Since the birth of my daughter almost five years ago, the place where I write has been constructed haphazardly. I’ve scribbled on Post-It notes while breastfeeding in the rocker. I’ve spent moments propped-up late at night (the girl finally asleep) with a laptop balanced on my thigh. My husband’s first Mother’s Day gift to me was an entire day to myself to write. I spent it on the broken futon in our laundry room reading Sylvia Plath and writing down the bones of a sonnet.
When we moved into a small three-bedroom home, my husband and I had to decide who got the single office, the one where the door closed. He’s a novelist, I’m a poet, and his writing was drawing in more money and demanded more concentrated time. He got the corner room with a window looking out over the front yard; I set up a cozy space between two bookcases in the living room. There we wrote and there we fought, mostly about whose turn it was to entertain our toddler while the other typed furiously.
Three months ago, my husband told me that he was moving out. Two weeks later, he had packed, his clothes absent from the dresser and his belongings cleared. In his former office, he had arranged two old bookshelves dating back to my graduate school days and several photos and posters hung on the nails he left behind—pictures we never had the time or space to nail up, or ones that I liked but he didn’t. He hauled in boxes of my books from their storage in our scorching garage. “I hope you can use this space to write,” he said genuinely, before leaving to spend his first night in his new rental.
For a month, the office remained untouched, its door closed. I was devastated by the possibility (say it: inevitability) of our divorce, and the office made our separation more concrete. In his absence, the office was a room in which my grief had pitched its weary tent. Instead of using this space to write, I moved outside, ripping up the shrubs in our front yard with a vengeance. I dug up the bushes with stinky purple flowers and planted hibiscus bushes and bougainvillea vines. I pushed sunflower seeds into the yard with my thumbs, seeds threshed from the mammoth flowers that I had planted after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer last spring.
My husband left intact our daughter’s child-sized chair and desk on which a late-model PC whirs, heating up the entire room. He enjoyed having our daughter visit his workspace, and she could visit educational websites while he caught up on e-mails at his own desk. She was the one who brought me back into the office. “Mama, you come dance with me,” my daughter asserted as she wiggled to Dora and Boots singing the alphabet song on her computer screen. She clenched my hand with her four-year-old’s grip and tugged me across the threshold.
In that sad office, looking at the space my husband had arranged for me, I realized that this was not a space I would want to write in at all. The art was all wrong, the layout stagnant; the blackout curtains made the room a crypt instead of sanctuary. Over the course of a few weeks, I took down the posters and hung up my favorite Kandinsky reproduction. I asked my husband to remove the large steel-and-laminate techie desk he had left behind and replaced it with a small wooden desk that I had Allen-wrenched together myself. I left the bookshelves where they were (they were too heavy to move by myself anyway) and arranged my books on them. I pried his nails out of the walls and broke down my boxes.
In the room where I write this, stacks of books and papers gather on two chairs stolen from the dining room, and a dozen of my daughter’s multi-colored drawings of robots are tacked to the bulletin board on the far wall. A red velour armchair slouches in the corner where I spend most mornings reading and sipping coffee. Hilde, our spaniel-retriever mix who is afraid she’ll miss a party if she’s ever in a room without humans, curls into a furry comma on the hardwood floor. My daughter’s computer sleeps on her tiny desk. My lamp is on, my coffee cup sits in a milky ring on my cheap but sturdy desk, my laptop is hot to the touch. Tacked to the wall are drafts of several new poems with my notes scribbled in pencil. My trash can overflows with more drafts and wads of used Kleenex.
In the view through my office window, a single peach-colored hibiscus flower unfolds in the front yard like a piece of failed origami. One of the few sunflowers that grew this summer is puny and dried up—I waited too long to plant the seeds—but who cares? I’m in remission, my daughter will come home and fire up Dora in an hour, and I’m doing the best, hardest writing of my life.
My grief over the end of our marriage still camps out here, as I imagine it always will. But the cloth of its tent is starting to droop, and I am practicing letting go of its ropes. I look out of the window each morning to see which plant might be budding or which might be on its way out. Today, I taped on the window pane these lines by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Susan B. A. Somers-Willett is the author of three books of poetry and criticism, including Quiver, which won the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award. An assistant professor of English at Montclair State University, her poem “Tallahatchie” appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion.