Monday, May 4, 2020

Nell Smith: What Happened On...

Remember our What Happened on 12.21.19 project? Looks like we're still posting these, so if you're still working on yours, send it in! —Editors

What Happened on December 21st, 2019: A Retrospective

On December 21st, 2019, I wrote down everything that I could remember that had happened. This was an “exercise in attention,” prompted by Essay Daily’s collective writing project. The prompt for December 21st was simple: write about what happens on that day.

At the time, I thought I might edit this writing and send it in. I didn’t. I had just completed my first semester in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming and was spending the holidays in Arizona, taking a break from negative temperatures and highways closed for fear of semi-trucks blowing over in the wind (this is not hyperbole, this actually happens in Wyoming). I was busy celebrating the holidays with my partner and his family, catching up with friends, and reading ahead on a lengthy booklist for the spring. In other words, I got caught up in living.

It’s been three weeks now since I began isolating at home. On March 16th, at the start of spring break, the University of Wyoming announced that campus was closing due to COVID-19 and we would be moving to online classes for the rest of the semester. The weeks that followed were a crash course in learning to teach online, staring deadpan at a mess of essays I had torn apart in earlier fits of zealous revision, and suddenly finding myself using the word “Zoom” as a verb in my daily life.

I had been working on an essay about fragments: fragments of bone, fragments of light, and what the space between these fragments can embody. I’m learning to pay attention to these spaces. A lot can happen in the subtext, in the distance between things, in the space of what is left out, in the time between December 21st and March 16th.

A few days ago, I was sifting through fragmented pieces of freewriting and found my writing from December 21st. As I reread it, I wasn’t struck by some sense of brilliance, but rather by how ordinary it was. And by ordinary, I mean full of the conversations, tasks, random encounters and observations that make up a day or a life. In a notebook that I’ve kept with me for over a decade now is a quote by Annie Dillard stating, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

How I spend my days looks very different now and I’ve been thinking about the exercise of attention. Of what we choose to fill our days with and what is left unnoticed. What is left in the subtext. Every day I make choices about what to pay attention to—read this news, stop reading that news—and yet all around me, whether I notice it or not, the world goes on. It’s springtime in Wyoming. The Laramie River has thawed, tulips are coming up in the back yard, and Turkey Vultures are returning to circle the thermals above town.

What we think of as ordinary is defined by a river of variables that, in the best of times, goes largely unnoticed. An ordinary day is full of subtext. It’s not always a comfortable space; a lot can happen in subtext. It’s murky, undefined, uncertain. Sometimes you can’t make out what is going on in there until later.

What Happened on December 21, 2019

I wake before light but lie in the dark awhile, enjoying the warmth of Parker sleeping next to me and the feeling of my mind unfurling. At seven, our alarm goes off and a little while later we uncurl and rise to the thought of coffee.

I feel talkative. I perch on one of the kitchen stools and, between sips of coffee, talk about my life in Laramie, the new friends who are taking care of my cat while I’m gone, the enormous fern I recently bought and the classes I might take this spring. Parker listens as he fries eggs, which we eat on top of thick buttered slices of homemade bread. He has begun baking this winter.

By nine we are on our way to South Mountain and the Pima Canyon trailhead. This is my first morning back in Arizona and I want to go birding and reacquaint myself with the desert. The trailhead is busy with families out together on the weekend before Christmas. Parker and I take a less traveled path up a dry, sandy wash.

Mesquite, ironwood, paloverde, brittlebush, EphedraSphaeralcea, Plantago. We name the plants that line the wash, pausing occasionally to ponder at those we don’t have names for. Over a dozen individual hummingbirds wheel and beep in the space around us. They suck nectar from the tiny delicate tubes of Lycium flowers that are so inconspicuous we hadn’t noticed the blooms until the birds led our eyes to them.

We watch a Rock Wren work the crevices of a boulder and I think about how some of the most exquisitely beautiful birds are those that might seem nondescript at first look. Up close, the seemingly plain brown back of the Rock Wren is actually many shades all patterned together. Under its tail are striking black and white bars and the warm buffy feathers of its belly look softer than wool.

We rise out of the wash and circle back towards the car. In the uplands, Black-throated Sparrows tinkle like glass chimes among the creosote and barrel cactus. Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers swoop and call noisily from the tops of saguaro while Cactus Wrens pick their way through cholla. A pair of Common Raven trace the contour of a nearby ridge.

Next to the car, Parker and I lean against a railing and watch flocks of Gambel’s Quail and White-crowned Sparrows flood the section of wash that stretches wide below us. We talk about summer—our plans and lack of plans. This may be the first field season since we met that we won’t work the same job. Now that we live states apart, summer is the longest period that we can be in the same place, but it is also the season for work. Field biology jobs flood the summer then dry up in winter so you have to take advantage of the flood.

We talk for a while and don’t come to any conclusions but it feels good to try to plan our autonomous lives so that they might weave together in places. I’m thirty years old but these last few years with Parker have been the first where I have felt like a real factor in a partner’s plans.

We stop for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant and while we wait, Chloe walks in the door. I haven't seen her in a year or more. She lives in Mancos, Colorado now and is just in the city for a few days. We meet her new boyfriend and make plans to go hiking together tomorrow. In a city of nearly five million people, we both picked this place, this time. She says her spidey senses had been out for me all morning.

We take Parker’s Grandmom grocery shopping at Fry’s. She jokes that no one wants to take her after her fainting incident last week at Target. She reassures us, though, that she is going to “be good” for us today and indeed, the errands go smoothly. At her apartment, we unpack the ingredients for her dressing balls that are a staple of all holiday dinners.

Before we leave, I pick oranges, lemons, and grapefruit from the trees outside her patio. It takes just a few minutes to overflow two grocery bags and I leave much ripe fruit on the trees. Tomorrow, I’ll give most of it to Chloe and her boyfriend and I’ll pick more for us next time. On the way home, I tell Parker he needs to eat more citrus; he has to do his part in this big city that doesn’t seem to appreciate its abundance of fruit.

Back home we eat blue corn chips with hummus, take a fifteen minute nap, and watch the Mourning Doves and Curve-billed Thrashers squabble over seeds spilled from the feeder. While I make dinner, Parker goes on a run and does his PT exercises. He showers and puts freshly charged batteries in the fiberoptic Christmas lights and we eat under their soft light.

Parker mixes us two Old Fashioneds in mismatched glasses and drops an extra cherry in mine, knowing my fondness for them. We talk about where to go during the month I’ll be here before I start my second semester in Wyoming. We talk about friends and birds to visit in Flagstaff, Tucson, Patagonia, and Madera Canyon. Maybe on New Year’s Eve we will hike in to meet a friend on a southern section of the Arizona Trail. There is so much to do.

We brush our teeth. I wash my face. We go to bed. Parker gets up and rearranges the covers. We sleep.


Nell Smith is a writer and field biologist exploring the interplay between people and place. Her writing has been published in Minding Nature, Thin Air Magazine, Entropy, Hawk & Whippoorwill and elsewhere. She is currently in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming pursuing a dual degree in Creative Nonfiction and Environmental & Natural Resources. Visit her at

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