them and then reports the toll. I write her back, a sympathy note for every lamb she cannot save. “This too, ah, this too”: the only solace I can offer. All days are numbered and the world shall keep turning with and without us, life and death inextricably linked. We hurt and find a way to bear the sorrow, for it is surely our awareness of life’s fleetingness that allows us to fully grasp its beauty.
My writing day is already half over. “I haven’t yet begun,” I think anxiously. “It’s slipping away.” In fact, I haven’t missed it. I will never separate my writing from my living or my living from the work of tending whatever is in front of me in the moment—the bread crumbs on the counter, a friend in need, the pink geranium’s falling petals, the words that arrive so slowly on the page. It is all one, as continuous as the dawn sky.
And perhaps I have begun, almost without knowing it. Perhaps I began hours ago, in the diffused light of sunrise, listening to a husband’s quiet breathing, to mourning doves and wind-murmer. We live surrounded by story. To write is simply to pay attention, to allow the day its ebb and flow, to summon up its riches and find some way to give them form.
I sit down, curl my toes around the rung of the kitchen stool and begin to type.
“It begins just before first light, like a wave breaking gently at the shore, the slow rising of consciousness…”
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 rarely pre-order a book, but I knew that when Abigail Thomas’s new memoir came out I’d just want to drop everything and read it. I think Safekeeping is one of the most magical, moving, brilliantly written memoirs of all time. I’ve read it three times, in part to try to figure out how she does so much with so little. And like that first memoir of hers, What Comes Next and How to Like It is also written in small, deceptively simple but deeply revealing vignettes that speak volumes. She is the Queen of White Space. I’m in awe.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Write for yourself, for the joy of it and to discover how you feel and what you need to say, with nary a thought for your readers and what they may think. And then, before you send your work into the world, read it carefully, as if through the eyes someone else. Make sure nothing you’ve written will cause pain to another. I think the precept of bioethics that med students learn applies to writing as well: “First, do no harm.”
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I am kind of obsessed with commas. I love them. I ponder every comma, I use lots of commas, and then I always do an edit that’s mostly about taking quite a few out. I play around with commas right up until the final moment. And I always pay close attention to other writers’ commas, too.
By Katrina Kenison: