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 ALLEN GEE.
During this past week, my preference has been to rise late, sometimes as far into the day as noon. I often fall asleep in my study, which was once a walk-in closet. It’s not a large space, but it’s mine. An old wood table serves as my desk. There is, from a dormer window, a view of the street and our front yard. I like to think of it as a peregrine perch where I can see who is walking up the driveway or cutting across the lawn to our front door.
I had planned to be writing this piece from the remote village of Vuelta Grande in Guatemala, where I was supposed to be leading twelve undergraduate students from Columbus State University on an alternative spring break trip. Our departure date was Saturday, March 14th. We had planned to teach English lessons to over one hundred children in the mornings, and we had committed to constructing over twenty stoves for families in the afternoons. Vuelta Grande can be reached by driving less than two hours from the city of Antigua: the village is home to over two hundred families with six to eight children per household. Since most of the families cook over open fires in enclosed rooms, the stoves we’d arranged to build would have ventilated cook fire smoke outside, lengthening families’ lives by decades. Well before our departure date, though, COVID-19 had arrived in the United States, so I cancelled our trip a few days before the university system of Georgia forbade all international travel. We would not, I reasoned, risk bringing the virus to a remote village, like explorers from the age of Christopher Columbus unleashing smallpox upon Native Americans. I also wouldn’t risk having one of our students contract COVID-19. We’ll live, I told everyone, to fly another day.
So instead of sharing stories about service work, I find myself revealing that when I wake late at noon, there are countless emails requiring prompt responses. I drink coffee like some kind of addict to accomplish this. Today is Thursday, and students need advising for fall classes. Administrators ask again if professors are alright because of our ongoing conversion to online teaching, so I follow up on their followups. Since I used to teach an online Maymester class for over fourteen years, the recent switch hasn’t bothered me. I’ve felt, most of all, fortunate to still have a job. My days, I have realized, are therefore still primarily spent taking care of other people.
But my new sheltering life now includes seeing my ten-year-old daughter, Willa, more. She has done her schoolwork in the morning and is expecting me when I seek her out in the middle of this afternoon to venture outside. We have a bike path near our house. Since her school system has been closed until April 24th, we have been inventing new routines. As I run, Willa rides her sleek aluminum scooter. We’ve memorized a loop that winds out of the neighborhood, crosses over I-185 on a pedestrian bridge, and delivers us to the university campus. After passing a soccer field, we reach a footbridge running over a creek—we stop, peer down, and spot brim and bass feeding in the currents in the deeper pools. Our route then brings us past the Cunningham Center, between a softball and baseball field, by the main administration building, and back around to the pedestrian bridge. This exercise takes almost an hour; I call it PE class for Willa. Likewise, if we cook or bake something, that’s Home Ec. Drawing or painting is Art. At some point, if we fish in the creek, that will be Biology. This is our new weekday norm, since there’s not enough time to drive to a state park for a hike, or drive out to Lake Oliver or Lake Harding for a longer outing.
No, I have to return to my desk in the late afternoon. I’m an editor, as well as being a writer, so I’m always concerned about other writers’ careers. Three years ago, I helped to found a multicultural imprint, 2040 Books. We’re publishing Christina Chiu’s novel, Beauty on May 1, 2020, but all of her April and May events have had to be rebooked; most of these events have been cancelled, while only a few have shifted and become online readings or workshops. I end up sending hopeful requests for everything to be rescheduled on safe dates, say, for late fall, or even next spring.
Then on this day, I drive out to go foraging. For groceries, toilet paper, Kleenex, and other household items. First, I deliver packages that need to be mailed to the post office. I’ve been running these errands once every week and a half, shopping for Willa, myself, my wife, Renee, and my mother-in-law, Margie (who has lived with us since we moved to Columbus two years ago). Somehow, before the virus crisis heightened, I managed—it was a cherished moment—to find the last mini bottle packs of hand sanitizer at CVS. I have never hoarded toilet paper. I did fill a deep freezer with chicken, two turkeys, frozen meals, hamburger meat, and pork chops before panic buying started. I had been reading online and watching the news; when I brought home enough groceries to stock our kitchen cabinets, Renee didn’t object. “I have to take care of our family,” I said, and she nodded. This week, I confront many empty shelves at our local Publix supermarket. And since COVID-19 has been labeled the Chinese virus, or since fear mongering has become a common Presidential tactic, because of my being Chinese American, I stay very aware, mindful about anyone moving too quickly towards me, or staring at me the wrong way. I respond to a few judgmental stares with an angry expression, tightening my jaw, and am left alone. This race-based behavior of America feels morally inadequate, like a Hitleresque reprisal from the 1930s. Subsequently on the way home, I stop at a local hardware store, and find toilet paper. I shake my head and briefly smile, recalling how I told a friend who couldn’t find any that I’d start a Go Wipe Me account for him.
Once I return to the house, our family of four eats dinner. I like these regular meals a lot, and at the same time, miss attending evening readings or being out with other writers. After the meal, I retreat to my study to read student stories and essays for teaching. Since I’ll be hosting a writing conference for the first time in late October, I check the conference website for panel proposals. I wonder, trying not to be too pessimistic, if writers will be able to gather in the late fall. A few hours fly by, and before nine, Willa appears for a goodnight hug and kiss, and then by midnight I finish reading and responding to all of the student work. I feel like I have enough energy left for my own writing—I’m nearly finished with a novel about the Chinese who built the Central Pacific Railroad—so I stay up even later, typing and editing until three or four in the morning. The whole house is quiet, without distractions, so during these calmer hours, I feel like I can take care of myself. I do, since these are the hours I have. At last, when I settle down to sleep, my escapist thoughts are about fishing with Willa on a faraway lake in the Adirondacks during the summer.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last three months and how did you choose it?
- I hold a unique professorship at Columbus State. One of the initiatives I’m responsible for is the D.L. Jordan Prize for Literary Excellence. The prize offers a $10,000 award and a publication contract. The winner of this year’s prize was Michelle Herman, for her novel, “Close-Up.” I wanted to mention Michelle’s book because of how much I’m looking forward to being her editor and publishing the novel. It’s from a sixteen-year-old boy’s point of view, and everything about the book feels very real.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- I’ve heard a lot of writers tell me that they can’t write during these times, because the world feels too stressful. My thinking is that perhaps writers can keep in mind that they should write now so that their work will help the world to feel normal again.
3. What is your strangest habit or obsession?
- I’m a maximalist, sometimes writing long essays beyond 5,000 word limits. This includes working by immersion, to the extent of living an essay topic as much as possible. While researching an essay about American standards, I started singing classic songs while driving two and a half hours in my truck back and forth between a house we were selling and a new one we’d moved into. You can really learn a song that way.
By ALLEN GEE