Thievery: Anchor of the Suburbs
Thievery is a series of blog posts about my story inspirations.
‘Anchor of the Suburbs’, published in Weave #4.
It was halfway through the spring of ’84 when Sandra decided that she was going to become an anchoress.
‘I am going to live,’ she announced one evening during the advert break of our nightly TV soaps, ‘in the crawlspace beside the laundry room.’ She warned us that being an anchoress included refusing all contact except food in the morning, removal of her bucket in the evening, and the weekly updates on the TV soaps.
Our mother was displeased: ‘I did not buy a house at this address, complete with jacuzzi and wide driveway, to spend my time emptying slop buckets. Oh no, little miss anchoress; it’s a long time since I stopped cleaning up your do-do, and you won’t catch me starting now.’ The row was postponed when Sandra realised that she was missing Eastenders, the most vital of the soaps.
When I learned about OuLiPo at university, I thought that it was useless and pretentious. But like most other things I learned at university, when I started to put my own voice into it, I realised I liked it after all. My favourite OuLiPo technique was the prose sestina, which is where the writer chooses six words and repeats them as in a sestina, but in a prose form. The key is to not make it obvious that the words are being repeated – the most effective prose sestinas are the ones that don’t read like prose sestinas. (All-Night Cartoon Party is also a prose sestina).
For my writing exercise one night I asked my girlfriend to choose six words, preferably ones that could have multiple uses (eg. ‘jumper’ can mean a pullover, or a suicide, or any person jumping up and down). She chose: spring, live, refuse, address, catch, row. She wrote the words on a yellow post-it note and stuck in in my journal.
I’d been obsessed with the idea of anchoresses for a few weeks, after I read about them in a footnote in a book I’ve now forgotten. An anchoress is a woman (a man would be an anchorite) who chooses to live in total seclusion, usually for religious reasons. But there’s more to it than that: the anchoress is bricked up in a tiny cell, with only a few small windows for her meals and chamber pot to be passed through. The cell contains only a bed, altar and crucifix, and she never leaves it. There’s a ceremony and ritual burial on the day of her enclosure, during which she is asked to contemplate the grave in her cell; she then lives the rest of her life in the cell and is buried there when she dies.
The cell was often on the side of a church, and the people of the town could sometimes come to the anchoress for advice – the constant contemplation of religious matters meant that they were seen as wise, almost mystical. The anchoress is so-called because she ‘anchors’ the church and its people, ensuring that metaphorical storms (of sin, presumably) can’t capsize it.
Anchoresses fascinate me because the practice seems so violent and yet so peaceful. It’s a terrible loss of autonomy to be bricked up, but it might also represent freedom: to not have to conform to the world’s rules, to not have to be what a woman is ‘supposed’ to be. Is it the ultimate anti-women act, or the ultimate feminist act? I’ve now written three different stories about anchoresses, and they continue to fascinate me.
(Note: I have made myself bored of writing prose sestinas. I need a new writing game to play. Suggestions?)