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 GINGER EAGER
I prefer not to set my alarm but to piggyback on my partner’s, snuggling up to him through all three of his allotted snoozes, eavesdropping while he whisper-greets the cats, and not admitting I’m awake until he’s gone to the kitchen to start the coffee. I can only do this in the colder months when the days are short. In the summer, I’m the one up first, whispering to the cats and making coffee so I can be at my computer before sunrise.
Today is Saturday though. Usually there aren’t alarms on Saturday. But I’m nearing the end of a novel I’ve been writing for years, and I’m committed to working on it each day, even if all I do is open the file and stare at the screen. At my desk, in the dark, I read the notes left by my yesterday self. She was concerned about a scene involving an entangled whale. Originally the characters encountering the whale were tourists, so their reactions could be anything I imagined. But now there’s a cetologist on board. This changes everything.
Entangled right whales freed by scientists, I search. Quickly I learn that the whales are seldom freed. The goal is just to make the entanglement survivable. And while scientists are key to the process, the folks who pull alongside the massive whale in an inflatable dinghy are volunteers armed with a grappling hook and a knife on a stick. The work is hard, dangerous, skilled. These volunteers spend hours training their bodies and minds so they can set aside everything at a phone call to go on missions where anything could happen.
The sun pinks the sky outside my window. I know other people who are in service in this way. One: the wilderness rescue team who saved my husband’s cousin when he fell twenty feet from a ledge in Arizona during our family backpacking trip. Two: my son, who witnessed both the fall and the rescue, and now works with a volunteer 911 crew in Colorado. I open a blank document and jot down a few ideas for another day.
Finally, I read my drafted chapter. It couldn’t be more wrong. What hubris it takes to sit in a room imagining others’ lives and believe this act has worth. I yearn to dig into revisions—hubris indeed—but the day has arrived with her demands.
A quick shower and another cup of coffee and I hop on Zoom for writing group. I’m not sharing anything today. These folks are waiting for me to send them the novel with the problematic whale scene. I’ve thought I would have it to them for two months now, and it shames me to say, again, that the book isn’t ready.
After writing group, I hurry downstairs where my husband and friend wait on me. They’re in jeans and boots, sunhats, backpacks slung over their shoulders. “I packed lunch,” Grant says as he picks up the metal detector and opens the front door. Nathalie is driving. I’m the one who proposed the idea and downloaded the maps. We’re going meteorite hunting.
There was a fall less than a month ago only two and half hours south of Decatur. One of the maps I found was generated by a group associated with NASA, and it shows colored squares over the areas where meteorites may be discovered: red for big pieces, orange for medium, yellow for small. Several have already been found. We’re committed to the red zones.
I proposed meteorite hunting, in part, because I had a dream. In it, Grant, Nathalie and I were walking along a dirt road that passed through a hardwood forest. It was about 4:30 because the light was dense and honeyed. We found three meteorites, one for each of us. I didn’t see the stones in the dream, but that’s okay. I’m good at identifying unusual items in this landscape I’ve known since birth. Meteorites will stand out.
In real life, the dreamlike Pasaquan, a visionary art site, is near the meteorite-fall areas marked by NASA, so we stop by there first. Eddie Owens Martin, known as St. EOM, created Pasaquan. He was born to Georgia sharecroppers in 1908, and his early years were hard, mean, abusive. I imagine his childhood as much like my grandfather’s. Pop left for Atlanta, and St. EOM went all the way to New York. There he supported himself through fortune telling and sex work.
After his mother’s death, St. EOM returned to Georgia. He continued to offer readings, and he also began to transform his mother’s home into a brilliant, illuminated temple for the faith of peace and harmony that he’d been shown in a vision, Pasaquoyanism.
Before the small altar in St. EOM’s house, Nathalie takes a stone from her pocket. We each touch the crystal, imbuing it. I still have that whale scene on my mind, and the shame of admitting to my writing group—again—that my draft isn’t ready. My parents aren’t in the best of health. There are the elections, the war on abortion, climate change. But Pasaquan reminds me that anything that can happen elsewhere in the world, good or bad, can also happen in Georgia. I long for St. EOM’s Queer, One Love vision to manifest fully. Nathalie places the stone before his photograph.
Less than a quarter hour later, Grant, Nathalie, and I are on a roadside in the hot sun. The vehicles that pass are infrequent but fast. It’s the sort of road with homemade crosses at the curves. We now understand that we don’t know what meteorites look like. We’ve lost cell reception, so we’re relying on a single fact: meteors are igneous, not metamorphic. I toss aside any rocks with metamorphic banding, which means I toss aside every rock. At the next site, the rocks are different, more sandstone than gneiss, but by now I’ve trained my eyes to recognize and reject commonality, and so again I leave with nothing. Back in the car, I share my dream—the dirt road, the honeyed light. Grant, in charge of the maps, directs us to a place that looks promising.
To get there, we turn past a weary looking house flying a rebel flag. The teenaged boys gathered in the yard turn to stare at us, and I wonder if they saw the meteor fall, and I wonder if they’ve been to Pasaquan, and I wonder if they’ll escape that flag. It’s late afternoon, and I’ve been awake for twelve hours. I’ve used my writer brain, my road trip brain, my rockhound brain, and I’m tired. But the road soon looks as I dreamt it. Nathalie pulls over and we spill out.
It doesn’t take us long to find the rocks that don’t match the surrounding rocks. First, Nathalie finds a scattering in an area six feet square of small, nodular chunks that gleam dully and stick to the magnet on her watch. Then I find a stone the size of a cantaloupe that weighs far more than it should and appears to have been burnt. A meteorite this size would form a crater—unless someone moved it. The theory makes no sense, but a lot of life doesn’t. We’re effervescent as we load the car and head toward quaint downtown Thomaston for dinner.
Hours later, Grant and I sit at our kitchen island, he on his laptop and me on my phone. Meteorwrongs is the title of the web page where we see pictures that look exactly like the small, magnetic, iron concretions that seemed so promising. They’re just an oddity of the coastal plain. The burned cantaloupe turns out to be charnockite, which can be identified by its unexpected weight. On the geologic map of Georgia, there’s one speck of it right in the area where we were searching.
I’m more disappointed than I care to admit that we found only meteorwrongs. St. EOM took his life in 1986. My grandfather took his life in 2001. While I brush my teeth for bed, I recall a wise friend who says that balance isn’t something to be achieved, but a state to correct for and glimpse as you pass through. “If you nail your feet to the surfboard,” she says, “you’ll drown.”
Sometimes, writing a novel feels like nailing your feet to the surfboard. Every moment is measured against that choice. I wouldn’t trade today for any other. At the same time, I have a sense of what this day cost. I mean not only to my progress on the book, but also to something harder to define. How do I serve a world where whales are entangled in fishing gear, and fathers fall off cliffs on family trips, and children are raised with rebel flags flying from the porch?
I set my alarm for Sunday morning so I can wake early, in the dark, and revisit the whale scene.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. When you’re writing, is there something—a book, a place, music, art—you return to again and again for inspiration?
- When I’m working on something that takes longer than a few days, I inevitably start finding images that relate to it, and I tape them to the wall next to my desk. Words show up too. Anything might end up on the wall, really. The trick is paint safe tape. Not painter’s tape, which doesn’t hold for very long, but paint safe cellophane tape. It holds for years. When I’m finished with a piece, I take the items related to it off the wall and burn them.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I keep a piece of plywood and my clogging shoes in my office. It’s my answer to the walking desk. Writing is hell on the body. All that sitting.
By GINGER EAGER