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 KATHY GUNST.
Southern Maine at this time of year can mean biting winds, swirling leaves, and other signs that a new season is here. But on this Indian summer morning the sun is already so bright and warm I know the day will include a swim.
I brew a strong cup of coffee and top my granola with the thick Greek yogurt made on the farm down the road. I scan emails and get lost in headlines. When despair tells me to shut it all down, I click over to the New York Times Spelling Bee as just one in a long series of steps to avoid my writing day. Even as I try to discover words in the preposterous arrangement of seven letters, I am wondering exactly how cold the river water will be. I click from the spelling bee to local tide charts and find that high tide falls at 2:14 p.m. Perfect for a few hours of writing before I grab my suit and thermal swim shirt.
I manage to write for two hours. For now, that feels like an accomplishment. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I find that even an hour of focused concentration is a gift.
At two p.m. I make my way down to the little pebbly river beach and dip my foot into the water. This is a mistake. In late October the only way to swim is to dive right in and never think twice.
The Salmon Falls River, a tributary of the Piscataqua River, is flanked by majestic pine trees, cormorants perched on bare branches, and a swirl of blue-brown water that moves swiftly as the tide flows in and out.
The water seeps into my swim shirt, down my back, and whispers loudly in my ear: Hey, honey. Get real. This is your last swim of the season.
I dread winter. That’s what I’m thinking as I move from breaststroke to crawl, pushing harder in hopes it might warm me.
So much fills me with dread these days. The election looms like a long-awaited call from a doctor with biopsy results: will we live, or will we die? Will democracy remain the backbone of America? Will we elect leadership that accepts science, the mandating of masks to help save lives, or will we embrace the ineptitude, narcissism, racism, and misogyny that has sculpted these past four years?
Fifteen minutes later there is no denying the chill tightening my lungs. I reverse course and head back towards the little beach. My mind is already on other matters: I will go home and bake a fall fruit crumble.
Baking and swimming have been my life lines for the past few months. As the pandemic rages, as Washington devolves into chaos and, as the months fly by without seeing my daughters who live on the West Coast, I swim. And I bake.
Earlier this year I published a book called Rage Baking. The idea for the book came about in the fall of 2018, as the Senate grilled Dr. Blasey Ford about her relationship with then teenager Brett Kavanaugh. I was glued to the radio listening to nearly every second of the hearing. Each night, after hours of testimony, I wondered why they called it a “hearing” when no one actually seemed to be listening to Dr. Blasey Ford, a woman who was risking her career, her family’s safety, and so much more to question the integrity of this Supreme Court nominee. The predominantly white male Republican Senators had made up their minds. Their nominee would go through—sexual assault or no sexual assault. And each night, when the hearings came to a close, I found myself taking my rage into the kitchen. I baked a batch of Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies. And then a Blueberry Galette. And then an Almond Cake. Yes, all in one night.
I found that baking reset my focus for a few short hours. It became a balm, a mediation of sorts. Baking was a way of temporarily restoring my belief in the positive transformation of things — in this case flour, butter, and sugar. Each day as the political outrages piled up, my mind was absorbed in the precision, focus, science, and discipline that baking requires.
Four p.m. Back home. A scalding-hot shower quiets my chattering teeth. I head into the kitchen and turn on the oven, grateful for the heat it puts off.
I peel and thinly slice apples and the last pock-marked pears from a neighbor’s tree and place them into a shallow gratin dish. I use my hands to sift together flour, cinnamon, ginger, brown sugar, and granola and then gently work a stick of butter into the mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal. I pat the topping down on top of the fruit, like tucking a child in with a winter blanket. I place the crumble into the hot oven and sit in my kitchen, catching the last bits of autumn light dancing on the pine trees out my window. Soon the room smells of apple orchards and cinnamon and every cliché of fall.
I find myself thinking about the upcoming election and how much we have riding on it. I try not to think about how scared I have become of virtually everything that is happening in this country. I try to recall the sensation I had placing my ballot into the voting box outside my Town Hall. It felt like the single most powerful thing I had done in a while.
And here we are, two years after Brett Kavanaugh, with another Supreme Court nominee being shoved down our throats. This time Amy Coney Barrett, who (if past rulings and religious beliefs are any indication), seems very likely to strip women of their right to choose and eliminate health care for millions of Americans during a pandemic.
The timer buzzes, interrupting my path to darkness. The fruit juices bubble and sputter with promise. I dip a spoon into the hot crumble (because, really, why wait?) and think about the concept of hope. My hope that there are still enough Americans who believe in democracy and are willing to fight and vote for it. My hope that the pendulum will once again swing. My hope that there is still enough sweetness left in this battered world to save us. But for now, there is this fruit crumble.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. What book is on your night table now and why?
- There is a stack of about fourteen books at the moment, about to tumble over. Generally, I steer towards women writers, but I recently finished The Overstory by Richard Powers, an epic novel of interrelated stories that center on trees. Not only was it a great read (I am always curious about how writers connect seemingly disconnected stories), but now I find myself looking at trees and the forest in an entirely new way. Also just reread Native Son by Richard Wright (which I initially read in high school) and found it deeply disturbing and powerful.
3. What question do you wish someone would ask you?
- When did you stop wanting to be someone else?
By KATHY GUNST