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 day begins at 2:37 a.m. when I wake up in a panic. In the novel I’m working on, I’ve gotten my main character, a woman named Ruby, into an impossible situation. An author like myself in the last quarter of her life, a conventional person by outward standards, Ruby has committed an act so outrageous and possibly immoral, definitely illegal, that even I, who created her, flinch. She’s committed this questionable act for all the right reasons, but now she’s fallen into a web of my making and is flailing about, her lies compounding so much that she can’t keep track of them (I barely can). I’ve gotten her into a real mess, and it’s my job to find her a way out.
But how? Everything I think of tightens the web.
To add to the problem, this is the swampy zone I always sink into about halfway through the writing of a novel. There Ruby sits, at page 165, barreling toward disaster, yet frozen in place. What next? As I toss and turn, I’m thinking that I’m not even sure what I think of Ruby, whether I like or detest her. It’s hard not to like someone who, when flustered by the arrival of an unexpected house guest, shoots Benefiber up her nose for her sinuses and drinks saline solution for constipation, who takes care of a wheelchair-confined ex-husband who left her for a younger woman then was dropped back on Ruby’s doorstep after a stroke—a woman who’s stuck in a Dallas exurb where she feels alienated from the natural world.
At 4 a.m. I take a Melatonin.
I wake up at 9, groggy. My back hurts. Downstairs, I slip a bit of caffeinated coffee into my usual decaf. After breakfast, my usual Grape Nuts and blueberries, I turn to my immediate task: writing an obituary for a friend, who, unlike most of us, lived a long life doing exactly what she wanted to do.
I head for my futon, prop up my feet, and begin. As if drawn by an invisible thread, the two cats of the household, Frida Kahlo and Ella Fitzgerald, jump up and tuck themselves in beside me, vying for the prime spot next to my thigh. We settle.
I open the new file on my computer. They lick their feet.
I’m an avid reader of obituaries. A good obit is a work of art. This is the second one I’ve written. The first I sobbed through, this one not so much: it was time. My friend, Angela, who died at age 86, was a Texas gal of the Ann Richards/Barbara Jordan generation. She smoked like a chimney and was a survivor of multiple cancers. In graduate school, she fell in love with another adventuresome woman, paving the way for the rest of us, though in the sixty or so years they were together neither she nor her partner ever uttered the L-Word. They used to joke that they had one breast left between the two of them.
As I write, a text comes through: the daughter of a friend has died of cancer—a life cut tragically short. I have a daughter close to her age. My friend is living my worst nightmare. I email her, hesitating over the keyboard as I gather my words, ridiculously inadequate in the face of such disaster.
I turn back to the obituary. How do you gather the threads of a life? Angela Boone, descendant of Daniel, almost got a Ph.D., dealt cards at Lake Tahoe, drove a cab, became a real estate magnate, rescued dachshunds, loved a woman. Her friends adored her. She will be reunited with her partner under a joint tombstone engraved with their names and that of a short-legged dog.
At noon, I remember I have an appointment for a haircut. He’s a new stylist, mine being out sick. He turns me away from the mirror as he cuts, which I hate; and when he’s done, proud of his handiwork, he whips me back with a flourish to confront myself. I look like a cross between Buster Brown and Martha Washington. In the mirror behind me, he looks young and gay and expectant. I tell him the cut is surprisingly short, but I’m sure I’ll grow accustomed to it. I try to smile reassuringly.
By the time I pay, there’s a cold drizzle outside. I go into the bookstore next door and look over the children’s books. A friend’s daughter is having a birthday soon. She’s smart and funny and beautiful, but she’s having trouble learning to read. I need a book that’s as adventuresome as she is but easy to read. I pick up one after another, reflecting on how children’s storybooks have changed for the better—more diversity, more kindness—and for the worse—less compelling, everything oddly sweet and comforting, not like the Uncle Wiggly books of my childhood, where the old rheumatic gentleman rabbit faced danger in the form of skillery-scalery alligators and monstrous lobsters lurking around every corner.
By the time I make my selection, it’s 2:30 and I’m starving. I pick up some take-out sandwiches at the restaurant next door and head home.
I return to find Ruth, my partner, in a vacuuming frenzy. Ella the cat is screaming at Ruth because Ella hates the vacuum. Frida has retreated to under the futon because she thinks the vacuum is the Devil from Hell. Henry the dog, who refuses to go outside in the rain, is sauntering casually through the house looking for a place to pee without getting caught in the act. I commence to whine in front of the mirror, tugging at my sadly foreshortened and now thoroughly wet hair. Ruth tells me it’s not so bad, it will grow.
We sit down at the table and laugh for a moment—at the cats, at the dog, at what’s left of my hair.
I look down at my phone. There’s an email from my friend who has lost her daughter. “It’s harder than anything,” she writes.
In this moment, I cross a threshold, slipping from comedy to tragedy, and isn’t that just the gist of things, isn’t that just what this damn novel’s going after: how swiftly the texture, the very core, of our lives can change on a dime? One thing seamlessly eliding into another in the blink of an eye? Love into unspeakable grief, bottomless loss into light. There’s a necessity, a life force, that drives us all. It’s mysterious and terrifying and complicated.
As I write this, across the world, innocents are being killed by bombs. Mothers cry for their lost children.
Maybe my Ruby should be crying at the absurdity of her situation, laughing at the tragic necessity of it. Maybe what I’ve been trying to figure out since 2:37 this morning isn’t so much what happens next as it is the unbearable ways in which life makes us buckle, the way so much can exist in the space of just one minute of this day.
Ruth has vacuumed my office so I can get back to work. Should I finish the obituary of my departed friend or turn to my fictional Ruby?
I choose Ruby, poor Ruby.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
- Right now, I’d have to say it’s frenetic. I have a novel in production and am working on proofing and the other work that comes with having a book coming out. I’m also trying, as this piece indicates, to push through a hard spot in a new novel.
2. Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?
There are actually two books: Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Morrison’s Beloved. They’ve taught me so much, and I keep learning from them.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
I have to take a walk every day, or I can’t think straight or sleep. The day I write about is one when that wasn’t possible, and I didn’t get much done on the writing.
By MINROSE GWIN