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 MARIO CHARD.
I am sitting alone in a rained-out and unused chapel on the campus of the school where I teach. Today is Thursday. I am here, I hope, to write. The benches were dry when I arrived but the floor is still wet. Most days I never make it here, though most days I trick myself into believing that I will: after work, after school, sometime. Clearly, that’s one of the ideas I can’t let go of: that constant loss of a possible thing. Years ago I put the speaker of my first published poem at a kitchen window, washing dishes, anxious to leave his chore for a walk before the evening comes, and then the evening comes. The poem ends this way: “He does not look to know / the trees are lost / and all the fences still.” The lines are pretty, I think, a little sad, but muy dramático, my mother would say. And here at the chapel, made nervous again by that too-serious strain in me, I cringe, say something stupid aloud and laugh to no one. I do this often in case the angels are recording. I want them to know that I’m in on the joke.
I have rarely felt so tempted to exaggerate the truth of my life as I do right now—and admitting that, I can tell you truthfully that all day I kept returning to one or two lines that had revealed themselves to me, lines that maybe I could make something of. The lines were something like I started to believe that you were a character in my life and not your own. That I had made you that. The words were from a conversation the night before, and they were still there in the morning, and maybe I can follow them here for this reliving of a single day: the words there in the background all through a dark morning, the drive to work, my sons walking to their school, the trail behind their school that led to mine, and teaching there all day, then waiting for everyone to leave, and writing at the chapel, and walking late, and driving home.
At the chapel I am trying to remember the day, how the moments after waiting for my sons to walk through the door of their building led finally to my opening the door to my own classroom, turning on its ten lamps. Most mornings I have a quick half hour before the first students arrive, so I take two bottles down the steps to the main floor faculty lounge and fill one with hot water from the spout on the coffee maker. Small drops always burn my hand. Down the hall I fill the other bottle with cold water from the drinking fountain. There is always something odd left pooled or dried in the drinking fountain. I note it and then ignore it. In a few moments I will pour the hot water over yerba for a morning mate, drink the tea from a silver straw or bombilla, start the day and teach the lesson. I will note the expressions my students make and then ignore them. They will note my words and then ignore them. This is the game we play. How else could we live if we weren’t allowed to ignore nearly everything we note or sense in a day? Does everyone live this way? I ask that question at the chapel but not the fountain.
Sometime later after lunch, I had a moment in my room alone when I remembered the lines from earlier. I felt something like excitement. I pulled up Twitter on my phone and pressed the quill icon to draft a tweet. After a few false starts I published this:
That the people we love are characters in our life stories is the oldest lie.
I knew that I had liked the syntax of the sentence. It reminded me of Eavan Boland’s “That the Science of Cartography is Limited,” a poem I adore. But of course I didn’t know anything about “the oldest lie.” How could I? What I mean is that I wrote that line to see if it were true, if it could be. I chose a public forum to say a thing I couldn’t know.
Now at the chapel, sitting in a place I love, in the open air, I am finally grateful at the end of the day for the chance to rest and think, which as a gift outweighs the little slights I felt throughout the day, the slights I made, the constant worry of losing the possible thing: more time with my wife and sons, more time to hatch another plot or plan, lines I could have made if given time. It’s only then, grateful, that I realize something about the lines that woke me, about the people I love, the ones I too often make characters of. I write down what I couldn’t know and keep it there. No forum but the angels now. And then it’s time to leave. And then the evening comes.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. Would you give us a little piece of advice about reading poetry?
- I find the thing I love about the poem (the rhyme or sound or story or image or form) and follow it through. Then I read it again. The best poems are desperate to tell us what they are, even what they mean. The best poems hide nothing. Like that moment when we finally recognize a single voice shouting in a crowd of shouting voices: we wouldn’t say that the voice was hidden before we heard it, that the voice of someone we love was never there before it was. We would say that it was masked or waiting. Still, when I find nothing to love about the poem, I read another! Then another. There are so many waiting.
3. What question do you wish someone would ask you?
- Most days, it’s “How would you like this [life-changing-amount-of-money] deposited?”
- But a secret one would be “Why does the speaker in your two “Parable” poems (of “Migrants” and of “Prophets”) kneel at the window?”
By Mario Chard: