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 BECKY MANDELBAUM.
Where I live, in Northern Washington, the sun starts to rise at 4:30 in the morning. Up even earlier are the birds—Swainson’s thrushes and red-winged blackbirds–and, just outside the room where my boyfriend, Pat, and I sleep, our landlady’s chickens. Today, I manage to sleep through the sun and the birds, but not through Pat’s alarm clock, which goes off at 5:30 and sounds like aliens flying through space.
I live in a small town by the Skagit river, just outside North Cascades National Park. Town is perhaps an exaggeration; aside from residential properties there is only a post office and a pub that opens whenever Marge, the owner, feels like opening it. The house I rent is home to five other people, all of them seasonal workers, and sits on a parcel of land that a local farm uses to grow berries, pumpkins, and sweet carrots. There are also a few hippies who either live on or frequent the property—a woman named Terri who lives in a converted bus behind our house, a silver-haired artist named Richard who lives in the studio above our detached garage. Every Sunday there is a sing-a-long in which a crew of local hippies converge and sing folk songs, play ukuleles and tambourines. It is a happy, vibrant place; a wise green mountain called Sauk supervises everyone below her. I moved here last summer to work at a gift store in the park’s visitor center. When the season ended, I decided to give up the job but renew everything else: the house, the roommates, and Pat.
Pat maintains hiking trails for the Park Service and I write fiction. On the surface, our jobs could not be more different, but under more careful examination they are not wholly unalike. Every day he goes out with his tools (hiking boots, chainsaw, grip hoist) and carves a path through the wilderness, one that helps tourists experience the park’s beauty. Every day I go out with my tools (metaphor, grammar, keyboard), and carve a path through the brush in my mind, hoping one day a reader might elect to walk through it. Pat and I both rely on repetitive motions, elbow grease, grit. We both grow frustrated and more in love with our work. We have both chosen and have had the privilege to pursue a relatively itinerant, low-paying, benefits-less life in order to do what makes us happiest. But at the end of the day, I think I win, because while he has to hike ten miles with a chainsaw in the frigid late-spring rain, I get to go back to sleep.
I sleep for another hour, until 6:30. When I finally get up, I brew a French press and get to work. I work in my “office,” by which I mean the room where I keep the rickety roll-top desk I bought from an old lady on Craigslist for $40. For money, I freelance, but I’ve finished my work for the week which means now I get to work on my book, a novel that takes place on an animal sanctuary in western Kansas during the 2016 election. The book has sold, so now it’s all revisions.
Working from home is not always easy. From my window, I can see the farm-hands moving around the field on their knees, faces covered in dirt and dust. In my room, writing, I am clean and restless. My wooden chair hurts my butt after an hour or so. Sometimes I find myself suddenly standing in the middle of my room, arms up, uncertain how I got there but relieved not to be sitting. With five roommates, farm noises, and sociable neighbors, my typical workday is rife with distractions. Today, at least, I am home alone.
When the writing comes, it comes generously, violently, like the river behind my house on a hot day when, many miles up the valley, glaciers are melting in the mountains. Like the river, some days the flow is stronger than others. Today is one of those days. Or it least it starts that way.
I work on my novel for what feels like five minutes but is actually several hours, stopping only to pour myself more coffee and eat breakfast. Around noon, I decide to eat lunch and tidy up the kitchen. I’m feeling good about my momentum, but just need a little break—I try not to think of the Ron Carlson quote a former teacher of mine tattooed on his forearm, to prevent little breaks like this one: Stay in the room.
Everything falls apart when, on my way to dump the compost, I run into two men. One is Jim, a man from Alaska who’s living on the property for the summer. The other is a travelling artist from Mexico named Philippo Lo Grande. I met Philippo the night before. There was a rainstorm, and when it cleared up, he and some of the other residential hippies stood outside, serenading the resulting rainbow. Where trouble melts like lemon drops, high above the chimney tops… Philippo wore an old-timey outfit that seemed vaguely European: worn navy blazer, tortoise shell glasses, black beret. When the song was over, he performed a series of magic tricks involving rubber bands and asked if he could paint my picture. I told him maybe some other time.
“How about that portrait?” he asks now.
“How long will it take?”
“Ten minutes,” he says. “No, make it nine.”
Here I am, just trying to dump the compost. My book is upstairs, waiting for me. The tricky thing about writing is that, no matter how much you want it to, it won’t revise itself. And yet, the sun has come out this afternoon, breaking the morning rain, and the air is perfect, scented with lilac, so I sit and let Philippo Lo Grande draw my portrait. He draws with something called a clump (his own invention) that consists of many small wax crayons on a loop. It looks like a set of keys or, perhaps more accurately, a baby toy, with multiple colors on each crayon so that he can merely twist his wrist to change from pink to yellow. As he draws, he explains that the clump is only one of his many inventions.
“I’m working on something that will win the Nobel Peace Prize,” he says. “It’s called a Peace Magnet.” I imagine a giant U-shaped magnet, the red kind with silver tips, but he explains that the Peace Magnet is a portable canvas equipped with a light, a solar charger, and its own detachable clump.
“You have what, green eyes?” he asks, still sketching away.
“They’re brown, actually.”
“They say green eyes are a sign of an old soul. And those dimples! Did you know that’s where God held your face when he made you?”
For the record, I do not have dimples.
Eventually Philippo puts down his clump and reveals his finished work: a portrait of me that is beautiful but looks eerily like my best friend from childhood. When I tell him this, he says, “I’m not surprised. We become our friends, and our friends become us.”
I thank him and offer him a copy of my book as payment. I suspect he’d rather have cash, but he accepts the book graciously. Running his hand over the cover he says, “Excellent. What a beautiful trade on a beautiful day.”
I’m about to make my exit when we are joined by Marlee, a woman who’s currently house-sitting for my next-door neighbor, Richard. Marlee is sixty-something years old, five foot nothing, and knows the name of every bird, plant, and peak in the North Cascades. She is never without her dog, Murphy, who is half chihuahua, half ancient sage, his eyes gluey and all-knowing. She is a dreamy person, Marlee. In her free time, which is most of her time, she builds altars around the property and snacks on rose petals. Because she does not own a car, she hitchhikes wherever she needs to go.
“Hey, Becky,” she says. “Can I read you some of my poetry this afternoon?”
Once again, I think of my novel—a baby I’ve left sitting in a cold bath—but tell her, “Sure,” because her poetry is actually quite good and sometimes I think she casts good-witch magic over my roommates and me. I like to say yes to her. Also, the last time we spoke she mentioned an erotic short story she’d written about a couple who transforms into black panthers while making love. I am hoping she will read this to me.
Like this, the rest of my day is sucked away. There will be no more writing. This evening, I will agree to a bike ride with my friend Caitlin, a poet who lives up river. As we ride, we will talk about how hard it is to balance work, life, and writing. How hard it is to sit still on a beautiful almost-summer day. On the drive home, I will see a bobcat walking along the road. She will hold her head high and look me over with both suspicion and wonder, as if I were the bobcat and she were the car.
At night, in bed, I will wonder what happens to all the things we fail to write. Do they disappear for good? Or are they recycled into the great murky pool from which all writing eventually emerges? Writing is a mystery to me, in this way—to know that every sentence I put down depends largely upon the mood I’m in when I write it. How a character could have done something kinder if I’d written her on a sunny Friday morning rather than a rainy Monday afternoon, how a whole book can pivot because I’m hungry, tired, heartbroken, or in love.
I’ll never know what I would have written had I not dumped the compost, but I do know Philippo wouldn’t have drawn my portrait, Marlee wouldn’t have read me her sexy panther story, and I wouldn’t have crossed paths with the bobcat. If writing has taught me one thing, it’s that while it’s certainly important to stay in the room, it’s just as important to leave it.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. When you’re writing, is there anything you return to again and again for inspiration?
- If I want to get back into my writing, usually all I have to do is start reading from whatever I’m working on. It’s a little like eating chips. If I have a taste, I want to keep going.
2. What book are you reading now and why?
- I’m 50 pages into Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House and am falling deeply in love. Somehow, I’ve never read her before, despite all the times my friend Marshall recommended I read her in grad school. She’s from the plains, like me, and I can tell she’s going to be one of my new favorites. I also just finished Tommy Orange’s There There, which was wild and smart and so full of energy. It kind of knocks you down.
3. How do you spend the end of a long writing day?
- Either hanging out with friends or reading. Now that it’s summer, if I’m in my head all day I like to go sit and drink a beer by the river.
By Becky Mandelbaum: