It’s 6:40 a.m. and I’m in my writing spot with a giant cup of coffee that reads: COFFEE PAIRS NICELY WITH SILENCE. (Who got me this mug? It’s so me.) I’ve sent two emails and looked at a ceiling fan I might buy even though summer seems to be finally, finally over. I read a FB post from my local newspaper and skimmed through the comments and steeled myself to not say anything. It took incredible willpower, and my husband would be proud.
This is today, and I am here for it.
Or, I am mostly here for it.
Put another way, I am not altogether here.
Right now, it feels like a very hard time to be alive in the world.
I’m not trying to be dramatic—I wasn’t the one who wrote the plot about pandemics and fires and smoke plumes and hurricanes and forced hysterectomies and whatever else is happening. (Are murder hornets still a thing?) And it’s mostly quiet in my little world—I didn’t have to flee my home or batten down the hatches. We did put our beloved beagle to rest last week, something that would have happened with or without fire and pandemic, but has left us nevertheless with a barren landscape.
Since March, I’ve been teaching and writing from home. There was an immediate contraction of my social circle when the pandemic hit—no bumping into acquaintances in line for a mojito at the State Theatre; no squeezing into the last two seats at the Prospect; no nodding hello to the sweet older couples at church. I miss all of them. I miss passing my colleagues in the hallway and bitching about an email so-and-so sent. I miss the woman who made my skinny vanilla lattes twice a week and talked to me like we were old friends. (And I’m such a shit, I can’t even remember her name.)
I miss little things seeming like big things.
Now it’s only big things, and there are so many that they have started to feel like little things.
How do we do it? How do we put one foot in front of another when it seems like nothing good will come of that path?
(I’m using we, but maybe it should just be I. Whatever this is, it’s experienced as a collective, but it’s also deeply personal.)
I’ve been writing, but mostly blog posts that go nowhere, rather than the carefully crafted story waiting for me in a Word doc. That story is about a deep grudge that festers for fifteen years. In a way it seems too simple for right now, a revenge story for easier times.
How do you write when the world is on fire?
I mean that metaphorically, because the air right now is in the green (good) category—the best it’s been in weeks. (Fires are still burning, and people and animals and livelihoods are still being destroyed, but the wind, for now, for my corner of the world, has shifted.) I know this because I consulted first my weather app and then what I call the doomsday app, which always predicts higher temps and a higher AQI. I’ve begun to average the two together, suspecting one is too optimistic and the other too pessimistic, and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
That’s where I am, stuck between extremes.
I have the French doors open; my eyes and nostrils aren’t tingling from smoke, and little flakes of ash aren’t falling like snow.
I can breathe. I’m alive.
I can try this again tomorrow.
It’s 6:19 and ungodly quiet in my house, except for the hum of my refrigerator about four feet away. I’m writing in the “dining room” (our house is too small for this to be said in anything other than air quotes), where I’ve been writing since the third week of March, the beginning of taking the pandemic seriously in CA. This was the same time our beloved beagle began his final downward slide—so slow then that it wasn’t absolutely certain it was coming, unless you believed in reality and science, and 2020 hasn’t been the year for that.
I initially set up shop here because this table is far from the bedroom where my husband would sleep for another hour or so, and because of the proximity to coffee, and because as he got older, Baxter’s bladder seemed to get smaller, and I could lean over and open the French doors to let him out to the yard and five minutes later back in again, in a more or less continual cycle.
I did this daily for almost seven months. After a week, these mornings quickly became a pattern. I did my writing here, my quick morning skim of social media, my patting of the sweet dog who lumbered past, down the steps and out into the yard.
But we brought Baxter to the vet for the final time on Tuesday, and now it’s Friday, and there’s no reason I can’t carry my cup of coffee to the room specifically set up to be my writing room. The lighting is better there, and there’s no constant hum of the refrigerator. LG, our rat terrier, is a late sleeper, and no one needs to go in and out of the French doors. (It’s blissfully cool outside, but the air quality index is in the unhealthy range from nearby fires, and the door—all doors, all windows—must stay closed.)
And yet I can’t move.
There’s a story hovering at 68,000 words that needs my attention, and I can’t open the document.
I know what this is, the heavy weight on my chest, the purposelessness. It’s grief. Even when I’m not directly thinking about B, I’m noticing the way our lives have changed. I came home from the vet’s office and gathered all of B’s things—his bed, his water bowl and leash, his shoes (really, he didn’t have many things)—and carried them out into our garage. Now our hallway, where he slept on the hardwood during the warm nights and in his bed on the cooler ones, is empty. We bought LG a new water bowl, one I will fill once a day instead of a dozen—toward the end, B drank long and hard throughout the day, reacting to the heat or his own natural thirst or maybe because he’d forgotten he drained the bowl five minutes earlier. There is no longer a four-times-a-day medication schedule to keep, and anyway those little orange cylinders have been tucked away, out of view.
Part of the grief is the consciousness of these thoughts, the guilt lurking right behind them like a shadow. B was almost a full-time patient at the end, needing help to stand and go outside or come back up the porch steps. My life, it is true, is easier now. My floors, without B’s drips and leaks and daily accidents, will be consistently cleaner. I have slept, three nights in a row, for more than six hours at a stretch.
And yet the house is unbearably quiet. There are no toenails clacking on the floor, no sounds of panting next to the oscillating fan, no one lapping up water from a stainless-steel bowl.
This newness is my life now, and it doesn’t seem to fit. I wish I could have the noise back, the messiness. I wish he would distract me in the middle of a sentence, so that I would have something to grumble about when I returned to the screen. I wish I could even open that document and write one lousy sentence, but I’m not there yet.
I’m here, in the quiet.
Paula Treick DeBoard