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 SION DAYSON.
I’m not sure whether it’s the heat of the day, already oppressive, or the crick in my neck that has awakened me so early. I’ve been tossing and turning on the couch all night.
Yesterday I returned from a family reunion in southern Spain. Eleven of us had travelled from almost as many places to meet in a picturesque town with white-washed walls and cobblestone streets. We came from North Carolina, New York, DC, Rome, Paris, Budapest, Bahrain.
I clocked the fewest kilometers to get there. A 4.5 hour train ride from Valencia on the country’s eastern coast. After a week together with the bigger family unit, I’ve brought my parents back here to see my new home.
Despite that list of far-flung places, I’m my family’s most bohemian member. When we had booked the reunion over a year ago, I’d been proud that I would finally be able to host my parents in an “adult” apartment for once. In a guest room even!
But that extra room is currently a catastrophe. Filled with boxes and books and odds and ends–everything I’d had to shove into it under duress when a pipe in my living room wall sprung a leak and destroyed much in its path.
So here I am, sleeping on the sofa like I’m crashing, my parents in my room.
But no matter. We all know what happens to the best-laid plans.
I will myself off my temporary bed and onto the yoga mat. My fitness routine is much like my writing practice–completely undisciplined and a fight to even start. But I know with my sore muscles this morning it would be a mistake to skip working out.
So I stretch and sun salute and close my eyes in an approximation of meditation. I do feel better already.
I go in to see my parents, who look exhausted and sweaty. When we’d entered my apartment yesterday, it felt like opening an oven door. Everyone had warned me about visiting Andalucia in August. But it turns out we’re much hotter here in Valencia than we were the previous week, 108 F historic temperatures recorded and trapped inside.
With the fan whirring, we discuss options for the day. Many museums are free on Sunday. I find one I’ve never been to before–Casa Museu Benlluire. I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds like a gem.
Right before we set off, though, I receive a text from my sister. “In Casablanca on the way to the Jewish cemetery where Mike’s grandfather was buried. It’s…interesting.”
The ellipsis raises concern. Everyone was making their way back to their respective corners of the globe; my sister and her family had flown Air Morocco so her husband could stopover and see where part of his family was from.
“Hmm…interesting can cover a lot of ground,” I reply.
“This is a proof-of-life-in-case-we-disappear interesting.”
She assures me she’s mostly kidding, but I never dismiss intuition. She feels lost and uncomfortable for a reason.
I start tracking their route in real time via WhatsApp. Luckily I see they are heading in the right direction, toward Cimetière de Ben M’Sick Sud.
She urges us to go out and enjoy the day. I tell her my phone’s on and we’ll stay connected. Then we head outside.
I flag down a taxi. We’re public transport people, but this trip we’ve had to confront the reality of time and age. My mom admits that she’s slowing down, much to her chagrin. And while he barely speaks of it, my dad, a doctor, has leukemia, a fact he’s only recently revealed. He’s hidden this diagnosis for two years.
The taxi driver has never heard of Casa Benlliure, either, and we chat easily about the city’s cultural offerings. My mother admires my Spanish fluency as we get out. I’m a long way from fluent, I tell her, but to someone who doesn’t speak it, I suppose it could sound so at times. I lived in Paris for 10 years and though I have a high level of French, it never rolled off the tongue or felt quite as natural to me. Speaking different languages elicits different parts of my personality, I’m convinced. I like who I am in Spanish.
We enter the museum, which is really a private upper-middle class home that belonged to a Valencian painter. We’re all most taken by the interior garden, the colorful tiles lining the walls. And the painter’s studio tucked in the back. He was an avid collector, from books to musical instruments. His evident intellectual curiosity sparks a little something in me.
We find our way back to the garden, and I jot down a few notes. Another thing we hadn’t planned when we booked this trip is that it would fall so close to my debut novel’s publication day. I’m only 3 weeks away. I have a lot on my mind, and a lot on my to-do list. But I’m finding peace in this garden. And that it’s made me want to capture some words feels like a boon.
My sister texts us that they’d survived their adventure and made it safely to the airport. Now we can really enjoy a meal at a restaurant in the old city. Paella, the Valencian specialty. The waitress sets the pan on the table and asks if I want to take a picture. I hadn’t been planning to, but why not?
The food is delicious and we linger, until it’s time to make our way to the next site. The Centre del Carme, a contemporary arts center in a former 13th-century convent. It boasts a stunning bell tower and Gothic cloister. We wander into an exhibition called “15,600 days,” which brings together art pieces from almost 40 years of work by Xisco Mensua. I am learning about many new-to-me artists today. I am being reminded of dedicated creative practice. Is it a sign?
It’s only late afternoon, but my parents are already tired. We go back to my place, by bus this time. A siesta would be fitting, anyway.
But as we arrive, my roommate sends a text.
“Do your parents drink cava?” he inquires.
He’s a lovely man from San Marino, the independent republic on a hilltop, encircled by Italy and clouds.
None of us are drinkers, but in a nod to his kind hospitality I reply yes.
He appears 10 minutes later with a bottle–he works at the restaurant across the street. He pours us each too much, and we toast. Soon, my mother’s eyes get droopy, and she says she’s relaxed. Now it’s really time for a nap, and she heads back.
My father stays with me, and I ask him explicitly how his chemotherapy is going.
“Blood is interesting, girl,” he says, telling me about how the treatment is affecting his white blood count.
He then shifts the conversation, telling me I’d had croup for 6 months as a baby. I didn’t know I’d started life having so much trouble breathing. But obviously I made it out fine. He evokes that time when he was in medical school and would come home late at night to rock me in his rocking chair. This is the image he most often conjures of me.
Soon he’s getting tired, as well, and he goes to lie down, too.
It’s early evening now, and I can finally start focusing on crafting a few sentences. Writing this.
“For my family, blood and chosen.” That’s the dedication in my book. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another one, so it seemed important to acknowledge the whole of it. Those I was born to. And those whom I’ve chosen along the way.
It’s been a full day. I’m thinking about the fullness of life. I’ve always written best at night. The darkness helps. It’s when I’m most reflective; when I can best see the light.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- Though I mostly write prose, I often read poetry to reinvigorate my attention to language and sense of wonder.
2. When you’re reading, do you write in your books?
- I do! I no longer write notes in the margins–I got embarrassed by my little scribbles that seemed so slight in comparison to the brilliance I was loving on the page. But I can’t help but underline sentences that take my breath away.
3. Is there a place in the world that feels right?
- As someone who has lived in different countries, I’m probably always looking for home. But there are definitely places that resonate with me more. I also think places suit us better at different periods of our life. I was lucky to spend my early to mid-20s in New York City. I don’t think I could live there now, but it was great for me at the time. But the happiest I’ve ever been is here in the present. Spain has come the closest to feeling right for me by far.
By SION DAYSON