For a book project called This Day in the Life of American Women, women from various walks of life were recently invited to keep a diary for a 24-hour period on a particular day. I circled the date, October 15th, a Tuesday, on my calendar, a tidy blue circle among the scribbles of my life. As it turned out, the project planners had such an overwhelming response that they closed submissions. I kept notes that day anyway and share them here.
4:35 a.m. – Someone’s left a 20-pound heated stone wrapped in a fur coat on my legs. My skin is melting onto my bones. It must be Claude, our cat. I kick him off.
4:40 a.m. – Though summer is finally over we’re sleeping with the windows open, the ceiling fan slicing through the humid darkness. It’s too hot for all the covers and that damn cat! Kick!
6 a.m. – Our backyard sleeps in darkness, waiting for the mockingbirds, cardinals, squirrels, doves and grackles to emerge from wherever they hide at night, yet I lie awake, anticipating the alarm. I remember a long dream. Cope, my five-year-old son, and I are walking in a state park and we happen upon a group of volunteers who are repairing a summer camp. They invite us to join them. Cope is interested because there are shelves of toys -- bouncing balls you ride on, tricycles and things that wouldn’t be at camp like big plastic action-hero stuff. The hard-working friendly people remind me of the volunteers we had last month at one of the affordable housing communities I work for.
The gritty concrete floors remind me of the summer camp I worked at right out of college -- the Virginia dampness that grew fungus shaped like fettuccini noodles on the ground and green moss on my leather watchband; teaching a row of black teenage boys who couldn’t swim how to blow bubbles in the Shenandoah; taking a much needed sponge bath in an open field under the stars with hot water we’d boiled ourselves; and the campers: Serwaa, a tiny black girl who wet her bed every night but one; Henry, the fat boy with the hovering mother who finally let go of his fear and floated... and James, a black teenager from the projects who had never heard frogs, never been in a canoe, who wrote me after camp, sending a crooked photo of himself with a trumpet tucked under his arm, until my letters came back. God bless you James Banks, may you be playing smooth in a New York club or with the philharmonic or just loving your pretty wife and smart kids.
6:30 a.m. – A sudden, endless noise pierces the darkness. It’s morning.
7:05 a.m. – Crouching by the front door, I hug and kiss Cope good-bye. He’s wrapped in the puffy comforter I sewed the week before he was born. I place a memory for the day into my mind, of him wearing the blanket like an emperor over his Star Wars underwear.
7:22 a.m. – Meet Bia at the running trail by the lake. The coolest morning since last March. In August I longed for a morning like this, but my hands are freezing, my muscles tight and crotchety. She tells me about her latest first date with a guy who has a tennis racket stringer in his kitchen.
8:57 a.m. – Arrive at work. Check email, check voice mail. On the radio I hear it’s National Grouch Day and also the 51st anniversary of "I Love Lucy."
I try to call back Marie, a friend who’s slowly venturing with her son into divorce. Then my co-worker, Jessica, sticks in her head to tell one of her crazy dangerous mother stories. I repeat for her what my yoga teacher said last week. When you go into a pose, ask yourself: "Would I let my best friend do this?"
From Publisher’s Lunch, a daily email list, Donna Tartt, a novelist with a new book out: "The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone." Suddenly, writing fiction sounds like God’s work. I want to be a nun. I am giddy with love for writing and reading. But alas, it’s about time I finally turn to my job.
11:02 - While I’m upstairs faxing, Marie leaves a message but when I call back I get her answering machine which has a recording of her husband coaxing their son to say hello.
12:50 p.m. - I read the paper over lunch at my desk. I make a note on a piece of paper and slip it in my bag: ".223 caliber rifle / military style." I have copied this detail from an article about the sniper who is terrorizing Washington, DC, for an essay about guns I want to write. I wonder if I could walk into the gun store on Lamar and say, "I’m looking for a . . ."? The idea that I could be in a car wreck today and someone would find this piece of paper among my things, frightens me.
2:12 p.m. – Here’s proof I do actually work. As communications director for a nonprofit that provides affordable rental housing, I write the newsletter, website and also grants. Today I need to call a foundation located in Tulsa, my hometown and where my mother still lives, to find out why they recently rejected our funding request to house single adults with virtually no income. While the secretary takes a message, I wish I had the kind of background that would mean I went to school with the trustee’s kid or he’d recognize my last name from working with my dad. Then I try to call Marie again.
3:45 p.m. – The phone buzzes and a trustee of the foundation is on the line. We go over the project budget and finally come to the shared realization that our project simply has too much federal money in it for the foundation’s goal of generating private dollars. It feels like an arbitrary decision on their part, but I’m relieved that the denial of the grant wasn’t due to our bumbling things. I stick my head in the director’s office and tell him the news. We immediately come up with another project: building a new learning center at a community in Northeast Austin, a project for which there won’t be any public money. I mark the date we can apply in our card file.
4:52 p.m. - Marie calls back. She updates me on what she’s accomplished since we last talked about a month ago. On the one hand, her path is clear -- she’s found an attorney she likes a lot, the yoga place where she works part-time can give her more hours, her three-year-old son’s daycare can cover the additional time while she works, she has a single mom friend who’d like to move in and share the house expenses, and finally she and her husband have begun talking to their counselor about what "divorce looks like." But actually carrying through with the complex and defeating plans is overwhelming her. I feel like I’m standing on a pier surrounded by the gray ocean. I can see the vast beauty of the morning, the pink blooming into gold. I can see the fishing boats lined up with their lights still on from the nighttime. I know that everything will be all right. Marie’s son Malcolm will grow up looking like his dad but with the heart of his mother. Marie herself will grow into a woman who works at what she loves and is surrounded by people who appreciate her. I try to tell her this, but I can see that right now the big picture is, well, too big. We’ll talk more this weekend.
6:02 – Since my husband Jim was laid off a month ago, coming home is less stressful. A plate of catfish and sweet potatoes and a bowl of salad appear on the table. We share our "highs and lows" for the day. Cope’s whole day was his high and, he says, he had no lows. Since starting kindergarten, the report is the same nearly every night. Sitting at our fifties-era table, eating by the light of Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus candles, enjoying the zinnias and rosemary from our garden tucked in a vase -- this is Jim’s "high."
6:47 –Jim kisses us good-bye and leaves to teach tai chi to a black-belt karate class. Cope and I head to H.E.B. to get fixings to make cupcakes for the Fall Faire at his school this weekend. On the continuum of expressing love through healthy cooking (ranging from home-baked with organic flour I bought myself to Hostess Twinkies Jim nabbed at the gas station), buying Betty Crocker is, to me, pretty close to Toot-N-Take. But would I let my best friend bake from scratch? No way! I’d tell her: there will be plenty of goddamn cupcakes without you making any more!
As we pass the Halloween aisle, a boy is throwing a fit because his mother won’t buy him vampire teeth. Cope watches with interest and I tell him: "Wow, he must want those teeth bad. Huh?" "Yeah," Cope agrees. I resist making this strange child’s misery into a lesson for my son about how "nobody gets everything they want" (on my mind a lot lately since our income has dropped) because I realize pushing the cart at H.E.B. together, on a mission to get vanilla cake mix, chocolate frosting and chocolate kisses to melt inside them is my "high" today. When we reach the baking aisle Cope carefully chooses each item and sets it in the basket. He politely asks if we can get the Halloween cupcake liners, too. So what if it’s all hydrogenated carcinogens... right now if Betty Crocker herself walked in, she’d be my best friend.
6:53 – Cope achieves the day’s "low" when he turns suddenly and hits his eye smack on the shopping cart handle. He immediately throws himself on the floor, wailing. When I pull him up, it’s already purple. He leans on my hip and limps along toward the check-out.
7:32 – Ice pack on eye, we read "Little Drum," a story about a Cherokee boy who saves his village from famine by beating on his little drum. Cope has chosen this book for me to read to his class tomorrow at storytime. The mother with whom I share Wednesdays emailed me that last week she had a heckler. She won’t say who it was but of course I know it’s Eliza, a skinny girl who I imagine at 14 smoking in the parking lot and at 20 arguing with her professors about whatever "ism" the radical left will be embracing then. I practice dramatic voices for the sun and the chief. Cope approves.
8:05 – Sew a NASA patch onto Cope’s jacket -- so far this year he refuses to wear it because it is not "cool" (last year, he boasted about his "polar bear jacket" because it’s fuzzy and oatmeal-colored). The patch, which came with an astronaut toy some time ago, was my idea and Cope liked it. "It’s all in the marketing," is one of my favorite parenting truisms.
9:20 – As Jim and I make Cope’s lunch together, he tells me about the tai chi class. Tai chi’s approach of moving with someone’s energy instead of against it is new to the karate students who are used to battling force with more force. Jim demonstrates by telling me to throw a punch -- like this is something he thinks I’ve done before. In slow-mo he spins me around, back-to-back, until his arm cuts across my legs like a dog you don’t see until you trip over it. "Remember how we used to dance in the kitchen?" I joke.
11:01 – After Jim and I share a bath, our nightly candlelit ritual, I read a little, set the alarm, put down my journal and kick the sack of bricks called a cat off the bed. But before I fall asleep I think:
For more information on the "This Day in the Life of American Women" project, go to: www.thisdayinthelife.com