©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

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

articles200408There 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 16 and 17, 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 Anita.

“Yeah,” echoed the twins Neil and Nels in chorus.

The problem was that they 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.” His brother nodded vigorously. “And when we finally do go to bed,” Neil continued, “both my older brothers snort and snore like Puff the Magic Dragon. Their room is right across the hall from ours and the insulation just doesn’t cut it.” 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 think and figure things out. I want a room of my own, too, but my two sisters and I have to share a bedroom. It’s pretty tight in there.”

The three glanced around my office. “Not much space here,” said Nels. “Where do you think?”

“In my head,” I said. “I don’t need much space to think.” They laughed but I don’t think they got it. Anita’s next comment confirmed that.

“Well, I need space,” she said. “I need a room of my own with lots of space where I can think!”

Their collective problem 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 those three young people were saying. You need always to be thinking, exploring. The desired outcome will be to arrive where you began and, perhaps, truly know yourself for the first time. A room of one’s own is essential. Fortunately, 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 space 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 in that room of my own. 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:  I learned that my brain 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 across 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 gender difference. (Males often focus more effectively when there is some distraction in the environment; females often do better in a quiet environment.)

Opening a desk drawer I retrieved a bottle of soft foam earplugs. Psychedelic green and orange. “Here you go,” I said. “Take your pick.” I smiled over at Neil. “Earplugs may not completely eradicate the sounds of Puff-the-Magic dragons, but they may dampen the snorting and snoring to a more manageable roar.”

They each chose a pair and left my office laughing. “Could we come back next week again,” they wanted to know, “just to check in sort of?” Of course they could.

A room of one’s own. For some the concept is nebulous and theoretical, a puzzle, or even a ridiculous metaphor. For others, it is clear, concrete, and creative.

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 of my own 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, that scarcity can be turned into abundance if you are really committed to making that happen, and that when one door closes there is always another open door somewhere if you just turn your head and search for it.

Hmmm. I think I’ll take a short break and go back to that virtual room of my own for a few minutes, right now.