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 DEBRA SPARK.
My days are so very aspirational … and not really related to the actual days I live, the calendar flipping between days when I never leave my house and days when I am gone from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. My routine is no routine either, a lifetime spent struggling to wake in the morning—even before insomnia became my regular companion—and then working with increasing vigor as the day moves forward. Today, there is a storm—“a bomb cyclone,” the news reports say—bearing down on Maine. A day that is starting warm and toasty may end with the electricity out, the temperatures frigid, and me lucky to have a generator and a husband who knows how to start it up.
But for now, I have my assignments for the day—I will start rewriting an article for Yankee magazine, work on a new spring course (for Colby College, where I teach), attempt some time with my new novel, catch up on paperwork and emails, and do phone interviews for Maine Home+ Design, a shelter magazine for which I have written for the past eight years. In advance, I expect I’ll get to every task I set for myself, but struggle with the novel and making time for exercise, the things I supposedly most want to do.
Save for folding and putting away two loads of laundry, I have spent my day in front of the computer, finishing the Yankee article. My piece is about a Gilded Age estate in Massachusetts and the history of Christmas traditions in the States. The topics relate, because the society that recently opened the house has decorated it to demonstrate the historical moment when Christmas first began being celebrated with the traditions we have today. Though articles like this are my “for money” work, and not my “real” work—by which, I suppose, I mean, my fiction—I love doing them. I learn a lot, get to visit interesting places. After I email my article to my editor, I do several phone interviews for my next Maine Home+Design article, talking with a Kennebunk architect, landscape architect, and homeowner, though the builders aren’t at their number when I call at the appointed time, and I haven’t been able to get in touch with the interior designer to set up the actual house visit. The storm, I suppose. No one is where they are supposed to be today. After the phone calls, I get de-railed. I have lost my checkbook, and since I have been in New York City for the last ten days, I feel like I should cancel my account. I call my bank, which says I will be on hold for three hours. Again, the bad weather, I assume. This sends me down an unrelated accounting rabbit hole, putting together receipts for my New York trip to submit to my college for reimbursement and adding December expenses into my end-of-the-year tax papers, all of which I organized before I left for New York. I write a letter of recommendation (not due till March) for a student applying for a scholarship. This efficiency is, I know, a form of not writing or not writing fiction. Also, not exercising.
But should I describe an ideal day or a real day?
My husband’s birthday is tomorrow, so I have made a cake, ginger, a flavor he likes. (Knowing the storm was coming, I planned ahead, and bought ingredients yesterday.) I have invited six people for dinner for tomorrow night. Then, I have a phone call with my sister. When I say I have not worked on my “dumb fucking novel” all day, she says, “Wow, that’s an interesting thing for a novel to be able to do!” I speak to my mother. She asks me when I start teaching again—the answer is Feb 7—and then cheerfully tells me that now I have a lot of free time. But I have, in fact, no free time—Colby is a half-time job, and I have two other part-time jobs, plus the ambition to write my novel–and when I say that actually I’m quite busy, four article deadlines in the next two weeks alone, she says, “You’ll have time to do things you want!” This enrages me. Why? Is it a crime for her not to listen when I speak? Of course not, and she’s spent her life being kind to me, but, still, I bristle. She asks me how my son is, my husband, wanting warm, bubbly, effusive answers, but the truth is not warm, bubbly, or effusive—we are trodding through a difficult time, and this is not news to her. I am angry all over again at the inquiry, which is not truly an inquiry but a demand for good news. She’s eighty. She’s frightened about what is ahead, knows she should sell her house, which is much too big for her, and she has been lately turning over this hard truth. What should her next step be? She’s scared and lonely, though she has dear friends and a boyfriend, whom she sees on the weekends and talks to regularly. (My father died eight years ago.) I can see why she wants the relaxing happiness of her loved ones, and yet relaxing happiness does not seem to me to be of what most lives consist. She says as much herself when we drift into how scary the world is with Trump as president, her saying that she’s never known a time quite this unsettling. This, from my mother who has such a strong memory of huddling in the basement during the Cuban missile crisis. (Perhaps the one thing that I will say about the book that I will clearly not work on today is that the tentative title is Rageopolis.)
I decide to do some preliminary snow shoveling, both for the exercise and to spare my husband’s bad back in the morning, but I bundle up, take one step out the door and am so lashed by snow, it occurs to me this is the sort of weather in which one could die two feet from one’s house. I forego the effort.
The cake should be shortly done, and my husband has been in my office several times to tell me that nothing could possibly smell better. Well, that’s nice to hear. My son has come downstairs happily trilling, “You’ve made a cake for me?” No, for Daddy, I say. It’s his birthday tomorrow. I remind him people are coming over. The cake! It is going to have to be the good thing of the day, though it will go unconsumed till tomorrow.
And the heat, of course, the delicious heat. No power outage! I fill my hot water bottle—no heat registers in the second floor of my home—and head upstairs, though not before I tell my husband that Marcos, my Italian lover (doesn’t every hot water bottle need a name?) and I are turning in, though the hanky-panky we love best is reading and that’s what I imagine I’ll be doing for the rest of the day. Instead I get on the phone with my brother, we talk for an hour about this and that. I blow off steam about my mother and then realize I am being ridiculous. The anger is about my own issues, not her behavior. Out goes the light and my night of trying to sleep begins.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. Do you write in your books?
- Sometimes. And often I scribble bits of my own fiction in the end papers, when I am lying in bed, too lazy to get up for a real piece of paper, though an idea has suddenly occurred to me.
2. What is your favorite part of the writing life?
- Getting to talk about books I love with other writers.
3. How do you spend the end of a long writing day?
- In bed with a book!
By Debra Spark: