Summer 2023


On Thermostats

Brenda Miller (RWW Faculty)

On Thermostats

Where I’m staying right now, at a retreat center in Virginia, I control the heat in two separate blocks of rooms: in my residence and at the writing studios. The only thermostat for both locations lives on my wall, and it’s up to me to ensure that the heat is set at the “desired comfort level” for all ten people involved. It’s seems an odd and inefficient system—you can’t ever turn down the heat, for instance, even at night, because you never know who is where and when, and so the heat must always whir into what are probably empty rooms.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal, this tiny responsibility, but I think about it all the time: I’m constantly pinging up from my chair to check the temperature, imagining the other writers at their desks, wreathed in scarves, rubbing their frostbitten hands, sniffling, catching their death. Or I imagine them sweltering, flinging open their windows and fanning themselves with sheaves of paper recovered from recycling bins. I hover over the small rectangular box, and I nudge the little lever to see if the heat is working, wait for the hum of ignition; I watch my own thermometer creep up and down.

Assuming responsibility for someone else’s comfort or well-being: it’s what I do all the time at home, and it’s what I ostensibly came here to escape. Though I live alone, I have a cat to tend to, and friends whose moods vacillate, and colleagues who send a thousand officious emails adorned with exclamations points and icons of calendars, and students who are so tender I can sometimes barely breathe in their presence. Whenever I go on writing retreat, this sense of myself as someone responsible for others—someone whose gaze turns relentlessly outward—shucks away nearly the minute I step foot in my studio. I ease back to myself the way you might return to a beloved landscape, recognizing this landmark and that, eager to stroll down to those hidden places where you’ve always felt most at home. When I get together with my fellow colonists, I hear most often sentences that begin with the phrase: “It occurred to me this morning…” or “It crossed my mind that….”  These prefatory clauses, while slight in an everyday context, reveal how the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen. And, like pollen, stick and fertilize.

Brenda Miller
Brenda Miller

Brenda Miller

But there’s always something. A bubble of calm immediately attracts that which would make it burst; it must be a scientific principle or something, credited to a guy with a name like Weisenheimer. Yes, the Weisenheimer theory: that a steady hum of subliminal distraction will maintain an optimum level of mild irritation. Calm, quiet, contemplative silence: it simply can’t exist in a pristine state for long, even (perhaps especially so) at the places designed for such things. Emily Dickinson—that poet who went to great lengths not to be disturbed—once said, in a letter to Thomas Higginson: “The World is a spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it.”

I remember at the Millay Colony, in New York, the gardener made sure we came back to earth at 6:20 every morning by riding his lawn mower right under our windows, nosing the big red machine into the flower beds. Construction trucks rumbled past our studios, leaving a cloud of gravel and dust. At the Vermont Studio Center, the maintenance man decided to paint the trim on the outside of my windows during my two weeks in that studio, so I most often spent my time staring at his belt buckle as he moved up and down the front porch. At the Kalani Center, yoga classes blasted New Age Funk Rock music right outside my door, and the yoginis gyrated away, whooping and hollering their hard-won inner peace.

In all these cases I took personal affront, fussily precise about the conditions necessary to make writing possible. I took any opportunity to give up writing for the day once that illusion of insularity had been breached. Oh well, I would grumble, that’s it, who can write in all this racket? I slammed my notebook shut (well, as much as you can slam two pieces of cardboard together; it makes a muted whoosh rather than an exclamative bark), or punched my computer off (though it, too, is decidedly unsatisfying when it comes to such things: just a delicate push of a button, rather than the thump and death rattle of an electric typewriter). I might stalk off to slouch in my chair (well, as much as you can stalk in a room the dimensions of a large walk-in closet, it was more of a skulk), to eat chocolate and read an Anne Tyler novel; if I’d had a TV available, and no shame about plunking down in front of it, I would probably have watched Judge Judy instead, marveling at her no-nonsense authority in the face of the world’s foolishness. She would never consent to such a system. She would keep the thermostat wherever she damned well pleased, and if you’re cold, well, sue me.

She would never consent to such a system. She would keep the thermostat wherever she damned well pleased, and if you’re cold, well, sue me.

Here, for a week or more, I was blissfully unaware of my role as Heat Queen, and my work seemed engaging even when uneven, and I allowed myself those kind of drifty afternoons where I read poetry, wrote a few lines, dreamed a few more but didn’t write them down, just keeping the brain open to possibilities. I became both alert and languid at the same time. But this morning, Cora, the friendly housekeeper, and Bruce, the maintenance man, both bustled up to my room and said there was a problem with the heat—“people have been complaining,” they said—and after a few minutes of fiddling with knobs and vents, they left, the heat blasting at a stifling 75 degrees. I know there’s no one else in the residence at this time of day, but I don’t dare touch that thermostat. Cora said she might come back with the key and lock it up so that no one can fiddle with it.

So, I sit here, gazing forlornly out my window, the heat blasting from the ceiling vent. I’m this close to stopping writing for the day, though it’s only 10:30 a.m. But the landscape—with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance—seems not to have noticed the intrusion; the horizon rolls away from me in the same contemplative way it has done all week, foggy and cool. The cup of tea steams at my right-hand side. My keyboard feels warm under the heels of my hands.

And my mind? I’m ready to feel that roiling disturbance, to feel put out, but maybe because I have a cold, or maybe because I figure it’s not worth it, I just get back to work. I plug in my headphones, return to the soundtrack of birds and piano made by one of the composers in residence here. She has captured and amplified the rhythms in which these Virginia birds live: the swoop of starlings, the red shiver of a cardinal in the morning, the wrens that hop every which way limb to limb.


Annie Dillard has likened the creative act to keeping a desk in midair by furiously pumping with our feet, maintaining the illusion that we’re getting somewhere; any chink in the illusion and we’ll come crashing to the ground. So those of us who have the privilege of a few unbroken hours might hang our little “please do not disturb” signs on the doors, or we scrawl in big letters, KEEP OUT; we set our faces carefully to give the right cues that we’re thinking; or we plug our ears with noise-reducing headphones; or we sit in a quiet room with book in hand, fashioning a crystalline spell of language around our heads. But these, in the end, are all surface tricks, without the real bite necessary to keep our lives under control. Something will always be nudging at the door.

My friend Suzanne once told me about trying to write in her home office when her son was young; he would creep up to the door and whisper: “Mama, show you something!” and she kept turning him away, with kind and gentle exhortations to wait just a little while. She finally heard a slight swishing noise: he was sweeping a gull’s feather under the doorjamb to grab her attention, and it worked; it was like being tapped on the shoulder by an angel. Another friend, a student, told me of the elaborate machinations necessary to get just one hour to herself, with the door shut to her study; she, too, heard a slight noise and turned to find, slipped under the door, a picture crayoned by her daughter: an image of a huge closed door, with a stick-figure girl in front of it, big tears falling from her cheeks. For myself, I have no children, but often I’ll turn from my computer to a little scratching sound, and there I’ll see the disembodied paw of my cat, upturned, sweeping back and forth, trying to snag me. For all of us, we could see these disturbances as both irritant and blessing: to be so missed that the world flattens itself out just to slip under the door to reach you.

“For all of us, we could see these disturbances as both irritant and blessing: to be so missed that the world flattens itself out just to slip under the door to reach you.”

And maybe, in the end, we just have to learn that there are no perfect conditions for writing. No perfect conditions for anything, in fact; maybe the best we can do is learn how to take each bit of the world as it comes, to have no real preferences, only what the Zen masters call a “radical acceptance” for things as they are. There are so many thermostats, after all, we try to keep calibrated in this world, and every single one of them eventually fails. We have that little thermostat in the brain attempting to keep the amount of information we can process at an even and steady level. And we have that thermostat in the heart that tells us exactly how much love we can readily receive, how much we can afford to expend. Our spirits try to stay on an even keel, no matter how many school shootings we read about in the morning’s newspaper. We’re careful to keep it all steady, no wild fluctuations if we can help it, but eventually it all flies apart, the thermostat busted. Or, at the very least, it feels as though someone in another room, a person oblivious to our plight, controls the temperature.

We can never be truly comfortable; that’s what I’m learning as I steer my way into middle age: it’s probably best, in fact, if everything is just on the edge of veering out of control. It’s the brink, after all, where our best work can be done. Cora’s footsteps fade, the room becomes quiet, the only sound the heat blowing merrily through the downturned vents. I crack open the sliding door, and the cool autumn air slips in, my own little act of rebellion, of stasis. I breathe deeply. Then I sit down on the edge of my chair, and I begin again.

Brenda Miller’s most recent book is A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing on Form, from which this essay is taken. She is the author of five more essay collections, including An Earlier Life, which received the Washington State Book Award for Memoir, and she is the recipient of six Pushcart Prizes. Her book of collaborative essays with Julie Marie Wade, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, received the Cleveland Poetry Center Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by Cleveland State University Press in 2021. She co-authored, with Suzanne Paola, the textbook Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, now in its third edition from McGraw-Hill Higher Education. She also received the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award for her poetry collection, The Daughters of Elderly Women.