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 MELISSA CRONIN
My eyes snap open at exactly 6:30 on this early June morning. Once again, the sun has slipped through the blinds and woken me from a deep sleep with its highlighter-yellow streak across my face. Usually, I pull the afghan over my head and wake up when my body is ready, which would probably be two and a half hours from now. But, today, I toss aside the afghan and stand with the quickness of a Jack-In The-Box. My husband John is not in bed, so I assume he drank the sixteen-ounce colonoscopy “cocktail” at 5:30, then the thirty-two ounces of water over the next hour in preparation for the procedure he’s having later this morning. But I can’t be sure. I head down the long hallway toward the living room and find him sitting on the couch, watching the horizon stretch gold, the sixteen-ounce plastic container empty. “Did you drink the water?” I ask, dropping onto the couch next to him.
“I followed the instructions.” He pulls me close to his slow exhale. “You’re worried.”
I worried up until and during John’s last colonoscopy. His father had colon cancer. I can’t bear the thought of losing my husband of seventeen years. He’s too young; I’m too young.
I’m an incurable worrier by nature, passed down by both my mother and father—my father who tested the smoke alarms in my childhood home once a month and made me and my two siblings practice fire drills every three months, and my mother, who, when she learns of a yet another terrorist or hate-crime attack, still begs me to stay home and lock the doors (“hide in the closet,” she says).
I worry whether I’m doing the physical therapy exercises for elbow tendonitis correctly, whether my readers find the five things I provided in this month’s newsletter as interesting as I do, whether my literary agent will be able to sell my memoir.
As I look out the living room window, I see foxes playing at the edge of the yard by the lake. Such beauty both calms and excites me. John and I ooh and aah as we watch the two pups hop back and forth between one another while their mother watches for predators. Mesmerized by their daring play, I admire the foxes for many minutes and begin to doze. I return to bed.
It’s 8:30 when John’s light touch wakes me, and he says, “We need to leave in a half hour.” Fifteen minutes and I’m dressed, teeth brushed, face washed. My last-minute scrambling—John’s tea for after the procedure, my tea, face masks—gets us into the car and on the road at 9:03. According to Google Maps it’s a forty-six-minute trip. Which means we’ll arrive at 9:49 and John is supposed to be at the center at 9:45 for a 10:30 appointment. We’ll only be four minutes late, but my brain lets loose a volley of what-ifs: what if we get slowed down by construction? What if we get a flat tire? What if the police pull us over for speeding? (John’s driving seventy-six miles an hour in a sixty-five zone.) I check my cell phone every few minutes, and every few minutes report to John the latest estimated time of arrival: “9:48, still 9:48, 9:47.”
John points to Lake Champlain on our left. “Look at that cloud over the water.”
I see a vanilla creemie (Vermont’s version of soft-serve ice cream), and beneath it, the lake glistens soft blue. My worry melts a little, and I think of how fortunate we are to live by the lake with a view of the Green Mountains.
We walk into the surgical center at 9:46. Fifteen minutes later, a nurse emerges from behind a door that reads “No visitors beyond this point.” I was with John the last time the nurse inserted the IV into his arm. And he shivers just hearing “IV” or “blood” spoken out loud. I need to be with him.
“Sorry,” the nurse says, when John asks if I can wait with him. “There isn’t enough room. I’ll call you when he’s in post-op.”
John smiles at me. (He’s good at camouflaging his own anxiety.) I smile back. “See you soon,” I say. And he disappears behind the door.
Then I wait, sitting on a bench outside, with my smooth sandstone rock. I hold it in the soft flesh of my palm—I found it while on a walk in the woods with John a couple of years ago. My predisposition to worry extends to decision-making. So, among all the rocks, how did I come to choose this one? Maybe it was the flecks of subtle oranges and browns, two of my favorite colors. Or the rounded, easy-on-the-hand edges.
On that day, I placed the rock within easy view on the passenger side shelf of my car. That’s where it stayed, until today. Today, I need its enduring presence to ground me as I wait for the call. I rub it between my thumb and forefinger, pressing worry into its solid center. Using my hands usually helps to release excess stress hormones. So I keep rubbing. Breathing. Rubbing. Breathing.
The word “patience” comes to mind, then the Irish poet, philosopher, and theologian John O’Donohue. A couple of years ago, my therapist turned me on to an On Being podcast, “The Inner Landscape of Beauty,” a discussion between the host Krista Tippet and John O’Donohue that centers on landscape and the natural world as pivotal to how human beings both know themselves and navigate through day-to-day life. In a recent session with my therapist, I shared with him that I’ve been spending more time doing what brings me joy, like being outdoors, in the garden, in the woods, swimming in the lake. But I feel guilty about giving way to such indulgences. What I should be doing more of is working on the novel I started a year ago, or the one I started two years before that. I should be spending more time being a writer, because that’s what I’m supposed to be, what I share on my Twitter and Facebook pages: “Writer.” Before I had a chance to say another “should” or “supposed to,” my therapist interjected: “I encourage you to return to John O’Donohue.’
As I sit here with the rock, I wonder what John O’Donohue would say if he were still alive. Then I remember something he said that resonated: “Landscape [isn’t] just matter, but it is actually alive.” I breathe in, hold it, breathe out—a long out—rubbing the rock harder. Yes, I think, it is alive, the way it loosens the cramped bends of my joints under the insistent rhythm of my thumb. At the same time, the rock absorbs the weight of my worry without complaint. “Patience,” I whisper to the rock.
While John reads and naps on the couch in the afternoon, I tend to the garden, watering the potatoes, the cucumbers, the squash and pumpkins. I cheer on the tomatoes: “Great job. You’re beautiful.” I pluck weed after relentless weed from each bed, returning to where I started to make sure none have snuck their way back when I wasn’t looking. As I fret over whether I should thin-out the kale, I think of how gardening is a lot like editing. One must choose only the sentences that work best for narrative flow; the rest goes into the sentence compost bin. But what if I make the wrong decision? Kill the wrong darling? Bending over the kale, I feel a similar anxiety. I must choose which live sprouts to pull up versus which ones to keep to produce a healthy yield. Ditto for the Swiss chard, the beets, the beans. The only certainty is uncertainty, yet I still crave certainty, as much as I crave dark chocolate. So I spend another couple of hours in the garden fretting over which darling to sacrifice, hesitantly digging up a bean or beet here and there. And I watch, wait—for the perfectly ripe radishes, the most aromatic basil leaves, the reddest cherry tomatoes.
In the evening, John and I listen to the quiet conversation between the lake and the breeze, and I feel space open in me, enough space for imagination. I close my eyes and say, “Sitting here on the porch, it feels like we’re on vacation.”
“I met you on a porch,” he says, taking my hand in his.
“A title for an essay,” I say.
My head fills with new worries: How will it start? What should I include? What if no one cares enough to read it? Maybe I should exhume the graveyard of other essays I’ve yet to finish. But what if this one is the beginning of a new writing project, one that will be exciting enough to keep my mind off of my memoir? My head is overgrowing with too many question marks. It’s time to thin-out the what-ifs. But that means choosing.
I reach into my pocket for Patience, and as I rotate my thumb over its rounded edges, I thumb John’s palm in steady circles. I let myself be—with the slow rhythm of the full beauty surrounding us. I emerge from worry. For now.
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?
Music, walks in the woods, gardening, listening to others’ stories/life experiences – all things that get me out of my head.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
Moving things from one place to another is by far my strangest habit. For example, when writing, I’ll shift my notebook from one side of the computer to the other, organize any loose papers so they are piled in one spot, then move them again behind my computer so I’m not distracted by clutter. My husband and I joke about this, especially when he’s watching me in the kitchen lining up our “assigned” water glasses along the back edge of the countertop.