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 VIVIAN GIBSON
It’s raining again. It has been an odd summer in the Midwest—weather-wise—moderate temperatures and raining almost every day for weeks. Lucky for me, though—I love dreary dark mornings for rewriting—second only to moon-lit nights.
Early morning: My day begins hours before the sun rises over a silhouette of the St. Louis Arch and is framed by the eleven-foot-high windows of my 120-year-old, converted shoe factory condominium. But there won’t be sun this morning, only cloud-draped light. My neighborhood is called Downtown West on current city maps and online visitor’s guides. It’s just a few blocks from the ghost of a historically Black community called Mill Creek Valley that died by wrecking balls in 1959. The southern edge of my condo building is thirty feet from the elevated interstate highway that replaced a half-mile-wide swath through that demolished neighborhood where I lived the first ten years of my childhood. Stretching parallel to the highway are railroad tracks that I first crossed over to attend second grade in 1957.
I wake thinking of my first cup of coffee. But in the moments before I get out of bed to make my caffeine boost, I roll onto my back and glance up at the bedroom ceiling to check the time—a red projected image from the clock at my bedside—a late-night online purchase I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. It’s 3:41 AM. Then I ask myself in a whisper, “What day is this?” After a brief mental jog of the previous day’s activities, I decide it’s Thursday. I listen to the faint rhythmic whir of the ceiling fan centered above my bed. Outside I can hear the sounds of the interstate, the plop of tires against the metal-edged expansion joints in the roadbed, the intermittent whoosh of rubber tires on asphalt. It’s my habit to guess what the weather conditions are outside my window before checking my phone: the high pitch sound of water escaping through tire treads when it rains or the muffled hush of the clogged voids between tire grooves when it snows. Sometimes I hear the low rumble of slow-moving steel wheels on steel train tracks spiked to wood cross-ties. And I remember hearing that low, rolling kettle drum-like beat as a child on late summer nights when I lay still in my bed wishing for a cool breeze through the open window. More than sixty years later, I feel the vibration of the ambling trains beneath the irregular audible of rubber tires on the highway. The whir, and whoosh, and rumble come together to create the white noise essential to my morning writing process.
While sipping my first large cup of coffee in the early morning darkness, I sit up in bed with pillows piled and tucked deliberately at my back and write by the light of my laptop. My goal is to get something written before the sun rises.
Sunrise: Daylight noticed from the corner of my eye interrupts the scene playing in my mind. I push my laptop computer to the other side of my bed, pick up my cellphone, and whisper again to myself, “Let’s see what’s happening in the world.” Seven o’clock in the morning is mid-morning for me. I’m refreshed, alert, and thinking about the day ahead. I recheck my calendar for the day’s schedule and straighten my bed. That is when my writing routine ends.
I received a short email on March 16, 2020, from the director of African American history initiatives at the Missouri History Museum announcing “due to COVID-19 restrictions,” the museum would be closed to all visitors until further notice. With that announcement, the April 22, 2020 book launch event for my debut memoir, The Last Children of Mill Creek—I had spent months planning—was canceled. I pivoted. I took down the save-the-date postings from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Over the next sixteen months of quarantine, I learned to use social media to introduce my book to the world and promote it—virtually.
In mid-morning: The clouds clear, and my rooms are flooded with light. I work at developing an online presence—finding and engaging my readers—my tribe. Still wearing my pajamas, I move my laptop to the kitchen island counter. To sit amid the array of mail, magazines, catalogs, and ever-present notepads and post-its with barely discernible lists and notes of things I want to remember. I check website analytics for the previous day’s visits—where from, how many pages were seen, and for what duration—and conclude what may have generated the website activities: postings, articles, virtual interviews/book discussions. I read and respond to the surprising number of emails, direct messages, letters, and Twitter comments I receive throughout the day.
A little housekeeping: The sun streaming through my windows reveals dust on every surface in my apartment. Early in the pandemic, my cleaning service ended. After a few weeks of ignoring the accumulating dust and grime, I realized I needed to implement a cleaning schedule. I set aside one hour each day to clean, dust, mop, wash or scrub something in my living space. Around 10:00 AM, depending on my mood, I either turn on the radio to the local NPR station or select random on my CD player. Today I dusted to the beat of Marvin Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On.” A little cleaning is a welcomed interlude and hugely rewarding.
Early afternoon: I remember I had not left my apartment the day before. So, I slip into leggings and a tee-shirt. Then I gather the contents of my bathroom wastebasket and the trashcan beneath the kitchen sink into a half-filled plastic trash bag for the 140-step-walk to the community trash room. I decide to continue my trek along the corridor surrounding the thirteen-story high atrium at the center of our condo building. It’s 350 steps around—I do four laps—1400 steps. Feeling pleased with myself after the impromptu walk, I eat the half cantaloupe that had been in the refrigerator for two days. I’d set it out on the counter hours earlier because I’m not too fond of cold fruit. Around 2 PM, predictably, the effects of my morning caffeine stimulation have worn off. I snuggle up on the living room sofa with my Kindle to read my way to an afternoon nap.
At 4:30, I turn on the television to watch Jeopardy–I miss Alex Trebek.
In the evening: The hot orange sun descends in the western sky and reflects through my widows off the glass of the surrounding office buildings and the gleaming stainless steel of the Gateway Arch standing majestically at the edge of the Mississippi River. I pour a glass of wine, sauté shrimp in garlic and butter, and toss a salad. I change the television to the PBS News Hour. I listen to (not watch) the evening news while I eat an early dinner.
I wonder about how comfortable I’ve become with being alone.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. What book is on your night table now, and how did you choose it?
- I’m reading The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson. It’s about the role of St. Louis in the violent history of the United States. I’m rereading chapter nine, “Black Removal by White Approval.” The chapter discusses the origin story and political atmosphere surrounding the “urban renewal” era in the United States and its direct connection to St. Louis. It’s also the period I write about in my book.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I enjoy drinking my first cup of coffee in the dark. I fill the coffee maker with coffee and water before going to bed, so I can press the start button in the morning without turning on a light. I began this habit when I had small children, a husband, and a full-time job. It was the only time I had to myself during the day. Now, it’s just a time to reflect.
By VIVIAN GIBSON
I love sitting on the front row with other people from different parts of your life watching you soar…no surprise to any of us. Keep going!
Thank you, Deb!
I loved reading this just now. Identify with the coffee in the dark. The entire piece makes me want to hear more about you – how do you feel about being comfortable with being alone? What has your entire life been like, not just this day? What happened with the husband and children? What made you decide to write? I live in the most remote rural isolation, so hearing the sounds of living in a city sounds scary to me, and yet you make it sound beautiful. I wake to waves hitting the cliffs and eagles and herons beginning to stir and call. You make your life come alive. Thanks.
Thank you, Kirie. Here’s to coffee in the dark!
Love this! So relate to: “I wonder about how comfortable I’ve become with being alone.”
I’m glad you can relate. Thanks!
This day sounds like a little slice of heaven to me. The pre-dawn hours are quiet, special – seem to belong only to those willing to be awake to receive the gifts they offer. I’m looking forward to reading your book.
Thanks, Elizabeth. I hope you enjoy reading The Last Children of Mill Creek.