I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
January 1, 2022: Alice Elliott Dark
When I was trying to figure out how to become a writer, Alice Elliott Dark’s “In the Gloaming,” published in The New Yorker in May of 1993, was one of the first stories I ever read. If you haven’t read it, click away now to The New Yorker archives. You can also find it in the collection of the same name or in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century. It was adapted into two films.
In the story, a mother sits with her dying son. “He wanted to talk again, suddenly,” is how the story begins. Laird wants to talk after dinner, at dusk, and Janet wants to listen. “She found it hard work to keep up with him, but it was the work she had pined for all her life.” It’s a beautiful story of small moments and how they “add up to something of importance.”
And this coming July, Alice’s first book in almost twenty years will be published–a novel called Fellowship Point. About it, author Christina Baker Kline writes,
Fellowship Point is a marvel. Intricately constructed, utterly unique, this novel set on the coast of Maine is filled with insights about writing, about the perils and freedoms of aging, about the great mysteries, as well as the pleasures, of life. The story about the relationships between three women unfolds, as life does, through joys and losses, confrontations and confessions, with twists along the way that change your perception of all that came before.
You can pre-order Fellowship Point–I already have. I can’t wait.
In the meantime, you can read Alice’s first novel, Think of England, which begins in 1964, when Jane is nine. The evening after it opens, the Beatles first appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, but Jane will remember this night for another reason.
Think of England takes place mostly in 1979, with Jane off by herself in England. “[S]he needed to put thousands of miles, a whole gray ocean, between her and her family, so she could figure out who she was apart from them…” But the novel is bookended by time spent at home with family in Pennsylvania–a few moments in 1964 and an evening in 2000.
Here are two excerpts from early in the book, from 1964. In both, Jane’s father, Emlin, is trying to leave. In the first, Jane is telling her father goodnight, but notice how the moment is bigger than that, how it expands out.
He began to pull away, but she reached out and circled his neck with her arms and he stayed, patting her back. Somehow it was like summer. His breathing like waves. She wanted him to stay all night. It was a sacrifice to let go, and she felt holy when she made herself do it.
In the second, the phone rings, and Emlin, who’s a doctor, lunges for it. Jane’s mom, Via, yells not to get it. “She reached to grab him, but he was too far away.” “Don’t!” she yells. But Emlin stands and says, “I have to, Olivia. You know that.” Via responds, “But you just came back from the hospital! You can’t go in again.” And then comes the paragraph below, anchored on that ringing phone but taking us way beyond the phone, this paragraph that is only possible because of the limited omniscient point of view, allowing the narrator to be in the heads of the husband and the wife at the same time.
They stared at each other across a chasm of diverging logic, all the misunderstandings between them crammed between rings of the phone. They stared and wondered how she could possibly mistake life and death for a stubborn whim, how he could care more about strangers than his own family. They knew they had a guest, and that one of their children was watching them anxiously, but they were locked in a brute tug-of-war, beyond the reach of knowledge or other people. They were desperate.
Alice Elliott Dark is also the author of the collection Naked to the Waist and a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She’s an Associate Professor at Rutgers-Newark in the MFA program.
Come back on JANUARY 1st to read how ALICE ELLIOTT DARK spends her days.