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 LILY KING.
When I wake up, I’m not sure if I dreamt that I shut off my alarm at six-thirty or not. I hope I’ve dreamt it. I hope it’s not six-thirty already. But it is light out, not sunny, a wall of gray cloud hangs over the hill we live on, so it’s later and it wasn’t a dream. I’m aware of the feeling, a sort of plaque of dread covering my body, that I wake up with now, nearly every day since the coronavirus hit. Then I think: I have to write about this feeling, try to describe it. A half hour drifts off somewhere. I sit up, try to meditate, but I have to pee, so I move on to prayer, to gratitude first then the begging part, for the health and well-being of my family and friends and this whole world, for all of those suffering and sick and scared. I try to feel how we are all one. I have no religion or spiritual practice apart from this, meditating on my bed, cross-legged under the covers, then putting my palms together and bending my head toward the tips of my fingers.
I get up, pull on sweats, a long-sleeve shirt and thick sweater and go upstairs to my study. My editor has sent me a file with track changes for a collection of my short stories that will come out in a year. The software won’t let me print out her edits for some reason, so I print out a clean version. I feel far away from these stories, much farther than I usually feel to a novel at this stage. Some of them I wrote in the nineties, over twenty years ago. They seem written by a different creature. Creature is what I wanted to call the collection, but my editor hates it. Usually, I can wear her down on a title. Usually, in a few months she surrenders because neither of us can come up with anything better. But she has really dug in her heels about this one. She really, really hates it. I love it. There is a story called “Creature,” and here it is in the file she has sent me: she has put it first. She thinks it is the strongest of the stories. But she still does not want to call the collection Creature. She thinks it’s creepy, not what my readers expect, thinks it will turn people away. As I write this, I realize I might not be done fighting for it. Yesterday I thought I was. We decided on Five Tuesdays in Winter, which was my first idea for it, and now that seems dull and staid to me.
In my journal I write, “I woke up this morning thinking about trying to describe the Covid waking feeling. Or waking up during this Covid time. It is different. It’s when you feel it most. So many elements of the day ahead removed. Such an intense similarity to the day before and the day before that. There’s something flat and metallic about it, not a heaviness but a coating. There’s the gnawing knowing of the dying, that overnight perhaps another 1,000 people died [I am editing this now, four days later, and the number of deaths per day jumped yesterday to over 3,000, surpassing 9/11; I fear what it will be when this is published], and the knowing about our divided country, our divided set of facts, that millions of Americans do not believe that Joe Biden won the election.” And then I go off into politics for another page, to the frustrations of trying to write about politics, to an essay idea about my theory that misogyny, an aversion to women or more specifically to behaviors our culture thinks of as female, is driving so much of this, or at least being used relentlessly by the far right to deepen the divide, from the election of Trump over Hillary to the refusal to wear masks. One reason the “elite” is hated as a group is because it is seen as feminine. The individual is masculine; the communal is feminine.
I go down for breakfast around nine hoping that someone has bought some more eggs, but they haven’t. My daughter Calla is heading out, and I ask her if she’s going to get eggs and she says no but that I should come with her and get the eggs while she gets her coffee. The good thing about a mask is that you no longer have to prepare any kind of face before you go outside. The bad thing is that your head gets loaded up with stuff in winter: hat, glasses, mask. It’s very top heavy. It snowed a few nights ago and the sidewalk has icy patches, and we walk slowly. Calla is in a long black parka and mittens with hearts on them that I gave her years ago. I haven’t seen them in a while. The clothing in our house, especially the winter accessories, is like compost. It gets buried then churned up eventually. I wonder how she is feeling today but don’t ask yet. It’s too early to ask. Maybe too early for her to know. Last spring, after the virus shut down her college, Calla came home and got a job she loved at farm a few towns north of here. In late July she came down with a fever, fatigue, dizziness, and a headache and, after a few negative Covid tests, figured out it was Lyme disease. She’d been peeling ticks off of her body at the farm for months. The three weeks of doxycycline didn’t work. She was too sick in September to go back to Boston for her senior year and has been home ever since. My Covid coating in the morning is not just Covid. A huge layer of it now is worry about Calla, about this disease, chronic Lyme or treatment-resistant Lyme, they call it, that has no surefire cure, that perhaps involves several co-infections at once, a disease that the CDC and mainstream medicine have virtually ignored for decades and have only the most rudimentary understanding of. Sufferers have to turn to alternative doctors for treatment, doctors who always don’t take insurance and run the gamut from quacks to experienced experts whose treatments may or may not help. For the past few weeks Calla has been feeling better, but not well. The symptoms are less pronounced, but still there. Sometimes my husband Tyler asks for a percentage. 79% was yesterday’s percentage. There were months at the beginning when there seemed to be no progress, no traction, months of two kinds of antibiotics and a zillion other things each day and no improvement. But in the past few weeks she has been better.
My friend Lisa is behind the register at the little store at the end of our street. I get the eggs and touch too many of the avocados before I choose one. When I come out, Calla is coming down the sidewalk from the café. Perfect timing. She brought her own mug this morning instead of wasting another paper cup, but they wouldn’t fill it directly. They poured the coffee into a paper cup then poured it from the paper cup into her mug. Then threw out the paper cup. Was it a Covid thing? She didn’t know. We talk about tea and how I think it might be hurting my vocal cords and maybe I should switch to coffee. The problem with coffee is that it makes my bones feel like they are on fire.
Calla drinks her coffee while I make my corn tortilla with cheese and scrambled eggs with sliced avocado and salsa. She goes upstairs to work—she has online finals this week—and I eat and read the paper. I already read all the headlines and editorials on my phone when I woke up at two am last night. Thanksgiving Covid spikes, Trump and the GOP trying hard to subvert the election results. When I’m done, I put the kettle on and listen to an audiobook—Then There were None by Agatha Christie whom I have never read before because I never read mysteries, but my new book idea seems to have a dead body on the first page, so I need to read a few—and play solitaire until the kettle boils. This is a new Covid ritual, the audiobook and solitaire in the morning while the kettle heats up. I lean hard on rituals these days. I’m starting to understand how they’ve gotten people through the days, the centuries.
After the tea is made, I remember I have to wash my hair for a Zoom in the afternoon, so I keep the audiobook running as I shower—the butler’s wife dies in the night—and then I am back up here in my study making a to-do list:
Track changes/ edits
Hedda’s story/ The Cottswolds
Essay for Zibby
Essay for Debra
Essay for Cynthia Newberry Martin
I look up the email for this last one, 600-1000 words on one specific day. I go to the website and read Alexander Chee’s then Debra Spark’s (the same Debra I need to deliver an essay on food to). My plan was to take a hard look at the to-do list and determine in which order I should tackle the tasks, but instead I hear a sentence in my head for the “How We Spend Our Days” essay, and now I’m on the computer writing it.
I stopped there because it was time to get ready for the Zoom, a book club of older people who normally meet in Pennsylvania but are now scattered about because of Covid.
I have misunderstood an email with the Zoom link and show up later than they expected me and am embarrassed and apologetic and mad at myself. The man who arranged it has been meticulous in his preparation and I have inadvertently messed things up for him. They are gracious and kind in their boxes on my screen, and we move on. They are a group of old friends. One was a bridesmaid in another’s wedding over forty years ago. I’ve been doing events for my novel Writers & Lovers for nine months now so my answers to their questions have a canned feeling that I’m always trying to push against. I try to deliver the words as if I haven’t said them before. I try to say new things but often there is just one answer to the question of how I got the idea or what was the meaning of the geese in the book. I look at the green light at the top of my computer as I speak and avoid my own face in its little box just below. But in the periphery, I can see her efforts, her desire to be amenable especially after the tardy appearance, her desire to please, to be liked, to be thought smart but not arrogant, accessible, open but not an over-sharer. I have put on eyeliner and lipstick and earrings and a burnished gold sweater. I am talking about the misogyny I write about in the book, the misogyny in the restaurants I worked in in the nineties, in the literary world when I was starting out as a writer, and yet I am hardly free of it. That female writer in the Zoom box is trying so hard. I am aware now, as I think of it, of how much of an effect, a vice grip, the patriarchy and its standards for women still have on me, how repressive my years in a patriarchy have been, how long it has taken me to be even this outspoken, which is not half as outspoken as I would like to be. They move on to a different subject. I wish I could be asking them questions. But the questions keep coming, and I have no time to recover, to prepare a question for them, before the next one comes at me.
I had hoped to work for an hour or so after the Zoom, but my brain is too stirred up now. I stay on the computer, flit around the internet, answer email, check Twitter briefly. When I open the door to my study, I smell garlic. I’m so happy and grateful Tyler has started dinner and I don’t have to rummage around trying to figure out something for the three of us. I go down, and he’s got the news on, a veggie stir-fry in the wok.
Calla comes down for dinner—she’s been painting for her end-of-semester crits—looking more tired than she has seemed these past few weeks. I can tell she’s not as well today as she has been, and I feel my own spirits dip a bit. We get our bowls of stir-fry and sit at the table. There are a lot of beets and turnips in this one. I slather it with soy sauce and sesame oil. I really hate beets. I tell them about an idea for a video I had early that morning, short little conversations between the three of us, sort of a spoof on communication between men and women. Just a short TikTok kind of thing, I say, and Calla cracks up at the idea of us making a TikTok, and Tyler says, “Let’s become TikTok superstars!” and this makes me laugh so hard, my husband who has been on social media for about twenty minutes in his whole life.
Afterward we go to the TV couch and put on “Offspring,” our latest addiction. It’s an Australian dramedy about an obstetrician, her family, and her love life. It makes us laugh, cry, squeeze hands, and feel like we live on the other side of the world. I often dream now that I’m in Australia. Before “Offspring,” it was “Crash Landing on You,” a South Korean series about a North-South romance that we were utterly obsessed with. My life has gotten very small with Covid and Calla home sick, but I have loved that smallness in a way, the routine, the simplicity, the certainty that at the end of the day I will be on the couch laughing with people I love.
After two episodes, Calla and Tyler go up to bed. I’m not sleepy yet and stay on the couch and group text our younger daughter, Eloise, who is a sophomore in college in New York, and her two best friends from high school. They are my go-to focus group for literary marketing questions. They were essential in choosing the cover for W&L. I tell them about my title dilemma. I get two votes for Five Tuesdays in Winter and one (Eloise’s) for Creature. We trade heart emojis and agree we will see each other for a fire pit later in the month when everyone’s home for the holidays. Separately Eloise and I text, too. She says she is good but stressed about all the work she has for finals. I text my editor for ideas of yummy food that I can get delivered to El and her roommate at their apartment. She tells me Morandi has meatballs that are to die for. Meatballs are about Eloise’s most favorite food, so that’s an easy choice. I’ll order her that for tomorrow.
The lights are all off when I go upstairs. I get into bed and turn on my flashlight to read. I’m in the middle of Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. I love it so much. I feel myself fall into it and let go of everything else. I feel my mind reset, realign, remember my deep love for words on a page. In the middle of the night, I will wake up with an idea for the new book. I’ll lie there and let it play out, feel it gather all kinds of stuff. I’ll poke it a bit here and there, to see what else will come out, and when it’s done, I’ll pull out a little notebook and scratch out with a pencil everything I can remember. But that is the next day. And I’ve already gone beyond my maximum word count for this one.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- If I were feeling depleted creatively, a surefire way to find some inspiration would be to take a 40 or 50 minute run, make a strong cup of black tea, and read a short story or part of a novel by Shirley Hazzard with a pencil and notebook nearby to catch all the sparks that will start to fly.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I had to ask my husband about this, and he said keeping my tea warm at all cost. He doesn’t like how I use his clothing—a parka, a hat, whatever is nearby—as a tea cozy when necessary. He also mentioned solitaire, which I confess to in this essay.
By LILY KING