How We Spend Our Days: Abigail Thomas

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 Abigail Thomas:

It’s too early to get up but the dogs don’t know that, so we’re all headed downstairs at six thirty in the morning. I open the door and Rosie and Carolina race into the dark, noses to the ground, tails waving in the air, as they track whatever creatures have crisscrossed our yard during the night. They’ll be at it for hours, hounds have a work ethic like you wouldn’t believe. Except for my old beagle Harry, who likes to sleep in.

Cold and gray. Oh dear. I measure the water and the coffee and plug the pot in and worry about the day stretching ahead. If I’m not writing there’s not much point to being me, and I’ve been stuck a good long while on my project—the history of a thirty year friendship, one that withstood a big hole blown through it some years back. It’s a good story, but I’m not convinced it’s ever going to be a good book.  I’m stuck at the part where we became friends again because I can’t remember how we did it, or when, or why. Neither can he. I can’t write through it or around it or past it and I can’t make it up so I’m not writing. If I’m not writing, I’m a cat without whiskers. If I’m not writing, I’m depressed. Morbid, even.

I never used to think about dying. Any thoughts of death have really been just that, thoughts, experienced from the eyebrows up, not the hideous, almost Biblical knowledge that jumped me last night. I settled in bed with my three pillows and my three dogs, the curtains pulled, door closed, lights off, everything the way I like it, but this time my heart was pounding in my throat. Out of the blue came a fact: this body of mine, the one in pink pajamas, the one hanging on to her pillow for dear life, these pleasant accommodations in which I have made my home for 68 years, it’s going to die. It will die and the rest of me, homeless, will disappear into thin air. I could actually hear my heart now, pounding.

But hard on the heels of this came a worse bit of news. My beautiful children, now in the middle of their lives, are going to grow old and they are going to die too. I won’t even be here then. When that thought struck, I felt an awful meaninglessness, and then nothing, and that absence of feeling was the worst thing I’ve ever felt.

The coffee is ready. Harry is up. He’s barking at the top of the stairs, waiting for me to wait for him at the bottom, and once I’m there, he makes his cautious way down. He’s less sure-footed in his old age. He wants to go out too, but not before checking everybody’s bowl. Harry’s an optimist. I love this old dog. Off he ambles into the yard, tail held high, head held high. Peeing on everything perpendicular. I settle down with coffee, my notebook and pen. I’ll write shopping lists if nothing else comes. Just keep the pen moving on the page. Eggs butter sugar.

Late in the day I have a bit of luck. Yesterday I discovered a bowl of plums in the icebox that had sat there forgotten for a month, and I took the bowl into the back yard and tossed the plums one by one onto the icy grass near the woods where I’ve seen deer. A dozen dusky purple plums, past their prime: an offering.  And this afternoon when I go out to look, the frozen grass is bare, and I am filled with a joy I can’t get to the bottom of.

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • There have been a few contenders–the one that affected me most in the chills and laughter department is Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Afraid Of–which is all about death. argh.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Try and keep the faith. We all have good days and bad days. Keep writing, stay in the habit of writing, even if it’s laundry lists.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I like to paint on the reverse of glass, make a huge mess, and stop thinking so hard.

Books by Abigail Thomas:

37 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Abigail Thomas

  1. I loved this episode of A Day in the Life. Thank you for introducing me to Abigail Thomas. I’ve never read any of her work, but I knew as soon as I read the paragraph about dying that I wanted to. I’ve just ordered An Actual Life.

  2. Well, you are dedicated to this project–posting on New Year’s Day!

    What a lovely testament to our humanity, and to our loves, hopes and fears. I have picked up ‘A Three Dog Life’ so many times, but have never bought it. I will buy it–and read it–tomorrow.

    Thanks, Cindy. And thanks to Abigail Thomas for such honesty.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Thanks, Cindy, for this series. And, thanks, Abigail, for your beautiful essay.

    I love the image of Harry, the eternal optimist, and the unexpected – simple – moments that carry us from the dark to the light.

    • from the dark to the light, yes. but we’ve got to pay attention, lest they slip past us. thanks for putting it so well…abigail

  4. Hi Abigail,

    Beautifully evocative expression of deep balance… death’s gray looming, the vibrant life of animals, and a gift.

    I’ve heard it said that the fear of non-existence is the ultimate fear. And that giving full attention to the Present Moment, which is all there really is (try and prove otherwise), is the doorway to fearlessness because it reveals our unity with an eternal Self. Then there’s the First Law of Thermodynamics: energy (you) can neither be created nor destroyed.

    The ultimate transition is a delicious Mystery.

    These are principles I subscribe to, and my own death does not strike me as a loss. But… without fear of death, aren’t we writers deprived of an important subject? How could you have written this lovely essay without that experience? Perhaps the more I learn, the less I have to say… but that doesn’t seem right.

    I’m wandering… so I’ll just wrap it up. Thank you for not fearing fear, and for putting your truth out into the world again and again.

    • delicious mystery, nice. and of course you’re right about everything–fear of death included–being our material. thank god for that. and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  5. What a beautiful writer you are, Abby. I wish I still lived a few blocks away, but reading your work makes me feel as if I do. Why don’t you make up the part about how you and your friend found your way back to each other as a place holder? The truth will find it’s way, wake you up in the middle of the night as a reprieve from thoughts of death maybe. Or maybe a mutual friend will show up (on Facebook?) to remind you. Anyway, just don’t stop. Eggs, butter, sugar. The world needs to read about a long term friendship resumed. By you. — Always, Your Fan

  6. I loved, “If I’m not writing, I’m a cat without whiskers”–Thank you for that phrasing. I’ll remember it. Sort of sums up the aimlessness I feel if I haven’t written. Have a great New Year. Cheers!

  7. I own everything you’ve published and have read, reread, and shared it as well. You gave me the courage to begin writing, if only for myself, after I read A Three Dog Life over a year ago. I check your website periodically to see if you have something new on its way or if you have an upcoming event in my direction (PA). Finding this was a very nice surprise tonight. Thank you for all you have shared. It has enriched my life immensely.

  8. Dear Lisa Roth,

    What a lovely message, thank you. You couldn’t say anything nicer to me than that my stuff makes you want to write, makes you, allows you, to write. Thank you.

    Abigail

  9. Dear Abigail,

    Thank you so much for becoming a writer.

    Your words help me to make sense of the world in ways I find difficult to explain.

    If I am ever in need of some inspiration, I simply pick up (and read and re-read!) one of your books.

    I am truly grateful.

    Keira Bishop

  10. Hello Abby, I have just finished reading ‘A Three Dog Life’, which I found profoundly moving, sad and joyous. On my last visit to my public library, I saw your book lying on a desk-top, and it was my first introduction to your name and your writing, but it won’t be my last. It is my intention to read as many of your books as my library holds, as I enjoyed your straightforward way of writing your story. My father has Alzheimer’s and his life is just in the moment now, no past, no future, and the description of your husband who lives in a similar world as my father, made me understand more the kind of world that my father inhabits, but which he reaches out from when my sister and I go to visit him. Thank you for such a inspiring book. Linda Davies, UK.

  11. Dear Linda Davies,

    I’m so glad the book is useful to you, and I’m grateful for this kind of connection. Thank you, thank you.

    Abigail

  12. Dear Abby,
    I just finished your book, A Three Dog Life. It made me sit still and think and appreciate NOW. I liked it when you wrote, And if this is everything, what is the rush?

    A Three Dog Life is so different from any other memoir I’ve read – it has cast a spell on me.

    Thank you for writing so beautifully.

    Leyo Sanchez – Philippines

  13. I’m avoiding grading papers and in the process wandered to your website to see where your schedule might be taking you. Alas, nowhere nearby. Then I found this blog. What a gift. I’m a few years behind you on this journey but am affected by your expression of the nameless thing I’ve been battling, probably due to the death of my childrens’ father at the tender age of 46. What can we do but push it back? Toss it into the icy grass and keep living until we die? And that fierce bond with your children is as familiar to me as the muscle in my chest. So it was a good diversion to come across you and the dogs today. I hope that you manage to knock it loose and the good story becomes a good book. The world’s a better place for having your words in it.

  14. Dear Abigail,
    What a joyful discovery! I was looking for a way to connect the dots, and here you are. I have read and shared almost all that you’ve published, and have to tell you that I laughed out loud with glee last night while reading the last chapter of “Getting Over Tom.” Something clicked: I understood the connection between writing and the muse, its voice and perhaps an inkling of mine. I thank you for writing and eagerly await more!

    Janis Bankoff Berkeley, California

    • Janis, I loved Getting Over Tom too, and I just love when something clicks. How wonderful those two things came together for you. I know Abby appreciates your comments as well.

  15. Abby,

    I loved “Safekeeping.” Like you, I’m very hard on myself when I’m not writing. Your statement, “Well, I have good days and bad days,” gives me permission to keep on truckin’. Like so many others, I adored “A Three Dog Life.” As I write this, my three dogs are stretched out in various poses of relaxation. I’ve been your fan for years. I got a chance to meet you at a Tin House Writers’ Conference, but didn’t have an opportunity to take a class with you. Your compassion, honesty, and bravery are all hallmarks of a tremendous, big-hearted teacher. I can read between the lines. And you always make me laugh. Yes, we’re all going to die and how terrifying is that? Very. Hopefully we leave legacies of lives well-lived and full of love.

    With much warmth,

    D’Arcy Fallon
    Springfield, Ohio

    • D’Arcy, I met Abby at Tin House too–in 2004 I think. I was just looking over my notes from my workshop with Dorothy Allison the other day. Thanks for your comment. I know Abby appreciates it as well.

  16. I just finished reading A Three Dog Life and feel compelled (first time in my life) to comment on the effect this book had on me. My husband and I have endured five years of a brain injury my husband received from a failed Deep Brain Stimulator operation. He has suffered with Parkinson’s Disease for 30 years. He thought very long and hard before proceeding with the operation, thinking it would improve his quality of life. You never know what life will deal you. Your experiences with your dear husband was like reading my diary. I could not believe the peace it gave me just seeing these experiences in print. We live it everyday but to put print to it, for some reason, brings me peace. Safekeeping is the next reading on my list. Thank you.

    Bette in West Virginia

  17. I am in love with A Three Dog Life, having read Safekeeping. I just ordered one for my sister-in-law because I just couldn’t give up my copy (we often trade books); Safekeeping, I asked her to send back to me! However, what I really want is pictures of the dogs!! I love them, too, and I want to know exactly which one is which. PLEASE post titled pics of the dogs!

  18. Dear Abigail,
    I just finished Three Dog life and love it!! I wish you were my friend (I guess you get that all the time). I live in the Hudson Valley, so maybe someday I will get to meet you! I would love to take a writing workshop with you. I can’t wait to read the rest of your books. Thank you so much for your beautifully written thoughts.
    Warmest regards,
    Victoria Rolfe

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