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 ROBIN MACARTHUR.
The day starts early, pre-dawn—rooster crow, rain hitting the leaves outside my bedroom window, bird song. My kids will be sleeping for another hour (I hope), so I tiptoe downstairs, let the new rescue dog out of his crate, walk outside with him to pee. He is fifteen pounds of full-grown love, straight from an abandoned lot in Florida. He kisses me and I kiss him. The sky is pink behind the birches and hemlocks and pine; Oakie, I whisper to him as he throws his big-eared self into my arms, as the rooster and the hens and the blue-jays and the crows make a communal racket. Oakie.
Back inside I make strong black tea and pick up my book—Jessie Burton’s The Muse—and read hungrily, greedily, desperately trying to learn how to write a novel. I have a second draft due some months from now, and no time to actually write. (It’s summer. The kids refuse to go to summer camp. I admire them for it.) Other guides are piled up on the pine floor—Marilynn Robinson’s Lila, Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, Alexis Margaret Smith’s Marrow Island. How on earth do they do it? Make me love these characters and places so? I close my eyes and think about my novel, a draft of which lies sleeping in my hard drive. My editor wrote a few days ago to say it is wonderful. And ambitious. Overly so. We will have to, I understand, and have known all along, rein this baby in. There’s a knot in my stomach as I think about the day before me—a to-do list the length of my arm, an in-box full of orange flags. This summer I am full-time writer (book launch, interviews, readings, novel-to-write), full-time stay at home mom (four-year-old son, seven-year-old daughter), and bad homesteader (gardens, chickens, pigs). The combination makes me half crazed. Sometimes incapable of breathing.
But right now, in this early pre-dawn, my only obligation is to read this book while outside it rains. Watch the ways Burton weaves a masterful plot, teeming with mystery, violence, intrigue. Blessed be the novel, I think, sipping my tea, as the dog curls up in the crook of my arm.
My children wake. Pop! Half-naked, bare-limbed explosions that jump onto the couch and into my head and wipe all other thoughts away. I am no longer in London. No longer in Spain. The rollercoaster begins. Feeding of chickens. Serving of food. Cleaning of house. Piles of laundry. Lake swims. Berry picking. Bickering. Breathe, I tell myself, all day long, as emails and messages ping from my phone. My children tug on my shirt. Laugh. Make me laugh. We dance around the kitchen to Missy Elliot, the song interrupted by another PING from my phone. A message I glance at but don’t have time to answer—would I be a visiting writer in…on….A child tugs on my sleeve: “Mama! You know what I call the stuff between my toes? Brown milk!” White milk spurts out of his nose. Laugh. Breathe. Laugh. Breathe. Breathe.
At three a friend who is living in our cabin next door comes by to spend an hour with my kids in the hammock. I bless her profusely, make a second cup of strong black tea. Close myself up in my office with Oakie to tackle the in-box and peck away at the to-do list the length of my arm.
The friend leaves and the day runs on. Will it ever end? Food from the garden. Cooking of dinner. Frantic and inadequate cleaning. More bickering. More dancing. I think about my novel while washing the dishes. The bickering escalates. I yell. They cry. We hug. A car in the driveway. Your father is home! Thank god.
My husband takes the kids across the road to the trampoline. Their voices grow quieter. I am so tired. I pour a glass of cold rosé into a half-pint canning jar and bring it to the backyard. Oakie lies down in the tall grass by my side. When on earth will I have a chance to work on this book I’m supposed to write? The fall. The fall. The fall. Breathe. I face the unruly vegetable garden, the woods, the creek, my parents’ house, (where I was born) hidden behind trees on the far hill. I can hear my mother’s chickens. I can hear her dog. I sip my wine and close my eyes and think about my novel. Set on a hillside like this one. A book full of mothers, the things they did right and the things they did wrong. Their yearning. Their tethers. Their wild hungers. A book full of children: what they’ve learned from the people who loved them. I map the changes I’d like to make in my head, wishing I had a notebook by my side but too tired to get one. The late sun pierces through the forked branches of the cherry tree and hits my nose. I squint across the field: head-tall sunflowers, head-tall amaranth, dog tracking the chickens through the waist-high grass. The women in my book are trying their very best to do right in this world. What is the right way—they ask—to live? Crow calls ricocheting off the tops of the pines. The crisp and cool respite of my jar of rosé. My children’s raucous laughter from the trampoline. Their voices make me smile. Tomorrow, I whisper. Head tipped back. Eyes closed. The fall. Breathe.
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?
- Marilynn Robinson’s Lila. My husband bought this book for me a year and a half ago as a birthday present (he knows I’m a diehard fan of Robinson’s), but for some reason I didn’t crack the spine until this summer. I think I knew I needed to be in a nice slow place in order to settle with it. I was right. It is slow. And quiet. And astonishing. A book that makes your chest burn and flutter and ache with every page.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- I’m not sure I know much about writing. But I will say—perseverance. And solitude. Enter the quiet space. Be willing to be lonely. How can one write if one is not?
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I’ve never told anyone this before, but I often dress up as my characters. I will definitely don certain hats or shoes or put on lipstick (or not) in order to get with a character’s vibe. Again: in order to do that, one has to enter the quiet space. Be willing to be lonely. So much so that you allow yourself to become a little unhinged. Ha! My best kept secret now bared.
By Robin MacArthur: