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 TONI JENSEN.
The day begins at 4 a.m., long before first light. I’m not generally such an early riser, but after a recent fall, I’m on steroids for the aftermath, the stretching and pulling of ligaments and tendons in my right arm. Steroids, like beautiful sentences, at first are powerful and perfect. By the third day, though, they have me waking too early, my body not knowing what time it is, despite how clear the sky is that it’s not yet time to rise.
The 4 a.m. news from my phone reports men across America still care very much about the fluctuations of GameStop stock. I read about Robin Hoods and counter-Robin Hoods, and it becomes clear we are all supposed to care very much about these narratives, to believe in their good vs. evil potential. It may be the steroids, of course. But these narratives induce in me some rage—really, quite a lot of it.
The men involved seem to me to be more similar than disparate. They seem straight out of central casting from a common, age-old narrative. They all have free time or leisure. They all have at least some disposable income. They have wives and girlfriends and mothers with less of both. The GameStop men, heroes and villains alike, care about games and getting one over. They do not seem to consider alternative activities like dish washing or diaper changing. They do not seem to consider the 140,000 American women who lost their jobs last month. They are very busy becoming the heroes of their own narratives.
All of which is to say, before first light, I’m at my desk, crafting my own counter-narrative to the news of the day. Writing, for me, often begins this way. It’s rare that I’m out of bed crafting kill-joy narratives this early, but the practice of starting with the news or the world and responding to it is regular. The tension of writing against vs. writing toward propels me. I often spend the early morning hours reading and writing about the news or narratives of our moment.
Where I live in Arkansas at the edge of the Ozarks, winter offers up gray day after gray day. Today, though, a few hours after I wake, the sun arrives for the second day in a row. It feels like a miracle. After my breakfast and morning espresso, four shots in quick succession, I walk Bella the dog around the neighborhood. Our neighborhood, in South Fayetteville, is one in transition. Just three years ago, this was still the part of town avoided by the affluent. But now, we’re becoming trendy and overpriced. Our morning walk then includes the whir and smash of construction literally at every other corner. It’s jarring, but there’s still the sunshine.
I settle back into my writing upon our return. After the morning walk, I often transition away from my nighttime or early morning thoughts toward something more scheduled. Today it’s an essay on a proposed marine sanctuary around St. George Island in Alaska. I watch videos of birds flying, landing, singing, squawking over and onto the cliffs and lush green hills of the island. I transition into the sounds and rhythms of a different place. Writing can do that, too—propel me from one moment or landscape deep into another.
I write more on Fridays than other weekdays. I’m not usually scheduled to teach, and I try to avoid excessive email and paperwork on these days, too. I owe paperwork and procedural email responses to at least four people today. But I try not to let the procedural intrude on certain days or at least for certain hours if I can help it.
It’s also a rare day of being home alone with Bella the dog. My husband is across town helping his father with a task, and my daughter is at her father’s house this week, too. Despite the neighborhood construction boom, our block is still relatively quiet. My writing desk faces a field that’s undeveloped, that houses a pair of mated hawks, many crows and cardinals. I watch them come and go as I write.
Since my daughter is not Zoom schooling across the house, I have the TV on in the living room for background noise. I like the company the TV voices provide. Today it’s the women from The View arguing the day’s news, and I don’t make out their words so much as I get the rhythm of the discussion through the rise and fall of their voices.
I break early for a plowman’s lunch of sliced ham, fake cheese, olives and crackers, with sides of almost-expired blackberries and crisp pickled beans. I watch television while I eat for a midday reset. Since the day started so early, the reset shifts into a very zoned-out afternoon. I do some reading, some laundry, some staring. I’m supposed to be icing and resting my right arm, so I get out the frozen lima beans and shape the bag around my forearm and sit on the couch, watching Borgen, a show about Danish politics. I love how the women on this show look more like actual people than do the women on American TV, and the politics also seem lovely by comparison.
The day ends with another walk around the neighborhood, this one quieter, since the construction crews seem to have called off early, too. My husband comes along on this walk, and we run into one of my colleagues, his puppy, and a graduate student at the nearby park. It’s a rare happening these days—impromptu conversation with other people, having idle if distanced chitchat.
The evening includes dinner and more reading and more icing of my arm, and more thinking about the marine sanctuary in Alaska—more note-taking about birds and fur seals and how important they are to life there for the community, the Unangan people. If I write about something before bed, even just typing in a few notes, I fall back into the rhythm of it more easily the next day. So I hope for that as I transition into sleep—to be back with the birds and the mist and the seals straight away in the morning.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
- Varied. Some days, I write fiction, and other days, nonfiction. Sometimes I write from my own obsessions or ideas and other days, toward assignments. I mostly like the variety. I don’t get bored.
2. Is there a book you would say changed your life?
- When I lived for a time in Wales right after college, a friend emailed me copies of Louise Erdrich’s first novels. I love all her books, but Tracks, in particular, kept me good company when I was homesick and also shifted the possibilities in what I’d known a novel could do or be.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- A strange writing habit I have is how I’m much more productive if I have the television on nearby while I write. The more predictable the narrative, the better. I particularly love The Young and the Restless, and I wrote much of my last book Carry accompanied by the sounds of Flea Market Flip.
By TONI JENSEN