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 JERICHO PARMS.
In the morning: My coffee tastes weak. Outside the ground is still bare but the trees are coming back to life. Buds dabble the branches in chartreuse against the damp fog. Last night I fell asleep reading Nellie Bly, and I woke up this morning thinking of one of her familiar exclamations: “I want to be on the other side of the world!” It’s not even fully light out when I realize this will be one of those days when I battle myself.
On my writing desk: A pile of articles, an etymological dictionary among other reference books, a folded paper crane, a mini crankshaft music box that plays the tinny melody of Le Vie En Rose—a gift from a friend after my first book was published. There is a photograph of me as a girl, too, appearing as a curious speck amid a vast canyon. There are some art books and a few post cards from an Agnes Martin retrospective I saw months ago back home in New York. One is of a signature square canvas marked with horizontal bands of pale blue and white. Another is a photograph of the artist in her studio in 1960. Martin is immersed in her work, adjusting a ladder to reach the height of her primed surface rather than looking at the camera. The photograph reminds me of her focus, the decisions she made as an artist, as a woman: to leave New York, to find solace in New Mexico, to never marry or bear children—to live entirely on her own terms.
In town: The shop windows are adorned with poetry—sonnets and sestinas, haiku and free verse, a villanelle in the doorway of one of the laundromats. In February someone plasters the same storefronts with red hearts, but it is April now, a month reserved for poetry. This New England town is named for the French city of Montpelier. At my favorite cafe, a chalkboard sign issues the bakery’s decree: Tout le beurre. Tout le sucre. Tout la caféine. Tout le temps. (All the butter. All the sugar. All the caffeine. All the time.) I admire such simplicity, such commitment to authenticity and indulgence. The coffee is strong, worth the outing, worth the number of people I’ll inevitably run into. Mostly I’m friendly, but sometimes I turn just slightly, pretend that I can still be anonymous, that I don’t struggle to feel at home here. That I wouldn’t rather be back in New York, where I can order eggrolls at midnight, find an all-night flower stand, take a dash of cinnamon in my coffee from the Dominican-run bodega. Last week on the subway, two days in a row, I shared the same car with a man I know but couldn’t place, and all we did was smile before I turned back to my book and he to his phone. I wanted to reach out and touch some part of him, graze his shoulder, roll up one of his sleeves, feel the weight of his watch. There is a part of me that is always searching for those details—the ones that enable us to reach across an invisible line between self and other, personal and universal. The perfect detail can be unsettling in its veracity, sobering in its unending possibilities, both resilient and open to revision. Sometimes there is more love packed into a single anonymous moment than all of the hearts plastered in a small town; sometimes noticing the electric green of a spring bud in an unending fog outweighs all comfort and convenience of a city.
Early afternoon: I swim. The back and forth movement calms me. In the water, I imagine I can move forever, disregard the pool’s edge and swim across the earth where on some distant shore I’ll let out a briny exhalation. Agnes Martin once said, “I paint with my back to the world.” There are days that I want to turn my back, days I want to look not ahead or behind me but from side to side, to see what comes of it. I am trying to better observe—to linger more—in thought, in place. Swimming helps. The movement stills me. If only I could find a thread of narrative to do the same. Instead I write in fragments, vignettes, collages and braids. I am more devoted to idea than to story. I am more at home in the solitude of anonymity than the white noise of a neighborhood. I float on my back in the water and picture myself suspended in one of Martin’s grids, the lanes of the pool like the bands in her paintings. There is something deeply self-protective about her work, and also profoundly composed, empathetic, concerned with the world.
Later on: I make a few calls. Plans for next week when I return to New York: a visit to a high school essay writing class, dinner with my mother, lunch with an old friend, a stop at the Jewish bakery to stock up on the pastries I love. But these are the little things. Really I just need to sit on a subway and stare at a stranger’s shoes, glance between faces each one different than the next; to be both alone, and among others. To have my back to the world, but remain tethered to its complexities.
If this were another day: I would have little to write about but work, checking emails, grading papers, responding with measured feedback to other people’s writing. But today is a rare day safeguarded for the potential side effects of leisure, puttering, and procrastination. Nellie Bly wrote of her desire to be on the other side of the world in her essay, aptly titled, “A Proposal to Girdle the Earth” (which is to say, travel around the world in under 80 days). Sometimes, if it weren’t for the boundless trajectories that writing affords, I can hardly girdle a day without the impulse to be elsewhere.
In the evening: Outside the peepers wail until dark like a car alarm, an Irish whistle, the metallic screech of a train, like childhood, like the sound of dolphins or whales, like an early summer night. Today I woke up on edge, stared at my writing desk, read poetry on shop windows, drank too much coffee, made plans for New York, went for a swim. Today I learned that Agnes Martin was a swimmer, too, before she committed to painting, that Nellie Bly did in fact travel the world in 72 days, that the origin of indulgence may have been borrowed from the Old French indulgence, if not the Latin indulgentia: complaisance, fondness. Today I thought I might write.
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?
- Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, a slim, structurally exquisite book at the center of which is the author’s insightful meditation on time, memory, and the self.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- “Be kind to yourself” (as my mother would say). So often the joy of the writing process can get bogged down by our own insecurities and unreasonable standards—the idea that we should all be writing every hour of every day. I think as long as we are open to paying attention, time spent in any number of ways can be productive to the writing process.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I like finding inspiration and meaning out of context and will often take a book that I know and love off the shelf and open to a random paragraph to see how the language works, to see what I might remember or understand about the whole by looking closely at just a part. I often take the same approach with my writing: extracting a paragraph (or a single sentence) from a piece and spending an afternoon or evening tinkering with the language, before placing it back into a draft.
By Jericho Parms: