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 SEAN HILL.
Today is Thursday, July 23, 2020, but the days of the week blur together. I haven’t left this small town since just before the lockdown, and now some part of each day is spent feeling concerned about the number of out-of-state license plates I see on my little circuits. As a Black man who’s crisscrossed this country on numerous road trips and who occasionally gets you’re-not-from-around-here-ed (an assertion, a question, and, often, an imperative wrapped together), I’m also a little unsettled by my concern about strangers.
Most days, if I haven’t already been awakened in the dark by whatever rouses me to be greeted with thoughts of the things I need to attend to in the coming day, then the sun seems to nudge me awake. There’s some twilight threshold that I cross as my place on the planet rotates to face the sun each morning. There’s this phenomenon I noticed twenty years ago on a trip to London and again when I moved to Bemidji, a little town in northern Minnesota, in 2003. I was born and raised in Georgia, and I didn’t have a name for that pre-dawn light of the wee hours in those northern latitudes until I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska. There I came to know “civil twilight[i].”
So usually, I wake up anywhere between 3 o’clock and 5:30 in the morning. I either grab my Kindle and stay in bed or get up and go to my office across the hall from the bedrooms. We have an almost five-year-old, and I don’t want to wake him or my wife or our sixteen-month-old Golden/Lab mix. In my office, there’s email, social media feeds, the writing work, and my list, which consists of all the sundry things I can think of that need attending to in the various parts of my life.
On the best days, it’s the writing work that grabs me, and either I’m drafting new work or tinkering with revisions of things. I’m working on my next poetry collection and my first collection of nonfiction. This is one of those days.
On weekday mornings, my wife’s alarm beep-beeps at 6:30, and she goes downstairs to make coffee and attend to the dog. I hear her stirrings, and depending on where I am in my work, I follow after I think she’s had enough time to have three sips. I never picked up the coffee habit. I do eat breakfast and enjoy the ritual of making it. But I usually put off my breakfast, because our son has to be gotten up and ready for preschool[ii]. My wife packs his lunch, and I fix his breakfast and get him downstairs and dressed and eventually to school. Most mornings it’s a pleasant drive. I give him a choice of NPR, the Classic Rock station, whichever album from my phone that he’s into (currently it’s Bad Brains), or saying good morning to my parents on the phone, or quiet. Quiet usually means we end up talking about something. All of it does, really.
After dropping him off, I go back home and make my breakfast and hang out in the kitchen with the dog while listening to the radio. Breakfast involves making toast and heating a soy-sage in our toaster oven, being mindful of the hotspot in the left rear corner and setting the timer for the soy-sage and keeping my nose set for the toast, and getting the heat just right on the omelette pan.
Today, I have an old friend from when I lived in Bemidji coming to visit. She’s on her way from Washington (where she recently moved) back to Bemidji to visit family and friends. Since I moved away, we’ve only seen each other in the summer when I’m there for the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference, which I direct, but this year we pivoted the conference online due to the global COVID-19 Pandemic. Where I live in Montana isn’t exactly on her way, but this seems like our only opportunity to see each other.
At 9:15 a.m. I send out a morning greeting and inquiry about her ETA. I usually get our son from school at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, so I try to wrap up my working day by 2:25 at the latest. But my wife has offered to pick him up today, so I would have a bit more latitude. I have in mind that my friend would arrive around 2:30 or 3:00, and we would take the dog on a socially distanced walk on one of the nearby trails. I spend a couple of hours or so working on poems that I intend to send out for a July 24th deadline.
I don’t hear anything from my friend till noon. By then I’m in the Sherwin Williams parking lot. I recently built a gate for our back porch from salvaged pickets that I need to paint to match the rest of the railings and supports. I found the can of dried-out paint that the previous owners of our house used; I’m hoping to get it matched. Building that gate lit up those creative problem-solving parts of my brain that writing does, and I got to use power tools, and the gate creates spaces for the dog and the boy. I’m almost as satisfied with it as any poem I’ve written lately. My friend says she’ll be arriving around 4 o’clock.
After getting back from the paint store, I make a turkey and cheese sandwich and hang out in the kitchen with the dog and listen to the radio and eat lunch. Then I turn my attention to reaching out to writers about being on the MNWC faculty in June 2021. At around 3 o’clock my friend gets in touch again to say there’s road construction slowing her down; she’ll arrive closer to 6:00.
When she arrives, our dog walk on a trail turns into a walk on the pedestrian mall downtown with my son and dog. My friend’s partner is a first responder, and so she is very conscious of contracting the virus. She wears an N95 mask and keeps plenty of homemade hand sanitizer ready in her fanny pack. She follows us downtown in her car for the sake of social distancing. And we walk around. In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock has made mask-wearing inside businesses and government buildings mandatory. We eventually get pizza slices and settle socially distanced in a park. My friend tells me she enjoyed my recently published poem, “Governor’s Mansion Hands.” It made her think about things in ways she hadn’t before. I might be my friend’s only poet friend. I tell her that in the last few years I’ve been watching a lot of comedy shows and specials on Netflix, mostly because their engines aren’t tension-driven the way most narrative shows’ are. One of my favorites is Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. In one episode, one of the comedians says their job is to notice stuff, like “you ever notice…” I tell her that the poet’s job is the same, but they do it to be funny and we do it to be almost anything but funny. And that’s why I don’t have a Netflix special. She laughed.
When we get back to our house, she checks her atlas for National Forests in our area before heading out. She’s camping to avoid people the rest of this trip.
[i] Civil Twilight is what you call the time when the sun is below the horizon yet still casts light into the sky, enough light to allow you to go about your business outside without artificial light. It’s a near-consistent span of time that occurs before sunrise and just after sunset. And the farther you get from the equator the longer it lasts; it’s not quite 30 minutes in Milledgeville, Georgia, a little over 35 in Bemidji, Minnesota, just over 40 in London, and just under an hour in Fairbanks, Alaska. And in these months coming out of shelter-in-place orders, lockdowns, into phased re-openings while still facing various pandemics—viral and social—as we head toward the 2020 election, I feel the term “civil twilight” could apply to the waning light of civility and, on my more despairing days, perhaps, civilization.
[ii] I work from home, and before the shelter-in-place order, I would get our son to preschool every morning. During the lockdown while we were sheltering in place, his mother had to continue going into the office, so he and I had Papa Preschool, but over the ten weeks that devolved into Daddy Daycare. Our son’s preschool opened back up on June 1st, so I’ve had a couple months of things resembling the normal that was.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- I think my poems and essays either come out of one of my projects/lines of research and thought and historical engagement. Or they come out of the present moments of my life and usually fall into one of those lines. I have people and places and historical periods that I keep returning to for engagement. Reflecting on the lives of African Americans across the nineteenth century and all they did to better their situation in this country while making the country better is a source of inspiration.
2. Would you give us one piece of advice about reading poetry?
- Read the poem slowly and aloud at least twice. Try to enjoy it coming out of your mouth.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I’m not sure this is strange, but when I’m writing poems, and I’m at the point of having words on a screen, I need to print out the draft and grab a clipboard and pace from room to room and work going back and forth between the computer and the next printed draft. If it’s nice out, I’ll take the draft on a short walk around the neighborhood.
By SEAN HILL