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 CHRISTINA CHIU
It’s 6:45 AM, Tuesday, mid-May, 2021. My phone alarm won’t sound for another hour, but the sun is up and now so am I. On the wall facing my bed is a painting of woman napping on a large pink sofa. I’m in my Manhattan apartment. So is my younger son, Tyler, who’s ten. Since COVID, however, my husband and older son are staying out in Long Island. Tyler and I join them on the weekends, then return for the week. He was born with medical issues and had to go through multiple surgeries. Here in the city, he has a nurse who manages his medical interventions during the school day.
I allow myself to lie awake in bed until 7 AM. It’s going to be a busy day, and I need to gather my thoughts before it starts. My last novel launched during COVID. Since then, I’ve been working on a new one. But after the spa shootings in Atlanta that killed eight, six of whom were Asian women, I’ve been suffering from writer’s block.
A promise I make to myself: Sometime today, I’m going to sit down to write. I need to express how I feel and would like to write an essay, but confronting that level of rage and hatred feels overwhelming. It comes with traumas I’ve personally faced around race, but also, I realize, the emotional and physical violence I experienced as a child growing up with a father suffering from what I now suspect was malignant narcissism. The disfunction played out every night at the dinner table. Instead of leading the family like a father could, he fractured it more every night, pitting me and my siblings against one another. It makes me think of the larger American family, which seems to suffer from similar disfunction, relying on black sheep to bind the rest of the family more closely together.
Waking Tyler at eight is a tricky endeavor: I have to tickle him just enough that he laughs, but not so much that he cries. It’s the kind of detail that will end up in a story one day. Tyler stirs and wraps his arms around my neck. He smells of sleep. I snuggle him. My older son is eighteen and headed to college in a few months. They grow up, they leave. I’m going to appreciate and enjoy these hugs while I still can. In the past, I took care of Tyler’s morning medical needs, but gradually, he’s learning to do some things on his own. When he’s done, he sits down to bacon and scrambled eggs in front of the TV. At 8:45, he attends school remotely due to COVID. His nurse arrives by 8:30, and I disappear to the gym for a run, then shower and dress.
In the past, I used to write 9-5, breaking only for lunch and a run. I let my books express my thoughts and beliefs. Ever since the 45th President and the rise of White nationalism, however, I question the impact of my work. 10 AM, I meet a woman named Joy Thaler. She founded a social enterprise called CocoaCompassion. A chocolate lover, Joy discovered the making of it involved child slave labor, poverty, and land grabs. To break these cycles, she wanted to transform cocoa into a resource that provides opportunities and training to improve lives rather than deplete them. I do a fair amount of public speaking, and Joy heard one of my talks. She reached out to me because she’s looking for a business partner. Getting involved with a social enterprise like this would take a lot of time away from my writing, but I may do it anyway because it’s important to me to make positive change where we can. I really believe that if humans spent more time doing things they felt passionately about, and which enrich their lives, they would create less hatred and destruction in the world.
Joy and I sit outside facing the Hudson River. It’s the second time we are meeting. The sun glints off the waves. We discuss strategies and ideas for CocoaCompassion. We talk about our kids—she has a son going off to college this fall, too.
While Joy and I are discussing the one-sheeter, I get an email from the organizer of TEDx UCLA. I’ve submitted a video project for the event. He can’t access the video I sent. I race off, but it’s already 12:30 PM when I get home. Since I’m a tech idiot, I don’t manage to figure things out before the next zoom meeting with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is an art residency that offers writers, visual artists and composers the time and space to create their work. I’m on the Fellows Council, and we currently have an online benefit art auction going. It’s doing incredibly well; today, someone bid on a Pat Lipsky painting at $10k! Hooray!
Afternoon moment that I’ll laugh about some day.
The perfect moment to squeeze in some writing suddenly appears. Only it’s not so perfect after all because my silver Shih Tzu suddenly appears. She sits at my feet and barks, just once, and I realize I’ve forgotten to walk her. Oh, my god, I’m a terrible mommy. I take her out. She needs to go so badly she does her thing within thirty seconds—both, that is!—then sits in a patch of sun, waiting for me to scratch her behind the ears.
School is done for the day at 2 PM, and the nurse leaves. I co-host the Pen Parentis Literary Salon’s Season Closer at 7 PM. Dinner doesn’t need to be started for a couple hours. Tyler and I snack on potato chips. His hands end up greasier than the bag. I ask him to wash his hands, but the sink is crowded with the day’s dishes. Tyler attempts to move the spout to the other side, but it’s stuck. He pushes harder, and crack!, the entire nozzle snaps off. We stare at it in his hand, stunned.
The super promises to come as soon as he can. I’m worried that if the spout isn’t fixed by 6 PM, what should I do about dinner? Before I can think what to do, the TEDx organizer calls. There’s a problem with the video I sent him. It takes until 3:45 to resolve. I remember Tyler needs an afternoon medical procedure, but now it’s too late because he has his reading tutor today (how does a writer end up with a kid who hates reading and writing?). I’m frustrated I didn’t get to it in time, but when I see Tyler on a zoom with his best friend Christian, I feel better. The two are drawing anime together. It’s only reluctantly that Tyler signs off and starts his reading session.
It’s going to be a long night.
For the next couple of hours, the super is in and out of the apartment three or four times. I’m busy clearing the counters and then everything out from beneath the sink. Somehow between the sink, the dog, ordering dinner, and dealing with Tyler’s medical protocols, it’s suddenly 6:45 PM. The food appears just in time. I make a plate for Tyler: two avocado rolls, an age-dashi tofu, and rice. Then I retreat to the bedroom again.
Tonight, Pen Parentis is featuring authors Alice Dark, Joshua Henkin, and Sergio Troncoso. “Have you ever written something about your children that made them uncomfortable?” I ask. Alice Dark responds, “For me, it’s the other way around.” Her son is also a writer and he’s been writing about her. I laugh, but in my head, I’m hoping my boys won’t become writers.
After the event, I find Tyler gaming on the computer. It’d be nice to spend time together before bedtime, but if I make him stop gaming, the last thing he’ll want to do is be with me. Ah hah, I think of a way. I race to the market next door and return with his favorite dairy-free ice cream sandwiches. He quickly joins me on the couch, and when we’re done, he gets ready for bed while I take care of the dishes, walk the dog, and start a pot of coffee. Then finally, he’s in bed, asleep.
I sit with my laptop by the living room window. It’s quiet. Outside, the moonless sky looks like an empty black screen. The New Jersey side of the Hudson is lit up, the river between us like black obsidian. While I have a sense of what I want this essay to be about, I’m not sure where or how to start. It’s terrifying. The Hudson seems placid, but like my childhood, I know the waves are crashing into and over the other. There are moments I don’t want to recall too vividly, but if I want to get anywhere worth going, I know I have to. I start with the round table where my father, mother, brother, twin sister and I once sat. We eat family style with dishes at the center of the table. Chinese broccoli. Soy sauce beef. And my favorite—steamed flounder. My mother covered it in a bed of minced scallions and garlic, then poured hot oil over it. It sizzled. Smoke rose in clouds to the ceiling. The delicious smell filled the room. We each have a bowl of rice, a plate, and chopsticks. We were all righties, because, god forbid our chopsticks bump into each other. Then, when I listen, really listen to the past, I can hear our voices.
I start with this scene, then continue writing, until suddenly, daylight is taking over. The river mirrors the gray-blue sky above. It’s past 5AM. I have three written pages, hardly a finished draft, but the words are flowing. They will be there for me to come back to tomorrow. I shut the laptop and catch a couple hours’ sleep.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. When and where do you do most of your reading?
I love to read in bed while snuggling with my dog or in a bubble bath overflowing with bubbles.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
I rarely shut down my laptop. If an idea or thought comes to me, I need to get it down before it vanishes into the ether.