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 Stacy Bierlein:
I lift my head from the pillow just enough to see the clock. It’s nearly 7:00 a.m. and the house still fills with sleep. This is the kind of morning I like. We are all cuddled into my bed; my seven-year-old daughter Elliott, our puppy Lilly (who actually isn’t a puppy anymore but still exhibits enough puppy behavior that we won’t give up the word), and me. A little after midnight Elliott ran into my room scared awake by a dream that Lord Voldemort was coming. Lilly, refusing to be left out of a sleepover, abandoned the dog bed and jumped in with us.
My stirring wakes Lilly. She jumps over Elliott and onto my stomach and gives a soft little bark that sounds like “yep.” I take this to mean, “Yep, it’s time to take me outside.” We live in Newport Coast, at the top of Los Trancos Canyon. Mornings here are typically dewy and cool, but not in August. At the close of summer it is hot by 7:00 a.m., and dry. On the way out to the garden I grab my phone from the kitchen counter. Outside I check email as Lilly jumps at hummingbirds, sniffs around the grass and soil, and eventually does her thing. It’s the typical morning lot in my mailbox, electronic versions of The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly, Salon, updates from social media sites—nothing requiring immediate attention. I take Lilly inside for her breakfast.
While she eats and sloshes water around her bowl I straighten the kitchen. There is a Jennifer Aniston movie, I think it’s The Breakup, where her character claims that she cannot sleep well if dirty dishes sit in her sink. Well Jen, it turns out that’s not true exactly. A neat-freak by training, I’ve grown to enjoy even these smallest acts of rebellion.
By 8:00 a.m. Elliott is also awake and eating breakfast. She has art camp this morning so I look around for her pink paint jeans, well-worn and splotched, decorated with the work of previous weeks in art camp. At 8:45 Elliott and I are showered and dressed and climbing into the car with sweet Lilly, decked out in her green harness and polka-dot leash.
Around 9:00 a.m. we sign into the community center art studio. As we look at canvases-in-progress we chat with Brenda, the art teacher. The work she inspires in these young artists never fails to amaze me. In this week’s camp the younger children are painting from cartoons, their own versions of Scooby and Tweetybird. The older children paint vintage posters, mid-century travel and fashion images. The kids seem excited to get to work. The room has an impressive energy that makes me want to linger here longer but I’m on the clock. Pick-up is at noon, I still have to drop-off Lilly, and I’ll have less than three hours for my work. Elliott says, “I love you, mom,” as we say goodbye, and I love this moment, knowing that all too soon she will be a preteen and this might change to “Seriously mom, get out of here.”
I never imagined I would be the kind of woman who has a fluffy dog or who takes her dog to daycare, but here I am at 9:20, signing in Lilly for a day at Newport Center Doggie Playgroup. She whimpers at first, knowing this is where I leave her, but sniffs around a minute to recognize the scent of her doggie friends. When the playroom door opens she forsakes me immediately.
Only minutes later I arrive at the public library, pleased to find a parking space that isn’t a mile away. I walk in with a group of students—the Newport library is only miles from UC Irvine—and remember doing this too; finding an off-campus library when I really, really needed to study. At Syracuse our main campus library was a flirtfest. My friend Tammi and I spent entire evenings there without reading a single page in our textbooks. When I get to the second floor there are even more UCI kids. (Oh my God—an unfortunate sign of my age that I just referred to university students as “kids.” It seems mere years ago they were “peers.”) As they exit the elevator they veer to the left, looking for the desks with picture windows that overlook the library garden, Pacific Coast Highway, plus a strip of ocean in the distance.
I’m the only one turning right, looking for a desk that overlooks the job site. The city of Newport Beach has commissioned the building of a civic center next to the library. I’ve taken to working on this east side of the building where widows reveal the construction zone and fail to block out the grinding hum of the backhoe loader and the excavators.
Some of my friends might be surprised that I know the difference between the two machines, that I feel so at home here in their shadows. My friends are more used to seeing me in high heels and sunglasses. I’m not sure their minds’ eyes would so easily draw me in a hardhat and safety goggles. But from the time I was four-years-old my father kept two small hardhats in the trunk of his car so that my sister and I could visit job sites with him. The Bierlein family business was environmental contracting and specialty demolition. I grew up watching buildings come down. This is a construction site outside the window of course, but the sounds and equipment are often the same.
I pull my laptop out of my bag and get to work, resisting the urge to check Facebook. While social media has been excellent for promoting books—word-of-mouth gone digital—too often it steals precious time from our workdays. I’m facing abbreviated writing time already; 11:45 comes quickly and I’ve written only a fraction of what I had hoped. I repack my computer, rush out to the car, and drive to meet Elliott at the community center.
Elliott has had a great morning at camp working hard on her travel poster. She is excited for me to see it when I arrive. In my very biased opinion, her Air France painting looks amazing indeed, so we decide to celebrate by going out to lunch. “The Yard House?” she asks. “Burgers and classic rock? Sounds good to me,” I say, and we’re back in the car.
As we sit down in a corner booth at the restaurant I pull my phone from my bag to return a call from my publisher. I decide too late that the Yard House is not a great place to make a business call. As he answers, Elliott belts out with the sound system, “… and lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s s’posed to be.” (Thanks to Glee she knows all the words). “Journey concert?” my publisher asks. “Something like that,” I say. We make a plan to talk later in the week about our ideas for exhibiting at the West Hollywood Book Fair at the end of September.
After our lunch Elliott and I have just enough time to go home and get her changed into her swimsuit for her 2:30 swim lesson at the JCC. While she swims with her instructor Cece, I take my phone to a chair near the pool to reply to email and return calls. (As a rule I don’t use the phone while driving—no small feat in California.) Cece has some extra time so we extend the lesson. This gives me a chance to comb through the manuscript for my next anthology project; to make a few notes in the margins.
When the lesson is over I note how hot and sticky the late afternoon has become. School starts next week. It seems a shame to make Elliott get out of the pool. I have my swimsuit in my bag so I ask her if she might like us to stay for a while, even though I already know the answer. The evening will be filled with tasks—picking up Lilly, buying groceries, making dinner, doing laundry. While I try to get in a bit more editing time Elliott will do math lessons in her summer homework. (Yes, her school assigns summer homework! This was unheard of when I was in primary school, our summer days devoted strictly to sunburns and Judy Blume.) But for the moment those tasks can wait while we splash and dance in the water. Right now, we swim.
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?
- The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby, a stunning, haunting, and lyrical novel that releases this month. It’s just wonderful in so many ways. I read it in preparation to interview Ilie for The Rumpus.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- I call this the Two Page Challenge or the Two Page Diversion, depending on my mood. In the middle of a writing day, take a brief break from your manuscript and do two pages in a new way. Change narrators, shift from first person to third, write in script form, jump ten years into the future or past—anything goes as long is it provides you with a contrast in style or a new vantage point for telling your story. But two pages only—it’s amazing what you can learn in this limited space. What takes your attention when you approach your story this way? Are you seeing something you did not see before?
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I’m not sure this will qualify as a strange reading habit, but I typically have three books going at the same time. In my fiction workshops at Columbia College Chicago in the 1990’s my professors often assigned three books at one time–two were novels from different cultures or eras and the third was the student literary magazine, short stories by our peers. In one of my favorite semesters, Shawn Shifflett assigned to us Nobokov’s King, Queen, Knave and Morrison’s Sula. Amazing to read Nobokov and Morrison at the same time. I think one of the literary magazine works that semester was Patricia Ann McNair’s “The Wienie,” an energetic parody of Gogol’s “The Nose” in which a man loses his penis in a brothel. So I’ve continued this juxtaposed reading in the years after school. Sometimes it doesn’t work—I love one book so much I put the others aside. But other times, the contrasts between the works are inspiring.
By Stacy Bierlein: