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 CARL PHILLIPS.
Quite uncharacteristically, the morning begins with my partner Reston and me oversleeping–we both heard and ignored his 5:45 alarm for work, and now it’s 6:45. While he heads upstairs to the shower, I help Ben–the dog–off the bed, and the two of us head downstairs to begin our morning routine: start the coffee, feed Ben. By the time he’s finished eating, I’ve got my single cup of coffee for the day beside me and sit down to check the phone for emails, news, social media. As is often the case, there’s something unexpected this time, a friend wants advice on images she’s selected for a book cover, so there’s some texting back and forth about that…
7:20. And Reston’s left for work. Ben’s snoring on the couch while I finish a grocery list. Off to start laundry downstairs. Then a bit of breakfast–a scone, shared with Ben, and cranberry juice–while I clear up the kitchen, and then we’re off for our first walk of the day, about a half hour…
Sidebar, to think about the reality of the ‘writer’s life,’ at least for me. Many people, even close friends, assume that I write every day. I’m not sure how anyone has that luxury, unless they have someone who manages their household and business affairs for them. I’m rarely free to write all day, unless I want everything to sort of collapse around me. I figure a lot of this thinking, though, on my part, has to do with how my life changed once I started teaching at a university. Before that, I’d taught high school, which of course involves going to school every day, grading every day upon arriving home, etc. For many years, though, I’ve just taught on Wednesday afternoons, which means I have a lot of free time. But I find I don’t know what to do with myself, without a lot of structure, so I learned early on how to create that structure for myself. Of course, writing could be part of that structure, but I’m too intuitive a writer for that–I don’t know when and how a poem will surface, I don’t begin with an idea and try to tease it out. But I have found that in the course of doing supposedly mundane tasks across a day, I am often surprised by a word or fragment coming to mind, that I’ll write down in a notebook, with the idea that it might show up in a poem sometime. Louise Glück once told me that routine was her way of “tapping into the sacred.” Something like that is what I mean, perhaps a little more humbly…
9:28, dog walk done. Laundry in progress. Ben and I are off in the Jeep to get the errands started. Today, that means swinging by the ATM, then to the wine shop for a case of wine, then the supermarket for various supplies. We are hosting some friends in a few days, and I need to stock up. In the meantime, I’ve decided to use up a bunch of spring mix for tonight’s dinner by adding some quickly sautéed panko-crusted chicken breasts to it–so I need some panko, and I suppose I will need some chicken! I end up having a nice convo with the butcher, who is patient with me when I find the available chicken breasts are too thin, and he agrees to pound some others to the desired thinness; he also tells me he’s happy to butterfly and pound the pork tenderloins that I need for a couple days from now. I’ve always loved butchers, followed closely by fishmongers…I love how excited they get, when asked advice about how to prepare something, how they’ll exchange techniques and recipes, this happens for everyone, right?
A little after 1:00. Despite winter, it’s 62 degrees today, so now that the errands are done, I’m taking Ben for an extended second walk in the park that’s about a mile from here. I had a line in my head while erranding, maybe part of a new poem? So I’ll try to think about that while walking…About this park. It’s called Forest Park, and it was designed by the same guy who did Central Park, which is actually smaller than Forest Park. Many of my poems are in some way set here…A favorite spot for walking Ben is what they call the Grand Basin, which is a huge Versailles-like pool punctuated by shooting fountains, backdropped by a hill–Art Hill–atop which sits the St. Louis Art Museum and the famous statue of King Louis himself on horseback. As crazy as it might sound, it’s very possible to feel as if one is in Europe somewhere while strolling this area…
No poem yet, no surprise! After the walk, I toggle between two books I’m rereading, Kathleen Graber’s The River Twice and the Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations–just for maybe 15 minutes. Then I remember the laundry is done and needs to be folded. Then I realize the garbage needs to be taken out. And that reminds me that the recycling bin is overflowing…And here comes Reston from work, so it must be about 4. I’ll make some tea for myself and go upstairs and join him in his study, where we catch up on each other’s days, and just hang out. Soon enough it’ll be time to start up the dinner, but I like these couple of hours before that, when we talk a bit, then I head down to the living room and read a bit, before heading to the kitchen.
Reston and I are both very private people. Introverts. I think it might seem strange to others, how much time we spend alone, including apart from each other. I’m alone with Ben all day, then Reston is home. But even when he’s home, once dinner is finished we go our separate ways within the house–he will be in his study catching up on news, etc. for a few hours. I read every night for at least a couple of hours in the living room. Such has been the case tonight. I’ve had a great couple of hours starting a Baldwin book I’ve never read before–Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.
And now it’s 9:15, which is when I head upstairs and join Reston for exactly two inhales of marijuana (I can’t handle more than that without getting ridiculous or just falling asleep). He’s telling me about some new music he’s been listening to, he’s usually where I first hear of what’s new and worth pursuing. Then we head down to the kitchen for a snack–here, too, we have our routines. His snack is a bowl of cereal, often garlanded with fruit of some kind, tangerine slices tonight. I sort of build my snack, inside a plastic baseball cap of a bowl, that used to say St. Louis Cardinals on it, but the letters have faded away over time. I start with a layer of sunflower seeds, topped by almonds, then that is topped with Fritos, then that gets topped with pretzels. A delicate balance indeed! I grab two treats for Ben, kiss Reston as he heads up the stairs, and I return to the couch for more Baldwin.
10:45. I can hear Reston heading to the bathroom. That’s my cue to get ready for bed. This means letting Ben out into the yard a final time tonight, setting up the coffeemaker for tomorrow morning, turning the lights out downstairs, doing my own bathroom prep. By the time I get to the bedroom, Reston has lifted Ben onto the bed for the night. We assume our positions, which will have to be adjusted throughout the night as Ben angles (unsuccessfully) for a spot between the two of us. I usually read for 15 minutes after Reston turns out the light on his side. Tonight I’ve decided to revisit MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster. Why not end what’s been a pretty good day with flawless prose on the history of oysters, recipes included?
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. Would you give us a little piece of advice about reading poetry?
- My usual advice is to let go of thinking a poem has to be unlocked. Read it aloud, let the sounds wash over you, reread and stop at lines that interest you. Poems are to be revisited many times, and each time we carry something different away.
3. If you find yourself with an extra 15 minutes, what do you do?
- I usually panic and wonder what I’ve forgotten to do!
“I love how excited [fishmongers] get, when asked advice about how to prepare something, how they’ll exchange techniques and recipes, this happens for everyone, right?” I love going back to your old post after Cynthia referred to it in her January 2020 post. One of my favorite places and activities in the world this past year is going to Key City, the tiny hole in the wall fishmongers in Port Townsend, Washington’s boat haven. Daniel Knutson is the head guy, and he’s a chef, but almost everyone who works there will happily discuss recipes. Tiny though the place is, they service about 200 restaurants and send fish all over the country, but still, when they have time, they never turn down the chance to respond to “Now what would I do with this?” We’ve emerged with countless recipes in our heads which are now part of our weekly joy and dance of assembling food. Thanks for your question!
Kirie, I loved reading this–I have no experience at all with fishmongers!