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 BETTYE KEARSE.
Imperceptibly later each September morning, the sun sneaks through the clerestory windows above my bed, its stealth presence revealed by three pale squares on the opposite wall. My eyes resolutely closed, I sense those familiar shapes again. The ceiling fan’s swirling air, a patient lullaby the night before, cools my face—hot from busy-brain sleep—and awakens me.
The bed attempts to snuggle me away from another day of catching up, keeping up, and tackling the steep learning curves of book marketing. From the desk across the room, my “To-Do List” beckons, today more persistently than usual, letting me know how long it is and how far behind I am. I really should arise, I know, and get started on scheduling book talks on Zoom, submitting my op-ed piece about police brutality, applying to book festivals, contacting podcasters, composing a speech for a genealogical organization, pitching NPR and freelancers, posting on social media, and following up on every previous outreach. Such breathlessness is the demand of promoting my life’s-purpose book during a virulent pandemic with my book launch and seven-state tour canceled.
My To-Do List wins. I abandon the bed. After an encouraging shower and a walking “Good morning” to my husband, Lee, who is already peddling away on his stationary bicycle and reading The Wall Street Journal, I eat my usual breakfast of melted cheddar on toast, sip an extra hot cup of apple cinnamon tea, grab the list and my laptop, and then head for the flagstone-surfaced back patio to try to conquer that list.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, is some 7,000 feet above sea-level, but the current temperature feels warm enough for me to work outside, a light sweater nearby. Though this “high desert” terrain is brown, and the distant mountains are gray, the slender, straight-standing aspen trees flaunt their golden leaves in proud, shimmering defiance of impending winter. And the new sky, a magic brew of colors, is, perhaps, the reason New Mexico is dubbed “The Land of Enchantment” and why it is a good place for painters to paint, sculptors to sculpt, and writers to write.
But I do little creative writing these days. The problem with To-Do Lists is that they regenerate themselves. Each time I complete a task, check it off, and give myself a triumphant high-five, another item sneers, demanding to be added. Many reappear again and again, recalcitrant, unrelenting, and unapologetic. Stuff must get done if readers are to be reached.
I am trying to memorize the script for a PowerPoint presentation, which is much sooner than I wish, when a rapid drumbeat of wings nearby destroys my concentration. The birds are back.
After Lee and I moved into this house last summer, I noticed a tangle of twigs, newspaper strips, and bird poop on top of the exterior vent for the gas fireplace in the living room. Wearing plastic gloves and averting my eyes, I cleared away the mess.
Then, late this past spring, a small red bird, a male finch, I wondered, arrived to survey the nice clean vent from a strategic vantage point on tree. Over the next couple of days, he and his dowdy female significant-other ventured closer and closer, and soon, another mess was accumulating on the vent.
I’ll nip this in the bud, I thought, so I brushed the birds’ building project into a bag and covered the vent with a small box. The birds became hysterical, flying and looking, fussing and poking, and finally building a makeshift version of their little structure on top of the box. Feeling like a villain, I removed the box, giving them, in effect, a deed to the vent.
For the next few weeks, Lee and I enjoyed watching the birds build and use their well-planned home, papa flying back and forth delivering meals, mama incubating their soon-to-be progeny, and, finally, babies stretching their necks to feed. Then, suddenly it seemed, after a brief trial of fledgling wings, the whole family was gone.
I missed them, but they had left behind another mess. I left it there. Perhaps today’s visit is a nudge for me to do something about it before next spring.
But that is not on my To-Do List. I will be able to call this a good day only if it ends with fewer items on the list than had called to me earlier in the morning. And I will not let this be a bad day, my list spilling over onto yet another page. Even if it’s 11:59 pm when I end today’s battle with the list (and the birds?), I will make sure I’ve returned my To-Do List to its spot on the desk, switched on the ceiling fan, switched off every incandescent light in the room, and climbed into bed before a new day has a chance to begin.
Now, watching a lizard scamper across the patio, I hope tonight the moon will shine through the clerestory windows, allowing me to gaze—my mind escaping myriad stubborn thoughts—at the three silvery squares on the wall beyond my feet until the calming air sweeping across my face lulls me to sleep.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
The best book I have read (actually re-read) in the last five months is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I chose it because August 1, 2020, would have been Henrietta’s 100th birthday. I loved the book when I read it 10 years ago, and have always been amazed by the impact HeLa cells have had on medical science.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Right now, my writing life is reactive. I write whatever I need to write to promote my book during the pandemic–magazine articles, op-ed pieces, blog posts, social media posts, and all sorts of Zoom talks.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- My strangest habit is also a reaction to the pandemic. Every Sunday morning, I dress up from head to toe, then sit alone in front of my computer to watch a recorded church service.
By BETTYE KEARSE