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 LEE ZACHARIAS
I wake without words, with a cramp in my calf, the sour taste of sleep in my mouth, and fragments of images from a dream I can’t remember—colors, anxieties, shapes. Rorschachs and amoebas.
All my life I have been torn between the visual and the verbal. I am a photographer, of late a photographer of the animal kingdom, obsessed with what it means to have words, with the privilege we assign the narrated life. But I am also and mainly a writer. I decided to focus on writing on a particular day, a day half a century past that has everything to do with today, because I ran out of paper. I had learned to print color the old-fashioned way, in a darkroom with a stack of cyan, magenta, and yellow filters. It takes a lot of paper to find the right proportions, but when I went to the camera shop for a new box, I took pause. Forty dollars. Not only was I not making money fooling around in a darkroom, I wasn’t even trying. All you needed to write was a new typewriter ribbon and a ream of twenty-pound bond. I went home and applied to a graduate program in creative writing.
Fast forward, because today is today, and every day is a day even as years and decades fly past. I get up late. I used to get up before dawn to photograph the sunrise, even after I became a writer. Now I’m on medication that makes the early hours loggy. I was never a morning writer anyway. I have to work my way in—in fact, I will do almost anything to postpone. I shower and check the weather on my phone. A few yoga stretches in case I get so caught up in the afternoon’s words I miss my walk. I don’t dare walk in the morning because I carry a camera, and when I get home, I will want to download the pictures. There are other, less addictive ways to dally. If it were summer, I would rise earlier and swim a mile’s worth of laps before anything else, but there’s a pandemic still on, and I don’t feel comfortable showering and drying my hair at the Y. Today I chop the ingredients for tonight’s pozole and toss them into the crockpot even before I make breakfast, read the newspaper, and drink my tea. I check my phone again and knit a couple of rows as I wait for my laptop to boot up. It’s as poky as I am, but once everything loads, I scroll through my email to see if anything requires response. I glance at “Get Fuzzy,” looking for Satchel. Not much time on Facebook, but I do observe birthdays and losses—sorrow needs address. I bring up my credit card accounts to make sure I haven’t been charged for yet another anti-virus I do not subscribe to. Life demands so much negotiation, but the refrigerator is stocked, and it’s Saturday. I can’t call the dentist about my lost crown or reach the company that needs to fix my gas logs.
By now it is noon, and I need to choose—write here in the messy corner of my upstairs study or drive to the studio I rent in an artists’ center across town. Studio, I decide. Its laser printer is better suited to the long printout I need than the inkjet at home, but first I make sure I’ve copied the latest version of the chapter-in-progress to a thumb drive, then grab my other laptop.
I’m the last writer here, in the artists’ center. At one time there were several, but now all of the other tenants are visual artists, and I feel the building’s vibrant spirit, paintings hung from lofty crown moldings throughout, clay puppets on a windowsill, a solarium full of plants someone else waters, bright scarves draped over a bannister. Tatyana, the Russian-born painter, is working downstairs, and she invites me in. We’re all isolated again this winter, so eager to chat our words bubble, but I am here to write, and finally it’s upstairs to the business at hand.
The business at hand is a memoir about my mother. I’m nearing the end of a rough first draft, writing a chapter titled “Grandmother” about my mother’s relationship to my son, born when she was sixty-five, more than a decade younger than I am now. “I won’t live to see him grow up” was her refrain, but there are pictures of her at his high school and college graduations and beyond. I’ve never written anything like this before—personal essays, yes, but not book-length memoir with its structural challenges and technical issues, for I am using photographs along with my text and the letters my father sent the year they met, when he was a Merchant Marine. 1941. Pearl Harbor was bombed in a pause between paragraphs, but he didn’t write with the 8.5 x 11 bed of a scanner in mind, and the pictures are so full of flaws—scratches, stains, cracks in the emulsion—that processing one can consume a whole day, though that tedium yields an odd intimacy. My taciturn father’s handwriting. Enlarging an image of my son, who’s never looked like either of his parents, to discover my small mouth on his face. Repairing a snapshot of my mother’s stepmother, whom I never met, erasing pinholes of dust from that hated visage, like picking eyelashes out of a stranger’s eye. I don’t recall my mother ever reading my son a story or playing a game with him, but here are two pictures that argue. I let the sentence stand and will clean the photographs later, for now I am writing about the nature of memory, the mystery of a past that lies somewhere between those images and my words. I want to understand it, not just reclaim it.
If I were working on one of my last novels, I might be stuck in the ice on a ship in the winter of 1936 or settling in for the night among the crowd outside the Pentagon just before a National Guardsman smashes a rifle down on my head, places I’ve never been in “real” life, but this is my son—he’s a child again; my mother, no longer dead, is reaching across a Parcheesi board. And I am no longer here in this studio, where the light outside my window falls across the weathered copper roof of the enclosed sunporch downstairs, but somewhere else entirely.
Or perhaps I should say I am here and there at the same time, it’s today and thirty years ago both. Isn’t that why we write—because we want more than one life? To be transported?
When I look up, the light outside has faded. It’s too late to walk. Tatyana has already gone. I drive into a sunset that blazes through traffic but disappears behind a wall of trees or buildings whenever I find a place to pull over. Some other night. When I open my front door, the spicy smell of pozole fills the house. In a minute my husband will come in. He will open a beer, I will pour a glass of wine, and we will sit in front of the dark fireplace for half an hour before I spoon out the stew, as I repeat, “I want those logs fixed.”
Then after dinner it’s upstairs to check the afternoon’s email. I text my son, answer messages, tweak a few pictures from yesterday’s walk, and plump pillows to read in bed, dawdling, postponing the sleep from which I will wake wordless again tomorrow.
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?
- In the late afternoons, if the weather is fair, in a wicker chair on the screened porch; in winter, on a squishy leather sofa in front of a living room fire. At night, in all seasons, propped up in bed.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I would say my habit of avoiding what I most want to do, at least what I most want to do while I’m doing it. But then I thought my husband might be the better person to answer this question since he’s observed me for well over forty years. He says: I’m a stickler for accuracy. If someone tells me something or answers a question, they’d better have correct information and full details. And then I will immediately forget all of the information and the details. He’s right.