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 LESLIE LAWRENCE.
Was it the mere decision to write about the day that made it more interesting? As a writer I’d like to think so, but it’s also true that I chose the day because of an item on my To Do list. SLIDES! #15, and the only one all in caps—it seemed promising. My mom’s 95th was approaching fast. A slide show, I’d decided, would be a great way to celebrate. My parents once tallied up the number of countries they’d visited: 67. For each, they had at least one carousel full of slides. Luckily, I’m a writer. I know how to edit.
Just minutes into my morning, I became self-conscious about how many of my thoughts were about aging and loss. Big birthdays can do that, of course, as can impending anniversaries of death (my partner’s, my father’s), but truth is, it’s my own aging and losses that preoccupy me. The loss, for example, of my ability to do one thing at a time and to do it to completion without somehow making a mess. Do I really want my reader to know how I lurch from sink to plants to kettle to computer to kibble… because even though I’m semi-retired, I don’t want to waste a second, and besides: I worry I’ll forget to do whatever it is, if I don’t do it now.
Apparently, I do want my reader to know this! I’m embarrassed about it, but why should I be? Some people, I’ve heard, pay good money (ok, maybe it’s free) for a Buddhist-ish app that chimes on the hour to remind them to chant: Everything dies. I’m going to die…
The slides! While walking the dog I start worrying my great idea might backfire—all those pictures of my mother in her gorgeous youth with her hunk of a husband might make her too sad and plunge me deeper into my loss-obsessed state. Home again and willing to risk it, I set up the ancient machine and screen.
Click: My mom beside a team of camels, astride a donkey, feeding a koala bear, looking so girlish, so stylish, so happy.
Click: My dad conferring with a fellow veterinarian in Bangladesh, eating injera in Ethiopia, exiting from a make-shift WC tent on the banks of the Colorado, so at home in the world.
Click: The two of them in front of the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the mountainous glaciers of Antarctica, looking like they were made for each other.
Even I could not find these images depressing. Sure, most people aren’t so privileged, youth is fleeting and life evanescent—but in their case it’s been truly marvelous.
Later, 2:18 pm to be exact, I was jolted out of an email trance by a very loud sound I traced to my cell phone. Others, I later learned, knew it was coming—this test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. I did not. Even so, I wasn’t alarmed until I read these words: “Presidential Alert.” Bad enough to be subjected daily to the name of He Who Shall Not Be Named, to the gut-punching sound and look of it—now he had my number! And this was supposed to be reassuring?
Some succor was called for and it came in the form of a premature second dog walk in the park. It was out there among the autumn leaves that I decided I would follow through on a tentative plan to go to the museum that evening. My friend, the poet Kathleen Aguero, had a gig in a pilot program, “Poetry in the Galleries.” We could catch up over a bite beforehand. I could look at, and write about art. Not only would this be fun, it would prove I lived an interesting—a writerly—life!
Kathi’s assigned gallery houses a collection of small sculptures by Claes Oldenberg, each a shelf displaying a masterful arrangement of objects. Oddly, provocatively, this exhibit is prefaced by a sampling of Dutch Still Lifes from the 17th century. Who knew I’d find these latter so sublime! Against a faintly lit, bare wall stands a table covered by a dazzling white cloth. Atop that: a pewter plate of pearly oysters, a felled candlestick, a roll… A still life, yes, freezing a moment while also somehow reminding us of its brevity.
The Oldenburgs, too, are all about time. I’m not just projecting, it’s there in the show’s punny title: Shelf Life. The artist, we are told, now eighty-nine, is looking back on his career and trying to “decide what to keep.” The mixed media works use in miniature many of the objects he once made monumental. My college, Oberlin, owned his “Giant Three-Way Plug,” so early on I learned how scale and context can make the familiar strange.
I’m charmed and also a little unnerved by these more recent assemblages… One features stuffed bunnies, thrice the size of the paper bowling pins scattered beneath. Another, a flower, half a hand saw, a cardboard slice of pebbly cake. One object near the end snares my attention: a light switch just begging to be flipped. I’m tired but sated by this day made larger and stranger by the mindfulness and adventurousness that writing requires. Up. Down. On. Off. Good morning! Good night!
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your reading life?
2. When you’re writing, is there anything you return to again and again for inspiration?
- My two favorites for different reasons: Grace Paley and Virginia Woolf.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I don’t know if it’s strange, but I think it’s bad: I spend about as much time on the first tenth of a piece as I do the next nine-tenths.