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 ALICE ELLIOTT DARK
A few years ago, I had dogs in my life, and every day I took them for a walk on a two-mile path in a nearby reservation. I loved watching them respond to the exact same route with fresh enthusiasm and curiosity. There’s a lot of advice around about staying in the present moment; my dogs showed me what that means. They remembered previous experiences they’d had in particular spots, and they knew the route well enough to trot around it without me, but they were also open to a fresh take each time we went. They showed me that being present is a combination of memory and surprise.
This comes to me when I wake up. For a moment I float in unnamed emotion, sometimes anxious, sometimes serene, as I make the transition between the expansive self who roams the dream world and the material, limited waking version. The raw feelings end when language interrupts. These days my first thought is “the cats.” This gets me right out of bed and downstairs to the kitchen where I prepare two plates of warmed chicken, some canned food, and a handful of Fancy Feast dry. I carry the plates down another flight into the garage where I have a station set up for Kiki and Greyfur, my regular outdoor cats. The door is open a crack for them to come and go, and there are two warm houses where they can shelter if they want. They’re both inside the garage this morning, and mew when I arrive with steaming food. Seeing them sets my mind at ease for another day. Outdoor cats don’t survive for long. Cars, predators, and other dangers make their lives precarious. “My” cats look beautiful since I have been feeding them, but I worry for their safety. I’m going to continue to make the garage more and more attractive as a place to hang out.
It’s well before sunrise and a deep, soulful silence also grounds me for the day. I put a few treats down for Mama, my indoor cat, and carry a cup of coffee upstairs to my desk. Today I’m working on a written interview for my new book, Fellowship Point, coming out in July. My answers are in pieces, and I’m attending to the flow. I once visited Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson where a few of her manuscripts were displayed. She cut them up and put them back together with straight pins. I use tape. I’m writing with a pen these days. The words pour out for about forty-five minutes. I hear Larry, my husband, get up. He comes in to say good morning, and we have our usual exchange.
“I had a really weird dream,” he says.
“I don’t want to interrupt you. I’ll tell you later.”
“No, no. Tell me now when the details are fresh.”
We have been married for thirty-three years. If not age, then COVID has made me feel every exchange is a priority; my people come first. After having fought so hard for decades to find privacy for my writing, I now have confidence that it’s not going to vanish when I’m interrupted. Fellowship Point took many years to write, and of the many lessons I learned while pushing forward with a large cast and time frame and plot is that the answer to any confusion will always come. Often it does so when I’m somehow exposed to water so after I hear the dream and we both look at the red winter sunrise over a distant Manhattan and he leaves for his morning five-mile walk, I take a bath in hopes of fresh notions. I want to take a book in with me, but I have decided to only read magazines in the tub. I have drifted off and dropped too many books in the drink; I have a shelf of these bloated book/sculptures. No more. I reread a Tessa Hadley story and manage to stay awake. Sure enough, an idea arrives for the novel I’m working on, and I leave the tub to jot it down.
Oatmeal with blueberries. A few stretches. Then back to the desk for another writing session, this time in the novel. I’ve just gone through a slack creative period after the death of a beloved cat and am eager for the work to start moving again. I begin by taking a few minutes to answer the question, what’s the book about? I do this every day. Eventually I will have the deep answer I’m writing to excavate. I intersperse my writing session with rather ineffective efforts to do some organizing in the upstairs rooms. I can’t quite get it to where I want it to be; too many books, books piled everywhere. I make a vow not to buy another book until I read through my TBR stacks. That is a flimsy promise! Not only do I love to buy books, I also can’t concentrate on reading these days, so the TBR stacks are dusty. It’s an anxious era and I feel it. If only I could get my house in order and give up sugar…
I pick up lunch and take it over to my friend Nancy’s. We eat at a table by the window in her living room, which is as lovely as being in an English country restaurant. We discuss our writing projects and laugh about the struggle it is to write a novel. We used to have a theory it took eleven minutes, plus hundreds of hours of taking care of the needs of others. Now we have much more time to ourselves, and our novels are taking many months. Years. It’s good to have a buddy in the trenches.
She lives near a park, so I drive over there afterward and take a walk. I don’t have a dog now, but I remind myself of their attitude and emulate it. Where they focused on scent, I notice shapes and colors and take lots of pictures of the elegant bare trees. I spend an hour wholly attending to the present, and then I drive over to the animal shelter for a second visit with potential new cats. The shelter encourages taking lots of time to decide, and I am on board with that; it’s a fifteen-year commitment. I ask to see a couple of cats and sit with each of them in a small bare room. A grey tabby clings to me like a koala baby, and this charms me. I also adore a very confidant white kitten. If I could have any job in the world, it would be to socialize kittens. My dream has been to buy land in Maine and build Black Cat Farm, a place for writers and cats. The price of land in Maine has gone wild, though, so I may need another dream. Meanwhile I am leaning toward the grey tabby, but I’ll come back again to be certain.
Larry is a great vegan cook, and we eat side by side at 5:30 watching TV. The pandemic has pushed us decades into the future in terms of our habits. We go to bed around nine, but these days while the Christmas tree is shining, I stay up to sit by it. When we believed in Santa, my brother and I begged to sleep by the Christmas tree. I consider it now, but I don’t need to. I have the memory. I go back upstairs and slip into my bed. The moon is shining through the window. How many millions of women have marveled at the sight of moonlight in their rooms?
When I was a child I tried to stay awake until midnight every night. I had a child’s heavy sense of responsibility for marking the day’s beginning and end, knowing it would never come again, ever. My vigil began when the mournful tune of Taps played at the Coastguard base across the stretch of scrubby meadow behind my grandparents’ Cape May house. I can’t stay up until midnight these days; I must get up for my outdoor cats at five a.m. But I still feel the loss of the day, gone except for memories. It was a good day. I let it go, pop two CBD + melatonin chews into my mouth, and close my eyes. I know some things about tomorrow, but I’m open to surprises.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. What writing advice do you give that you rarely follow?
I suggest testing characters out in particular scenes to see how they respond under pressure, but I rarely write those out myself.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- Mines—gold mines, coal mines. I believe we shouldn’t cut into the earth as we have, but the work of mining fascinates me.
Beautiful. The shape of your writing day feels solid and rooted, but with space to fly
Thank you so much, Laurie! I love your experience of the piece.
Thank you Cynthia for posting the New Yorker archive link to the “The Gloaming.” I hope everyone reads or re-reads this amazing story. It was a bit unsettling for me to re-read it today because this story moved me more than any other story, ever, in the New Yorker, which I’ve read all my life. Unsettling because who knew Cynthia would invite the author to appear here, and introduce us to her latest book. I’ve already written all the titles for my bottomless requests to our local rural library. As I read the story “The Gloaming” today, I cried again as I did the first two times I read it in 1993. I even remembered some of the images. I love hearing about your writing day, Alice. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Kirie, I really appreciate this. I am working on a new novel that begins where “In the Gloaming” ends and follows the sister’s life for the next 35 years. I love being back with those characters.
Lovely! “If only I could get my house organized and give up sugar.” Amen to that! I hope the tabby found a home in you.
Thank you, Susan H. Indeed, I went to the shelter the day after Christmas and brought the kitten home. She is lounging beside me right now watching Cat TV. She has been pure joy. House even less organized and honestly, who can give up sugar! But we can dream…
I just finished Fellowship Point and wept because it was the end This is truly a masterpiece- a literary tour de force not to mention a damn good story.
Thank you so much Stephanie. You really made my day. I am so gratified that you liked the book.
I am reading FELLOWSHIP POINT right now, and I am especially drawn to the subtle way you craft the characters of the two women who face aging with such grace, tenacity and keen intelligence. Agnes is my friend.
But I also understand Polly, who travels between two poles, dedication, even sublimation to a husband who doesn’t fully appreciate her, and an inner life only fully developing after the death of Dick.