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 DONALD QUIST.
I don’t sleep through the night; my eyes pop open every twenty or thirty minutes, due to tension or broken chemistry. Perhaps this desire to stay awake comes from an obsession with death and hope. Kerouac shared such an obsession, hope that it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.
I ponder a lot staring up into the dark.
When I do manage to keep my eyes closed long enough to dream, I dream of the next day and the things I think I need to do. I’ll need to start the morning by waking my mother. I’ll call out to her through the bedroom wall we now share, close again like in my youth. I’ll rise from bed when she doesn’t answer, rush to her door and then knock as a false courtesy before entering. I’ll inch closer to check for signs of breathing, evidence that her ailing body hasn’t betrayed our efforts to keep her alive.
I’ll repeat her name until she jolts awake, coughing and sputtering. I’ll remind her of appointments for the day. I’ll assist her to the bathroom and help her dress, if necessary. I’ll make breakfast trying to stay mindful of her new dietary restrictions.
While mom eats, I’ll shower and get ready for work. Throughout the week I alternate between professional positions: an adjunct English lectureship at my undergraduate alma mater and a part-time paid internship writing media for a City Manager’s office. Before moving to Thailand with my spouse half a decade earlier, I used to serve the same local government as a Public Information Officer. Often I feel anxious about having returned to the USA and so many personal points of departure.
I worry about taking irreversible steps backwards.
But I can’t dwell too much. I’m lucky to have employment. Work keeps my mind occupied, unless my mother has to attend dialysis. I’ll stay on-call during the four hours my mom will spend having her blood removed, cleaned, and then returned to her. While waiting, I can check emails on my laptop at a library or a coffee shop. Among the digital correspondences, I can anticipate a message of encouragement from a friend. An associate might even offer a recommendation for a full-time position for which I might apply. I can also expect a note from my publisher regarding a writing workshop or a residency or a speaking invitation. I’ll pick up my smart phone and tap on a mobile banking application to check the current balances of my savings and checking. I’ll consider hypotheticals, add and subtract, add and subtract, until a call from a healthcare collections agency interrupts me. Or, a text—Good night. Love you—will prompt me to stop calculating invented expenses and instead imagine the sender awake in bed on the opposite side of the world, the woman I married waiting for me.
I’ll reply to my publisher. I’ll thank them for bringing opportunities to my attention, but I can’t find the funds to cover the cost of submission/travel/housing, can’t do the math to pay for my mother’s caregiving in my absence. I’ll click send and then open the curriculum vitae and résumé saved among my files. I’ll update my career details and consider applying for one of the positions suggested in my email inbox. I’ll draft a cover letter and pull together a list of references, but even when I have everything ready to send, I’ll hesitate. Because although I recognize the selfishness in ignoring openings that would allow me more money to meet my responsibilities, I’m not prepared to sacrifice more time to write for financial security.
I fret over self-manufactured dilemmas.
Collecting my mother from the dialysis center, taking her home to prepare food and tend to her, I’ll realize the futility in trying to preserve hours to make art when I only spend that time struggling to stay ahead. Later in the afternoon, I’ll take a walk, or sit on the porch of the duplex I rent and read a book, or drive to a park where I can watch the sunset over a lake. My soul will fill with thanks for moments of reprieve.
At dark, while mom snores in the next room, my weary eyes will make the letters I type twinge and seizure across my computer screen. I’ll fight tired waves of nausea to make progress on whatever short story or essay or review I’ve resolved to produce.
Leaning over a line break, I’ll think about what’s next…
I have nothing but options.
I’ll forget to breathe as I realize there is nothing I need to do. Because my purpose does not precede my existence—as far as I can tell—I’m free to choose what I concede. I can choose to care for my mother or surrender her to a government agency, decide to return to my wife in Bangkok or give up matrimony, pursue a full-time career with a salary that might allow me to provide those I love with what they require or continue accepting less income for more space to craft ideas I hope might endure in others.
Lying on my bed at night, I agonize about the days ahead.
I am overwhelmed, and I am fortunate. I have chances to give my life meaning through work that matters to me. My words are needless but they can be useful in helping me determine what I care about most.
And maybe these words could do the same for someone else.
This thought gives me comfort.
This thought keeps me awake.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. How do you spend the end of a long writing day?
- I usually conclude a long writing day with a long walk or a bike ride, followed by a hot shower. After that, I’ll read or watch a few episodes of The Thick of It, Seinfeld, or Buzzfeed videos.
3. What is something you do every day?
- Send some form of encouragement to a member of my writing community.
By Donald Quist: