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 writers
Boring days are best. I wake up and shower and eat breakfast with my girlfriend Anessa. We do eggs on toast, but steam-poached with a special method I’m not about to tell you. With pesto and sharp white cheddar and tea. Light, softened by curtains, softens everything. We joke around, do voices and impressions. We watch a show while we eat. Usual stuff. The sameness lets my brain drift and change. Then I walk to the café, and on the walk I notice little things––the sporadic northwest wind in the cedars, the graffiti on a dead tree, the red sectional sofa on the corner with a sign that says Free. But mostly I notice people. I watch how they walk. I try to overhear things. I think about my childhood, my family, my money. I get nervous about my money. I sing a song quietly. During all this I try not to direct my thoughts and feelings––just track the crazy business of my mind, of being a person. At the café I get a coffee and sit down and read a poem or two and then I start writing. I write for four hours without stopping, starting from something I thought about on the walk. I get tired. I read. I send an email. I read. I walk home on the same streets. When I get home there’s still some low daylight so I stretch and go for a run at the lake. I think about what I’m writing. I run. I watch slanted light fanning through cottonwood trees. I run. In the evening I make dinner with Anessa and watch another show while we eat. Afterwards we have a tea on the balcony. Then, once the stores have closed, we go dumpster diving for food at our favorite spots––a grocery, a co-op, and a really good pizza place. It’s a pretty regular night: onions, apples, a few cans of beans, lots of loaves of bread, a few odds and ends from the break room fridge, a half-bag of chips, yogurt, a good amount of cheese, and lots and lots of pizza at the pizza place. We drive home at midnight and clean everything. Sort it into the cupboard, the fridge, the freezer. I can’t help calculating the amount we’ve saved. Dumpster diving’s a big part of how I keep my life cheap so I can spend it in my head, in my books, on my trips, and writing poems. When everything’s clean, it looks like we went on a normal grocery run. We brush our teeth and go to sleep.
I just got back to San Francisco after a cross-country road trip with my girlfriend, the poet Catherine Pond. It was a classic American road trip—miles and miles of corn fields, toll booths, fast-food drive-thrus, freak storms, blue roads, etc. We went to Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa, hiked in Zion, got lost a few times in New Mexico, fought with each other, fell deeper in love, found miracles in weird places, saw Britney Spears in a hotel lobby, and, like the dorks we are, listened to Bright Eyes on blast while cruising through Omaha. The last night of our trip was in Las Vegas where we were randomly upgraded to the penthouse suite when we checked into Caesar’s Palace. I think they screwed up the hotel reservation (over-booking) and had no choice but to give us the suite. We felt like a couple of high rollers. After a sunset drive through the Mojave Desert we made it to Los Angeles and I dropped Catherine off at her new apartment and caught a flight back to SF.
When I woke up this morning, the memories of the road-trip were swirling around in my head. It was the first time I’d been alone for the last few weeks and the stillness was slightly depressing. My apartment is in the living room of an old Victorian mansion, and the space seemed drafty and bare. The ceiling felt far away. The skulls on my wall looked down at me smiling, as if they’d been waiting to welcome me home. Outside, I could hear the buses go by on their way to the Mission or down to the Haight. I stood at the window and looked at the fog rolling over the high row of Cypress. Maybe I just missed Catherine, or the excitement of being on the road, but the day felt drifty and strange. After checking my emails, I go for a run in the park.
For the last couple months, there’s been a rogue coyote in Buena Vista Park. Some of the neighbors are petitioning to remove him, some are petitioning to leave him alone, and some bring eggs and left-over food scraps to scatter along the path. Supposedly, a few small dogs have gone missing when their owners have let them off leash, and there are other stories of hostile neighbors leaving rat poison next to the trash. All my encounters with the coyote have been pleasant, unthreatening, and today I find him in his usual spot looking out from a furrow of grass. I snap a photo before he gets bored and wanders away in the brush.
When I get back home, I make oatmeal and play guitar. I’ve been working on a song about highways in Fargo and the lyrics are still pretty vague. My songwriting method is usually to pick chords and hum nonsensically under my breath. I listen to vowels and see what comes out—usually nothing. After finishing breakfast, I pack up my laptop and grab a few books off the shelf (The Far Field by Theodore Roethke, Silence in the Snowy Fields by Robert Bly, American Noise by Campbell McGrath, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, and The Dollmaker’s Ghost by Larry Levis).
On my way Ritual Coffee (my neighborhood shop), I notice a dude with a yellow beach ball in his hand. There’s no clear reason he’s carrying the beach ball, but I manage to snap a quick photo before he pump-fakes and shoots it like a basketball into the bed of a passing truck. He continues to walk without missing a beat and the beach ball is off down the road.
When I get to the coffee shop, I set up my books at one of the little wood tables. The baristas are playing Iron and Wine and the mood is nice and relaxed. I order a flat white and sit down to read Signs Preceding the End of the World, a short novel about crossing the Mexican-American border. I check my emails and watch the rain. I think about moments from the road-trip—talking to a watermelon salesman in Kirtland, stopping in Shiprock and hearing about a Native American girl who was murdered on the side of the road. I think about the trains we saw in Denver and the endless clouds of New Mexican landscapes Georgia O’Keefe loved to paint. All these scenes and flashes are mixed with feelings I have about Catherine, which are raw and restless and deep. I write a line, then another line, and the poem that comes is a love poem.
I work on it for four hours until I get stuck. It isn’t done but the lines are moving in an interesting way, gathering momentum. There’s an energy there, a current, and that’s what’s important to me. When I’m working on a poem, I look for originality and momentum. If a poem feels drawn to a natural descent, the way water rolls over a grade, downhill, I consider it a good poem and I keep trying to give it a shape. If it starts feeling edited or over processed, I abandon the poem and start something fresh. It’s not the most economical way of writing (I have thousands of unfinished poems lying around), but it leads me to places I can’t predict and that’s what I value most.
When the rain quits falling, I go for a cigarette and read Robert Bly. I write down fragments, scattered ideas, and bike to the Whole Foods to pick up some pizza. The fog has burned off and the sky is starting to gold with the evening sun. I hike up Corona Heights to get a little air and then head back home after dark. Tomorrow I’m flying up to Oregon to watch the total eclipse. They’re predicting a million people will watch from the seventy-mile band of “totality.” I spend the rest of the night making dinner, packing bags, and calling in vain for a rental car. Everything is booked up from Portland to Seattle, so I’ll just hitchhike my way down the state. As I fade into sleep, I imagine the sun as a brilliant ring of black. I imagine the strangers I’ll meet on the way and the cars that will slow down to give me a ride.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
- ANDERS: Truly it’s whatever I’m currently working on, writing into that moment, that mystery.
- KAI: It’s hard to say which poem is my favorite, but I’m really excited about a long poem I wrote last fall called “American Freight.” It’s about a train hopping trip I took by myself across the country and it’s ten pages long. I doubt anyone will publish it, but it has a unique energy and moves sort of intuitively between scenes. It’s a poem I’ve been trying to write since 2009, always failing, but it came out over the course of two days in October last year. I used notes from the journal I kept during the trip, but the bulk of the poem came out in a rush. One long movement, without much editing. Those are my favorite kind of poems, and they usually end up being the best.
2. What is your strangest reading habit?
- ANDERS: Whispering passages to myself as I walk at night. It’s important to me to find which poems matter then, when I’m alone in the dark.
- KAI: Before sitting down to write I go on bike rides around the city and take photos. I look at the visual world before I start pulling out the poetry. I feel like my mind works best when I’ve soaked up a whole bunch of impressions—scenes, moments, sounds—and I’m feeling things directly. If I wake up cold and start writing, I start to fake things, writing what I think a poem should sound like. It’s not that the poems are worse, it’s that they’re less original. My mind has already honed in on the meaning of an image, of a narrative arc, and the poems get boring. Maybe that’s why I write best at night, after I’ve had a day of impressions and my brain can start playing with the music.
3. What is something you do every day?
- ANDERS: Eat food that I find in dumpsters.
- KAI: I have a lot of small rituals during the day. I go running every morning to wake up. Then I eat oatmeal and play guitar. I write poetry 🙂 I guess poetry is the one big constant I have. If I don’t write something down during the day I get very agitated. I also eat a big salad every night for dinner. If I don’t have my salad I don’t feel right with the world.
By Kai Carlson-Wee and Anders Carlson-Wee: