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
This is not how I spend my days.
Restless in the hours before dawn, two thousand miles from home. I don’t need to part the homemade curtain to know outside it’s dark as hell even for me, a typically early riser. Overnight we changed the clocks, falling back in preparation for winter, the season that pushes me annually to the brink of despair, and I’m deep in New Mexico on top of it, where we’re two hours ahead of my rooted East Coast circadian rhythms. I reach for my phone. 3:45 a.m.
Today is marathon Sunday, but I am not cheering on the streets of New York; I am in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I have come here to lose myself or to find myself. To pause at an existential crossroads. For so long, I’ve just been doing, going. I don’t know what’s next.
It is a trip long in planning, proposed by a dear friend, who has her own reasons for being here. I’m hoping to stop time, because lately I’ve been feeling bereft, ruined by the callous march of years, with a child leaving for college, a teen in her room, a book cycle coming to a close.
When we registered last spring, this spiritual retreat, set in Sierra County’s natural hot springs, became a carrot through trying months. Soon we’d recharge! Embrace possibility! Travel inward! Shine our hearts! But a few weeks ago the world imploded, and ever since I’ve been sick with outrage and devastation, acute hurt and pervasive sorrow. Everything is dire, the horror staggering, defiant of language. To indulge in self-care when people are suffering in unfathomable ways, when humanity itself is under siege, feels ludicrous, like a deeply twisted SNL skit.
I prop up on the pull-out futon, scribble in my notebook by the dim bulb of my phone, not bothering to put on my reading glasses, which is fine, my handwriting is shit, there’s no going back over any of it. I’ve been doing morning pages for years, after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way before the pandemic, to dig myself out of a rut and try to recapture a bit of lost joy. Morning pages are a comfort: even when I have nothing, I have this. Today, like so many recent days, the ritual takes the shape of prayer, a quiet, desperate pleading, an undirected incantation through which I can’t help but cry.
In the next room, I hear my friend waking.
Sar, you up?
We go for a run. I’ve written about this before: running has changed my life more than any medicine, grounding me in my body and stabilizing my uneasy mind. An act of humility and deep appreciation, running is a reminder, simply, to endure. I never would have completed a novel length project without it. When I first started out, my dear friend proposed a half marathon. I laughed. No way, I said. I could barely make it around the park. But she held me to it that spring, and eight years later, countless miles have passed between us. This is what we do, run through fury and ache, happiness and tears.
Down in the valley it’s bone cold, the smell mineral rich, like hard boiled eggs. In a couple hours, it’ll warm up thirty degrees, the desert a wild of mood swings, but now we brace ourselves against the wind, traverse the empty stretch of town, turning left into the rising sun, up the hill and around the bend, where the view opens up and the red rocks reassure us: for all the world’s uncertainty, some things aren’t going anywhere.
Back at the Mothership, we pack up, say goodbye. Eighteen of us have filled the past three days with chanting and yoga and silent hikes and healing labyrinths and ecstatic dancing and sacred salt ceremonies and too many women’s circles to count. We have soaked in mineral tubs until our fingers pruned, our scrapes and scars softening, lightening, beginning to heal.
“No one is going to give you time.” Meg Wolitzer said in a workshop many years ago. I was kvetching about not writing. I was a young mother without childcare. Time—what was that? From then, I’ve tried to heed her advice, stealing time wherever I can, whether it’s ten minutes in the car or a quick jaunt to a cabin in the woods. I’ve attended conferences, one blessed residency. As few as thirty-six hours can provide a grand renewal, and I’ve always managed to justify the time–as writing, for work.
This trip is none of that. It is a complete departure. If I were in Brooklyn, perhaps I might still meet my friend for a short jog in the park or find myself folded in child’s pose, but that’s where all overlap would end.
What does one do with such a rupture in time?
In the circle, one of the wellness women says, “If it’s out there, it’s in here. And if it’s not in here, it’s not out there.” I admit, I am high on gummies, which I’ve come to rely on this weekend in order to stomach the immense cognitive dissonance. (How can anyone surrender to the drum beats of dance when everything is unconscionably awful?) But it also echoes a thought that emerges in the private heart of the labyrinth—for all my fleeing desires, I am not running away. I am not searching. Yes, this trip has been a privilege, one met with absurdity, resistance, a wrestling tension, at times, even claustrophobia, but also enormous gratitude. I realize how lucky I am to have the support that allows me to be here, busting out of ingrained patterns and exploring new depths, but none of this will save me. I could be anywhere. That is the specific call of the writing life: Everywhere you go, it goes with you.
Don’t get me wrong. This place is beautiful, the landscape startling, penetrative, vast. These photos outshine the standard chaos of my desk, plump dog at my feet, which is a material reason I’ve chosen this day.
But it is not about place.
From Truth or Consequences, we hop in the rental and head for White Sands National Park. Late afternoon, we’re falling off the ends of the earth. Here, surrounded by bleached sand fine as sugar, amid stark shadows and light, I’m once again caught in the vise of opposition. How can so much sublime beauty exist beside unspeakable violence?
Of course, the world has always been home to horrendous suffering. Some things, so many, many things, we look away from. We compartmentalize. It’s personal, these choices of disregard and attention. A coping mechanism, a defense against permeability, an insulation from despair. Who can carry all of it, all of the time? Still, the kick is compassion. We must be able to carry multiple concerns, hold a galaxy of feelings in our elastic hearts.
At White Sands, children slide down barren hills that belong on the surface of the moon. They shriek, rise, reclimb, sled down, gleeful, squealing, invincible, free. Their laughter carries, the sound of hope. I kick off my shoes, the sand alarmingly cold on my bare feet. Couples pose for selfies. An elderly man unfolds his camping chair for a front row view of sunset. I cartwheel through outer space. There’s no making sense of any of it. Nothing feels real. And yet, running across the wide expanse of hills, I’ve rarely felt more alive.
The night will end at a Mexican chain restaurant by the El Paso airport. A few days ago it was Dia de los Muertos and the decorations are still up, colorful altars in full bloom devoted to the lives of lost loved ones. We will drink cocktails and I will say something dumb about celebrating life in grief, presence amid absence. I will recall lying on my back a few hours ago, swishing my arms into a sand angel, eyes shut to the dying sun. (My daughter will take one look at the photo and deadpan: “So that’s when the mushrooms hit.”) But the truth is, it is a sober act. The moment is intoxicating enough. All you can do, sometimes, is give yourself over to it.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- When I’m in the throes of it, I return to the early morning hours. I can edit whenever. But if I’m in the process of discovery, and generating new pages, I am up before the sun.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- I have a stuffed animal I received as a gift for my 8th birthday. I am now 48. I should probably be embarrassed to admit I have a lovey but I am long past shame. For years, my daughter slept with it every night—until she outgrew it. Then I regressed. It is my velveteen rabbit (it is not a rabbit but a bear.) A source of calm. A soporific. And a bit of a talisman, too, especially when trying to quell negative thoughts. It used to be pink and is now gray, which helps me to remember who I am.