JENNIFER STITTFor three years, I have inhabited the trenches of illness.
I say “inhabited,” because although I am alive in the sense that I occupy a breathing body that occupies sublunary space, what I have been doing can’t quite be called living. But it isn’t dying either. Not yet.
* * *
This morning, the cold midwinter light lengthens into a spilt shimmer across the bedroom. In the silence of the Saturday dawn, I am trying to escape the simmering combat zone that is my physical body, a once-loyal ally turned treasonous. I tell myself to inhale deeply, to concentrate on the steady eight-second release of the out-breath. It’s early; don’t take the count. Focus on the daybreak, the way a small sliver of sun sneaks through the twinned windows and illuminates the warmth of the hardwood floorboards. Pay attention to the slant of the shadows cast by the curtains and notice the whirling dance of the ceiling fan, puffing gently from the exertion of turning round and round.
In; out. Light; shadow.
Pain seethes just beneath the surface of my consciousness, like an incessantly barking dog that you know is still sounding the alarm but that you eventually begin to ignore after so many hours of unrelenting howling. Today, though, the dog is threatening to bite, and it seems foolish to disregard the warning.
Upon seeing the daybreak, Emerson once said, “I am cheered by the moist, warm, glittering, budding, melodious hour, that takes down the narrow walls of my soul, and extends its life and pulsation to the very horizon. That is morning, to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as nature.”
I am heartened. I think about nature and the bright hour and the trees just beyond the walls of my house, and how, even though it’s the winter solstice, here in Alabama some of the trees are still green.
The dog is baring its teeth.
* * *
It’s midwinter midday, and I am sitting upright, reading an article about 385-million-year-old fossilized tree roots. 385 million years ago, tree roots revolutionized, evolving into intricate, sprawling systems that streamlined the transportation of water and nutrients from soil to plant—“the arboreal equivalent of a digestive tract,” the article says, which is a phrase that I write down. As the roots unfurled themselves, digging more deeply belowground, trees became increasingly anchored, nourished, secure. At home. Robust roots strengthened the bond between the tree and her habitat. According to paleobotanists, “An efficient rooting system is key to being a successful tree,” and I write that down, too.
* * *
Afternoon, now. I am no longer sitting upright. I am no longer vertical. I am unrooted. I am scatter and seed. I am lying on the bathroom floor, forehead pressed against the cold white tile. I am trying not to vomit. I am trying not to pass out. My pain will no longer be tuned out. It is persistent, it demands that I listen, now, urgently, and no amount of soothing whispers will quiet its growling.
Nietzsche named his pain. He called it “my dog,” thought pain a faithful, clever companion. He scolded it, “vented [his] bad mood on it,” tamed it into submission. He became pain’s master, made pain his loyal servant.
I think about the impossibility of getting up off the floor. I think about Nietzsche’s dog. The knife beneath my ribcage twists and I see red, enraged. I don’t want to name my pain. I don’t want its constant companionship. I want to turn a deaf ear to its baying bark, set aside the feral stray. I long to return to the bright hour of morning. I crave only solitude.
* * *
The earth leans away from the sun, tilts and pitches on her axis, and the light quickens, and the light makes a hasty exit. Shadow-side, I greet the long night. It is the winter solstice. I stand rooted at the window, regarding the trees and my neighbor’s cobalt blue Christmas lights and I smell pine and I breathe in and I breathe out.
In; out. Light; shadow.
I am spending the evening. I am reading Annie Dillard. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” she writes. “What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Yet another year has circled and spun, so many days dissolving like rings of water disappearing down the drain. Time passes by. Pain presses in. I remember the bright hour of morning, the trees whose branches and roots grow within the walls of my soul, the poetry that lives electric between the pages of Dillard’s book. I remember that I didn’t take the count. I am buoyed. The dazzling dawn will come after the long night, spring after the winter.
I am earthbound, still. I am at home. I am spending the evening.
Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writing has appeared in Aeon, Aura Literary Arts Magazine, Big Think, Chronically Lit, On Being, Quartz, Quiet Storm Literary Magazine, Public Seminar, and others. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and is currently working on a book about the history of solitude.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream
—T.S. Eliot, “THE AD-DRESSING OF CATS”
Every day begins with cats and so it is on Saturday, December 21. First: the house cat, a symbol of marital compromise and, later, a divorce souvenir. A mewing alarm clock, waiting for wet food. She will then commence to clean herself, run from window to window to patio door and, inevitably, will be back asleep, her head on a pillow in the guest room, a pile of pampered, princess fur.
Once the sun rises, it’s time for the other cats, the feral pair: Momma Cat and Baby Daddy, so-named with a complete lack of originality (the naming of cats is, indeed, a difficult matter) last summer when, having met and mated, they produced four orange, comically shocked-looking kittens underneath my porch. I did my duty and called the Cat People who respond to these situations with a trap, neuter, return protocol. The kittens, fortunately, were young enough to be fostered and adopted into better circumstances than that into which they were born. Their parents, on the other hand, now live their neutered lives under my porch. They greet me every morning with suspicious eyes and, once I am several feet away and no longer a perceived danger, eat their morning meal with toothy desperate vigor.
They eat with one eye on me, occasionally glances over cat shoulders to ensure no other cats are stalking them. If I am feeling particularly benevolent, I wait, as well, as the other cats (Big Grey, in particular) won’t intrude on their breakfasts if I’m in the vicinity. Some days I leave them to sort this cat hierarchy out themselves. Today, I sit on the porch steps, rubbing my hands together—it’s 17 degrees—and think of my dinner last night with a friend—actually named Cat—and her perplexity/disgust at her boyfriend’s lapse in scrubbing the mineral deposits from the bathroom sink. What is wrong with these men? She says. Would any woman ignore this task?
Vinegar is a common ingredient in countless homemade cleaners and is especially helpful for cleaning household appliances. —The Old Farmer’s Almanac
Now the sun has barely risen and I’m cleaning the bathrooms, following instructions found on the internet for bathroom faucets: soaking rags in vinegar and securing them to the faucets, later to be scrubbed with an old toothbrush. I’m terrible with housework, rushing through it, ignoring corners, an impatient scrubber; I’m an excellent candidate for a housekeeper, although history has made clear I will never hire one. Strangely, I excel at laundry, even the boring after-laundry tasks of folding and sorting. Despite my lackadaisical approach to housework, the house is over-stocked with cleaning supplies, in many cases multiple products for scrubbing surfaces, dusting wood and cleaning floors. I have no specific memory of buying these products but am always glad to find them when I finally clean. They remind me of a letter I once wrote to myself that I unearthed years later: On the envelope, I had written: “Open if sick.” And inside, I had scrawled: “Go the fucking doctor.”
I went to the cobbler to fix a hole in my shoe/ he took one look at my face and said, ‘I can fix that hole in you.’ —Jenny Lewis, “Acid Tongue”
By now, it’s 11 a.m. I’ve been up since 5 a.m., although it’s debatable whether I slept at all, having accidentally taken daytime cold medicine before bed (I intentionally took cold medicine, as I was congested, but thought I was taking the nighttime version), sending me into a night of half-sleep punctuated by bouts of wakeful inchoate resentment.
Although it’s Saturday—the solstice! A week of yoga classes filled with Surya Namaskar—I should be at my desk. I am writing a script on spec for a podcast. It is weeks late due to a misunderstanding on my part about what “after the holidays” meant and now I’m truculent, defying only myself as likely no one else cares one way or the other. In strange reciprocity, I also have a check sitting on my desk just received for a project I have yet to complete as it isn’t due until next month. I am reluctant, on the one hand, to cash a check for incomplete work but, on the other un-typing hand, I didn’t ask for it to be cut early.
So I drive to the bank. I should figure out how to make the car stereo stop playing the Jenny Lewis song each time I start the engine, but have yet to do so. No one I know understands why I still go to the bank and, as a point of fact, nor do I, other than it’s one small in-person ritual I’m reluctant to delegate to my telephone. And I am not alone. The bank is packed half an hour before its Saturday closing hour. One customer, who has been with the same teller for at least 10 minutes, turns around and apologizes to me for taking so long. I tell him not to worry about it.
“We’re glad we got here before they close, right?” he asks. He’s maybe 60, wearing a T-shirt that simply says “California.”
“I almost forgot!” he said. “For some reason, I thought Christmas was on Thursday. I guess it’s because Thanksgiving was on Thursday.”
“Thanksgiving is always on Thursday,” I tell him.
He looks astonished and then, just as quickly, agreeable. “That’s right,” he says. “It’s always on Thursday.” Although he’s agreeing with me, he also sounds slightly unsure and, sure enough, catches the eye of the woman behind me.
“It’s true,” she says. “Thanksgiving is always on Thursday. But you’re right! I thought Christmas was on Thursday too, except not even this Thursday. I thought it was next week!”
They look at me expectantly. “I can’t believe it’s supposed to rain on Christmas,” I say.
I’ve been putting out fire with gasoline —David Bowie, “Cat People”
Close to 8 p.m., I drive the long way downtown, solely for the quick panoramic glimpse of Santa Fe’s cityscape that emerges on West Alameda’s twists and turns. The view is particularly enhanced right now as most of the town—present company excluded—has gone all out with the Christmas decorations. I’m OK with the glittering lights, the elaborate mangers, the increasing number of interactive displays projecting falling snow and flying reindeers on adobe walls.
I’m picking up one of my heartbroken friends from his gig introducing a play. We’re going to have a drink before I drop him at his next gig as lead singer for a cover band, playing at a loud sports bar later in the night.
Once seated at the bar, the object of his heartbreak calls and he jumps up to take the call for the next 15 minutes. I order a vodka martini, a Caesar salad and green chile Mac and Cheese for us to split. I look at the screen and the football game. My friend spent a year trying to explain football to me before giving up. The one remnant is I can look at a football screen with more sanguinity than before, despite still not being able to follow what’s happening.
When he returns, he tells me the woman he loves wanted his opinion on which role she should take in a Shakespeare play in which she’s been given her choice of parts. The witch, I tell him. I like her a great deal; The witch is just a better role.
Later, we carry his guitars, amps, stand into the bar. I have played roadie for him for years. I like how everyone moves out of the way for people carrying instruments, as well as the sense of some alternative life in which I am up all night entertaining a crowd (versus up all night entertaining absolutely no one).
My friend walks me to my car and tells me a story about a night last week at the same bar. He was ready to leave, about to enter his Lyft, when a woman appeared out of nowhere.
“I sure wish I could find someone to drink a whiskey with,” she said.
He flung his scarf over his shoulder. “Whiskey, you say?”
The Lyft driver, witnessing this late-night display of performative lunacy, then offered—for twenty bucks—to take them to his house where there was, he assured, them, whiskey.
They thought this sounded like a good idea. The night ended innocently enough, my friend assured me. “I told you you’d hate this story,” he says.
“I love this story,” I tell him.
“They push the boundaries of what we perceive to be constraints.” Stan Gehrt, wildlife ecologist, discussing coyotes in National Geographic.
Earlier in the day, I had taken a walk in the field by my house, shortly before the sun set. The winter sunsets have been gaudy and spectacular: hot pinks, black clouds, purple mountains, the works. This field, now encased by a chain link fence, would surely be filled with houses, except a decade ago my neighborhood association successfully petitioned for it to be preserved as open space. It’s overgrown with cacti and provides several sloppy walking trails for in large loose loops from top to bottom. I spot a neighbor with her two dogs and then—a flash—another creature hiding behind an outsized Cholla.
When we reach each other, she says, “Did you see the coyote?”
I think of the coyote now, once I’m home, sitting in the dark, in the cold, on my porch. In the southern part of the state, people try to hold coyote shooting contests. I push this thought out of my mind. It’s almost 11 p.m. and this shortest day is almost over, although the longest night is just beginning. Momma Cat and Baby Daddy are are nowhere in sight, but they are out there, along with the coyote—preferably not in immediate proximity—hopefully enjoying their freedom and not just eating strewn garbage and avoiding speeding cars. My cat stares at me from the other side of the glass patio door. She yawns.
I can’t see any Christmas lights from my back porch; the neighborhood behind mine is dark and hidden in the night, defiantly un-festive.
I can see my breath, though, in the frost, as I exhale.
Julia Goldberg is the author of Inside Story: Everyone’s Guide to Reporting and Writing Creative Nonfiction.
A victory: I made tortilla pizzas for lunch. My husband, Michael, watched the kids for most of the morning so I could sleep in, and I felt pretty well when I got up--though, as I spread a tablespoon of pizza sauce on each tortilla (set on top of a cookie sheet), my hand kept cramping. One of those female-body-things that keeps happening with no explanation. I forgot to add mushrooms on top of the little pizzas before putting them in the oven, and gave up trying to sneak a vegetable into my older son's lunch. But anyway, I cooked something, instead of just preparing a sandwich or oatmeal or quesadillas.
I'm thinking back on today, trying to write, but it's hard to concentrate--my baby is crying in the bassinet next to me. I have a blanket over my head (not his) to block the light from my computer and to limit our interaction. He's not distraught, but he's indignant and upset, and I've never been able to understand why babies come this way: unwilling to fall asleep. I've let him fall asleep on or besides me many times, and would do it now except it won't work, and I feel like a trick has been played on me. I feel punished for my attempts to spare my son the separation and sadness I don't want him to go through.
It puzzles me. Why do babies cry so much as they fall asleep? In arms or out, their decibel level seems maladaptive, and invitation for a predator. Thinking about this, it dawns on me that humans must rarely be prey to other animals. But then, humans are often hunters not only of other species, but each other. I think about mothers holding their babies and willing them silent as an intruder, an officer, a guerilla rebel listens and scans for signs of life. Before having a baby, I don't think I ever realized how impossible it is to be stealthy with a baby--how many people in hiding have been found out by a babies cries? I don't know, and I can only sustain these thoughts for so long.
But today was a good day, and I could be lot better at paying attention to the things-gone-right around me instead of catastrophizing so much.
Before bed, we went to a game night with some friends, taking our toddler and the baby to play with the other kids. The baby sat in a Bumbo chair and I read books to him, which concerned one of the kids greatly, for murky reasons. The toddler ate Oreos and shot styrofoam bullets from a nerf gun at a plastic, 2D Christmas tree on the wall, at an invitation to from our host. Eventually the two other moms sat on the floor, and we talked, but I'd best not go into all that. The talking was full of stories, ones worth sharing, but not mine to tell.
Alizabeth Worley just finished her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from BYU. She was a poetry winner in the 2017 AWP Intro Journals Project, and her work has appeared in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Hobart, and elsewhere.
Still Fighting a Cold, a reflection for December 21, 2019
By the time I get out of bed it is 8am. I normally don’t eat breakfast, but I pluck just one egg out of the carton in the refrigerator anyway. Before sitting down to eat, I shuffle back upstairs and choke down two Dayquil liquid gels that are supposed to make me feel better. I’ve never really had luck with cold medicine. Once fried to a perfect over-easy, the egg goes down real smooth, a warming sensation falling from the top of my throat to the bottom of my stomach.
Within two minutes of finishing this, I stretch out on the couch, elevating my head with an extra pillow. I hear my twin sister walk out of our bedroom above me. She has telltale footsteps on the creaky floorboards upstairs. I close my eyes as a headache settles in behind my brow and I surrender to my first nap.
Something, or someone, wakes me up at 9am and I sit down at the kitchen table, trying to figure out how I need to help cook our Christmas dinner. Dad decided that I will be in charge of the green bean casserole. That is one thing that I can handle today; not too much, not too little. Mom and Dad make a list of last-minute things to pick up at the grocery store and I don’t hear anything else they say. I think Mom wants white wine, but maybe they’ll get a smaller bottle of red for Dad. At this point, I don’t want to move or do anything. My sister brings me a few Ibuprofen. Family Christmas can happen without me.
Noon approaches and I don’t have much more time to be alone. In one final attempt to rest before I have to socialize with the family, I trudge upstairs to the bedroom. Passing the threshold, a wave of cold air hits me all over. It’ll be nearly impossible to rest when it’s this cold. Just minutes later, before I have a chance to drift off, I hear Oliver the 55-pound pitbull running laps around our kitchen. He doesn’t get a lot of space in my sister’s two-bedroom apartment. Someone’s yelling…I think he just knocked an ornament off the tree but judging by the lack of screaming it was probably plastic.
Hours pass by while we exchange our small collection of presents and take turns reading the new books about calligraphy and quilting. The dog is peacefully sleeping in the sun, wrapped in the red and blue acrylic blanket that my sister made for him. A bright green knit bandana hangs from his collar.
The first glasses of wine are poured and while Dad correctly purchased a bottle of Malbec, Mom mistakenly grabbed a bottle of sparkling-cherry-something that she thought was a White Zinfandel (she’s never been good at reading labels). She and my sister drink it anyway. In a surprise turn of events, all six of us agree to play a few rounds of a new game that I got from my brother-in-law, Charty Party. The rules say that the game ends when someone wins three cards but I’m up to seven. Thirty minutes later the whole kitchen erupts in a symphony of beeping timers, whizzing mixers, and clanging pans as some of us try to finish cooking dinner.
The buffet line is set with minimal fuss and we all get to our seats moments later.
No one says the blessing aloud, but I think we’re all thinking the same things. My mom stiffens in her seat while we all sit silently. I can’t tell what she’s thinking but I know that I wished it felt a little bit more like Christmas. We’re not much for talking, especially after having spent the last 4 hours together, and it seems as if everyone eats their first plates in a hurry. Unbeknownst to me, I think everyone is on a diet, so no one goes back for seconds.
After dinner my sister washes all the dishes, but I have to show her how to stack them to maximize counter space. Since moving back home after graduation I have taken over the cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, so I am grateful to her for having taken up that responsibility today.
By 6:40pm I’ve managed to paint on a full face of makeup to hide the dark, sick circles under my eyes. I’ve even straightened my hair. I shimmy into a short sequin dress and run downstairs with my boots untied. We’re late and everything feels tight on my body. Our drive to the theater is uneventful except for the strange loop of holiday carols on the car radio. I close my eyes for just a few short minutes.
I run out of Kleenex by the end of intermission. All I can think about now is getting back home and slipping into my pajamas. The intended soloist for tonight’s performance is sick in the neighboring hotel with a high fever. His replacement tonight, a very nice young lady, has only sung a handful of songs, and we have yet to see the promised tap or ballet dancers. I peek at the back of the stage and see the local children’s choir on a set of risers. I smile just a little bit. Seeing them brings back fond memories of performing in this same concert series six years ago. Six years ago, Christmas was always magical.
We all make it back to the house before any of us fall asleep. My parents send me, their twenty-three-year-old, up to bed without so much as a “goodnight” and I’ll end the day exactly how I started it.
Even the shortest day of the year has been very long for me.
Rachel Haywood graduated from Ball State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing in Spring 2019. Her creative nonfiction, poetry, and flash fiction have appeared in places such as Turnpike Magazine, Barren Magazine, The Broken Plate, and others. When she is not writing, she is learning how to cook on YouTube or sharing posts of cute animals and her favorite writers on Twitter. Find her on Twitter @Rachel_Marie_96
Dry hands since flying in town. Woke tongue dry. Lips bleeding, the part of the mouth where the corners meet. Face all cut up from shaving yesterday. My eyes very red. Especially right one.
Morning started with “Hard Candy Christmas” by Dolly Parton which was stuck in my mom’s head she said so I put it on. My first time hearing it, I liked it a lot. Dog in window. Cat asleep in mom’s bed.
After everybody left for the day, I waited for my sister to let me know when she wanted my help moving into her new place. I tried to set up an old keyboard of mine for people to play on during Christmas, but I couldn’t figure it out. It clicked what today was a minute before noon, while listening to “Winter Things” by Ariana Grande.
I wear a heartbeat tracker. My heart rate was at the highest of the day at 12:30 p.m. while I was having coffee. 104 bpm. At the time I was worrying about a lot of things. I think they would be best summed up as I was worried about money, I was worried that I keep things to myself too much and don’t share, like somebody let me know in a phone call recently, and I was worried about that my problems aren’t real or that I use them to rev up and avoid things or that I’m overdramatic or can’t tell how I feel. I decide I’m not in the right place to write an essay.
Sister pulled up, invited me to lunch, I told her I already have pizza in the fridge, so they drove away.
Guitar is tuned half step lower than what I normally do. Harder to press on these strings than I’m used to. I make a few recordings of new things.
They started later, and I didn’t so much as help them move as I stood next to them while they moved.
I had a Diet Coke from ice chest my mom had set up, then a Mountain Dew. Played ping pong outside, and then pretend restaurant inside, then escaped into my room for a while.
Applied to jobs. $17.50 on the bookshelf in my room in quarters. On phone call called out for not opening up enough and I can feel myself doing it even though I told myself earlier in the day not to be like that and I was worried about it. But I don’t see it as that simple but I’m not sure. Still end up mad at myself for being like how I thought I didn’t want to be. I miss the sunset while I’m in my room and just catch the end, like the day before. I turn the light on once it’s dark.
For dinner my mom and I went to Wendy’s, my choice. I hadn’t been there in over a year. I had a baked potato and a small fries. Then after, in the car, my mom asked me what my dream was about. I had told her earlier in the day that it had been a strange one. Answering her, I remembered Wendy’s was in my dream. The place I was at in the dream was about to open a new one and I was excited because then I could order a baked potato. I hadn’t even realized it as I had just been having one.
I was driving, and we crossed the street to Albertsons. It was around 9 at night. I hit the parking ticket with the bumper of my mom’s car just a little bit while parking. We stayed in the store until 10 and then headed home. While in the store, my mom bought lotion and deodorant for me even though I had said to her I thought I could probably get by the rest of my stay without it. She even bought shampoo and conditioner for me too, which I took way too long to pick out, me all by myself alone in the aisle, walking away with one and then putting it back and grabbing another. I think I was tired and having trouble choosing. My eyes sort of stung. I used a coupon I had for a free big bottle of coffee.
Grocery unload. Saturday Night Live. Peanut butter biscuit. Falling asleep in front of TV a bit then waking up a bit. Renewed library books online.
I kept notes in my pocket all day after writing them, bringing the day with me along the way as it happened. I take them out when I change into my pajamas.
My hands were very chapped, and I was very happy putting lotion on them before bed.
Devon Confrey lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is from Tucson, AZ. His handwritten blog about a room is @rocketblog on Instagram.
Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will