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 Nichole Bernier:
Given the number of young kids in our house (we have five), it’s surprising that I’m almost always able to wake up on my own, before they do. It must be a survival technique somewhere deep in my lizard brain, a primal knowledge that I need a few early minutes alone to have a think with a cup of coffee. I leave a thermos on the nightstand before I go to bed so I don’t have to go downstairs.
Today my thoughts are gray, uncertain. I’m expecting medical results, and though I tell myself odds are high that all is fine, I have a sense of being suspended in my day. I pick up the galley of Dani Shapiro’s forthcoming book STILL WRITING, thoughtful reflections on the writing life. The tone of calm wisdom is a good start for today.
The 3-year-old wanders to the side of my bed, face and hair still half in yesterday. He is happily aware that his missing blankie was found in the night and tucked beside him on the pillow. His arms come around my waist in wordless gratitude, still clutching the ratty silk and flannel. He will turn four tomorrow, my youngest, and I know with an older mother’s bifocals of hindsight and foresight that while a day can be an eternity, the years are brief, and my days of blankie hugs are numbered.
There will be a sitter in the afternoon, and after dropping the 10 and 12 year-olds at their activities, I take the three younger boys to see if the blueberries have ripened yet at a favorite little-known farm. It’s early yet for blueberries, but it’s been wet and hot, so maybe.
We arrive at the farm with no name, and there aren’t any cars except the owner’s pickup truck. Four white roosters and a handful of speckled hens roam the overgrown grass, no people. But down the hill the doors are open on the shed that stocks buckets, a scale, and a cashbox. The farm operates on the honor system, an anachronism for pick-your-own. This, along with its come-anytime hours, is what endears it to me the most.
I love picking blueberries. I find it much more satisfying than apples (too big, too fast) and strawberries (too expensive, too low). With blueberries there’s a calm wandering and a slow accrual. You can pick quickly and strategically—three or four from one thick bunch, looking ahead to the next—or appreciate each one your eye lights upon. There’s a Zen lesson here. Don’t always reach for the plump clusters on the highest branch, picking seems to teach, missing the fine ones right under your nose.
We head home at noon to meet the sitter and I slip off to the library, where my favorite armchair is available by the window. I should be moving forward in my next novel, pushing the plot down the field. But the farm visit has got me thinking of a scene to slip in between two earlier chapters: my main character, who is doing time in prison, thinking back on an afternoon at a blueberry farm with her ex-husband and infant son. Her ex-husband’s picking style would be efficient and strategic, like a chess player thinking three moves ahead. There would be signs of something unusual about their listless child, creating a domino effect of discoveries that would eventually lead to the prison cell. There is a women’s correctional facility on the way to the blueberry farm, its high coils of barbed wire a striking juxtaposition to the free-range chickens on the other side. Seeing the closeness of the facility to the farm this morning seems to clinch the rightness of adding the scene.
My writing time passes in a blink, as contented productive times do, and I leave the library reluctantly to relieve the sitter. Before I begin making dinner, I take the phone to the back yard and dial the doctor’s office as instructed. I am put on hold while a nurse hunts for the results, and then again as she calls for the doctor to deliver them to me.
Time waiting for medical results does not pass in a blink. There is a hang time in waiting in which the mind, or at least mine, goes to the dreaded thing and looks it in the eye, takes it on and makes it one’s own. Not making friends with it, but letting it in like an unwelcome guest who might have to be grown accustomed to.
Years ago, one of these hang times ended in an unhappy ultrasound, no firefly heart blinking any longer where it should have been. Some people talk about silver linings, and say there’s a reason such-and-such happened. Well, sometimes life is enriched by an experience, and sometimes it isn’t. It’s such a Pollyanna thing to say, that some good can come of misfortune and loss. But it does add to your range of experience, and empathy. And it’s damn near impossible not to have it influence your writing in some way.
The doctor comes on the line. The results are odd—not the bad thing but not entirely good either, but at least benign, for now. I click off the call and make room for this new information, opening the door and letting it in. And then I turn to the kitchen to make dinner.
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?
- Cutting for Stone. So many smart friends had recommended it these past few years but I never made the time. It’s a gorgeous book, complex but beautifully simple on the sentence level. I found myself constantly wanting to underline for fascinating observations about human nature and big universal truths.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- You don’t have to write things chronologically, or even scenes in the order in which they’ll come in the book. Before I had any friends who wrote fiction I thought I was doing things all wrong, not going about it as real writers do. Later, I learned that there is no right way.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I wouldn’t call it a habit, but it’s something I have done when I’m really having trouble keeping my seat in the chair and eyes off the internet. I blindfold myself with a scarf and type a scene, forcing out all other stimuli. I’m a good typist (thank you, high school typing class) and can decipher even my oddly dyslexic typos. A misplaced “s” is usually an “l,” the fourth finger on the other hand.