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 SANDY GINGRAS.
The night is just blurring into soft gray dawn, and my dog, Quincy, is standing by the bed staring at me. His wagging tail smacks the curtain, and the capiz shells on the bottom of it do a muffled clink-clink. I rub his head, and he smiles at me the way dogs smile, more inner than outer, as e.e. cummings might say, more fuller than mouth. It is nice to be woken up by love like this. He pads happily behind me as I get up, go down the winding flights of stairs to make him his breakfast, the kibble that my husband calls “bunker bits,” a half can of fish and potato mush, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese on the top—just because.
The view from my kitchen window is the flatness of the Jersey Shore, a wide gray stripe of Barnegat Bay, a wider stripe of sky, and, on the far horizon, a line of sedge islands. My backyard is a marshy cove—a little scoop of heaven. If there is a right place for every person on this planet, then this is mine. I breathe in the achy low-tide smell. A black skimmer slices across the cove on his last swoop of the night then arcs and flies off. I walk Quincy down the street to Dirty Louie’s house and back, put sunflower seeds in the hanging bird feeder, corn in the pan for the duck couple that comes every morning. I pull a few weeds that are sprouting out of our crushed-shell “lawn.” I make a pot of coffee-cake-flavor coffee, sit on the couch, flip through the Atlantic City Press, read just enough news to feel semi-connected to reality (but not too connected). I do a bit of the Sunday NY Times crossword, which usually takes me most of the week to do. I like going back to it every day. How did I not see that answer yesterday when today it’s clear?
Then it’s time to read a couple chapters of a book in the galvanized tray on the old pine coffee table. Pick a book, any book. At any time, I’m reading memoir, fiction, poetry, books about writing. I read it all. That’s because I like to write it all. Today, there’s a William Zinsser (love him), a book of Stephen Dunn poems (love him too), and Natalie Goldberg’s An Old Friend From Far Away (can’t get enough of her). I’ve been writing a memoir, so I’m reading a lot of book about writing memoir lately. Today I pick, Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer. Reading gets my juices flowing, gets me thinking, “I can do this…” Gets me feeling, “I want to do this…” Then I start writing. I use an unlined sketchpad, a big one, so I have room to sprawl. I write crooked and fast—so fast that my doubts can’t catch up with me. I rip out a lot of sheets and throw them away. I have to do a lot of blah-blah writing before I get to anything real, to where I touch a nerve ending. It’s like fishing—nothing, nothing, then a nibble and a tug and I know I’ve got something alive and pulling at me.
Today is Saturday, and I don’t have to take care of my retail stores. I’m going to a writing group at Stockton College this afternoon with some people I meet up with once a month, so I need to have something to bring. I write a poem called “Mother’s Day.” It starts, “I hate you. You are so fat, / my son wrote on his third grade mother’s day card for me…” If my poems make me laugh a little and cry a little, I think I’ve succeeded. I walk up the stairs to my computer on the second floor, to a desk made out of plywood braced on some cut-off porch pillars, to the always changing, I-can-never-tire-of-it view of the bay. My friend, Colleen made the word “Shine” for me out of recycled something-or-other, and it’s perched on my windowsill with a starfish. I type, print out, revise, print out. I use way too much paper. It takes me a long time and a lot of effort to get the words feeling right.
My writing group is six people today. All of them are good writers. We spend three hours reading aloud our stuff, hearing it read back to us, listening and making comments. The plate glass windows show the sky, the trees moving silently. I love these people. They struggle to create, they work at it, they get it. I need groups like this. I go to workshops whenever I can to get this feeling of belonging.
I drive the half-hour home on the Garden State Parkway, exiting onto Rt. 72 with its six lanes of traffic. I pass the Wal-Mart and the Kmart and finally reach the causeway with all of its construction, and I drive the bumpy roadway across the sparkling bay. Boats carve through the wavelets far below me. Long Beach Island is bustling with Saturday afternoon tourists. The traffic signals are back on after the long winter of their blinking caution-caution. The air smells like sea salt and exhaust fumes and garlic butter. I stop at Murphy’s Market to buy steaks and arugula for dinner. It’s just my husband and me tonight, so we eat in front of the TV watching Jeopardy. “Who is King Tut?” I guess. “Oh,” I say when I’m wrong. “Eustachian tubes?” “The Rhine River?” I try every clue. My husband knows the strangest things—astronauts, Olympic swimmers, seventies TV theme songs. How do you know that?” I ask him. He shrugs.
After Jeopardy, I go outside, turn on my little transistor radio to listen to the Yankees’ game. I’d rather hear the game than watch it. I don’t know what that is. Nostalgia, I guess, from when I used to listen as a kid. I sit under the pergola, under the grape vines just starting to leaf and read while I listen. The sun sets over the cove. I sip on red wine. I am blessed, I think. The breeze touches the wind chime my son made out of shells and driftwood. Then the breeze dies. The sky is huge and pink, then stars appear as the sky turns navy blue. The dock lights start to glow and make shimmery puddles on the bay. A tinny roar comes out of the radio. Something must have happened. Something good…
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What word best describes your writing life?
- All-over-the-place. I’ve written and published 26 gift books, a murder mystery, short stories, flash fiction, memoir, and a poetry chapbook. That’s just plain kooky.
2. Do you write in the books you read?
- Not fiction usually, but non-fiction, yes, and poetry, yes. I make little stars and underline. Sometimes I write things like, “Holy Moley!” Mostly I’m just trying to mark it somehow so I can remember it, or, at least, find it again.
3. What is your favorite year of life so far?
- This one. I love my life now. And next year, I’d like to love it even more…
By Sandy Gingras: