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 ANDREA LEWIS.
The powder blue jewelry box, the kind girls had in 1960, has a pink satin lining and two little balconies that lift up when you open it. The box has been stripped of my sister’s treasures–Girl Scout pins, circle pins, a plastic barrette shaped like a Scottie–on its way down the long tunnel labeled Donate. We are moving. I have entered the lawless Land of Downsizing. There is no map and there are no boundaries. Anything goes. Or rather, everything goes.
My day begins readying four boxes that the grandkids will whisk away. I would rather be in my office, at my desk, deep in the writing routine that, on a normal day, I’d be griping about. I would rather be researching my next book. Reading up on:
- Italian motorcycle racers in the 1930s
- tuberculosis sanitoriums
- Roswell, New Mexico and UFO sightings,
- radio astronomy and the Very Large Array
I stuff a box with every candle and candle-holder and glass votive we own. Candles are not allowed in the Impossibly Upbeat Retirement Community (Activities! Exercise! New Friends!). What if I forget how to write? Or forget why I write. Why do I write? Hard to say, faced with a stack of tablecloths. But I like words a lot and sentences even better. If I could paint or play music, I would. But words and sentences are how I peer into the mysterious. And everything is mysterious.
I take it back. The blazers, blouses and wineglasses I’m giving away aren’t mysterious, but the notebooks, letters and journals I’ve saved are. At least they were before they landed in a box marked Shred. When everything is shredded, will I forget about the character Kyle I was trying to develop, who let his tropical fish die after his wife left him? He had potential.
I enter an even more mysterious world when I turn to books. Almost more than family photographs, books hold the progression of my life. Time slows as I travel the distance from my mother’s girlhood copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to my recent purchase of The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Books are more than objects; for me, each is a portal to a place, time, person or project from the past. Shall I keep the books I collected while researching the stories in What My Last Man Did? Books on:
- the Storyville district of New Orleans
- the architecture of Galveston, Texas
- McClellan Air Force Base
- “Everyday Life” in 1880
- Louisiana’s gens de couleur libre
Shall I keep the books that I want to re-read? Such as:
- Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (and do I need all three editions?)
- The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (it saved me once; I should save it)
- The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (no reason, just brilliant)
- Rubicon by Tom Holland (ancient Rome: can’t get enough)
Perhaps it’s best to confront books in small batches, so I return to other problems. I worry that letting go of my family’s Navajo rugs, Lionel train set, Rosenthal china service, and military foot lockers (“Capt. Lowell C. Lewis AO 60233”) will also remove some Jenga piece of my brain that I need for processing words, sentences, life.
In the land of Downsizing there is the ever-present danger of entering a fugue state in which I lose an hour sorting, say, a box of worthless earrings. Which means, suddenly it’s lunchtime. The spouse makes a sensible ham sandwich, while I grab yogurt, because food-time is a luxury. (Note: the spouse is also downsizing but has troubles of his own. He lives in the equally difficult Territory of Spinal Stenosis.) After lunch, a beautiful respite: errands, including the Vashon Public Library. Returning books I haven’t read yet. Checking out books I won’t get to. Listening to Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward in the car. Driving through a wild day of high winds, with downed branches of Douglas fir strewn across the road.
Aside from the books I’m saving, I now have a list of books I would be reading if I weren’t downsizing:
- A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford
- The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers edited by Brian Turner
- The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
- Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
- American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee
Energized by the positive ions shooting off the books at the Vashon Library, I fill two more boxes at home. These are marked with a cryptic S, which stands for “Save and put in Storage.” But it could also stand for Sad because I’ll probably never look at them again.
Before dinner, before baking the salmon and sautéing some cauliflower and putting on some Mozart, I allow a thirty-minute stretch of reading time rarely found here in Downsizing. Currently, it centers on two books–yes, I would read them simultaneously if I could–and they are Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone. Today I opt for the latter, but it’s never an easy choice.
After watching what passes for news in 2018, I go to bed. I think about the blue jewelry box, which my sister saved for more than 50 years. It blooms into entire rooms, shelves and closets I haven’t tackled yet. To dilute the adrenalin, I listen to Thomas Hardy. Thomas Hardy on an iPhone. The Return of the Native read by Alan Rickman. If I can remember how to write, I will describe his voice.
Like light through a stained-glass window… or stars speaking on a clear night…
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What book is on your night table now and how did it find its way there?
- My nightstand is literally a bookcase, but I’ll pick one near the top: The Night Manager by John le Carré. I own all his books, and I read this one when it first came out. But after watching the recent TV mini-series–with Hugh Laurie doing a wonderful villain–I decided to read the book again. It’s still fabulous.
2. What one word best describes your writing life?
3. If you find yourself with an extra fifteen minutes, what do you do?
- I contemplate the works of Augustine and Montaigne. Just kidding: I play Boggle on my phone.
By Andrea Lewis:
Out of curiosity, I quickly purchased What My Last Man Did (Kindle version). I look forward to reading it! By the way, I used to have a jewelry box like that. It was my aunt’s.
Thank you, Terri! Those jewelry boxes are proving to be real memory-holders. I hope you enjoy the book. Andrea
This so inspires me to read, read, read and think about reading in the marvelously exploratory way that Andrea Lewis does! This essay gives me a behind-the-curtain look at how she came to write such elegant sentences chock full of just-right details in What My Last Man Did. Surprisingly, her essay even makes me want to do some downsizing of my own, if only to see what memories and meanings get stirred.
Thanks Mary! Downsizing, memory, and books: makes for an endless discussion (or essay), doesn’t it? Andrea
So loved reading this, Andrea! Of course, the other day we missed all the wonderful formatting details when you read it out loud. I really enjoyed the capitalization, the italics, the use of indented lists. I wrote a comment on the website after reading it. It conveys a writer so deeply immersed in words and sentences and books and following the threads that capture your interest (or the interest of one of your characters), that I feel mesmerized and inspired. Brava!
Delightful read! Thank you.
Dear Letty – thanks for reading the essay! best to you – Andrea