by Pamela Cravez
The first afternoon in my shed it is impossible to write, even though that is why I am here, sitting on a folding chair in front of two end tables stacked one on top of the other to bring my computer to eye-height. But I am so distracted all I can do is breathe in the smell of rough cedar and look through the eight-foot-long windows, one in front of me and the other behind. It is 40 degrees outside, but the shed’s propane heater is keeping me warm.
The second day it is dark outside when I walk to the shed in the morning to turn on the heater. The temperature has dropped below freezing. It is fall in Anchorage and there is no turning back from the colder and shorter days to come. I am delighted when the motion sensor light pops on in the shed. I turn the igniter on the heater and a little blue flame appears. On my way back to the house I look back at the shed. It shines against the dark, looking cozy and warm among the trees. When I return an hour later, I set my computer on the table and begin typing but my nose and fingers are cold and so are my cheeks and my feet. Chilled to the bone and frustrated, I turn off the heater and carry my computer to my warm home when I spend the day working.
The third day, I wear a headlamp on my way to the shed and turn on a small fan to blow the heat around. I wait for an hour and a half in the house before walking back to the shed with a thermos of hot coffee. It feels warmer and smells good. An hour into writing I feel my body relax and realize I’d been willing myself to work through the cold that has finally subsided.
The fourth day, the temperature has fallen again, it is single digits, and the moon is full and bright. I can easily see my way to the shed without a headlamp and turn on the heat. Two hours later, I sit in my shed wearing a down jacket and a soft scarf, along with gloves cut off at the fingertips and watch the moon as it slips through the trees of my backyard, luminous even as the light from the rising sun brightens the windows at my back. By the time I lose sight of the moon, my shed is warm.
It is the morning of November 1 when I see the full moon, a blue moon. It is the moon that has brought me to the shed this morning, brought me outdoors when I might have preferred to stay in the warmth of my home. The lakes are beginning to freeze, but there is still no snow on the ground. When the sun shines it means colder weather not warmer. Other years, my retired friends would be leaving to spend time outside of Alaska, some place warm. But this year, the pandemic year, everyone is in their home.
I keep track of how long it takes for the propane heater to make the space comfortable enough to work, when the propane tank needs to be replaced. I drape a fleece sweater over the back of my folding chair to cover the cold metal trim. I order two narrow tables from Amazon, long enough that together they stretch ten feet, just two feet shy of the length of my eight by twelve foot shed. My son, Josh, forced home from college by the pandemic, helps me carry a stuffed armchair from the house into the shed so that I have a place to sit and read.
From the window of my shed, I see long gnash marks on the side of a willow left by a moose scraping the tree with its teeth. I am wary in the dark mornings, letting my headlamp sweep over the tangle of black spruce, willow, and birch before I set foot on the path to the shed, looking for a solid body, an ear, a broad snout. The idea that I might run into a moose on the way to the shed or be trapped in the shed by a moose, is just one more challenge to wade through these first days in my shed, challenges that are dwarfed by the desire to have this place of my own.
The desire for a place of my own to write has been with me for as long as I can remember. That idea of a room of one’s own translated to a room in the public library set aside for writers, a spare office, a friend’s apartment when she was at work, a spare bedroom in our home, and the landing of our chalet style house while our children were growing up. When our eldest son left for college, I transformed his bedroom into an office for myself. I boxed his model cars, moved in bookcases, and filled the closet with drafts of books and essays. I bought headphones to block out the noise from my husband watching basketball on television or listening to music in the family room below. From that room I looked onto the trees of our backyard. Not a large yard, but one that had become wild with mountain ash and Mayday trees competing with aggressive willows and bushy shrubs. I gazed out at the tall white birch that curved toward the mountains and watched the sunrise along its trunk. Both my children were out of the house, but I was still here, with a room of my own. I had it painted, put art on the walls, yet when I walked to the backyard I wanted to be here, outside of my house, I longed to escape. I wanted a shed.
A friend began to send me pictures of sheds. Beautiful she-sheds with colorful interiors open to lush gardens. But it was the photo of a shed in the snow, an extension cord from the house providing electricity, the doorway framing a writer sitting at a desk, that was the image I held in my mind. A practical place, a working place, my own space. I began to watch where the sun fell in the backyard behind our house and put a chair to read there on summer afternoons. The year I learned I was going to be a grandmother, last year, I had dead trees removed so that it was possible to walk to the old swing set. I stopped among a group of black spruce gathered in the northeast corner, felt the warmth of the sun and a quiet stillness in the air, and thought this would be the perfect place for a shed.
“You control all the space in the house,” my youngest son, Josh, observes. He has returned from college for spring break and just learned that he will be having to complete his classes virtually. “Dad just has part of the bedroom and the bathroom. You have control over all of this space,” he is standing in the middle of the living room and looking through to the dining room and family room and kitchen.
“Your dad doesn’t want control. He hates buying furniture or appliances, anything having to do with the house.” I know I sound defensive. “And he has his own office downtown.”
But this is more. I never think of myself as in control of the house, just responsible, a division of labor that has come down to me. With the pandemic, though, I am the one to figure out who will work where. This is what Josh is observing. I set up a home office for my husband in our bedroom so he has the privacy he needs to see clients. Josh’s bedroom is right next to my office. The wall between us is so thin that he can easily hear the tapping of my computer keys. I set up a workstation for him on the landing, the same place I used while the children were growing up.
I have the only real office in the house and need to reassure myself that I deserve this space, that I should not consider giving it up, though I do want to give it up. I want everyone else to have what they need in this house and I want to leave. I recognize these feelings, that feeling of wanting to escape, that it is impossible to have the space I need to think and write without worrying about the needs of people around me. “You have control of this space,” my son said, and I knew even as he said it, that I did not want the responsibility of control, I wanted autonomy. I wanted my own space.
The day Josh started his fall semester classes virtually from his workstation on the landing, I called a contractor and asked him to build me a shed in the backyard. A shed with insulation and electricity, one I could use year-round. One with lots of windows in the spot where I stopped and stood in the sun the year before the pandemic, the year that I became a grandmother.
I kicked at the dead leaves on my way to the shed this morning. There is still a wet patch from where the snow melted last week, but the rest of the path is dry. When I opened the door to the shed, I reached for the remote control, and turned on a small electric heater, replacing the propane heater that broke. The temperature in the shed is 42 degrees according to the heater. I’ve programmed it to warm to 60 degrees, which will take about a half hour and make the shed very comfortable for working in a sweatshirt. It is May and buds are beginning to form at the end of tree branches, it will take no time at all for them to spring into leaves. This will be the first year that I will see spring and summer from my shed, something completely new to me.
New to me, too, is this room of my own. Not carved out, not moveable, mine alone.
Pamela Cravez is a writer living in Anchorage, Alaska who has worked as a reporter, communications director, and editor of publications including Art Matters and the Alaska Justice Forum. In a lifetime before children, she was a public defender and did an oral history of lawyers who practiced before Alaska became a state. Her book, “The Biggest Damned Hat, Tales from Alaska’s Territorial Lawyers and Judges,” was published in 2017.
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Despite the freezing temps this committed writer faces, her deep-rooted heart and self-effacing honesty drip warmth through every line in this splendid piece. Thank you, Pamela for your beautiful story. And thank you, Manifest-Station, for sharing.
Pam, your words make me want a ‘shed’! Does Chico join you to write? Keep your fingers on your keyboard, no longer the pen on the paper! I enjoyed your story.