Since I first began writing as a child, a small door inside my head has been propped open, perpetually. In the beginning, I didn’t know it was there, but now I’m sure I couldn’t close it, even if I tried—that essential parenthesis—that necessary gap between the frame and the wall where the first light and the last light stream through.
Everywhere I go, everything I read or watch or listen to—which is another way of saying everything I learn—I’m collecting. (Perhaps it’s hoarding? Perhaps this is a symptom of my time?) I might want to teach that text or refer to it in class. I might want to place it in my own work as a touchstone, something to linger on or pivot from, something akin to a key.
I think about this door in my head as though it were a real door leading to a real room, which is what the word stanza means after all, in Italian—a room or stopping place—somewhere to linger, possibly to pivot.
Sometimes I think about the house where I grew up, how we had many doors that didn’t close or more precisely, many doors I never saw shut. The door to my bedroom couldn’t be closed all the way because my mother put a shoe rack there the week I turned thirteen. She said this was a better way to store my shoes than the boxes in my closet or underneath my bed, but I never completely believed her.
When my parents said they didn’t want “closed doors” in their house, I knew they weren’t just talking about real doors, with hinges and knobs and push-button locks. The doors they spoke of were symbols, representing something else. They thought if they could walk down the hall and peer into every room, their view unobstructed, nobody could be keeping secrets. That nobody was me.
Even if I was just trying to get dressed, pulling on my pants or tights under a bathrobe, struggling to slip a shirt over my head before pulling off a towel—how I got so hot and sweaty every time! Secrecy and privacy are easy to confuse, I realize, but most of our lives seemed hidden in plain sight, especially mine.
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When I think of a door propped open, I picture the word ajar and then the two words that sound just like it: a jar. (Hear it: a tiny breath. See it: a small caesura.) One describes the state of being partially exposed or not all the way closed while the other is a container, usually made of glass and sometimes shaped like a bell, which reminds me of the brilliance and sadness of Sylvia Plath.
When I think of a door propped open, I also think of a door jamb, which may help to prop it open in the first place, and how I love the homophones jam (which might be made at home and stored in jars, the way my mother made and stored it for many years) and jamb, with the silent “b” I always felt that I could hear—my own sixth sense for stealthy letters. They never snuck up on me.
And when I think of jamb spelled this way, I also think about enjamb, the opposite of end-stopped or door-closed; of words spilling over inside the stanza-room, refusing to be jammed, refusing to be jarred, or otherwise contained completely.
But to enjamb a line also means to break it, and so I think of the jar broken, the glass glittering at the threshold of the partially open door, and how I must be very careful not to sweep it under the rug, as my parents would prefer, but to collect the pieces—which, when referring to glass, are most often described as shards—a lovely word which contains hard because they are—those beautiful, impossible fragments.
Every day of my writing life, which is also my teaching life, which is also my life as a daughter and a partner—those two, against each other, painfully spliced, the filial and the queer—I am always at some point down on my hands and knees with a dustpan and a tiny broom, sorting that small caesura. I am trying to collect the shards, which I may use for something—a mosaic, let’s say—because I have learned that sifting through the fragments of the broken jar is the only key to keep this room unlocked, the only jamb to keep this door unclosed, the only prop to hold this parenthesis, in perpetuity—and sometimes, if I’m very lucky, in perspicacity, too—open.
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In the house where I grew up, there was a half-door in the middle of the hallway, a little rectangle cut into the wall. It had a different kind of knob than all our other doors—it looked like a button but pulled like a lever—and inside that partial room (semi-stanza?) my mother kept (hoarded?) all the candles she had ever bought. We never burned them. I don’t know why. But when there was a sale, she couldn’t resist coming home with candles, stacking them many rows deep—long white tapers, small white votives, and the fat round kind that were pink or peach or green as pine needles. Their wicks were always white, though—proof they had not been lit.
Sometimes, when we brought the fresh laundry upstairs, instead of piling our sheets and pillowcases inside the linen closet, my mother would open the half-door and stuff everything inside, including my favorite quilt. “If we leave these here for a few days, they’ll smell like the candles,” she promised—which they did! I learned then that fragrances could become their own kind of lyrics, harmonizing the fruity and floral, the tangy and spicy, and nothing in my childhood ever smelled as good as a blanket that had been sent to time-out in that little half-room in the hall.
Sometimes, I think of pulling the clean sheets out of that candle-stanza with my mother, breathing them in before I spread them out on my bed. Memory is also a door, you see. Cracked can be a synonym for ajar. Less open, but still open. Slightly. Now, again, and perhaps always, I must leave the door of memory cracked.
Sometimes, when I think of the room in my head, I picture candles everywhere, bright as a field of flowers, every one ablaze. I think of Plutarch—The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. I think of Yeats—Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. I think of the way we build upon each other, in writing, in teaching, all our minds at work. In loving, too. In loving, maybe most of all.
Julie Marie Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. She has published eleven collections of poetry and prose, most recently the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020), The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel (Noctuary Press, 2019), and Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018). A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and a recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Julie lives with her spouse, Angie Griffin, and their two cats in Dania Beach.