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
It starts the day before—at night I list potential memories to plumb. Not being a morning person I need a starting place for my groggy bodymind. Awake, knowing this is the full day I set for writing, I’m giddy. A wet snow is falling. I walk my twin boys through the slush to drop them off at an arts camp because they are on school vacation this week. I get a call from my husband. “They’ve canceled it.”
I look at the time and weather on my phone, 8:30 a.m., light snow. February in Boston. Middleweight obscenities fly. (Do as I say, not as a I do.) Calmer I say, “Ok, kids, they’ve canceled it. I have a lot of writing to do today. I don’t want any complaining.” We camp out at a coffee shop for shelter. I rattle off my situation to the barista, asking, “I have a strange request. Do you have any blank paper?” They draw monsters and I am drawing out memories. Monstrous?
In the fourth grade my mother helped me create a book for class, a story I’d written about a tomboy girl who reluctantly befriends a fancy girl who moved into the big house down the street, a rich girl unlike her. I see it as my early attempts to understand class consciousness. For this school project, I needed illustrations for my book, so probably after some complaining, I asked my mom to help me. She drew a face, a neck, shoulders, and the rest of the teacher’s body. She drew more. A line drawing of the teacher stood beside the girl Alexandra, who went by Alex; their bodies had volume and were differently shaped from one another, their noses distinct. My mom can draw? I was shocked. I had never known this talent of hers.
I still have the book and my mother still lives in my childhood house, yet that physical togetherness is lost. We rarely sit in the same room because we’ve lived apart for thirty years. Why was I so surprised that my mom could draw? I knew about her jobs and other talents. She worked in retail, and I’d gone with her a lot to the children’s clothing store where she worked; she also had a history as a secretary for many years. It wasn’t that often that my mom could help me with my homework, either because of lack of time or lack of knowhow. She knew how to type so she typed another one of my books, but these drawings rallied me to see my mom in an artistic way that I had never associated with her before. I liked that way. I didn’t want to play tennis or golf like her, or bowl like her. I did want to make a sale like she did—I felt proud of the first sale I rang up as a kid while she stepped out for a moment—and in these moments I wanted to be able to draw like her. People in profile, people together, people in action.
My son’s monster with its looping body and several eyeballs now has a sword, and I am whacking through a bleary scrim to get closer to that day. My mom and I were sitting on the brown plaid couch—essential? who cares now? keep going—while she was watching some sport on television. While I could draw some animals and human faces if I had days to draw, a whole body standing was beyond my abilities. In the drawings I colored, the teacher points to the blackboard and a few students sit at their classroom desks. Not only do the people have heft and volume, they are doing things. In a location. My words were filling the page, these drawings were filling the image I conjured and shared in words. I felt harmonious with my mom—we made something together.
At the coffee shop, every inch of the table is covered with plates, cups, papers, my notebooks, and laptop. My son drawing says, “Me and my friends can transform into monsters.” When I ask how, he shrugs, then points to a circle on the page. “Do you see that crystal? We use those.” “Add some words,” I say. He scrunches his face. He usually resists writing, preferring to draw, but a few minutes later I read his page. “Stinky Doom. I like it.”
At home, and with smallish Lego sets I bought them in order to buy myself some time, I look at that book my mom and I made together. A Short Friendship. There is no drawing of students sitting in desk chairs listening to a teacher as I remembered earlier, but there is a teacher writing Alex on the chalkboard. There are two people sitting on the bus—ah, people interacting in a location. By Cheryl Clark 6th grade. The gold star reminds me that my book won a school award and appeared on display in the library; for those months, I’d circle the library just to see it there, opened and standing on the top of a short shelf. (Note to self: Write back to coordinator to follow up on volunteering at my boys’ middle school library.) I also see that this book, with its nine illustrations, is the one my mom so neatly typed. I dedicate this book to my friends. Sorry, mom.
“Mama, I finished my lego set,” he says coming into my office. Three ninjas of blues, greens, and reds, are ready for battle. There is barely an inch of snow. Canceled? Ugh. Now they are setting up battles and worlds for their ninjas. When I go into the room where they are playing, my son tells me to get out of their business and to go to my office to do my work. Now I have no excuse to fiddle through social media or buy another book for my overly packed office.
These memories I am summoning, luring, or dragging into the light are for a memoir I started in a flurry of some news about my family. Pages accumulate, shapes form and reshape. I set apart hours or days toward it—heck, with parenting my 7 1/2 year-old twin boys with my husband and working full-time, I’ll take a few minutes where I can. On this day I thought was going to be kidless, I am reminded of one of Ed Roberson’s poems “Picking Up the Tune, the Universe and Planets”:
this form is the lena
after my daughter
here she is I will have to
hold on a minute tell you her line.
the universe and planets holds and scribbles
interruption she gets her changing
she is the only music she gives
in which it is written.
back she only wanted me to pick her up to say so.
I have had this poem taped to my office wall since they were toddlers. So I end, and once again imagine a poetic memoir:
I keep my door open to hear
monsters spark whole mountains
to climb and in the rooms within them
face says, do you want to play with me?
to a child I turn into
yet again far away
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?
- Eva Hesse’s artwork.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- Not throwing away a bathroom product with the tiniest bit left and opening up a similar one instead. I don’t do it consciously, but the years of evidence are there for my wondering.