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 ABIGAIL DEWITT.
In my fantasy, I get up in the half-dark. Make coffee, slip out the front door through the wet grass and into my studio. Hours later, I emerge dizzily into full light. I don’t know what happens next—I clean house? Make political calls?—but I’ve written so well it doesn’t matter. A few hours before the sun goes down—this is still fantasy—I hike up the trail near my house to a rocky outcropping and sit for a while, looking out at wave after wave of blue mountains.
The sad truth: I got up at ten, wrote for half an hour, and spent the rest of the “work-day” scrolling through social media, reading the news, and doing crosswords. Now and then, I got up to stare at the mirror and consider my covid-hair. Soon, I’ll go for a walk—not the steep hike to the ridge, but a back-and-forth along a flat dirt road—and I’ll only do that because I promised to join a friend. Then I’ll binge-watch Netflix. It’s pretty much what I did yesterday, and all the days before since the middle of March.
The formlessness of my post-teaching life has been tricky from the start, but it’s worse now. I live in Appalachia, in a county that has had few coronavirus cases. Businesses have re-opened, but my husband and I are past sixty and introverted, so we’re staying in lock-down. We tell each other how wildly lucky we are to be quarantining in this mountain idyll, with health insurance and an IRA—but it can also feel like we’re living in a dystopia where everything looks beautiful, but the inhabitants slowly discover they’re not real.
I can’t imagine doing the small, ordinary things that used to add grit to my life. Waiting at the car mechanic’s, for example, and furtively tearing a recipe I’ll never use out of a women’s magazine. Or running into an acquaintance at the gas station and reassuring her that, far from shocking me, her cigarette purchase makes me crave a smoke. I worry I won’t know how to go out in the world anymore, once this is all over.
Most of all, I feel guilty. Less about my low productivity than about my estrangement from the rest of the planet. It’s an old guilt, handed down from my French mother, punishment for her own unlikely survival during WWII. Whenever I misbehaved, she chastised me for having missed the war: “If you’d lived through the war, you wouldn’t complain/whine/bicker/slack off, etc.” If you’d lived through the war, you would be a better person. My takeaway as a child: a truly good person was a dead person. Her guilt for being alive was unfathomable: The day after she left her parents, grandparents, and younger sisters in Normandy to go to Paris for a career in physics, her house was bombed and nearly everyone she’d left behind was buried in the rubble. She was twenty-one.
As I write this, I remind myself that I’m supposed to be talking about how I spent one day, not telling my mother’s story. But my mother’s survival guilt is the story of my days in quarantine. While I sit in my light-filled studio, beyond which I can see my husband’s thriving vegetable garden, people are suffocating in crowded hospitals. They are suffocating beneath the knees of our public servants. I’m as far away from those horrors as my mother was from the bombs that killed her family, and the distance shames me.
My mother found comfort in physics, perhaps because it drove everything else out of her mind. Oddly, it’s a theory in physics that comforts me now: the idea of parallel universes. At this very moment, as far as I understand the theory, all of us exist both here and in an infinite number of other worlds. “As far as I understand” is zero far, but even that’s comforting. The fact that I’m as clueless as I am about the nature of reality shifts my perspective just enough for me to see a little more of this world. How the light changes, what I’ve actually been up to.
So: Today I got up at ten, wrote for half an hour, did some crosswords, checked social media, tried to find a solution for my hair, read the NYTimes, wrote this essay, confirmed with my friend that I’d meet her at four. Through it all, I wondered what I’d watch on Netflix later, feeling the same anticipatory delight and shame I used to feel when I thought about opening a pack of Camel Filters.
But also: Today I woke at ten from strange, rich dreams which worked their way into the draft of a novel I’m working on. The conflict between the characters that seemed so dull yesterday seemed not only interesting, but relevant to some of what’s happening in the world. I got happily lost in a description of the Atlantic at high tide.
Afterward, a big bowl of oatmeal and frozen blueberries.
Then I reached “genius” level on my NYTimes word game and received a sweet message on Instagram.
I decided that the EU’s refusal to allow visitors from the US, while heartbreaking, was good because it’s another blow to Trump.
I read some Carson McCullers and Primo Levi.
And after walking up and down the flat, dirt road, I said goodbye to my friend (hands on our hearts, bowing from six feet apart), and took a long detour home. I followed a trail that crosses several streams, through laurel and rhododendron groves, and stopped in a wide patch of pale new ferns. Rain was coming and the ground seemed to hold the light a second longer than the air.
It’s almost TV-streaming time now. My husband and I rarely bother with regular meals, so, while he watches Andy Griffith re-runs in his study, I’ll take a bowl of tomato and basil salad and some nicotine gum to the living-room, where I’ll open my laptop and watch a grisly murder series.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
- Willem Hermans’ An Untouched House. It’s a tiny, devastating novel about the schizophrenia of war, which is also the answer to what I’m obsessed with.
2. Do you write in the books you read?
- Circles, underlines, arrows, question marks, exclamation marks, summaries, observations, amens, disagreements. I write by hand and I have to read by hand, too.
3. Could you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- What Steve Almond said in response to this question almost made me cry. My advice is to take a look at his entry. Also, I’m a huge fan of daily, by-appointment, 15-minute free-writing. Without that practice to help me loosen up, I wouldn’t have finished a single book.