Today we present ten more dispatches from June 21, 2018 to you. More details on the project here, but, in brief, we asked you to write about what happened on one day in June, and are publishing the results, largely unedited, for the next month and change, roughly ten a day. If you wrote something (it's not too late!), send us your work ASAP via this submission form (it's okay if you didn't RSVP before: the more the merrier).
July 5: Ander Monson • Jennifer Gravley • Jeannie E. Roberts • Mark Neely • Jill Christman • Alison Deming • Ella P. Neely • Henry Neely • Sandra J Lindow • Emma Thomason
Up at 6:30 to the screams of Athena who’s freaking out because Toulouse (boy cat, 15) chewed up her “paper bag” during the night, to which, well, yeah, that’s kinda what you get for leaving it on the floor, we told her, which didn’t help. No idea why this mattered, but it did not seem like a strong way to start the longest day of the year. I think she took his chewing somehow as a personal affront, since she’s been trying to befriend him after the recent death of Napoleon, by far her favorite of our cats. Lucky for her he’s an easy lover: before we left she was tossing treats his way and chortling.
It’s 84 degrees out at 7:30am which is dispiriting but typical in its relentlessness. Stepping outside is a grinding punishing but we have to have the intense heat to bring in the monsoon (and to remind me that there is an endurable downside to our beautiful winters: without some suffering how does one enjoy anything?). Knowing this doesn’t stop the fact of the heat and sun from its demoralizing work. There is virtually no part of the day that will shelter you this month.
I’m reminded that my fitbit tracks some daily data automatically, paying a kind of attention without me having to, so at least I’ll have that data to report if nothing else. The high in Tucson today will be 107, five degrees cooler than yesterday (112), which tells you something about what we mean by heat. Sunset here will be at 7:34, and every time I think about summer sunset in Tucson I’m reminded of how long June days were in Michigan (in Grand Rapids the sun goes down today at 9:26pm; in Houghton at 9:54pm). Here the differential between sundowns in December and June is only about 2 hours; in Houghton it’s about 5 hours. Stupid latitude.
Walking A into school I notice my toenail polish is chipped. I have a little vanity—not much—about it, but I won’t get around to doing anything about the situation for another week. Hey, but noticing is a kind of doing, and it’s the doing I’m supposed to be today, so here I am, noticing. I tell Athena I’ll pick her up after lunch.
I send out a reminder to our (333—!—at the time of this writing) collaborators on the June 21 project. The email generates a couple auto-replies that I briefly misperceive as important email. Maybe they are important email. An embarrassing percentage of my days consists of reading or responding to notifications of one sort or another, often “important email”, which suggests that “important” may not always be the most accurate word.
I really don’t want “what happened today” to be an account of my emails.
Cicadas and sun though. Their metallic duets.
Silence between air conditioner cycles though.
At least an hour elapses with me noting no data.
Then a moment of frustration when I’m trying to pay a little bit of sustained attention to something, and every device I have starts going off: cell phone pings texts of good news (birthdays, engagements), and I a friend calls to backchannel about potential red flags about a possible job candidate. Work email. Work email. Work email. Rooster (girl cat, 17) rubbing against my leg and lobbying hard for feeding. She’s a skinny animal. Received a prognosis of “she has a month to live” 26 months ago, and I thought we’d lose her a couple times since then, but she’s still going hard in the paint for which she has my respect, and so I feed her anytime she wants, which has the result you’d expect, with her figuring this out and hitting the stimulus button as often as she can. Napoleon was her younger sibling. I wonder to what degree she misses him. He died two weeks ago, which was hard for all of us, and I don’t know how to talk about it much less write about it without feeling like a chump. With old animals, time feels more acute.
Reminded of this line from the Silver Jews: “Time is a game only children play well.” It’s in a seemingly-throwaway song (“How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down?”) but it lands.
Text from Verizon that my bill is paid. Why does Verizon text me that my bill is paid? I feel possessive of this particular mode of notification I try to reserve for friends and family. Why does an automatic confirmation feel as invasive as it does?
Biweekly email from the university system reminding every employee to turn in your time cards or whatever. Can’t they disambiguate the hourly employees from the salaried? I always feel a little guilty like there’s something else I should be doing, usually because there’s something else I should be doing. Try not to get into a paralytic loop about it though.
Watching Argentina get pantsed by Croatia and trading texts with another friend, the ex of a friend I texted with earlier, about the spectacle. I don’t mention either to the other. Sad to see Peru’s run end, though, earlier, but I have Mexico to cheer for, so there’s that.
A little truck roar comes from down the block. Today is recycling day, which is good news for Athena. For the kids at school, who line up to watch, the recycling truck’s progress through the neighborhood is an event, proof of order, I suppose, in the world. I forget how meaningful / magical these systems are to them and how routine they are to me. Trying to explain the plumbing and sewer system to her I was newly reminded of how incredibly complex these systems are. I had to stop.
The act of paying attention reminds me of how much slips beneath my attention. And it’s an eroding feeling I’m feeling the more I pay attention to it. How much of it is like Wile E. Coyote, running out over air and not falling until he notices?
Are you feeling that slipping feeling too? Maybe it’s better not to notice at all.
I go for a nowhere run. The treadmill feels even less like something happening than running outside does. If work is force times distance, then what is accomplished is nothing: force expended, no (actual) distance covered. It’s a strange thought, but running outside in Tucson in June requires a different kind of commitment to bodily discomfort, which I try to do a couple days a week, and more if I see some clouds, but I won’t today.
A day is made of many subroutines: commuting, toilet, pet attention, pet feeding, child attention, online reading, online feeding, inbox outbox, social media, submissions and contest manuscript reading. Fitbit poking me to get off my ass: broooooooo! getttt upppp. Corresponding.
Like most days this day’s made of swathes of attention and swathes of inattention. Text arrives from Albert Goldbarth, who complains about the boringness of his day, which he is duly chronicling. It’s not the subject, man, it’s the mind we’re interested in!
Twitter’s not always just an echo chamber or irritant. For instance: from it I find the news that today is also #NationalSelfieDay (quelle coincidence!)
Is paying attention to the world a kind of selfie? In writing “what happens” are we necessarily manifesting a self, creating a system? Probably.
Does paying attention to what happens on a day treat the page—or the human mind—like an undeveloped piece of film? Is that even a metaphor that will make sense to anyone? (When was the last time you got physical film developed?)
The metaphors we use for the self or mind mirror the technologies of the time (mind as computer, for instance). The more closely they mirror the moment the less we think about what else they imply.
Retrieve Athena from school. We go to Target and buy some shit. Come home. She eats a massive solid chocolate bunny leftover from Easter. Sure, I say, go nuts, which she does. She has a paper plane she brought home that she tells me a long story about. Esther wanted this plane, she explains, but I took it while she was sleeping. How do you think she’ll feel, I ask, when she wakes up and finds it gone? Bad probably, she says. How bad will she feel, she asks. I don’t know, I said. She wanted to play with it when we played with them. But I got to pick first which plane to bring home, she says. It’s purple which is probably why, but I suspect that Esther’s feeling bad was not an unwelcome outcome.
Her paper airplane, though, is nice and sleek, even if she doesn’t know how to launch it. I make her a few more, but her teacher’s chops are way past mine, and my planes suck but fly, so there’s that.
Watching drone footage of my hometown in Michigan after getting a 100-year rainstorm (6 inches in less than 24 hours: unheard of my whole life). Main thoroughfares are just wiped out. I find a gofundme for the Michigan Historical Society and Archive, which has flood damage, and I kick in a couple hundred bucks. You should too.
Noticing that my noticing (at least as serves this project) is highly attenuated as I’m in full parent mode. Big gaps in what I remember or make a note of. Story of the last four years. This is not news to a large percentage of the population, though as usual I’m a little late to the conclusion.
It’s rest time for Athena but I’m the one who’s exhausted. Chocolate milk. Some snack that I forget (probably pretzel sticks or Chex mix, from which she only likes the melba toasts). I read her a couple books, including an old Clifford one that’s pretty bad. It’s about how awesome her big-ass dog Clifford is, in which the protagonist ends up grandstanding shamelessly in front of her friend, a fact not really more than nodded at in the book (also the logistics of the giant dog are…gross to contemplate). One of the weirdest things about the Clifford books is how little the books are interested in consequences of any sort, which may be why they’re so appealing. The dogs never receive their comeuppance for trashing a worksite, for instance, and causing what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and almost getting one or more of their friends killed.
One of Athena’s stuffed cats has a “vet appointment.” We go on a hunt to find her vet tools so she can administer treatments of various efficacies to the animals during rest time. I don’t comment on the quality of her quackery.
56 minutes pass relatively restfully. I send some emails.
She is in my office now.
“How many minutes are left?”
“Can I skip the 2 minutes”
“You can skip the 2 minutes”
“Okay, let’s look for basketball keychains!”
Which we do (don’t ask). More snack provisioning. Then time in the pool, which we like a lot. Megan doesn’t particularly enjoy the “swimming” which mostly consists of Athena molesting and capsizing me, but it suits me fine. It’s beautiful outside to be in the pool in June: the heat recedes, at least under the sun shade. It feels deluxe and unbelievable that things can be this bright and cool and beautiful. Leads to a lovely moment: floating in the pool, shielded from the sun, considering the sky: blue, palm trees-framed. No clouds. Neighborhood sound. From here the sun seems like a feature, not a flaw, a benevolent god. In an hour I’ll feel differently, but until then it’s sublime! Would I have noticed it if I wasn’t on noticing duty?
I’m not moving into another house in a better school district (a consideration for the next year) unless it has a pool.
Megan emerged from work while we were in the pool. We rinse off, and Megan cuts up potatoes and rosemary for the grill. Not a fancy meal but it is a good one.
The gap between the end of dinner (the salmon went bad in the fridge which we only realized after cooking it: thought it was just a little bonus smelly; note to self: Megan is always better than me at catching this; just listen to her next time instead of relying on my manly intuition and my duller senses; luckily for Athena, for whom it is a fav, we had backup salmon, honey-smoked from Costco. It’s fantastic) and then bedtime. Cleaning, dishes, washing, watering plants to get them through the extreme heat until it starts raining in a couple weeks. Athena watches some insane and colorful Japanese-animated show in the cool inside.
Thought about taking Athena to see the 12,000 bats under the bridge at the Pantano Wash, but she seemed beat before sundown, so I figured I’d punt that to another day. Her toy cats Ginger and Frank each brushed their teeth, then she brushed her teeth. Read four books. She’s been revisiting “books we haven’t read in a long time,” which is an opportunity to bring back some neglected winners. Tonight: Penguin Problems, one that I can’t remember now, and Press Here (twice). Press Here is fantastic, a stroke of genius. Penguin Problems I used not to like, but it’s grown on me.
Ordered a box of Affresh washing machine tabs and a copy of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, a project much in keeping with our own What Happened On June 21th, on the recommendation of my friend Susan.
Fitbit stats for the day as of 10:55pm: 1 floor climbed (?—this is Tucson; we don’t have many unless I go to work or hit some trails), 6.56 miles traversed, 13,137 steps, 3,702 calories (kcal), 127 minutes active. Last night I slept for 5:52, with 44 minutes awake/restless. Current pulse: 66. Resting pulse: 58. I hit 7 of 9 hours with at least 250 steps an hour (though in my defense one of those hours I was in the pool the whole time so didn’t have the fitbit on). I don’t check or register my weight. Judging from the fit of my shorts I am chunkin’ up and don’t need to know specifics.
Watch a show or two I think. Have a drink to mark the separation from the parent portion of the day.
I planned on making it to midnight but with the kiddo getting up so early in the summer, driven by the light in spite of blackout curtains etc., I’m not sure it’s worth it to commit. Working on some notes from the day. Sense of fatigue. What did I notice that others did too, or didn’t? Where do our days intersect, and where do they stray off into their own tidal pools or—I’m trying to remember the word now: cul-de-sac? not quite, but the one I want seems to be beyond my capacity for digging at the moment. I wonder often how specific or idiosyncratic or maybe I just mean exclusive my experiences are, selfish thing that I am. All these words, all this data: it’s all buried in the mind. Like a disconnected meander, or some kind of loop that gets cut off from the main river. Like a book in the stacks that lost its card catalog card or digital entry. All the data is still there: it’s just no longer pointed to. Reminder that if you want to really delete anything on your devices you have to wipe the space and X over the data. Otherwise it’s all still there, only occasionally getting overwritten. Ask the NSA. They’d prefer I don’t tell you this. I’m off on a tangent here, and that’s not the word I’m thinking of either.
Trying to think of the word I close the word file and go to sleep instead and hope I won’t circle the word in dreams. I won’t, or if I will I won’t remember.
Something I Don’t Remember Anymore
June 21 was a Thursday, so what happened that morning was what happens every weekday morning: I didn’t want to get out of bed. Did I turn off both alarms on my cell phone and fall back asleep, one time and then another, as I do every morning? I didn’t have time to write it down. When I left the house, a city police SUV was parked on the street outside our cul-de-sac. I called my husband and left a voicemail.
It won’t be a surprise: the best part of my workday was thinking about sentences when a colleague asked me to look at a story for our library news site.
I needed to leave the building so I walked down the street and ordered an overpriced sandwich on gluten-free bread. Another thing I hadn’t done that morning was pack a lunch. I took the notebook where I was drafting by hand one thousand words per day for a different writing project but instead looked at my phone.
Three people asked me questions during my reference desk shift. No one called or asked a question via email, chat, or text message. When the next librarian came out to replace me, she asked if I had any exciting plans. I panicked and asked, “In life?” Then “This weekend?” She meant, of course, this summer, and then the phone rang.
I left work early to meet a friend to work on yet another different writing project. My favorite commute: university library to public library. I went to the third floor, where the study rooms were taken, and then back down to the first floor where one group could be kicked out in 15 minutes. Two minutes before the kicking-out time, we went back to the children’s desk and learned the room had just been given away. It was raining, just a little, and summer. We spent a long time unsuccessfully brainstorming alternatives before heading upstairs to unpack on one of the long work tables. Then a group left their room early, and we were able to begin. There’s no use asking what we would’ve done with those extra minutes.
After I got home, my husband made peanut butter noodles, and we ate the PB noodles on the couch while watching The Handmaid’s Tale. After that I went upstairs to bed, where I had on my nightstand a dozen books as well as my Kindle, my iPad, five notebooks, three pens, a lamp, two booklights, and an alarm clock for knowing the time with minimal effort when I wake, and I do, in the night.
This was the time of night when it feels like the day is just beginning, just starting—or could be starting—to be mine. But tomorrow I would definitely be turning off the alarms on my phone one after the other and sleeping far later than I should, so I didn’t start my day.
Instead my husband and I talked in the dark. I confirmed on IMDb that I knew the name of Phoebe’s twin on Friends. At some point I said something I don’t remember anymore, and then I asked my husband if he was going to write that on June 21 I said this thing that I don’t remember anymore. I didn’t know then what he’d tell me a few days later—that he probably wasn’t going to do it.
JEANNIE E. ROBERTS
Before rising, the window air conditioner gives one last blast. I get up, make the bed, and head downstairs. My husband sits on the couch, coffee within easy reach, as the morning news trumpets more chaos. Yogi pads toward me, while wagging his 13-year-old personality, seemingly repeating, "Hi, Mom, it’s good to see you!" My husband pauses the news, where we chat quickly. "Let me know how it goes," he says, then leaves for work.
I turn off the TV, pour myself some coffee, eat breakfast, and let the day begin. Yogi and I head outside. As we walk, the nesting osprey fuss and chirp, hiss as the female circles above us. "Go away, go away!" she squawks.
It’s time to pack, but leisurely. As I prepare for the long weekend, the resident loon comes to mind. She appears to have adopted our end of the lake, perhaps unwittingly. Concerned, I find the binoculars, where she rides the water, occasionally dipping her head. She spreads and shakes her wings, which could be a good sign. I text my husband about the loon, about her wings.
Emails and electronic communication await, as does my Facebook group, Daily Gratitude. My post for today reads: "I’m grateful and thankful to prepare for a four-day writers’ retreat, held locally, here in the Chippewa Valley area of WI. I’m hoping to meet like-minded writers/creatives, to form local friendships, to nurture a sense of community and belonging. I’m grateful to hold these hopes, these intentions in prayer."
As I go about my afternoon, I’m mindful and in the moment. The car is packed and I’m nearly ready to leave, but before I do Yogi needs one more walk around the yard. He spots a red squirrel. After an unfruitful chase, he wobbles and drops to the ground, heart racing. Again, he’s forgotten that he’s not the frisky puppy he once was. Patting him, I affirm his being by offering these words, "It’s okay. You’re a good boy."
During my twenty-five-mile drive, I listen to David Whyte’s CD “Courage & Vulnerability, the Beauty in Human Reluctance.” His work resonates deeply, especially these three poems: “The House of Belonging,” “Apprentice Yourself to Your Own Unknowing,” and “In a Dark Wood.”
I arrive to find a lovely setting midst the woodlands, where a log cabin will lodge eight other writers, plus our workshop instructor.
We share introductions, socialize, then have dinner. We laugh, and camaraderie builds. As a group, we write about our evening, where I choose Yogi brand Peach Detox tea as my writing accompaniment.
On this summer night, its solstice, the longest day of the year, I’m buoyed with wings of courage, lighthearted swiftness, and by the beauty and spirit of humans who gather together as one.
—Jeannie E. Roberts
A Hard Day of Nothing Much at All
“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed woke not Henry up,” writes John Berryman in The Dream Songs, a line which ran through my mind as my eyes rolled open this particular Thursday—one of those gloomy Midwestern mornings when the sun is hidden behind a miles-wide shelf of clouds. Berryman’s cure for the a.m. doldrums was a few fingers of bourbon in a tumbler of water. Thinking it best not to emulate such a tragic life, I opted for a cup of green tea instead, having discovered around age 40 that I could no longer tolerate coffee on an empty stomach. The tea was a Chinese variety, “dragonwell,” a name I liked for its dual connotations of power and health. It was June 21st, just a few days after Bloomsday, the anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s adventures in Ulysses. For his breakfast, Bloom eats a fried kidney (which he almost burns while talking with his wife), along with bread, butter, and several cups of tea. A century later I found myself pouring a bowl of shredded wheat with sliced banana, wondering, as I often do, when exactly it was that I turned into a middle-aged man.
The writer Jim Harrison, famous for his gluttony, often ate plain oatmeal for breakfast. When his French friends teased him about this habit, wondering why a gourmand such as himself would start the day so blandly, Harrison said, “so I can live to eat another day,” which beautifully sums up my feelings about the shredded wheat. Of course, if there’s one thing we know about nutrition, it is that attitudes about what constitutes healthy eating are always shifting. The low-carb crowd, for example, would probably view my virtuous serving of shredded wheat as something akin to a bowl of rat poison. During breakfast, I scrolled through Facebook, the local paper, and Deadspin, a gossipy sports site, then went through my usual bathroom routine. See Ulysses, chapter three, for a more detailed description of my activities therein.
The kids were up by then, out of school and equal parts excited and bored by their summer freedom. I helped them get breakfast, then made a second cup of tea and tried to do some work on my laptop. It was an unproductive hour, full of interruptions. Our new puppy, Maggie, not quite house-trained, requires near-constant attention, and Henry, age 10, was terrorizing his older sister by sneaking up and blasting her with his high-powered Nerf gun. Jill had been up early, sitting in the back room with her coffee and computer, but now she was off at a hair appointment, and by the time she returned and started getting things together for a trip we had coming up, the morning was half over. A short while later I got up to clean the kitchen and help a bit with the preparations before heading in to work.
I had managed to accomplish one thing that morning. I had promised myself I’d send some poems out to literary magazines before we left for my mother-in-law’s house in Washington, where we’d have little internet access, and there was one more magazine to check off my list—POETRY, that venerable old mothership of American letters. Getting a poem published there had always been a goal of mine. Appearing in POETRY, which had published virtually every important American poet of the 20th century, would put me in conversation with the poets I had grown up reading—Lowell, Plath, Rich, Brooks, Berryman.
So far my pursuit of this goal has been futile. I have sent over twenty submissions to POETRY over the last dozen years or so, all of them met with the magazine’s standard rejection. These first came as little quarter sheets of paper, printed with a generic dismissal, and crammed into an envelope I had addressed to myself. It used to take a lot of work to be an unknown poet. Now it’s a little easier, as almost every magazine has moved their submissions process online.
As I made some final edits, I thought of Ruth Lilly, heir to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, who just before her death had bequeathed close to a hundred million dollars to POETRY, surely making the magazine the richest literary organization in the world. When the gift was made public, I read that Lilly, herself an aspiring poet, had sent several batches of poems to the magazine, but had always been rejected. The fact that she had still been so generous with them always struck me as the ultimate integrity, but maybe, (in Groucho Marx’s famous formulation), an organization could only gain her respect once it had denied her as a member.
At the time, pressing the “Submit” button felt like the biggest accomplishment of my day, preceded as it was by hours of writing and revision over the previous months, but in a half-year or so, when the almost-certain rejection arrives in my inbox, it won’t have amounted to anything at all. But you have to have something of the gambler in you to play this game, always confident the next spin will be the one that hits.
Two of the poems I’d sent were written about my father, who had died just over a year before. This fact made judging them more difficult than usual, but assessing one’s own work is always challenging. When John Berryman was asked by his student, W.S. Merwin, how he was supposed to know if his poems were any good, Berryman answered, “you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write.” These are the kind of reassuring maxims that tend to pop into my head when I send out my poems.
Before I knew it, the time had come to get ready to go to work. I’d taken an administrative job in the English department, so had to be on campus more hours than usual in the summer. Most of my time that afternoon would be taken up by the second of four 2-hour computer training sessions, where administrators and staff would learn the basics of Sitecore, a “content management” system that would allow us to update our department website. The umbrella I grabbed on my way out of the house turned out to be a poor choice, a small and mangled affair that offered little protection from what was now a driving rain, and I got fairly soaked walking from car to office, then on to the library for the training. My colleagues were gathered outside the locked computer lab, and for some reason we all felt the need to explain the fact of our wet shoes and pant legs. When the man from marketing and communications arrived to conduct the training, he said he had tried to wait out the rain—he had no umbrella—but “ended up soaked and late.”
During my eight years of higher education in English and creative writing, I never imagined I would find myself in a computer lab in the basement of the library, learning the architecture and branding behind our website’s tabs, carousels, “breadcrumbs,” media library, and personnel directory, but then again, so many things about my job would have been a surprise to this younger, more naïve version of myself.
It was early evening when I returned home, and I had just enough time to read book 20 of The Odyssey before it was time to make dinner. I was reading (and very much enjoying) Emily Wilson’s new version, the first translation of the poem into English by a woman. In this book, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, begins to set in motion his plan to take revenge on the suitors who have been courting his wife. They’ve also been slaughtering and eating his livestock and drinking his vast stores of wine, which for Homer is perhaps an even greater offense. Having not read the poem in many years, I had forgotten how much of it recounts episodes of eating and drinking. The characters are always slaughtering some poor pig, cow, or goat, burning its thighs (as a sacrifice to the gods), then roasting the meat on spits and washing it down with bowls of wine. Eating and reading, it occurs to me, are two of the things I think about most in life, and two things I aspire to do well. As Frank Conroy says, they are some of the few pleasures in life that “never run out.”
When my father grew tired of living, he simply stopped eating, which was all the more shocking because food had always been a great comfort to him. This method of dying took longer than you might think, but eventually it did the trick.
Henry was off at a friend’s house, so the three of us had a quick dinner together before Ella had to leave for her swing dance class. I made tostadas, a vegetarian version for Ella, topped with leftover refried beans, lettuce, olives, salsa, and avocado. For the grownups, I’d gotten a pre-made, Frontera Grill brand “barbacoa.” The kind of thing you heat in a pan for ten minutes and serve. This turned out to be some weird looking rectangles of meat and a mostly unidentifiable mix of beans and vegetables. I realized for about the same price, and not a lot more effort, I could have cooked a steak and sautéed peppers and onions for our tostadas. I felt foolish to be suckered by this high-end branding, thinking about how much we sacrifice in the name of convenience.
It always seems strange to have dinner without one of the children present, and makes me imagine how it will be when they’re out of the house, off on their own adventures. Ella starts high school next year, and it’s hard to picture our lives without her daily presence, just as it was impossible to imagine what life would be like with children before they were born.
We finished eating, cleared the dishes, then I drove Ella to her dance class. I pulled into the parking lot just behind her friend Sophia and her family, who were all attending the class. It was raining steadily, and Sophia’s dad waited with his umbrella to walk Ella the few yards to the entrance so she wouldn’t get wet. A simple, beautiful gesture.
When I got back, Jill and I found ourselves alone in the house, a rarity during these summer months, when one of the children is almost always home. Another fact of middle age—you learn to take advantage of these moments.
Driving to pick up Ella I saw over downtown a double rainbow—one band quite vivid against the blue-gray sky, the other curving faintly above. I hoped to show Ella on the way home, but by the time I’d retrieved her it was gone. After the kids were safely back from their activities, everyone got ready for bed. Jill and Ella were in the habit of watching a show together before bedtime—they started with West Wing, and were now two seasons into Jane the Virgin. They propped Jill’s laptop in our bed, and Henry went up to his room to read. I sat down with a drink in the living room and watched an episode of Lost in Space. So many of the shows I watch these days involve fantasies about the human race starting over after the mess we’ve made. Soon Ella came to say goodnight. I turned off Henry’s light and went to bed, falling quickly to sleep. Whatever dreams I had then I don’t remember.
An Endless Retro-Infinity
I once heard Alison Bechdel give an incredible talk in which she showed photographs of the giant binders in which she records the details of her daily life, explaining that the writing of memoir was, for her, an act of subtraction. To illustrate her process, she must have flashed up a drawing of a graphic Alison tunneling through the reams of recorded information because I remember the tunnel. I remember thinking, Ah ha. Yes, of course.
I am thinking of the tunnel today because I’m linking nerve centers with friends and fellows from across this dark land to record the details of our daily lives. I didn’t turn on the radio this morning and I didn’t take my phone past the alert screen where I peeked just to see if there were any texts updating me on the status of my 77-year-old artist father who’s in a hospital in Savannah with acute pancreatitis. The only news was a text from one of the moms regarding the afternoon playdate our 10-year-old son, Henry, was excited to attend. There would be linked Minecraft worlds, chicken tenders, and maybe a trip to the pool if the rain let up.
I let the screen go dark without further news. I needed to check on my dad, but I don’t need to begin every morning in a blistering rage. Not right away. In other words, if number 45 began today with a Tweet announcing some kind of parade for himself for signing an executive order to stop jailing children in detention camps when he could have just, you know, told everybody working the border that separating babies from their mothers was inhumane, then I don’t know about it yet. If, while 45 was otherwise engaged with the details of his self-aggrandizing rally we’ve learned that ICE kept insufficient records, so even if we wanted to reunite kids and parents right now, we’re too bumbling to figure out how to dial back our own evil—then I don’t know about that yet either.
Don’t even tell me. It’s morning and I’m not even out of bed. I am trying to linger.
I am clinging to the crepuscular window where the news that Trump is still president can’t find me.
Here’s how the day began: a giant black nose appeared over the edge of the bed and gave me a nudge. Then the owner of the nose, an 8-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lola (L-o-l-a or Whatever Lola wants Lola gets—depending on your generation) pulled back her head to activate her morning head shake, a kind of castaneting of flapping ears. A real dog racket. I looked at the clock. 6:45. And then I tried to remember if I needed to get up fast and for what. You know that first moment of consciousness when you open your brain to consider what you’re in for? Sometimes you remember you have a meeting with the Dean at which you have to wear big-girl clothes and provide bullet points on the value of storytelling or you need to drive your 14-year-old daughter to Indy for an x-ray of the titanium rods in her spine or grades need to be posted on Blackboard by 3:59 p.m. and you still have seven more essays to read before you can even start calculating. There are plenty of days like that, but every once in a while, this moment of pre-consciousness goes your way and today’s awareness crept in without inflicting fresh harm.
June 21, 2018. First day of summer. Record the Quotidian for Ander Day. I settled back into my pillows and started running sentences through my brain. The castaneting of flapping ears? Just lying there, I was doing my job: pay attention, be curious, pull back the cotton wool and reach in for the good stuff, those Woolfian moments of being where we can really live our lives.
Here’s a thing I do: a kind of active switching on of the sensory on a five-count. A body scan of my senses to make sure I’m remembering to use what I’ve still got. What could I feel on my skin? Wet dog nose, and when I put a tentative hand to my own thigh, the heat from a giant bruise that had spread beyond the reach of my fingertips. And hear? Flapping dog ears, plus the morning whistle of the cardinal who’s established his homestead in the redbud outside my window. Anything to smell? Well, dog, with an undernote of almond vanilla pet shampoo, but also human bodies. That smell that escapes when the clean sheets move and the air that’s been infused and warmed by the slumbering humans underneath wafts out. The smell of sleep. Taste? Still early. Nothing good. And what was there to see? At 6:45, it was already light—June 21st, for heavensakes, the summer solstice, everybody will mention that, right? Longest light of the year, yaddayadda, although that of course means that tomorrow will be a sliver less light and onward to that darkest day—but despite the fact that the windows in our bedroom were covered by only sheer white curtains because the roll-down shade is broken, the light coming in was muted and soft, which I noticed, admiring the way the light took the edge of the things of my world, before making a mental note to buy new shades. Those shades have been broken since last summer.
Perhaps I should mention that I was in bed with a poet who was still very much sleeping and who plays disc golf—serious disc with an annual tournament, a code of conduct, the whole works—with the guy who’s running today’s observation project, and while I’m dabbling in character development, I suppose I should also add that all three of us went to M.F.A.-gettin’ school together in Tuscaloosa twenty years ago; in other words, I’m not the only one in my house who’s paying attention today. Mine might not be the only description of this particular butter-yellow bedroom infused with a hazy light because of the hard rain that came through in the night.
For all the reasons, this would have been an excellent morning for extra sleeping, but Lola’s ear flap had worked like a rooster’s crow to rouse the puppy, who was just then quite literally rattling her cage, and so I slid out of our warm sheets, gray like the sky, and padded across the carpet, past the rattling cage with the puppy in full-body wriggle, to the bathroom, because I’m establishing a rule for all the things I help to keep alive in this world: I’m learning to put on my own oxygen mask first. In this instance, I pee, and then the dogs get to go out.
[I need to break in with a confession. It’s 9:36 according to my laptop clock and I’m sitting in a salon chair getting my gray covered, but in the story of my day, I haven’t even gotten the dogs their breakfast yet, and herein is the problem with the well-recorded day. Impossible to get it all down, really. Of course, the consciously lived, consistently observed day is another animal and more attainable. Here in the swiveling beauty chair, the smell of the chemicals is curling my nose hair and the color brush squelches, but I’m going back now to feed those dogs.]
Because I was so aware of my body as a recording machine, I listened when I pulled up the steel bar on the puppy’s kennel, the metallic slide of the bar through the eye of the clasp, and the squeak of the hinge as I flipped open the door. No matter how badly she herself has to pee, the puppy—Maggie May, like the Rod Stewart song—falls into a languid full-body puppy stretch. You wish you could puppy stretch like this puppy. Front paws forward, back paws back, she brings her hips forward and then arches them toward the floor. Maggie flattens like a mongoose.
[Okay, I need to break in again to say that Kim—she’s my stylist of many years and the one wielding the color brush—just asked if she could take a picture of my screen: after her eyes caught the word “confession” over my shoulder, she said she just had to know, and so she read everything I wrote below that, although I’m thinking she was probably hoping for something juicier than dog breakfast, and I say sure, of course, because isn’t Kim’s iPhone image and the likelihood that she’ll show her kids and her boyfriend and maybe even the other beer drinkers at the brewery she frequents a species of publication? A page out of the diary of my day here on June 21st in Muncie, Indiana—Middletown, U.S.A.—now shared in the very community in which the details were recorded?
I’m thinking all this, but I’m also still talking and I double-down on my disappointing confession by revealing that I skipped the details from the toilet this morning because of course I knew Kim was reading over my shoulder—although, my God, wait until I tell you about the bruise on my thigh, more of a contusion really, sustained when I ran into a wall while pushing a stationary bicycle—on wheels, at an angle, too quickly (picnic, lightning): the handle bar jammed into my right thigh like a friggin’ javelin. This morning, on the toilet, I was noting that the once deep purple bruise, bigger than my hand and raised like the top of a skull—seriously, when I wear yoga pants you can see my bruise through the fabric—was starting to change color. My bruise looks like someone being born. Which god was that who was born out of Zeus’ thigh? Ahh, yes: Dionysus, the god of wine. This seems apt. I hope when my thigh-bruise child bursts forth, he carries with him a nice Oregon pinot. The pinot comes to mind because in my youth I stomped grapes the Greek way at a Dionysus-themed party on a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. It was as fun as it sounds. Kim’s still reading. I hope I’m not freaking her out (You okay, Kim?). Back to Lola and Maggie. For real: these poor dogs still haven’t had breakfast. Maybe if I stick with a disciplined past-tense narration:]
After her stretch, Maggie rolled into me, all puppy fluff and sweet tongue. Delicious, really, but it had been a long night and Maggie had to go. At the back door, I felt the deadbolt in my fingers, cool, and heard the click, louder than usual—because I was listening so carefully. The deck was wet and I had to slide into my backyard Crocs and go down the steps into the grass, squatting down and calling the dogs. Neither one of them like wet grass, and while Lola can hold her urine like a champ, Maggie’s been known to let it go right there on the deck, so I called to her, pretending I had a treat in my hand and she tumbled down the stairs like a ball rolling down a ramp. Once she made it to the grass, I gave her the command: “Maggie, outside.” And she squatted to pee. There.
Back up the stairs and into the kitchen we went and the three of us followed routine: I held the pot under the spout and filled up enough for my coffee, clanking the pot on the burner and turning the knob, click-click-click, ignite, and adjust the roaring flame, red and blue and yellow. Bruise colors. While I did this, Maggie jumped on Lola’s neck, biting her ear. Making Chewbacca noises, the dogs pinballed down the hallway toward the living room, attached tooth to ear. I’m the impatient type who uses power boil so that by the time I had the kibble scooped, medium-breed puppy and large-breed old dog, a notably different timbre against the stainless steel of their bowls, I was ready to splash the first steaming water over the black grounds piled in the white paper filter in the yellow cone above the big white cup. So much depends upon.
Maggie eats a prodigious number of sticks every day, so to keep them moving through, I add a tablespoon plop of pumpkin to breakfast every morning. When the dogs heard me open the fridge to get the pumpkin, they ran back, dividing and finding their spots in the kitchen, playing the parts of good dogs who deserved large bowls of kibble with pumpkin gravy for breakfast. I held a kibble in my hand and locked eyes with Maggie: “Down.” Maggie threw herself onto the floor. “Maggie, Lola—“ I made eye contact with each of them, raising my palm like a traffic cop and lowering my voice. “Stay.” They stayed. I clanged their bowls into their doggie bowl holders and both dogs kept their eyes on me—intent, as if I were some kind of giant, juicy squirrel. I dragged out the moment. Maggie’s ears vibrated like antennae. “Okay!” I said, high-pitched and happy, and they dashed to their respective bowls. I poured half and half in my coffee, swirled in a smidge of creamed cinnamon honey I bought at the farmer’s market last weekend, and held the hot mug to my lips.
Is there anything better in this world than that first sip of morning coffee? If every sip of coffee were like that, sip after sip, I would make myself sick with caffeine. I would vibrate like Maggie’s ears. But it’s not, so I don’t.
After the dogs ate, Maggie had to go out again: to poop. She pooped.
Then I wrote as fast as I could to get it all down before my hair appointment. I’m fast, but I’m not that fast. To recap: in the car, I ate a too-ripe banana (beyond the ten-minute window during which any given banana is at the perfect texture for eating), then more coffee at the salon where the only creamer is fake and vanilla, so too sweet and kind of gross. The good coffee window for the day had slammed shut, which was a shame I briefly grieved. I heard about Kim’s son’s graduation party at the Elm Street Brewery during the application of the reeking color, into the chair for toner and rinsing, a quick and yummy scalp massage with fingernails scratching, hot wax on my brow bones and an audible ripping away of the little hairs, a fast but no doubt unnecessary pain, back in the main chair for cutting, drying, styling—a sizzle of steaming hair, the smell of hot product, and the click of straightener’s alligator jaws—goodbye, goodbye, have a great trip to the mountains, and then out into the world where naturally it was raining and my hair, which had looked as glossy as a seal’s pelt when I was still in the salon, started to frizz.
Back home, my husband was recording his day and our daughter Ella was recording hers and our son Henry, sick of being a subject in everyone else’s observations and anxious to get on over to Zishan’s house to play Minecraft, was putting pencil to paper to compose a comic about his sister, and we were, as a family unit, pushing the limits of meta.
Mark at 11:11 a.m. on 6/21/18, after I announced my despair at having already exceeded 1,500 words: “I’m sure everyone’s going to be fascinated by your 40-page treatise on your day.” (This, from a man who’s read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Books 1, 2, and 3.)
Ella, typing away on her tablet: “The problem with writing about your day is: Do you have to write about writing about writing about your day? Which means you’ll spend half your time writing about writing.”
Then, tick-tock-tick-tock, a few skirmishes about who can write what about whom and in what kind of detail, and I’m off recording my day and at the dining room table with two phones, a flash drive, and a laptop—taking care of life details so boring I hesitate to include them here: Costco.com to reserve a car, a call to State Farm, a call to the vet, an email from the vet with vaccinations records, an email to the kennel to deliver said records, and on and on to Yawnsville.
I’ll tell you what gets in the way of satisfying in-the-moment observations and the excavation of a good tunnel: shit like that. And iPhones.
Summerful is a silly-sounding word I learned from the OED’s word-of-the-day message that means just what you would think: full of summer. Summery. Although June 21st marked the first day of summer, in Muncie, Indiana the sun refused to shine, the rain poured down, and there was nothing summerful about it. Henry and Zishan didn’t get to go to the pool, but they did jump in a puddle so big that Zishan’s mom made them change their clothes when they came in.
At 5 p.m., I drove to pick up Ella from her final dance class at the studio where she’s been dancing since she was five. The studio is moving, and Ella will be moving with it, but still, she grew up dancing here, in this too-small studio at the end of a tiny strip mall that Premiere Dance Center shares with a Domino’s, an accounting firm, and an empty space that’s been three kinds of groceries in the years since Ella was a preschooler. There were only four girls in this final lyrical class and from my car I could hear the music through the window—Grace VanderWaal’s “Beautiful Thing.” Just this time last year, Ella had two titanium rods screwed into her spine to correct a 51-degree scoliosis curve in her thoracic—a surgery so serious I feared the worst—and on June 21, 2018, I watched her dancing, twirling and bending—what a beautiful thing—the rain and the reflection and the steam on the window softening everything and making it look as if the girls were leaping my red car. When we pulled away from Premiere for the last time, Ella wept, crying for her childhood, and I joined her, weeping out my gratitude.
Around 7 p.m., I talked to my dad and learned the good news that the 2-inch cyst in his pancreas was actually shrinking. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, loopy with morphine, “pancreatitis makes open heart surgery seem like a walk in the park. A walk. In. The park.” I asked him if his surgeons were planning to drain the cyst. “No, no. That’s the cardinal rule of medicine: don’t touch the pancreas.”
At 8 p.m., Mark and I found ourselves with a half-hour window during which Henry was still at Zishan’s and Ella was off salsa dancing. In the summer, we are rarely alone in the house, so we made hay, as it were, even as the rain redoubled its efforts and the minutes ticked away.
By 9 p.m., both children were home and the OED sent me the word for June 22nd (which seemed a tad premature as I’d not yet gotten through the less-than-summerful 21st, but as Henry would say, whatever).
1678 R. Cudworth True Intellect. Syst. Universe i. v. 850 And So backward Infinitely; from whence it would follow, that there is no First in the Order of Causes, but an Endless Retro-Infinity.An infinite series backward.
While I was mulling this over—infinity, backward—the bruise on my thigh, which Mark had pronounced the worst thing [he’d] ever seen, began to itch. Like crazy. I was losing my mind with itching. Also at about this time, Maggie had pushed her bone into a gap in her kennel and begun clawing away with the single-minded purpose, well, of a dog trying to get a bone. The sound of her scratching paired with the itch in my thigh was suddenly more than I could bear. “Make it stop,” I said to Ella, who was brushing out her hair and waiting to watch Jane the Virgin with me on my laptop. “Make. It. Stop.”
Ella unwedged Maggie’s bone and gave the ragged, slimy thing—a portion of some poor beast’s former thigh—back to Maggie. Then my long-time vegetarian daughter thoroughly washed her hands.
I commenced Googling: bruise itching. I skipped past the links on bruising and leukemia—I knew how I’d gotten the bruise and I resisted the tumble down that hole—and found a page of home cures. There were many things I could rub on my giant bruise. Arnica gel. That’s a hippie remedy. If I were with my mom, there would be arnica. Alternately, I could rub myself with vinegar or witch hazel or... a pineapple? The itching, I read, is caused by the bilirubin produced by the healing blood vessels, and I flashed back to the early days of Henry’s life when his dangerously high bilirubin level required that he live strapped to a light board, a suckling glowworm at my breast—which cartoonish image carried my tiring, itch-tortured, bilirubined brain to the Looney Tunes cure for the throbbing, mountainous bump that rises up after some Looney or another is struck by a falling anvil or a well-swung cast iron pan: a giant raw, red steak that melts the bump like butter—but I doubted this was really a thing in the non-Looney world, and anyway, we had no steak.
Ice, WebMD said. Heat, another page told me. Whatever you do, don’t scratch, all the pages said. Expletive, I muttered, getting up to scrabble through the basket in the bathroom that contains all things gel and cream for maladies ranging from pimples to poison ivy and everything in between. And there. At the bottom of the basket. A green and white tube with the bottom rolled almost all the way up. Arnica gel. I squeezed a giant glob, cool and sticky, into my fingers and rubbed the translucent gel into the bruise—and it worked. It really worked. Those hippies. God bless them.
Ella and I watched our episode of Jane, and even though Rafael lied, I found myself rooting for him, as usual. At the very end, Petra’s mother did another really, really bad thing—that woman, seriously, so ruthless—and Ella and I closed the laptop with a collective sigh. Oh Jane. Ella kissed my cheek: “Good night. Best mother in the world.” I kissed her back: “Best daughter.” And off she went to bed.
If I were Alison Bechdel, I would have said what I’ve said here, if indeed I’ve said anything at all, in six frames and a couple speech bubbles, but fully accepting that I lack Bechdel’s genius for distillation, I closed my eyes and fell into a tunnel of dreams.
Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure (winner of the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction) and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, TriQuarterly, River Teeth, True Story, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com and @jill_christman.
ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING
Slept in till 8—rare for me, a 6 AM riser--after four days of short sleeps. Working at Minnesota Northwoods Writing Conference, hanging late with writers to talk and drink in Pirate’s Cove. Mid-week we’re the only customers in the hotel bar, six or seven of us, talking the writer talk. The laziness of sleeping late sliding into the day. Didn’t want to shower but did. Then down for breakfast. Hard-boiled egg, raisin brain, cut-up fruit, coffee. More writer talk and jokes and thinking about getting out on the lake.
Then alone in lobby, wicker chairs with forest green cushions, knotty pine, ceiling water-stained, on the walls moose-heads and t-shirts printed with campfires or large-mouth bass. Digging in to MacBook Air (only place with a signal here) to catch up on emails after three days of nonstop teaching, conferences, readings. Call Ander on program biz. Schedule a phone call for Milwaukee Field Work project. Dump the spam and ads.
News of slow-release poisons dropped in Syria. News of U.S. officials imprisoning children of immigrants in the borderlands, children locked in cages and tents, given psychotropic drugs, told not to talk to reporters. Trump signs document that stops separating the families, but 2300+ still interned. Now he’ll just lock up the whole family.
I remember a poem from Ed Hirsch’s reading last night written about the years when he was poet-in-the-schools in Pennsylvania. He’d mixed some chocolate chips of Gerald Manley Hopkins into one of his poems. How happy that made me, shook-foil happy. How he answered every question as if he’d never heard it before. How he took a moment to be sure he was listening.
That’s not my day. That’s last night, but it’s still with me.
Here at Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge on the shore of Bemidji Lake, it’s silver-backs gathered for some kind of Christian family reunion or long-term marriage support group, elders sitting in wicker chairs talking about Jesus, praising someone who was willing to manifest his faith. Later I see the group on the veranda lined up at square tables, four by four, playing quiet cards.
A teenager has the job of raking the shoreline, cleaning weeds from the lake, smoothing the sand to clean it of footprints. Ripple ripple ripple the mercurial surface laps. Kids on paddle boards and kayaks. More branding on tees: “The higher the latitude the better the attitude.” “Rugged outdoors.” Really? Here in the land of pontoon boats and an inflatable water slide the size of a pioneer’s log cabin? Here in the land of take a photo beside Paul Bunyan and Babe his blue ox? Sure. Let’s just turn it all into a postcard and move on, the heroic decimation of the wild.
Walk the Bog Trail with Paisley, Sean and Ed. Walk, talk, look, walk, talk, sit, walk, talk. Check out carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews. Pink scrotal sacks of the Lady Slippers. Did whoever named them intend that the near pornographic fact of the flower could be re-gendered into clean-cut fairy tale footwear?
Then back for lunch at Ruttgers. In haste, bison burger with wild rice and portobello all drenched in bbq sauce (auto-correct turned “porto” into “porno”). At next table women talking about design clients, about a fitting for a wedding dress, and someone didn’t get the right dress and now they want her to just get anything as long as it’s the right color.
Andy picks us up in the hotel to take us in the university’s white van (we joke it’s the meth van) back to campus for conferences. Andy, local writer, Viking, skinhead, leaner than a birch sapling, pony-tailed, skinny-bearded, supremely cheerful (in that quiet northern way), a one-man jazz band of improvised organization as the six or so of us announce our needs to go from here to there and back again.
Trump gives rally in Duluth. Wins cheers for stopping imprisonment of children. Gaslighting the audience that it was all someone else’s mistake, he never wanted this to happen, though he made it happen.
Spend an hour reading over manuscripts for two participant conferences this afternoon—same thing that gripes me about so much nonfiction—savoring of personal memory, personal pain and fear, small joys, (I’m okay with the savoring), but no representation of time and place, moment in history, cultural context. What has the history of logging done to the small town you write about with such love? Will anyone who comes after you have the chance to cut the cedar trees off their own woodlot and built a cabin in which to raise a modest but loving family? It’s over, that kind of beauty. I want to see it, but I want to know you know its beauty comes because of the ugliness that surrounds it.
Conferences at a picnic table in Black Point Park. Were they cottonwoods that lent a fractured shade to our conversations? Then quick back to hotel—Andy to the rescue—half-hour for shower and flat on bed to watch a bit of Jeopardy, change into black skirt and long-sleeve Citron tee for the evening’s events. This accompanied by music of children’s voices playing in the water, parents conversing on shore. I’ve forgotten how much of children’s play sounds desperate. “Help me, please, someone help me.” Then laughter and screams and splashes. “Hey, hey, hey, look at this!” And roar of speedboat pulling a waterskier.
More emails then Andy (!) to picnic supper on the university grounds of brisket, cobbed corn, peach cobbler. (Couldn’t handle the cole slaw that looked like a bowl of mayonnaise.) Chat with woman who lived in Paris for several years—piqued my envy. Then walk to American Indian Resource Center for Matt Johnson’s fast-paced reading and talk about how he made his comic book “Incognegro” and how it went all Harlem Renaissance and now might be adapted for TV. Then (Andy!) back to Pirates Cove for drinks and talk (beginning to think we should be called talkers instead of writers—oh how we love the gab). Paisley and I drink bad white wine and the others drink German Blond (the name leading us to a healthy round of scorn). We talk about our worst gigs (the ones where no one came), the long arguments in the world of poetry and stupid racist things people have said during job interviews.
And then at last to sleep, at least the attempt, with youths out at the firepit playing tunes and drinking loud for too long, so I turned and turned in the white sheets long past the hour when this day came to an end.
Alison Hawthorne Deming's most recent book is Stairway to Heaven. She teaches at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island.
My Day: June 21, 2018
Ella P. Neely, Age 14
Half-asleep, I hear footsteps pounding on the stairs, and think something like, “Here comes Henry [my brother] to wake me up.” I am correct. He bounds onto my bed and yells something indecipherable (he later tells me this was “argle-blargle”). He is not fully on the bed, though. He clings to me, trying not to slide off the bed, and I tell him to either fully get on the bed or get off; his clinging to me is uncomfortable. He says he will, but doesn’t really. I see that the clock shows the time as about 9:30. After a moment, he runs out of my bedroom and down the stairs. I remain in bed for about ten minutes, then get up after hearing my dad tell Henry to get dressed and go shoot hoops outside (in the driveway; we have a basketball hoop attached to our garage). He convinces him after only a minute.
As Henry heads outside, I get up, use the restroom, and take out my new retainer (blue, more like purple, with sparkles). Then I return to my room to choose clothes. All my good pairs of shorts are folded in a laundry basket downstairs, so I plan to just choose a shirt and head down, but the shirt I have in mind (a blue tank top that says “animal lover.”) isn’t in my dresser, and I don’t think it’s in the laundry basket. I choose another shirt, a pink button-up tank top. Then I grab my water bottle, move two books, which were, strangely, balanced on my woven trash can, turn off the bedroom light, and go downstairs. It is now about 9:45.
Seeing me, our Australian Shepherd mix (she was a rescue) puppy, 5-month old Maggie (full name: Maggie May Christman, aka Magster, Pupperooni, and Magsterooni) runs to the baby gate (now a puppy gate) and squirms against it, hoping for my attention; I reach over and pet her. I put my water bottle down in the kitchen, then climb over the puppy gate into the living room. Henry sits down, and Maggie jumps on him. I move across the room to Lola, our Rhodesian Ridgeback (a rescue, but still purebred) dog, who is about eight years old (full name: Lola Christman, aka Lola-nator, Lols-McGols, and Dogorooni). I pet her, pushing the much more energetic Maggie away when she leaps onto Lola’s bed. After Maggie does this twice, Lola abruptly gets up and walks over to Dad, who is sitting on the couch. The puppy follows, leaping onto Lola’s face. This is a common occurrence, and sometimes Lola plays, but now she just walks around the living room, trying to escape. I leave to go get breakfast. However, not having a book to read as I eat, I head to the cookbook bookshelf, which also has a stack of issues from the magazine True Story. The only one I haven’t finished is the one my own mom wrote, so I grab that (she told me I could read it) as well as the cookbook Vegan with a Vengeance; I’m almost done with Mom’s True Story, and I need something to read. Then, forgetting about breakfast, I sit at the kitchen table and open the True Story. Henry walks by and reads a sentence aloud. He scoffs. “Is that like an American Girl book?” He flips it over, examines the cover. “Oh.” I finish it, then get up to make breakfast. It is now about 10:25. I need to get breakfast quickly, because I’ll have to eat lunch around noon to go to dance camp at one o’clock. It’s practically lunch time already.
There are two boxes of cereal on the counter already: plain Cheerios and Kashi Autumn Wheat. I choose the Autumn Wheat without a thought; it is much better tasting than Cheerios. This means it has nine grams of sugar to Cheerios’ one. Before I pour my milk, I get myself water and my vitamins, setting them on the table. One is a Flintstones vitamin, and I always sort of choke it down. I pour milk on my cereal and eat it while flipping through Vegan with a Vengeance. When I’m finished, I don’t move, but continue reading. At one point, Dad looks over my shoulder and we have a brief conversation about how one would make potato knishes. Later, Mom comes in and asks me to unload the dishwasher. I realize I haven’t even taken my vitamins, and have run out of water. I quickly fill my cup and swallow my vitamins. Mom tells me that today is the day we are supposed to record our day. She has already written 2,000 words. I start to narrate everything in my head as I empty the dishwasher, and I notice more, like the divots in the bottom of drinking glasses that collect water. Then I fill the dishwasher, and decide I’d better start writing about my day.
After finding my iPad mini, I sit down at the dining room table, diagonal from my mom, who is typing. I remark that writing everything you do in a day makes the day not normal, and eventually, you spend half your day writing and have to record that, too. Then, I start typing. 195 words later, Past Me has still not gotten out of bed. Like Mom, brevity is not my strong suit. One “five to ten minute” story for Language Arts was twenty-two minutes long. As I work, Mom and Dad talk about the rental car that another person scraped against in December (but wouldn’t admit it to the police). My family’s insurance has refused to pay for it, and Mom is trying to get our credit card insurance thing to pay for it (if this is confusing, it’s because I’m confused, too). The man who hit our car had the excuse that it was dark, and he couldn’t see anything. To this, Dad now says, “Was it so dark you couldn’t hear the sound of metal screeching against metal? That dark? Was it so dark you couldn’t see the damage being done to your soul?” (thank you, Dad, for the funniest sentences in these 2693 words). I continue to write until about 12:15, when Mom tells me I need to eat lunch. She makes me a hummus wrap with Sun Chips on the side. I eat, then go upstairs to brush my hair and teeth. Before I can brush my hair, Mom calls up the stairs that we really need to leave so we’re not late to dance camp. I decide to brush my hair in the car, and run downstairs.
In our red Prius, I look at the clock, which is seventeen minutes fast. The class starts at one, and the clock says 1:16. Uh-oh. We only have one minute to pick up my friend and drive to the camp. Of course, we don’t make it, arriving about seven minutes late. Luckily, the instructors are forgiving. The question of the day is, “If you could have any pet, what would it be and what would you name it?” Riley answers hippogriff, but can’t think of a name. I say a dolphin, but don’t give a name. Anna chooses an otter, and Michele, one of the instructors, suggests that Anna get many otters so she can call it the Otterman Empire. We all find this hilarious. Michele and Lucas, the other teacher, both want horses, named Leon and William of Canterbury, respectively. With the Question of the Day complete, it’s time to dance.
Michelle starts us off with Nightclub 2-Step. We don’t go over the basic step because everyone, even me, has had some training in this dance. After that, Michele leaves, and Riley takes over, teaching a Salsa lesson. We start with cross-body leads, which are a fairly simple step that occur in many different styles. Then we move on to other, more complicated patterns. Anna continually jumps in with suggestions for Riley, and reminds him to give us one basic for timing (or, as someone accidentally says, “one timing for basic”). At about 2:45, we take a break before Lucas takes over the lesson to teach West Coast Swing, a beloved dance that has multiple possible timings (there are 6- and 8-count patterns). After reviewing push breaks and whips, which we already learned, we learn a whip variation. I do it completely wrong the first time (apologies to my lead) but soon catch on. We take another break, and Michele returns. I tell the teachers I have to leave ten minutes early to make it to my lyrical class, and they laugh and say they will miss me and talk about me when I’m gone. Then, it’s Rueda time! We normally do this dance in a circle, to make partner switches possible, but because we are learning a complicated pattern, we don’t dance in a circle until the last fifteen minutes of class (Lucas is pleased that we learned the pattern with that much time to spare). As we dance, I watch the clock, waiting for Mom to arrive. She walks in about five minutes before four o’clock. I quietly collect my purse and slip into my flip-flops. As I exit, Michele calls after me, telling me I should come to the salsa class at 7:30 tonight. As we get in the car, Mom says she got stuck behind “every red light.” I eat a granola bar as Mom follows Google Maps directions from Harmony Dance Studio to Premiere Dance Center.
Once inside Premiere, I greet my teacher, Miranda, and a classmate. I quickly change into a tight t-shirt and shorts and enter the largest room in the studio, known creatively as the “big room.” The other two rooms are the “little room” and the “PDC room,” which has “PDC” written on the floor. Our class, normally eleven strong, only has four people today, in the last week of classes. As we stretch, Miranda gives us two options: pair up and choreograph a small combination, or learn some of “Beautiful Thing,” the competition and recital dance of the more advanced lyrical class. We choose to learn “Beautiful Thing,” and quickly learn a portion of the dance in the non-air conditioned room. We spend a lot of time on the turning section, which includes five turns-in-second, a float, and a double pirouette. Occasionally, a girl who danced in “Beautiful Thing” stands in the door and watches us. At the end of the class, Miranda says, “I’m not going to cry at the end of every class,” because we are getting a new studio and this is the last day for all of us in the room. She asks who is coming to dance camp, a long day of many dance styles in July. Everyone is. She smiles. Another student and I, who don’t have another class, hug her, and we leave. My mom enters the studio, and we look for a place to take a picture, but don’t see a good one. There are people everywhere. Mom waits outside while I grab my dance bag. Though I already have water, I walk to the back room, the café, to sip from the drinking fountain. Of course, my real reason is to see the café one last time. As I wait behind another dancer filling up her water bottle, I look around. Then, I take a drink and exit the studio. Mom snaps a picture of unsuspecting me as I walk out the doors. After another student enters, she takes a posed photo of me out front. I struggle not to cry, and manage until Mom pulls out of the parking lot (I am good at not crying in front of my peers, but terrible at not crying in front of Mom). I calm down fairly quickly, and am mostly back to normal when I get home, only tearing up slightly when Dad asks me how dance was.
Henry is at a long playdate with his friend, and will be gone until eight o’clock, playing everything from basketball to the Words with Friends board game (basically Scrabble) to Minecraft, so it’s just the parental units and me. After I shower and change into pajamas, Mom and I fold laundry while we watch Jane the Virgin, a completely goofy romance/mystery show modeled, quite obviously, after a telenovela/soap opera. I feel slightly silly and slightly guilty watching it, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying myself. I start to wonder if I should attend the salsa class Michele mentioned. I assumed going to a fifth hour of dance class tonight would be too tiring, but I don’t feel tired (tired is a two-hour technique class followed by two extra rehearsals of the same length — this has only happened to me once). We eat dinner, tostadas (yum!), as I think. Now there is a time limit; it is about 6:45, and we need to leave at about 7:20 if I want to go (I will have to change). I can’t figure out whether I want to go because I feel obliged, or because I actually think it will be fun. This upsets me. I decide to go, but am still not happy, so Mom and Dad say I shouldn’t go. I’m still displeased. I go up and change, just in case. Finally, I make my final choice. Dad drives me back to Harmony.
The class is taught by David, the owner of the studio. We do a warm-up without partners, then leads stand facing the mirror and follows face away. We partner up and slowly learn a small routine, frequently switching partners. I cannot quite catch the name of the dance, and have never heard of it. At about 8:35, Dad, coming to pick me up, stands by the door. David beckons him in, and he is forced to stand awkwardly in the corner while we finish the lesson. It is soon over, and Michele, who seemed to attend this as a student, talks to Dad while I grab my purse, slipping out of my jazz shoes and into my flip-flops. Every single other person in the room starts to dance again, because it is now a salsa dance social. Great, I’m the only one leaving. Teenagers just love to stand out and act different from everybody else. It doesn’t make us feel self-conscious at all. Speaking of self-consciousness, I apologize to Dad multiple times for forcing him to stand awkwardly in the corner, but he brushes it off.
By the time I get home, Henry has returned. I have a quick snack and sit on the bed with Mom to work on my “Daily Report” while she Googles what makes bruises itch and how to stop it. She has a giant bruise that is really bothering her. She clicks back and forth from Firefox to her own daily report, recording what she does as she does it. We watch more Jane the Virgin, and then I head upstairs. I take forever (aka half an hour) to complete my nighttime routine (brush teeth, brush retainer, wash face, moisturize) because I try to read while I complete it. I have run out of library books, except for one that I can’t find (it’s under my dresser, but I don’t know that yet), so I re-read a book I own: The Dark Prophecy, Book Two of the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan. I might be a little old for his books, but now I have to read every book he writes, and I have to admit they’re amusing. Besides, the third and final book in the series has just come out, so I need a refresher on the second one. Now Riordan has written thirteen books (three series) following the same storyline, which is quite the feat. Anyway, I continue to read in bed for hours, until I fall asleep with my light still on at about 12:30. My body has decided to end my long, exhausting, but enjoyable day before I do, so I sleep.
Ella Neely is a 14-year-old living with her writer parents, younger brother, and two dogs in Muncie, Indiana. She is a dancer and Future Problem Solver (awesome academic competition) who enjoys reading in her scarce free time. She warns that her daily report contains no overall message or life-changing insights.
SANDRA J. LINDOW
Summer Solstice 2018, A Haibun
I woke to perfect Wisconsin June weather—partly cloudy blue sky and a temperature about seventy degrees. My hair was still drying from my shower when I walked out to the mailbox to get the newspaper. Next to the house, yellow evening primroses and hardy blue and pink geraniums were blooming in the perennial garden; white daisies were about to bloom. The sunshine lifted my mood as I stopped to water my potted plants. I took pleasure in the yellow canna lily that had just opened, its impossibly silky fluted cup, a pitcher for nothing but one’s deepest desire. It has been nearly a year and three months since my husband died. I’ve told my friends, I’ve been doing okay, but everything in this house reminds me of him. Still I have decided not to leave. Leaving here would be giving up too much.
In the back yard, I saw that sugar snap peas in their comfortable, rabbit-safe raised bed were nearly ready to eat. I searched through the tangle of white flowers and green vines to find the fattest pea. For this farm girl, though fifty years from the farm, it is always like panning for gold. I found one, pinched it off, bit it in half, and popped it into my mouth. Bright-crisp swooped through my mouth like a barn swallow, and I savored summer’s first taste of green.
Saving the Summer Solstice
first sugar snaps
bottle for their bright taste
labeled “First Green”
—Sandra J Lindow
Sandra J. Lindow is Regional Vice President of the Wisconsin Fellowhsipof Poets. She learned about this event in a writing retreat taught by Holly Hughes,
When the 21st begins, I am still awake and listening to my most recent bedmate discuss the intricacies of a problem he’s struggling through at work. He’s detailing, in the broadest sense, the way that something goes wrong in his field: programming. In this case, a miscapitalized letter has caused the entire project he’s working on to stall. He describes it using a grammatical analogy, one that he assumes I will better understand as an English major, and non-programmer. It’s as if, while writing, you were to use “an” instead of “a,” and in response, the entire page becomes unrecognizable gibberish. I picture Wingdings. His style of writing doesn’t make sense to me, and perhaps that is the real reason I often speak out against tech. Maybe it is less about a techie’s lack of interest in the place they have moved, or their inability to stop overpaying, in cash, for housing in San Francisco, and more about my own perceived inadequacy in comparison. I loudly condemn their transient nature: moving here for a 1.5 year gestation period while they make enough money to go where they really want, in turn pushing me farther and farther away from the city’s center until there’s nowhere left to live on an administrator’s salary but at the end of one train line or another. There is something about the way this one speaks of his work that begs me to disregard my deeply ingrained opinions, and listen.
Earlier in the evening, he and I had been at a beach adjacent late night cafe in the Outer Sunset. In a week, I am set to move out of my home in San Francisco and head towards Tucson, Arizona for graduate school. From the bar at the cafe, I was trying to work on a new short story, but between the end of each sentence and the start of the next, I kept stopping to reword the previous, trying to perfect each line before moving forward. This is a bad habit of mine, especially when I am overly concerned about audience. I want, entirely, to be prepared for graduate school. I stopped writing as the cafe neared closing, and instead considered whether or not the homeless woman who had locked herself in the bathroom some hour back had ever, in fact, come out. I thought: Soon, I will be far from this place.
When we left the cafe, we walked through a half block of salt-fog-mist to my car. From the driver’s side, I watched as he opened the door and reached in to lift a clumped up set of earphones from the passenger seat, carefully untangling and then neatly wrapping them before ducking head first into the car.
Now, in bed, when he talks about his work, I think mostly of the attention and care it must take to consider detangling another person’s earphones prior to getting into a warm car on a cold evening. Maybe this makes up for any false notions I have of the people in the tech industry here. I fall asleep staring at a layer of still flat cardboard boxes in the corner of my bedroom: a nagging reminder that soon, this place will no longer be mine. Soon, I will be far from this room; I will be far from this person.
Someone once told me that the best way to combat anxiety in the morning is to, upon waking, ask yourself: Did I inhale or exhale first today? I think it’s unanswerable. Sometimes, this method works, and I go about my morning so focused on the question of breathing that I am out the door and on my way to work without hardly noticing the tightness of my jeans, or the way my apartment’s front door doesn’t quite lock. But more often than not, my inability to discern which came first, the breath in or the breath out, sends me spiraling into an analysis of all other uncertainties. I think about the kind of financial situation I will be in some months, years, or decades from now. I think about the whooshing, dizzying sound of blood rushing to my head when I have just dialed someone on the phone and am waiting for them to pick up. I think about silent killing diseases, and what time of day I will be teaching a class in the fall, and whether or not I will ever have my own dog again, and if, when I do, I will accidentally kill it, and if so, how it will die. I wonder if I will feel ashamed of its death or happy that I only have to take care of myself, again. I think about what that shame would feel like. What kind of shame. Is there a way I can prepare for the aforementioned shame prior to ever feeling it by forcing myself to experience it now? And while forcing myself to feel an unfit amount of shame over a hypothetical dog, I think of what it would feel like to watch a plane crash directly into a window I’m looking out of, and if I would have time to think “I am definitely going to die,” or if I would just stand there, staring, until everything goes dark.
This morning, I move too quickly to think of either my breath, or the uncertainties. It has only been a few hours, three or four, since we went to sleep. This morning, I am supposed to go the DMV, and my overnight guest has decided to join. It is 5:50am when I tear out of bed and pull on my jeans, bra, and the crusty linen shirt I wear when I don’t feel like thinking about what my body does or doesn’t look like.
Soon, we are driving in silence across the Golden Gate Bridge towards Marin. The DMV is less busy there. For the first few minutes in the car, we keep the windows rolled down and the air feels angry beating against my tired skin. Then, we sit, with the windows up, for approximately 28 minutes until we arrive, and I get out of the car to wait. There are already about 7 people in line; I sit, cross-legged, behind them.
The DMV is to open at 8, and I am hoping that I can get in and out of the facility by 8:40, to make it to work only 30 minutes late, at 9. The concrete is cold and I think that maybe I should stand back up, but feel that I would look strange standing up already, having just sat down some 15 minutes prior. I listen to a podcast about writing. I listen to a podcast about moving.
Lately, I have been misplacing things. Three weeks ago, I left my phone in the toilets at a bar, but returned within an hour to find it had been turned in. Last weekend, I left my wallet at a car wash some 50 miles north of San Francisco, and had to return to get it the next day. On Tuesday, I lost my driver’s license while walking the four blocks to and from my local liquor store. I chastise myself for these mistakes. In line, I go over, again and again, the steps I could have taken to not have lost my ID. I could have brought my entire wallet with me on the walk. I could have, simply, not brought my ID; Roger has been selling to me for nearly four years and has never once asked for it. I could have been paying more attention to the gaping holes in the bottom of my pea coat pockets, and put it in the pocket of my jeans instead. Surely, I will not make this mistake again.
After the DMV, we drive the wrong way towards the freeway. It is nearly 9am, and the sun is sharp and flooding the car with warmth. For a moment, everything feels fine. When we finally make it back to the bridge, only the first tower is visible; the others have been swallowed by fog. We enter the mist. This feels, to me, like summer.
The day at work passes quickly. With only a few days left here, I spend much of my time training my replacement: David. David is one of my best friends, a fellow writer and administrator at the University of San Francisco, and the host of a small time radio show “Welcome to the Working Week.” Today, I train him on my program’s filing system and how to organize and run orientation, before we give in to the undeniable urge to, instead, watch short clips of stand-up routines that he has seen, but I have not, until it seems nearly the whole working day has passed.
When I make it home shortly after 5, I lay on my unmade bed and agonize over the unpacked boxes in the corner my bedroom: how best to tape the bottoms so they don’t give out mid-carry, how many boxes it will take to pack my kitchen, how many boxes, in total, I can fit into the shipping container. At some point during my analysis, I fall asleep.
It is near 9pm on the longest day of the year, and when I wake for the second and final time today, I see that the clouds have mostly burnt away, so I sit upright, pillows propped behind my back, to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean from my bedroom windows. This could be the last time it looks this beautiful before I leave. For a moment, the 21st of June doesn’t feel like such a waste.
The sky fades: pink and tan and baby blue until rust-orange and a little bit foggy, finally settling into a deep, unmistakable blue. I inhale, and make a conscious decision to consider this the first breath of the day.
Emma Thomason is a soon to be first year MFA student at the University of Arizona. Currently, she exists somewhere between San Francisco and Tucson.
Check back for more dispatches from June 21, 2018 tomorrow. —Editors