If writers had spirit animals, mine would be the anemone: grounded and wavering, astringent and delicate. And immeasurably slow.
Some species of anemones reproduce by splitting themselves in half, and I get the appeal. The writing side of my life is time-blind; the other half runs on unforgiving clocks.
When the alarm goes off, I slough off my duvet and shamble to the kitchen, half-asleep, in the midst of the golden hour, the only flattering thing this time of day. I watch the citrus horizon for a minute before I notice the neighbor’s yard is also glowing.
It’s early spring, and the trees that separate our properties are dotted with fine buds. A few weeks from now, their lot will be masked with green leaves, obstructing this view.
My husband looks at me, looks at his coat, and steps outside. When he returns, he tells me in a low voice that overnight, half of their home burned to the ground, leaving firefighters pooled in their yard, stamping out the last of the brush fires licking up leaves.
The air smells acidic.
I finish cooking, dress my kids for school, double-check their bags, and zip up my daughter’s coat because it’s two years old and you have to wiggle it just right. I tell them about the fire because they are about to drive by what remains. I ask them to think about how we can help.
When they leave, I stand at the window with my tea growing lukewarm, watching the forensics truck arrive. Watching as the caution tape is pulled around their property line. This is the time of day I usually write, when the house is empty and quiet, save for the water sluicing off the aquarium filter.
So I write, I do. The part of me that writes is the part that shocks easily. Grieves. Falls into or for uncertainties. There’s nothing I can do to help yet. I set my second alarm, the one that will go off in a little less than five hours when I need to leave the house to pick up my kids. I try not to look at the clock until then.
I try to shut out the world to let it in.
I commit some words to the page, where my level of commitment is the equivalent of going on a first date. I write prolifically, but most of it stays in notebooks or on my hard drive because I see these drafts as a step toward something, not as gestures or conversations yet. I turn off my concerns about how long it takes me to finish something, how much time was lost in something that didn’t work, the fallow periods between publishing.
I’m thinking about my neighbors who I barely know, who I can barely picture. They have two kids, too. I think about what to give them, and how to find where they’re staying. I wonder if my giving will seem like rubbernecking. The ruthlessness of house fires, how callous I feel sitting down to write in the midst of ruins.
In the night, I heard noises I thought were rifle shots. My house is flanked by woods, and all of my neighbors hunt. That it was well after dark and it’s not deer season made it unusual, put me on high alert. I listened harder, and decided I mistook the shots. A garbage truck was making its way to our house, which was also odd, but I remembered my husband’s calls to waste management this week asking for make-up service. It was mundane, all the possibilities. I fell back asleep.
I can dream through tragedy. I can write instead of what?
Part way through my morning, my mind wanders and I look at my son’s books: drawings he has stapled together with a few words here and there. “The Thunderstorm” ends with a man getting struck by lightning. I move to my de facto office: the bathtub. I draw water, grab my notebook and pencil, and start again to write.
My house is the last one on a dead-end street. When we moved in, I pleaded with my husband to have the extra room for my home office. I pointed to my pregnant belly, maybe threw in a little Virginia Woolf, and burnt up the last of the marital capital I will ever have to make my case. When I got what I wanted, I handmade my desk out of Ontario barn boards, set up my printing press, marvelled at the natural light spilling into the room.
What I didn’t account for is that my office is the only room in the house with three points of entry, mostly glass-paned french doors, which means even when they’re closed, I’m working in a fishbowl. My children, hearts of my heart, I can’t escape them.
In time, my office became the place to sort taxes, store patio furniture, and tuck away holiday dishes. My husband moved in his computer. It was lost to me.
I mostly write in my outdated, gloomy bathroom because the door locks. Other times, I work in my bedroom--the only other room with a locking door. Cross-legged on the floor, next to the heat register because I get cold sitting for so long, I write with the window at my back. I’ve become accomplished at writing in my car because so much of my time is spent commuting to work or ferrying my kids.
The pages of my draft for this essay curl in the bathtub’s steam. I towel off, transcribe them, revising as I go. Eat a sandwich. Bring in the UPS package on the porch. Send only necessary emails, and make a mental note of the others for when I’m multitasking later on.
The alarm goes off, and I fall into the lockstep schedule for the rest of the day. Every minute from now until bedtime is measured: school pick-ups, homework, the time it takes the oven to preheat for dinner, cycling the laundry, going for a walk with my kids in this day that turned out to be quite beautiful. I drive to attend a reading and a lecture one city over, then race home in time to plant kisses on my children’s cheeks before they’re asleep.
When I pass by the house, one half is unscathed, the other gutted and unrecognizable. Warped metal is piled in the garden. I’m not yet sure if anyone was hurt.
I dive back into writing, uncuffing the minutes left in the day so as to stretch out time a little bit more. I think about what’s been lost, think about burnt books, of all things. Think about what to make of the ashes.
Sea anemones are thought to resemble flowers of the same name, flowers that are colorful and jostle in the wind. The Greeks believed the four wind gods, the anemoi, were responsible for starting the seasons. Last night, the wind was coming from the southeast. Eurus, known to the Romans as Vulturnus, ushers in bad luck.
More than what’s been made or what’s been lost, the day ends with me thinking about what’s in waiting. “Surely, something comes from a life with savage winds…” (Ovid, Heroides, 11.9 ff). That’s where tomorrow will begin.
(Note: since writing this, I’ve reclaimed my office.)
Charmaine Cadeau is from Toronto, Ontario. Her poetry collections include What You Used to Wear (Goose Lane) and Placeholder (Brick), which won the ReLit Award. She resides in North Carolina, filling her days with teaching, editing, and co-directing The Community Writing Center.