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
The black morning unfurls her tentacles and nudges my mind awake. My body, though, is still a hull of iron stuck at the bottom of the sea. I stretch my arm out from the bed and pick my cell up from the nightstand: 4:15 a.m.
As a mom, wife, writer, and full-time magazine editor, this dark sliver of the morning used to be my magical hour. In 2016, I carved out four to six as my personal time to listen to Spirit and myself, to write, to finish a manuscript on which I’d worked on and off for fourteen years.
A few minutes past four, I would slip out of bed while my husband was still in the dream world and pad lightly to the bathroom to freshen up. Even when I was still tired, there was an electric alertness, crisp and ready, around my head. Leaving the house from a side door, I’d trek the thirty-eight steps to my backyard studio and prep the space, switching on the heater for its hum and swift ability to transform the room into a womb, then lighting an amber-scented incense and my favorite candle: “Create”—a creamy mix of vanilla and gardenia—by South L.A. Café in Los Angeles.
When my book published in April 2021, my morning ritual crumbled—first an overslept thirty minutes, then a full hour, then another twenty minutes, my cherished time eaten away by a deepening fatigue. In late 2019, former Feminist Press executive editor and publisher Jamia Wilson called to give me the elating news that my manuscript had won the press’ 2020 Louise Meriwether First Book Award. A couple of months later, I navigated book deadlines with the pandemic’s shutdowns and heartbreaks. And in early 2021, just as I was gearing up for my debut book’s publication, my magazine publishers asked me to step into the editor-in-chief role after dwindling advertising dollars forced them to cut from their already small staff. Somehow, I carried it all—increased work duties, virtual and (eventually) hybrid book launch events and classroom visits, literary readings, manuscript review requests, serving as a book contest judge, designing and leading writing workshops… all beautiful and worthy work.
The life of an author.
The life of an editor.
After nearly two years of balancing the two, I miss my life as a writer.
I’ve been off for a week, but today is my first day back at work, which I now perform remotely from my writing studio. A dinosaur of an office printer, a work laptop, and boxes of files came home with me in 2020. My creative space had to make room for this sibling it did not know it was about to live with for the unforeseeable future.
The sound of intense rain (rare for Los Angeles but not my Louisiana childhood) nearly lulls me back to sleep, but a thought cuts through the fog to shoot me with hope: You can still get an hour of writing in before work. I turn slowly toward the bathroom. My husband’s arm reaches for me.
We make love after a day of acid silence. Some recycled argument. Softened now, my husband admits that under the edges of his frustration with me are some worries about his oldest sons. Softened, I tell him that under my harsh words is bone-exhaustion and worry that I will never get back to my writing practice.
I watch my leaf-patterned curtains lighten a bit. Day is breaking. At least, it is trying to break through the rainstorms pummeling Los Angeles and much of the rest of California. Flooding homes, dangerously slickening hills, causing deaths.
“What do you think about all this rain?” my husband, an Angeleno, asks on his way out to work. I am still in the bed.
“It feels like we’re in another climate. It feels like I’m back home,” I say.
Will all of this rain bring us out of yearslong drought? And does it have the power to lift me out of mine?
Before rising, I grab my journal and a pen from the nightstand and scribble a few thoughts. I am still writing in 2022’s journal because it still has blank pages, pages I’m determined to fill before starting a new journal for 2023. I flip back through 2022’s thoughts. Even my journal entries are dried prunes.
After a pulse-quickening online workout and a shower, I turn on the tea kettle for a dark and rootsy tea with bits of cocoa nabs, roasted mate, chicory, sweet potato and walnuts. On my phone, I check another kind of forecast on Astro.com. The sun, hidden behind the white sky, is carrying the flavor of Saturn—binding, strict, hard work—while the moon abounds with restless energy in the constellation of Gemini. Resonant symbols.
While today is my first day back at work, my son, fifteen, has a week of holiday vacation left. I yearn for a few quality moments with him now that the crazy pace of holiday events are over and out-of-town guests have left. But the production deadline for our final galley of the next magazine issue looms. There is no time to play.
I sit down on the sofa with my tea, two mini baguettes and a triangle of brie. Outside, the sky is a blank slate, a wall of gray-white nothingness. Colorless. Shapeless. Motionless. As I sip my tea, I try to lift my spirits. Like the blank page, the white slate of sky is filled with possibility. And maybe droughts are fruitful, too. Periods of waiting, tests of patience, and a reminder to store up for lean times.
A dog passes, a German shepherd or a German shepherd mix. I see him and then I see his blue leash and then I see his walker, wrapped in a school-bus yellow raincoat. The dog sniffs something in my grass, grown high with all the rain. His owner, who doesn’t seem in a hurry despite the downpour, lets him sniff until he loses interest.
Overhead, a flock of birds fly in formation, circling in the air before landing on utility wires that dangle over my neighbors’ backyards.
The man walking the dog passes by again and I see that his coat is not, in fact, school-bus yellow; it is a brighter yellow than that—it is the screaming yellow of a highlighter.
My son slides out of his room. He sits on the back of the sofa, facing me. I make a joke. He doesn’t laugh or smile. I look more closely at him and can see it, feel it: the gray cloud curving his shoulders.
I try to refrain from asking a litany of questions. I look again out the window. On a recent gray evening when I was driving, he told me from the passenger seat (which seems to be the place he opens up the most) that he doesn’t like being at home alone on gray days. “I prefer bright daylight or pitch-black night,” he’d said.
Every time I get ready to leave home now, I check the sky.
“Are you feeling down because of the weather?”
“Yeah, maybe,” he says.
“Do you want me to call Ms. Natasha?”
“No, I’ll just wait for my regular session.”
“What about some hot tea? Or cocoa?”
He shakes his head.
I rub his shoulder on my way to the kitchen, light an incense and a candle for his room. “Just take in these sensations,” I say. “Remember what I told you about how we can try to counter the gray moments with things we love, things that make us feel good?”
“Thank you, Ma,” he says, getting up to grab breakfast.
His phone buzzes from his room and he goes in. A friend. “Bro!” he says, laughing. He closes his door.
Relieved, I head to my studio in my husband’s sliders and almost slip on the ceramic patio, slick with rain and smushed guavas from a hyper-productive tree.
To be half as prolific as this tree!
I unlock the door to my studio and walk into a space that, my friend Bea says, “feels exactly like Cassandra.” A green velvet sofa is backed by a wall of dramatic leafy wallpaper adorned only by a framed painting of Billie Holiday. Another wall is lined with shelves of books. Plants sprout out from all corners of the room. My favorite knick-knacks line the tops of bookshelves and decorative tables – a green bowl I sculpted with my own hands, filled with gemstones; my fashionably dressed Black Barbie dolls, including the Maya Angelou and Ida B. Wells Barnett dolls; my late grandmother’s book of needles. I look around at this room that I designed for my writing and reading life and ask it to wait for me.
For now, I have a magazine to get out.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
- Over the last year, because I’ve been reading lots of manuscripts-in-progress: Incisive.
2. What one word best describes your writing life?
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I grew up in a small Louisiana town in the late 70s and 80s and loved Barbie dolls and their fashions. However, I never saw one that looked like me until I was an adult. During the pandemic, I started buying all the Black and Brown Barbie dolls—some with braids, some with Afros, some with locs—and could not stop. I stage them on top of short bookcases with doll-sized furniture, rugs and other items and pretend they’re starring in plays.