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 AMY GOTTLIEB.
I live on the edge of the Hudson River in the Bronx, and the river is still dark when I wake at 5:30. My husband makes coffee before he leaves for work. Our kettle broke this summer, and we’ve been boiling water in a rustic metal pot ever since. I read in bed, meditate a bit, and bask in the promise of an ordinary Wednesday.
My week is a checkerboard of teaching and writing days. Teaching days are logistical balancing acts, marked by class schedules and multiple tote bags jostling in the back seat of my car. After years of working as an editor, I’ve fallen in love with the college classroom. In my freshman literature class, we’ve just started our poetry unit and Williams’ “This is Just to Say” still delights me; I always feel the chill of that last stanza: “forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold.”
Today is a writing day, which is a bit of misnomer, as I’m not producing much new work. The Beautiful Possible launched in February, and I’m still riding on its coattails. The next novel is beginning to tug at me; so far I’ve filled a single notebook as I root around to find my characters’ voices and follow their storylines. Every novel begins with an obsession and while I know the contours of this one, I haven’t yet opened the floodgates. For now, I’m working on poems in various stages of revision, an epistolary book project about faith and metaphor, and book promotion.
At seven I walk our dog Pablo. We live close to a Metro North station and if our walk coincides with the arrival of a Manhattan-bound train, Pablo and I dodge commuters rushing down the street. After breakfast, I head out for my forest walk, a three-mile loop through the woods bordering the Hudson. My hike unravels the knots accrued during my teaching days. Each step brings me closer to an inner quiet. The forest tells its own stories and by the time I return home, my body and mind are in sync.
After a shower, I set up my laptop on the dining table, scan The New York Times, and begin the workday. This past weekend, I participated in a luminous Faith in Literature conference in Asheville, and snippets of conversations with my colleagues still linger. I haven’t yet unpacked my suitcase, a familiar symptom of not wanting to let go.
I email my epistolary co-writer, also named Amy, and share insights from the conference. I tell her about this assignment for Catching Days and reflect on what it means to inhabit a day and endow it with meaning. Every day seems to be in conversation with every other day in a continuum of thought. I’m naturally contemplative, and even when I’m juggling tote bags, teaching classes, running errands, and caring for others, I always seem to be pondering the ineffable.
When my sons wake up I touch base with one or both of them as they begin their own days of work and college. Back on the screen, I bypass the water cooler of Facebook and delve into class prep, book event logistics, and emails. Next week I’m teaching an evening class on creation and personal creativity, and I gather source texts from Rashi, Twyla Tharp, Mary Oliver, and Martha Graham, who wrote the consummate directive to all who make art:
There is a vitality, a life force, and energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.
I walk over to the café in the mid-afternoon. I’ve arrived at the perfect moment, as a small girl proudly shows her grandmother how she draped her little pink coat on the back of a chair. The whirr of the espresso machine serves as a call to prayer, and I open my file of half-finished poems. I visit the draft of a Prospero poem and begin to fiddle around. Time disappears as I remove scaffolding, experiment with line breaks, finesse images. Just before I close my computer, I pull out all the line breaks and render it into a block of prose. This feels right, at least for now.
Back home, I walk and feed Pablo, then phone my mother. We talk about a recent article we both read about the NBC peacock. My father was a cameraman at NBC in the early sixties and the peacock was a beloved emblem of my childhood. At eighty-six, my mother’s memory isn’t always sharp, but her recall of the distant past is remarkable. We reminisce about the night my father brought home our first color television and the neighbors stopped by to view the peacock in all its Technicolor glory.
I don’t have any events scheduled this evening and our sons are out, so I braise tofu and mushrooms in olive oil for my husband and me. We review the day, chat about books and politics. I boil water for coffee in the rustic pot we may never replace, and then return to work: email, a cursory dip into social media, another peek at the Prospero poem, preparation for tomorrow’s classes. On tap: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station” and Genevieve Taggard’s “The Geraniums,” two poems I love to teach in tandem.
After dark, I step onto the terrace and stare at the surface of the Hudson. I feel as if I’m a wayfarer on a ship, sailing from one day to the next. Tomorrow I return to teaching and tote bags, and the day will overlap with the day now past: the forest walk, the peacock on the airwaves of my childhood, the little pink coat on the back of a chair, the whirr of the espresso machine, the Prospero poem reshaped. The unlived hours wait for me to fill them with meaning, just like the rustic metal pot that waits for water each morning.
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 often reread Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, my lodestar novel and my inspiration to strive for transcendence and wholeness. I recently picked up Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a provocative meditation on how a person of imagination–anyone–dwells in the world. Both books are necessary antidotes to the noise of these terrible, urgent times and remind me why a life of words matters.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Wander into the mystery of what you don’t know, and be open to surprise. There’s uncertainty in the writing process and your best material may dwell in the places you haven’t yet discovered.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I’m a transient at heart (see tote bags, above) and often email myself snippets of work. I’ve probably amassed hundreds of emails with the heading: NEW! or WORK ON THIS, or USE! I once emailed myself a single line: “Where does the however go?” and built a poem around it.
By Amy Gottlieb:
Amy, this sounds like the loveliest way to spend days. It made me very wistful, for sure. And it’s nice when someone shares with the world a piece of the Bronx that’s virtually unknown—the rural part 🙂 I always think of the “Hudson” Bronx by the G.W. Bridge and the Palisades on our New Jersey side, but that’s not what your pic looks like so I’m guessing you’re further north?
And I, too, send myself emails with writing snippets, though my subject lines are a bit more descriptive 🙂 Thanks for so exquisitely describing your amazing “writer life” 🙂
Thanks. I live across the river from you in Riverdale, which is a magical part of NYC. And yes, email snippets can be helpful and often inspiring!
Absolutely beautiful. I just walked along beside you for a whole day. Thank you.
And thank you!
This sounds like a wonderful day. Fridays are my day out, so I’m looking forward to going into town to visit my favourite cafe… there is something wonderful about visiting a familiar place outside of home, and settling down to work.
I love writing in cafes.
I enjoy these so much. Although I can’t even say why. Thank you.
Thanks, and gratitude to Cynthia for providing this meaningful space.