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 ANDRE DUBUS III.
I wake with the touch of lips, Fontaine’s to mine, and then she’s already down the stairs and grabbing her bag. It’s not quite eight and she’s been up over an hour, getting ready to drive to her dance studio to sign in students or to teach a ballet class or to sit in her office and juggle all the administrative details that goes with being the woman who owns this studio, who runs its dance companies for teenagers, who’s the artistic director of the modern company she co-founded 32 years ago. She’s 57 years old and still performing. She’s the mother of our three children, and we’ve been together since Ronald Reagan was president.
An hour or so later, I wake again. I fumble for the remote and flick on CNN, keep it on Mute as I check the latest outrages committed against women and people of color and the poor and immigrants and common human decency itself, committed by the man inhabiting the White House. I did not know just how deeply I loved this country until its presidency and constitution were soiled like this.
I turn the TV off, make the bed, and head down to the open kitchen of this house I built with my hands with my only brother, a house he designed and in which Fontaine and I have raised our three kids. Our oldest son Austin is 26, his sister Ariadne is nearly 24, and their brother Elias is 22. They are, each of them, kind, creative, talented, funny, hard-working, and loving human beings, and if I had never done anything in my life, I had a part in helping to make these three miracles.
This July, Austin is home from L.A., working on his own writing projects, and he’s been up longer than anyone, having already brewed the strong French Roast coffee I prefer. We have a big house with many windows, and it gets nearly as much natural light as if I were standing outside. I take this in as I eat a quick breakfast of yogurt or a bowl of organic cereal. Over the years, many people, mainly the friends of our kids, or various nieces or nephews, or the children of friends of ours going through a divorce or some other calamity, have stayed with us for days, weeks, or months. Our house and home can happily accommodate this. Two nights ago I flew in from San Antonio where I taught at a writers’ conference, and I woke the next morning to one nephew leaving for the airport while one of my sons’ friends, an aspiring film maker from LA, took his place in the bedroom above ours. Before I take my insulated cup of coffee down to my writing cave, I look out the east windows to see Austin sitting at our outdoor table tapping keys on his laptop, ear buds in his ears.
My “cave” is a sound-proof room in the basement of our house. It is five feet wide and eleven feet long. It has one small window I keep covered with a dark blanket, and five mornings a week I come to this space and try to descend into my dream world with words. I’ve started and finished three books here, and I’m now working on two more: a novel and a collection of essays, though I rarely allow myself to think the words “book” or “novel” or “publisher” or “contract” or “advance” when I’m down here. Instead, I try to slip inside the private skin of men and women I’ll never be. Or, if it’s non-fiction, into my younger self. All of this, I’ve learned over the years, takes, at the very least, an authentic curiosity about the subject which has presented itself, an act of faith and diligence that is quite simple but rarely easy.
After two to three hours writing long-hand in a composition notebook, my concentration wanes, and I’ll head back upstairs where Fontaine will usually be on her laptop, her reading glasses reflecting the light of the screen. Lately, though, she’s been painting again, preparing for an art show in the fall, and she’s working on a series of women diving into water. We kiss and briefly catch up, and after I’ve eaten a wrap of peanut butter and fresh blueberries, I head either to the gym to lift weights or, if I’m working on my house as I am this summer replacing exterior trim boards that despite years of paint have begun to rot, I’ll strap on my leather carpenter’s apron and climb a ladder and get to work.
Every summer since my two sons were teenagers we’ve trained for the 10 mile road race that draws thousands of runners to our small town on the Merrimack River. So after working on my house or lifting weights at the gym or both, I’ll wrap my left knee and pull on running shoes and head down my long gravel driveway and run. I own no I-phone (and have never sent a text or been on social media), so there is only my breath and beating heart and feet hitting the pavement one foot at a time. Often there come voices in my head from that day’s writing, or voices from the past, or thoughts of work deadlines and duties of various kinds, but always, running under the maples and oak and thick pines, the sun coming through in patches, the salt river off in the distance that flows to the Atlantic two miles east, I am filled with a nearly unbearable gratitude for this life that has found me.
After a shower and no shave, I drive to the organic farm a mile from our house. I’ll buy fresh avocados and tomatoes, corn and something to grill, marinated steak tips or chicken, usually, and then I’ll be on my back deck, one my brother built, sipping a tequila on the rocks, and I’ll gaze at this house I’m currently working on, this house I spent three years building, its bleached shingles and many wooden windows that I paint again every year. I spent most of my boyhood living with a single mother who worked hard but never had enough money, and still, whenever I hear the crunch of gravel under tires, a car approaching my house, I fear it’s the landlord come to say that I’m late, once again, with the rent.
Because I grew up this way and because I rarely know how many people will need to eat, I tend to cook far more food than is necessary. The other night, though, it was just me and Fontaine (fresh from a rehearsal for a show she’s choreographing) and our oldest son, Austin. We shared pulled pork with a bourbon barbecue sauce, chicken sausages, corn on the cob, and a green salad that Austin had tossed after his own run. We ate and sipped wine and talked about books and movies and people we loved. A few hours later, lying in bed beside Fontaine, she studying Greek on her phone, me with Nabokov’s Lolita in my hands, I breathed in the nearly unspeakable abundance that is my present life. I take none of it for granted. I am grateful for all of it. I want to be more worthy of it. And I never want it to end.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word describes your reading life?
2. What writing advice do you give that you rarely follow?
- None, I really do try to follow my own writing advice.
3. If you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes, what do you do?
- If I have an extra fifteen minutes, I will read my local newspaper, something I fail to do too often. Or, I will call all three of my kids just to say hello and tell them I love them. Or I’ll go sit in a chair in my house or outside on the porch and just BE.