This is not a story about Writer’s Block and trying to find ideas. I have plenty of ideas. What I need is time to write them down.
I even have space to write — a room of one’s own. I love that room. I believe with all my soul in the sacred space that is that room.
I know some writers are like “I can write anywhere,” as they balance a yellow legal pad on their lap and scratch out War and Peace with a broken nub of pencil in the corner of the produce aisle next to the onions — because they don’t need fancy things like a desk, or a computer, or a room with a door. I am not that impressive. I used to like working in coffee shops and the library and on occasion a park bench somewhere. I can’t do that now. Now I am home. All. The. Time. But I really like having a room of my own when I’m home.
I love my space in our house. It’s bright, has a bazillion windows, shelves for my books, and this amazing double-sided fireplace. It’s new, this fireplace. Well at least the two-sided part of it. For the first ten years we lived here, it was a single-sided fireplace that we didn’t use because the home inspector told us that there were missing flue tiles and that if we used it we could burn down the house. That sounded bad. Getting it repaired was on the list of “Things To Do.” I don’t know if you actually do the things on your list, but in our world, we do just the top three things that are most pressing, require the least amount of effort, and we ignore the other things as long as they are not actively on fire. I mean, who has time to do all the things on their lists? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still obsess about those things, worry about those things, my brain will continue to catalog that I’m not doing the Things I Need To Do, but that doesn’t stop me from not actually completing the List.
So, when we had this bright idea to open up the fireplace so that it would also be on the side where my office space was, I rubbed my hands together and thought “Well this will be amazing. What a special treat!” We hired an architect, who drew up the plans. We hired a contractor, who read the plans, and gave us a price. We gulped at the amount but knew that it included the repair of the flue. If we ever did want to sell the house, having a working two-sided fireplace instead of a broken one-sided fireplace would be a better selling point. And really, shouldn’t we also enjoy our house while we are in it? Instead of just getting things “ready to put on the market”? Carpe Diem! Fix the fireplace!
The fireplace did not go as planned.
First, the gas insert that we selected wouldn’t fit in the space. That’s okay, I said to our contractor, choose any insert. I’m really not that picky.
He called every fireplace insert company on the planet. There was one insert that would work for us. And we needed to jackhammer the existing masonry to get it to fit correctly.
Okay. Jackhammering was going to make it hard to work (and do virtual school) from home, but sure.
Multiple days of jackhammering later, it still didn’t fit.
I had dust everywhere. Even the dogs were dusty, and they created a pig-pen storm cloud wherever they went, fanning the dust off surfaces and through the air with their giant furry tails. My dogs, each weighing in over 100 pounds (okay, over 110 pounds, they put on a little covid weight) did not like the tarps, the noise, the chairs I set up to try and keep them out of the space. They needed to know what was behind and under the tarps. They were everywhere, their giant paws leaving prints in the dust as evidence of their visits.
The fireplace still didn’t fit.
We waited while the contractor discussed it with his experts, or ignored us, and we tried to be patient while we reminded ourselves that our problems were not the worst thing in a world that was being torn apart by so many inequities and injustices. This was just a little construction problem. We could deal. The weather turned cold, and I started to shiver when I realized that the tarp was covering up the fact that the flue was gone, and the chimney was completely open to the 45-degree air outside, which is why the air in my room of my own was down to 55. And getting colder. The contractor returned with some temporary insulation and a piece of drywall. I drew a fireplace on it in crayon and tacked a stocking on the temporary wall. I tried very hard to continue being patient. The construction project had begun on August 5th, and was supposed to take seven weeks. I hung my stocking on the fake fireplace during month five.
The next month the jackhammers returned for another go-around, and I tried desperately not to lose my mind that the team wasn’t wearing masks. In the house. Not for dust, not for Covid, during the height of the second wave of infection numbers and hospitalizations. I respectfully reminded them that we are a house that asks everyone to wear masks, all the time, and did not give them a speech about pulmonary health and breathing in masonry dust from 1938 when those bricks were originally laid.
And then the fireplace unit was in! It was a miracle.
Except it didn’t work.
Apparently, the fireplace unit was missing a couple important parts. And the unit (that had just been ordered and installed) was now discontinued, so it was going to take awhile to get the parts in.
By now the temporary wall was gone, and I could look at my fireplace, with the cardboard box containing the log set taunting me from behind the glass. I contemplated lighting the box on fire so I could at least enjoy that. I waited.
On February 3rd, six months into the (seven-week) project, I turned on my fireplace for the first time. It was so pretty. It was so warm. It was a little smelly, like when you first turn on the heat for the winter season, but the fireplace guy told me that was normal, and it needed to burn off whatever that smell was. He suggested I leave it on for three hours at a time, turn it off, and then turn it back on again.
I sat in the slightly stinky room and admired my fireplace, even with the open air duct cover that hadn’t been installed (it was on the punch list), even with the weird wires that were sticking out the other side that were supposed to be attached to a switch to turn on the fireplace (also on the punch list). Bedtime neared and I got up to use the remote (the one I said I didn’t want because I wanted the switch on the wall, not hanging wires). I turned the fire off and patted the mantle in appreciation. Which is when I realized that the wooden mantle was hot.
Like, really hot.
I called the hubby over and we looked underneath the mantle, assessing the potential fire hazard although neither of us know a damn thing about fireplaces, engineering, building codes or the rules on the amount of flashing and non-flammable materials needed to surround a fireplace unit to keep things safe. Which was exactly why we had hired an architect, a contractor, and his sub-contractor fireplace expert. And why we had filed for permits and inspections and done everything we were supposed to do as responsible homeowners who don’t know anything about how our house works.
“Hey,” the hubby texted the contractor. “There’s a piece of metal under the wooden mantle that’s really heating up and we’re worried about fire safety. Could you please arrange a time when you could come check this out?”
No response at all.
Not about the fire concern. Not about the punch list. Not even about the remaining money he was owed for the project. We assumed he was as tired of us as we were of him.
I saw two options.
I could stop using the fireplace.
Or I could buy a fire extinguisher, and only use the fireplace when I was home, so that in case there was a fire, I could Save Everyone.
Amazon has a surprisingly large selection of fire extinguishers. I bought several. One medium-sized one for the fireplace that might burn my house down. I also bought some small ones that look like nonstick cooking spray and you can keep in your kitchen. I decided that should be what I get everyone as a house-warming gift. Bread, salt, fire extinguisher. All the things you need for good luck (and one in case your good luck runs out).
The cooking spray extinguishers arrived first, and I tucked one into the cabinet where we keep the dog meds, not the cabinet where we keep the cooking spray. I could see that going wrong several different ways.
The medium extinguisher arrived in its own box and was rigged up like a magician trying to escape his chains. There was an outer box that was sealed with packing tape, an inner shrink wrap that encased the entire device, and then a separate plastic tag that said, “remove before using.” I was going to be prepared and have everything ready to go in case my happy little fireplace became a raging inferno of death. I recycled the outer box. I put the shrink wrap in the bag for recycling plastic bags and wondered if I was ruining the recycling for everyone (because according to what I’ve read on the internet, mixing one piece of trash with the rest of recycling means that the entire world will spontaneously combust, and you go directly to the Bad Place). And then I tried to figure out this little plastic tag. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was holding the silver keyring-like pin in place. From my understanding, there was zero way that you could actually use the extinguisher without removing the silver pin, and you couldn’t remove the silver pin without removing the plastic tag, and the only way to remove the plastic tag was with scissors.
I carried the extinguisher into my office to grab some scissors. We have seventeen pairs of scissors in our house. The only ones I can find are the ones in my room of my own where no one is allowed to take any office supplies. No, you may not use my tape, pens, tissues, paper — nothing. These are mine. And I know where they are because I put them back. So the only working scissors in my house are on my desk in my mug that says “Give me a refill — the patriarchy isn’t going to fight itself.”
I cut the plastic tag, threw it in the trash (because I couldn’t figure out if there was any way to recycle it) and then put the scissors back in my mug. The silver keyring part fell off the extinguisher and landed on my desk.
I held the extinguisher in my left hand and the silver keyring in my right.
“How in the world does this go back in?” I did not want the fire extinguisher to accidentally go off when I put it in the drawer (which is still awaiting its drawer pulls, it’s on the punch list, but that’s okay because the blue painter tape works just fine as a handle).
I tried angling the little holes so the pin would slide through them. No luck. I turned it upside down and tried to see it from a better angle. It seemed like the little holes weren’t aligned, and if I could just squeeze this part together…
The answer to “How do I get the little pin back in the fire extinguisher?” is NOT “Squeeze the black handle.”
The answer to “What comes out of a fire extinguisher?” is also not “foam.” Television has been lying to me. Or maybe that was what happened in the olden days of fire extinguishers.
That nanosecond of compressing the fire extinguisher handle to try and replace the silver pin let off a spray of what appeared to be yellow sand.
Yellow sand. Everywhere. Over everything.
My desk. The floor. The pretty bookshelves that I had lined with my favorite authors and books on writing — covered. Not just the spine of the book. The edges of the pages on top of every single book. All my knick knacks from places around the world. Covered. The hand-carved elephants — yellow tusks. The bronze statue of Artemis — yellow bow and arrow. My calendar on the wall with its inspirational quotes — coated in yellow. My walls were no longer Paper White. They were Yellow Despair. My Zen buddha, with his hands aloft in peaceful mudras — covered in yellow dust. He remained Zen. I did not. I laughed at myself for a moment, thinking this is really the kind of thing that my husband would normally do. And then I burst into tears, knowing that this was going to take forever to clean up. And during the time I was cleaning up my stupid mistake, I would not be writing.
I wasn’t just crying because I had to clean up a mess (although it did take me almost three hours because there is no good way to clean up fire extinguisher doomsday dust, or whatever the hell this product is that would save me from imminent death by fire). I was crying because I was the one paying attention. I was the one holding the mental energy of saving us from potential doom. I was the one trying so desperately to keep everyone safe. Organized. Together. I can handle this.
I can handle the grocery shopping.
I can handle the kids school forms. Community health pledge forms. Camp forms.
I can handle the appointments for the kids annual check-up. Their dentist visits.
The dogs’ annual check-up. The vet’s retiring? I can switch over all of their meds to different providers so we don’t run out. I will make sure the older dog won’t limp and whine from his arthritis and the younger dog won’t eat the wall because of his anxiety.
I knew I could handle cleaning up the dust of despair. I just didn’t want to.
I am capable of so many things. I do so many things. But I’ve been doing so many things for so very long, that in this moment, where I had been trying so hard to keep everything safe, I was feeling dangerously broken.
That, that feeling of being a mess, of not having my life together, is my writer’s block. It is the thing that occupies too much space in my head. I am constantly shushing the overwhelming worrying voice of “did you do this right?” so I can still hear the quieter voice whispering “hey, I had this idea.” It’s hard to listen to your inner muse when there are alarms blaring.
It’s hard to remember in those moments that the writer’s block serves a purpose too. It reminds me how much I love writing. How much I need writing.
If you were to put a blockade across the road and tell me that I couldn’t access a sports field, I would say no problem, and I would go home. Same for a fishing hole, ninja warrior gym, or my ironing board. I don’t ever want to do any of those things. But if you put up a detour around my writing time? I will ninja warrior myself to the other side. I will clean up a desert worth of yellow sand when it is on my books and my desk. The universe (and my own stupid self) might set up mountains of obstacles that explode in front of me. I will still clean up the mess, and then sit down, and write.
Colleen Markley is a novelist, blogger, and freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her latest novel, Lilith Land, is a story about the end of the world where only the women survive. (It’s a novel, not an action plan). Find her at www.ColleenMarkley.com or sign up here for her newsletter and updates.
From poison.org: Many fire extinguishers release a fine powder. The most common is the multipurpose dry chemical type, which is used for Class A, B, and C fires. These contain monoammonium phosphate, which comes out as a yellow powder. The yellow color helps to distinguish it from other non-multipurpose extinguishers. Ordinary dry chemical extinguishers are used for Class B and C fires only. They often contain sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which comes out as a white powder.