What Happened on December 21, 2019
“So, the shortest day came, and the year died…” (Susan Cooper)
Yes and no—I look forward to December 21 because the next day is longer and by January there’s noticeably more light. In Florida where I pass a good deal of the winter, the sun shines an amazing 250 days a year. The absence of light is not as brutal as 43°42′ north.
Today, three generations of women—two grannies, my daughter, and 8 year old granddaughter, had a ladies' day at the theatre, a Saturday matinee to see The Sound of Music. As a young woman in my early twenties, I worked partt ime at a Toronto theatre where The Sound of Music often toured. I snuck into the theatre whenever I could but especially loved the finale when Mother Superior and the sisters sing “Climb Every Mountain” to Maria and the Von Trapp family who are fleeing the Nazis; it never failed to choke me up and it still did this year. All the way home in the car, we sang mittens on kittens.
December 21, 2019
The Sun Line
At 5am, I was standing in the cool, dark kitchen watching beads of water snake up to the top of the silver pot. Each one a task for the day, or, rather, a task I would be delegating, because I would be gone at a friend’s to spend the day working on my novel (an early Christmas present to me from my husband). But I still had to let my husband and kids know what they would be doing in my stead:
- Dig out from the hallway closet the presents for the birthday parties the boys would be going to in the afternoon
- Wrap them
- Collect everything needed for that morning’s futsal game for my 9 year old (futsal ball, water bottle, cleats, extra black shirt)
- Read email from me to find out the addresses for the birthday parties
Me, I just had to frost a cake for that night’s Christmas party at our friends’ house. And write.
I poured the nearly boiling water over the crushed Arabica beans into the aluminum press pot.
While I waited for the coffee to brew, I read some emails on my laptop in peace. Can quiet be lush? It felt lush, except for the sound of the traffic on the highway. But that has a kind of lushness to it, too. Just outside our window is I-90, or the Pike, as we call it. If you take it all the way west from our house, which is in Newton Massachusetts, you’ll end up in Seattle. Our house is nestled in a little neighborhood below the highway. We can see the orange highway lights from the kitchen table. This was how the day greeted me: trucks groaning, orange lights, dark coffee, the neighbor’s dog barking, cold linoleum floor.
My husband was snoring on the couch; my boys still asleep in their bunk bed upstairs. I thought about my writing goal for my daylong writing session: 4,000 words. I iced the star-shaped vanilla cake I’d made the night before—from a box—with a lemon glaze from a packet. I didn’t have toothpicks, so I used yellow corn-on-the-cob holders to prop up the plastic wrap. Task done for the morning.
I looked online for good places to get pastries for the writing retreat. I settled on a bakery in Wellesley that has lots of varieties of croissants, even though it was a bit out of the way.
There was the small spruce pine in our sink to deal with. I’d left it there the night before to water it and let it drain overnight. I’d had to take all the ornaments off, so I brought it back to its plate in the living room and redecorated it. I like having pine in the house, besides the big tree. This little pine doesn’t smell like anything, but the color is rich and dark.
I spent a few minutes cleaning out my gmail. I’m getting warning messages now about storage. Party City sends me an email every damn day. Every one of their messages is along the lines of “Will you do this thing? Did you know about this thing? You didn’t? You should.” I unsubscribed.
About 6:30, I heard the boom of my 9 year old’s feet hitting the floor from the little ladder on the side of the bed.
Downstairs with me, he sat on my lap for about five minutes, in that precious before-words time, and then, just like that, he jumped off my lap to run to his advent calendar for a fresh chocolate.
We ate breakfast: oatmeal with mango for me, a rice cake for him. He read Dog Man, one of the gifts for his friend, while he chomped away.
My youngest son, the 7 year old, entered the kitchen “Hiiiiiiiii…..” in his Minecraft pajamas. My other son abandoned Dog Man for the TV, and my youngest took over the book.
My husband came in, now, too, with all the noise. I asked him how he slept. I told him I’d slept so well, only waking up when he dropped a quarter or something in our room late at night. “That’s because you folded my robe, which had a quarter in it, so when I went to grab it, . . .” he said. I smiled. I was not going to fall for that one.
After getting ready to go, I watched my son try to wrap a present; Dad stepped in to help. They didn’t need me.
Pulling up to the traffic light before the highway, I noticed that the sun line, at 7:40am, started at the base of the trees overlooking the Charles River. A beautiful amber with sharp, meandering black lines.
I tried to speak into my Notes app on my phone to say “The holy act of paying attention,” but it came out “Paying P bolly jfkdajf.” I was getting distracted by doing this while driving, so I tossed my phone on the seat.
At the bakery, I bought too many pastries: two chocolate croissants, one raspberry, a mushroom croissant and a broccoli croissant. I thought: with my pastries and my friend’s coffee, paired with so much silence, my friend K and I were going to move mountains.
Before the writing began in earnest, K and I talked about her novel in progress. She was stuck, wondering if she needed a character or not. I told her about my novel and how I still had a long way to go. I’d been working on it for three months and I hadn’t reached 20K yet.
At 9:01, we were off. I sat at her kitchen table; she was in the other room reading a biography related to a her book. I almost asked her for the password to the Internet but stopped myself. There would be no distractions!
Her sweet dog, Bruce, curled up near my feet. The room was a bit chilly, which was good for me because it kept me attentive.
By 11am, I’d written my first flashback for the novel. I made a note that the flashbacks need to progress into happier and happier memories for my protagonist, which is where the deepest pain is for her. I knew that that might just sound good but not work in practice.
At noon, we broke for lunch. We chatted in the living room for a while first to talk about K’s character. We talked it through and she figured out that she actually didn’t need her, which was huge! She threw together some eggs, sausage, arugula, and cherry tomatoes in a pan. We ate with a very attentive Bruce by our side and each had a small glass of prosecco. K took out some chocolate chip and snickerdoodles with green and red sprinkles. This was a fancy retreat, all for the cost of pastries.
I heated up a cup of coffee in the microwave and got back to writing. My kids in my novel faced their first black bear in the forest, so this involved a lot of research on my phone about bear behavior.
I wrote for another two hours, accompanied by the hum of the space heater, cold coffee, and a few juicy pear slices. I wrote more than 2,000 words. Half my goal but I was happy with it. I got my kids into good trouble in the forest.
My right shoulder started aching, and I felt a slow creeping up of a tension headache just below my neck.
I decided at 3 it was best to read for a while. My work was done for the day. I picked up my copy of The Hidden Life of Trees and read about how in a forest trees support the weakest among them, so that the forest as a whole is stronger. But even more fascinating, trees have a built-in alarm system: if a tree doesn’t like that a giraffe is eating its leaves, it will emit a nasty scent to repel the animal. That alone astounded me, but the tree will also alert the other trees in the area to emit the same scent. Giraffes apparently know all about this, so once they pick up on the terrible taste, they go much farther away before trying to eat leaves again. I also read that wild forests are much happier than planted ones. The networks are stronger in a wild forest, but in a planted one, the trees are more isolated from each other.
It reminded me of the first time I had mushroom tea. My best friend and I were at her friend Sid’s apartment on Newbury Street in Boston. He was an artist and always laughing. We all drank the tea and watched Goldfinger. My friend went on and on about the strangeness of the gold standard and the very idea of Fort Knox, at how primitive it was. I listened with amused interest and didn’t think the tea took. But when we stepped outside Sid’s brownstone apartment into the bright light, I looked to the left of his doorway and gaped at the geraniums arranged in a bed of bark mulch. “Those poor, terrible flowers,” I said. “They’re all alone!” I felt like it was criminal the way they were organized in straight lines and so separate from their wild, connected selves. They struck me so suddenly as lonely.
The headache grew stronger. I asked K for some ibuprofen and sat with her in the living room. We chatted, mostly not about writing. When I noticed the grey sky getting darker, I started thinking about home. I thanked her again and again for the chance to write in peace.
Home. The kids were still at their birthday parties. My husband massaged my shoulders on the couch for a while as the light faded outside. I changed quickly for the Christmas party we were going to after we picked up the boys. Grabbed the cake.
The parties the boys went to happened to be right around the corner from each other, so pick up was very quick. Our 7 year old emerged smiling with a stuffed animal, a dog, from his goodie bag. Our 9 year old was still eating pizza, because we’d gotten there so early. They’d built robots!
On the way to party, which was still about half an hour away, the gas light came on. 50 miles to empty. Here we go!
“We’ll be fine. We’ve got enough gas to get back,” my husband said.
“How many miles to get to the party?” my 7 year old said.
“32 miles,” I said.
“We’ll be fine, right, boys?”
I envisioned my kids and I stuck in the frigid car while my husband walks the highway to the nearest gas station. “We won’t be fine,” I said. “We need to stop.”
We went back and forth like this. The highway is long and dark, with not many exits.
“Why risk it?” I said.
“Because it’s so fun to do this to you,” he said. When we got off the highway, he pulled into a Phillips 66 station.
The party had been under way for three hours before we got there. People greeted us with exclamations, and the boys scurried right away downstairs to the play room where the other kids were playing.
I talked to my husband’s childhood friend, festooned in a perfectly ugly red, green, and white sweater. He may or may not have been drunk.
After spending the day in near solitude and then with the family, I didn’t feel ready for the party. A bunch of people were in the living room watching the Pats game. I stayed in the corner off the kitchen and talked to my husband’s two brothers for a while. I sipped on a glass of red wine and munched on chips while we talked about working out, writing, the new Star Wars movie, and the merits of my vanilla star cake (it was dry and that was fine).
I moved over to the kids’ table to hang out with my sister in law and her 3 1/2 year old, who was playing with a toy. I don’t remember what it was. I just see his smile. He really has the sweetest smile.
After a while, I checked on the kids in the playroom. Most of them were engaged in electronic devices: an iPad, a video game on the TV, and our kids on our phones. I gave our boys a time limit of two minutes, and our friend, the hostess, told all the kids that the devices get turned off in two minutes.
My boys came up with me, and I set them up with a sandwich and a juice. They were feeling shy and maybe a little tired. Like me. My husband was enmeshed in a conversation with a guy who grew up in the town next to us, in Waltham.
Soon after we moved into the living room, the crowd jumped up and down screaming. The final score was 17 to 24, Patriots. It was like watching a movie, watching their reaction. The kids were screaming happy.
The dancing started soon after that, with the kids as entertainers. Two twin boys, 10 years old, performed the Floss, the Shopping Cart (my favorite), the Robot something, and a few others. My boys stayed in their seats. My husband’s good friend handed out presents to the kids out of a CVS bag. He gave my 7 year old nunchucks and my 9 year old a pair of very cool gold sunglasses.
It was time to go. We said our goodbyes and headed out into the frosty night. It’s always colder out there and full of stars on clear nights.
We took the country way back, through meadows in Sudbury, little downtowns, and Old Boston Post Road. Our boys fell asleep, and my husband and I talked about who we’d talked to at the party. The truck stalled in a weird way at a stop light, but it quickly recovered. We were tired and happy to be going home, with a full day behind us. I noticed my headache was long gone.
The boys asleep in their beds, my last act of the night was wrapping a few presents while we watched Rogue One. I wanted to get ahead of the wrapping, because I always leave most of it until Christmas Eve. After three gifts, I put everything away and curled up on the couch to watch a few minutes of the movie. I couldn’t get into it because we hadn’t started at the beginning. I said good night. He shut off the movie. “Aren’t you going to finish it?” I asked. “I’ll wait for you. We can watch it another night.” Good night.
My last thought before sleep was trying to remember who I needed to buy a book for for a Christmas Eve book swap, in the Icelandic Jolabokaflod tradition. I’d figure it out tomorrow.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared in Atlas & Alice, Triangle House Review, Tin House's Open Bar, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. She is writing her first novel, a retelling of Hansel and Gretel. Her website is cherylpappas.net and she can be found on Twitter @fabulistpappas.
WHAT HAPPENED ON DECEMBER 21, 2019
I take Chaplin for a walk. On the way home, two dogs jump over a wall and try to attack him. I hold him in my arms and run into our yard. I read the news. More people have died. I exercise. I feed Chaplin leftover lasagna. I worry about whether we’re spoiling Chaplin. I water the plants. It’s Saturday so you sleep late. You wake up, we kiss. I read Robinson Crusoe because one of the things I’m working on is an essay on Robinson Crusoe. I shower, dress, fold laundry. We have a fight over the aesthetics of the antlers we’re using to top our Christmas tree. The struggle is real: you want all-silver, I want slivers of gold. Eventually, we make up and kiss. I eat breakfast. Oatmeal. We go to an arts and craft store. We go to the mall. We have lunch in the mall. I have coo coo, callaloo, beets. You have three types of deep-fried chicken. On the way home, the rain falls and we can’t see. In the car, I remember playing in the rain as a child, playing with water as a child, playing in the yard as a child, getting soaked, my school uniform sticking to my body, cold and damp, but how sweet the rain smelled. When we get home we have a nap. I wake up and it’s like a new day. I finish Robinson Crusoe. We finish the antlers. We get gyros for dinner. The guy mixes up my order. On the way home, you lose your slipper in a drain, have to walk home half-barefoot.
We get ready for a Christmas party happening tonight. There’s some discussion about what exactly a “festive chic” dress code means. Fabian comes over. Jeevan comes over. Rohan comes over. We have shots, eat chips, prawn crackers. We talk about life, talk about men, hope the party will be a sausage fest. The party’s at an art gallery around the corner so we walk. The gallery is half-empty. We drink sorrel mojitos, commiserate over the lack of people to flirt with. The DJ plays the Electric Slide song and that’s the last straw. We go to the bar downstairs, where things are quiet as well. We decide we’d be better off back home liming around the kitchen table. When we get home you have an idea: we should go to a gay fete that’s also happening tonight. We agree, but some of us need to change first. I’d planned to write this at the end of the day, so that the exercise to write what happens on a particular day would include the act of writing—a kind of infinity mirror. I’ll write it tomorrow, I say to myself. The clock is about to strike midnight. We head out, yet again, into the night.
Trinidadian poet Andre Bagoo’s essay collection, The Undiscovered Country, is forthcoming from Peepal Tree Press.
What Happened: December 21, 2019 | Anna Leahy
Three months ago today, he was lying in a bed in a hospital’s intensive care unit. He asked me where he was, and I told him. He asked why he was there, and I told him that he’d had a brain bleed at the gym the evening before. He asked me how he had gotten to the hospital, and I told him that he had driven himself home and lain down on the floor of the living room, and then I had driven him to an emergency room. I tried to keep it simple, and in some ways, it is a simple story. But it was complicated for him the day after it had happened; not remembering was a complication. He asked me another question, and I answered.
And then he began again. Where am I? How did I get here? And again and again and again, for several hours. The nurse began answering too, as he kept asking and we kept trying to help him remember, not the day before so much as a few minutes ago and a few minutes before that, when we had answered the same questions before. I was afraid he and I would stay trapped in this loop, and I knew this loop was better than him losing consciousness.
My husband had what is called subarachnoid hemorrhage, a rare type of stroke, and he has survived it, seemingly and surprisingly without much long-term effect. Most subarachnoid hemorrhages are caused by blunt trauma to the head or by an aneurysm that bursts, but my husband’s seems to have been caused by nothing at all. He had no blow to the head, and the neurosurgeon didn’t find an aneurysm during the angiogram on the morning my husband began asking me where he was and why. Today, we both woke in the bed where I spent my teenage years, often distraught or exhausted in ways I am not now. I am worried and tired in other ways, and I am relieved and grateful.
My sister has returned to live in the house where I spent my teenage years. She has removed the wallpaper I had picked out when I was twelve. My mother had said that my sister and I could each pick out whatever wallpaper we wanted for our respective bedrooms. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I chose very expensive French wallpaper, and my mother didn’t want to spend that much on a kid’s bedroom. But she stuck to her word, and I helped my dad hang the wallpaper, strip by strip. For the new door frame, he taught me how to cut a mitred corner, and I thought the concept was brilliant.
After I moved to Maryland and was likely gone from this house for good, my mother made my room her office space, and then she was glad she’d invested in wallpaper that held up so well. My sister has repainted the room. She’s reframed some sketches that used to hang somewhere else. I became a guest here.
Breakfast this morning was the overnight refrigerator oatmeal with banana, blueberries, and almond milk that my husband and I have grown fond of eating over the past couple of years. My sister let the dogs outside and then ate Cheerios with fruit and milk, just as she did when she was a kid. As a kid, I mostly skipped breakfast. I told my mother that I felt as if milk curdled in my stomach.
After breakfast this morning, I drove my sister into town to pick up a rental car. The day I had flown from California to the Midwest—five days ago—my sister was in a car accident. When she called me from the scene, I was at the gate ready to board my flight. She sounded frazzled but thought she was fine.
While my husband and I were flying halfway across the country, my sister was in the emergency room. Her car had been hit hard. She hadn’t seen it coming. Though the side airbags deployed, the front airbag did not. Her chest hit the steering wheel; it knocked the wind out of her. She remembers telling herself to breathe. The ER doctor wanted to make sure her heart wasn’t bruised. They call this myocardial contusion, and she had avoided it.
Her car insurance covers a rental car for a week. Just after we got to the rental car place, two other women arrived without a reservation. One had been in a car accident, and they said they’d take whatever car was left. Last year, more than 36,000 people in the United States died in car accidents, which is far fewer than in the year I started driving. Both my sister and this other woman had skirted death and disability, as had my husband three months earlier in a different way.
After we’d picked up the rental car, my sister and I went to a store full of tie-dyed clothes and incense. I hadn’t been there in well over a decade. It still had a room with lava lamps and posters in black light. They’d expanded and moved the pot paraphernalia to its own large room. Really, though, it was the same as it had been in the 1980s.
I pulled out a Ramones t-shirt. It was on sale. My not-yet-husband and I had seen The Ramones at Hammerjacks in Baltimore in the early 1990s.
A girl who looked to be about twelve searched the shirts next to me. She said, “They don’t have any Queen.” Her tone sounded more desperate than disappointed.
“They’re on the other side,” I said, pointing across the rack.
Freddie Mercury had died shortly after I moved to Maryland with the man who became my husband ten years ago. It’s been thirty years since my husband and I met in the town where we went to college.
This afternoon, we drove to that town—a railroad town, a college town, a prison town—where we met, to visit his family nearby for a few days. The home where poet Carl Sandburg was born in 1878 still stands there. He’s famous for describing fog as coming in “on little cat feet” and Chicago as “Hog Butcher for the world.” The college that Sandburg attended is long gone, but the college my husband and I attended is still there. The two houses where I lived during my last two years in college are gone. At the time, I couldn’t imagine my future, only a few possible next steps, and I hadn’t yet met the man I would eventually marry. The lots are empty; they gape.
In the poem “Languages,” Sandburg wrote, “Words wrapped round your tongue today / And broken to shape of thought / Between your teeth and lips speaking / Now and today / Shall be faded hieroglyphics / Ten thousand years from now.” Not all languages have verb tenses to indicate past, present, and future, but the language I use does. My thoughts become guests in this language and are formed by it. Or words are guests in my thinking.
In her poem “Otherwise,” Jane Kenyon writes of getting out of bed, eating cereal, walking the dog, writing, and lying next to her husband. She describes a day very similar to the day I experienced today. I saw Kenyon read her poetry when I was in Maryland, before she wrote this poem, when her husband had been diagnosed with cancer but she hadn’t yet. In this poem, Kenyon says, “I slept in a bed / in a room with paintings / on the walls, and / planned another day / just like this day.” This morning, that’s what I did; I planned another day much like the one before, knowing that it might not be the same, that “it might / have been otherwise.” Or today was otherwise; I am living the otherwise instead of what was likely or possible or feared.
The word otherwise comes from words that mean the condition additional to what’s within one’s view. There used to be words otherwhen and otherwhat too, but we’ve settled on otherwise to capture everything related to poet Robert Frost’s concept of the road not taken. The word wise has its roots in the way things are done, in the way forward, not so much in what we think of as wisdom. This day could have gone another way, but it didn’t—“And that has made all the difference.”
Weather forecasts, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are 90% accurate for the five days ahead. We can plan tomorrow because we know what the weather is likely to be. Chances are that tomorrow’s weather will be much like today’s; we can let ourselves count on tomorrow. Today was sunny and brisk but not cold, and tomorrow will be too, probably a little warmer. The temperature has been creeping up day by day since I arrived in the Midwest, and the snow has melted. But a week from now, the weather could be far different; it’s less predictable. Even if we make plans, ten days out is definitely guesswork.
I’ve heard that there exist two worldviews of our relationship to time. Either we move through time, or time moves through us. Newton’s first law states that what’s in motion stays in motion. Newton’s three laws of motion explain my sister’s car accident but not my husband’s brain hemorrhage. These laws idealize the universe, and we live by them even if we don’t think about them.
Precarious comes from the Latin meaning obtained by asking. This word is supposed to mean, according to dictionary-writer Samuel Johnson, not general uncertainty but, rather, uncertainty only in the sense of “dependence on others.” The otherwise of my own life rests on the others who are guests here and on my ability to remain in their lives too.
Tonight, I crawled back into bed with my husband in a hotel room in the town where we met. We’ve never slept in this exact place before. This hotel didn’t exist when either of us lived here. I will sleep more soundly than I have in a couple of weeks. In the morning, we will wake within minutes of each other, and he will bring me breakfast from what’s served downstairs as part of the room charge. Then, we will write, separately and simultaneously, about what happened today. We have done this sort of thing before, and I hope we write independently and together, again and again and again.
Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor and the poetry collections Aperture and Constituents of Matter and the co-author of Generation Space: A Love Story, Conversing with Cancer, and What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing. Her essays have appeared at The Atlantic, Pop Sugar, The Southern Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere and have won essay awards from the Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chapman University, where she edits the international journal TAB and curates the Tabula Poetica reading series. See more at www.amleahy.com.
“I guess this one didn’t make it to Christmas.”
My neighbor said this to me on the morning of December 22, 2019, pointing at the wallowing Christmas tree left on the curb in front of our apartment building in Brooklyn.
“Too bad,” I said, and smiled. I didn’t bother telling her that it was me who left the tree there, who was responsible for all of the stray pine needles sprinkled all over the sidewalk. I had to catch a train to Washington to see my family. I was on my way to Christmas.
I spent the night before, the 21st, taking down the Christmas tree by myself. It didn’t take very long; it’s a mini tree, the only one we could fit in our apartment, no taller than 3 feet. I use the present tense because the tree is likely still in tact somewhere, if not still on our curb. As I type this, it hasn’t died yet. But once you read this, it will have been incinerated somewhere across the Hudson River, fumes fading somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. I want to acknowledge my present moment, however removed it is from yours.
My partner and I will be returning to New York in just a few days, but we decided to take the tree down on account of our cat, who treated it like a vending machine of new toys to bat at and maul. We finally offered up a single ornament as a sacrifice, a stuffed baby doll that he disemboweled in about 36 hours. We couldn’t leave him alone with that tree for one night, let alone four.
Other than our cat, I spend December 21st alone. My partner and I have lived in New York for almost 2 years now. The transition into living together has been miraculously smooth, but when I found out that we were returning to our respective hometowns a day apart, I was excited for some time to myself, for some quiet reflection. I planned to get some writing done. I haven’t written anything in months—but by the time you read this, I will have written quite recently.
In search of inspiration, I venture into Manhattan, where I expect to be greeted by the ghosts of modernist past, characters and caricatures and manifestations of the intangible. New York is where Writers live and breathe and riff; the streets are paved with whimsy, or so I’ve heard. I walk around the East Village. It is lovely, picturesque. I have nothing meaningful to say about it. I decide I must not be a Writer after all. Through the windows of brownstones, I can see full-sized Christmas trees, the angels’ heads scraping the moulded ceilings.
Back in our cramped Brooklyn apartment, I’m packing away the dozen or so ornaments me and my partner have amassed over the past 3 years of dating. There’s a typewriter, a canoe, a red ruby slipper, and a wooden Jefferson Memorial, a nod to the spot where we made our relationship official. These totems have been dangling in plain sight, right under my nose for weeks, and it’s only when they’re back in their box that I feel their weight. I know what to write about. Our tree made it to Christmas after all.
Susannah Clark's work has been published in Inside Higher Ed, PopMatters, The RS 500, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology and the Pushcart Prize, and has a Notable essay listed in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology.
Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will