A room of your own? It’s a must! Literal or virtual--no matter. It's a gift you give yourself.
“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt
that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
Altogether there were three: two boys and a girl, obviously bright, interested in life, wanting to make something of themselves, hoping to give back in a significant way. More than a week earlier they had asked to meet with me. I found them stimulating and young: At ages 18 and 19, teetering on the brink of adulthood, their brains were obviously not “done” yet. However, their energetic enthusiasm filled my office and ricocheted off the walls.
“We have a problem,” said Neil.
“Yeah,” echoed Nels and Anita in chorus. "A BIG problem."
The problem was that each came from large families of relatively low-economic status. “We have no rooms of our own,” explained Neil. “There’s usually chaos at my house.” The other two nodded emphatically. “And when I finally do go to bed,” Neil continued, “both my brothers snort and snore like Puff the Magic Dragon.” I had to laugh, unaware that Puff had been either a snorter or a snorer.
“Exactly,” said Nels. “We need space.”
“A place to think,” added Anita. “A place to figure things out.”
The three glanced around my office. “Not much space here,” said one. “Where do you think?”
“I think in my head,” I said. “I don’t need much space.”
“Well, I need space,” said Anita. “You know, a room of one’s own.”
Their problem and her comment took me back. Way back.
Among the writings of Virginia Woolf, one of her most famous is the essay, A Room of One’s Own. Born originally out of concern about the position of women (especially professional women), its bigger picture challenges all individuals. Every person needs a room of one’s own: a place to examine life, to dream, to figure out whom one was meant to be, to plot one’s direction and craft one’s journey.
Philosophers have spoken to the need for self-examination. Socrates reportedly went so far as to proclaim that an unexamined life wasn’t worth living!
I understood what the three young adults were saying. You need always to be exploring. The desired outcome will be to arrive where you began and, perhaps, truly know yourself for the first time. A room of your own is essential. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal space in your present abode—although that’s ideal. It can be a virtual room, a place to which you can retreat at any time, anywhere.
I’ve had both.
The builder of my childhood home probably never intended the space to be a room, just a pause between the first and second stories. However, jutting out over the back porch, this ten-foot-square landing pad provided a near-perfect retreat for a teenage girl. My personal Camelot!
There was room for a single bed, an apple-box bedside stand, and a small desk with an old-fashioned brass goose-necked lamp. A small birdcage hung from a black wrought-iron stand, home to my beloved green parakeet, Keeto. Three walls were glass: No room for pictures. Double-paned windows in winter; screens for the seemingly way-too-short summer. I thought it hardly worth the labor, taking down the storm windows (washing them was my job) and replacing them with screens.
On mornings when neither rain nor snow pelted the east windows, Old Sol shot its warm rays through Venetian blinds, cozying up the space. Southward, a great expanse of green velvet rambled down to the churning whirlpools of the Red River. Whirlpools in summer, six feet of solid ice in winter. The ice’s break up in the spring probably fascinated me most. Lying in bed I could hear the cracking and crashing, as the huge pieces pummeled against each other.
Northward, wooded hills stretched toward Hudson Bay where I was certain couriers de bois still silently patrolled its lonely shores. Wrapped warmly in a comforter (hot chocolate leaving its ring on the tiny glass-topped desk), I often enjoyed a private viewing of the sunset playing itself out against the clouds or the ballet of colorful autumn leaves. In fall I might even take off on a virtual flight with the Canadian Geese.
And the West. No windows faced west, but that did not hinder my imagination. Something about the West called to me. I sensed that my place was somewhere out West, the land I had so often read about in stories and books. A place where uniqueness was valued, differences minimized. (It took several decades for me to reach the West—literally.)
And then our family moved to a new home, thousands of miles away in another country. The room of my own vanished with the miles.
Initially, like a fish out of water in the new environment (my brain’s opinion), I felt discouraged, devastated, even depressed. One evening, after a particularly harrowing day (again, my brain’s opinion), for the first time I went back in memory to my Camelot-landing. In an attempt to forget the present, I pulled up in my mind’s eye every detail. And in doing so, more details popped into my memory until it seemed as if I were once more actually there.
Those few minutes changed my life: Such an experience taught my brain it could create a virtual room in my mind at any time and in any place. A room of my own that could and would go with me no matter where I roamed on the planet.
“I get it,” said Nels. “A virtual room.”
“That’s doable,” said Neil. “Instead of staying up late waiting for some peace and quiet, I can just go to bed and be in my virtual room.”
“That would only work in my house if I wore earplugs,” said Anita, voicing a common male-female difference. (Males often focus more effectively when there is some distraction in the environment; females often do better in a quiet environment.)
Neil reached into a pocket and pulled out two pairs of ear plugs; one psychedelic green, the other bright orange. “Here you go,” he said, dropping them into Anita’s hand. “Take your pick. Even with earplugs I can still hear Puff the Magic dragons.”
She chose the psychedelic green and handed back the orange set. As they left my office they were all laughing. “Could we come back next week, just to check in?” Of course.
A room of one’s own: For some the concept is nebulous and theoretical, a puzzle, or even metaphorical. For others, it is clear and concrete.
Some say, "There isn't a chance!" or "Not in my lifetime!" or "Boy, do I wish!" Others jump at the opportunity and make it happen. I had no doubt that these three would do just that.
Do you have a room of your own? It’s a must! Literal or virtual--no matter. Either way, it’s a gift you give yourself.
Ah, yes. In my old room that wasn't really a room—I could dream. Oh, how I could dream! In that room I began to learn that there are always options, that everything is possible in some form or another, that the impossible just takes a little longer, and that scarcity can be turned into abundance if you are really committed to making that happen. Hmmm. I think I’ll take a short break and go there for a few minutes right now.