Not a dog’s chance of writing poetry

Virginia Woolf, in her room.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

If I am honest with myself, it was this paragraph from A Room of One’s Own that inspired my honors thesis on Woolf. Her chain of argument was fascinating to me, particularly when I saw it woven into her novels. Women have been poor–in station and in economy–for thousands of years. Women’s poverty has a direct correlation to a woman’s ability to create. And if women are to create, women must have a space to call their own. A strange series of points, perhaps, but I ended up writing about 120 pages on these basic ideas. My thesis turned out to be a statement on mothers as artists in Woolf’s novels and I think this paragraph is largely to blame.

I am returning to these ideas now, nearly nine months out of the university bubble, because they still ring true to me. In fact, I feel like I can see these ideas more clearly even now that I have been removed from the thrilling–if naive–atmosphere of amateur academia. Living and interacting with “real” women (not just my undergraduate peers), I feel like I have actually met the women that Woolf was writing about.

The women that I interact with are not necessarily hindered by poverty, but they do still face the limitations of privacy and space. Most of the married women I know have their homes as their personal dominions–they make the decorating decisions, they upholster the furniture, they keep it clean–but being an “Angel of the House” is entirely different from having a room of one’s own. Woolf writes about this as well; she points out that men may have their libraries and studies, to which they may retreat without interruption, but a woman has no such space. Even in the drawing room, she is open to constant interruption and distraction. No intense creative work can be accomplished in the family room or kitchen or even in one’s bedroom.

Therefore, women must have their own rooms–their own studies or work spaces. I feel like this is especially important for stay-at-home moms.

I think of my own mother. She sacrificed her career and her personal interests to stay at home with us and homeschool the four of us. Even though she always insists that she’s “not creative,” anyone who knows her knows that’s not true. She has a gifted eye for interior design and is a talented chef, gardener, and dresser. She fits the pattern of a lot of Woolf’s mothers, actually: the women who are creatively gifted but are forced by their domestic lifestyles to seek creative expression through alternative, non-traditional means (like caring about paint swatches, fabrics, and the symmetry of plants).

Mom never had a room of her own. How could she? At one point, she had four children under the age of 7. When would she even find the time to retreat? Dad had his study and his garage and now, his Man Cave, but Mom didn’t have a space of her own. She made our house a beautiful, open, and calming environment, but I found myself wondering where she went to regenerate from all of this beauty-making.

Today, now that most of her children have gone, I feel like she has made her garden her “room.” Dad built her these impressive tiered plots on the sides of the house. She finds a lot of joy in making things grow and digging in the dirt. On sunny days, you can find her rooting around in her gardens, taming plants and fretting about voles. On wet or cold days, she lurks around the windows and shouts at the squirrels who dare to disturb her bird feeders and bird baths. (Aside: I got an e-mail from Kelsey that said that Mom had recently acquired a rather extravagant birdhouse; Dad has been calling it the “Ritz-Carlton” of birdhouses. Apparently the Ritz-Carlton birdhouse has also brought out Mom’s inner elitist; Kels caught her chiding an ugly cardinal for daring to take residence there. The drab bird was not fit for such a home. Not fit, I say!)

I find myself rejoicing when mothers get rooms of their own; I feel like it’s a victory for womankind. I think of my friend Catherine’s mother, especially. Janet went back to law school after her kids had left the home and is now a devoted student and tireless advocate for the care and conservation of a local lake, Falls Lake. She turned Catherine’s old room into her study and it is a paean to Rooms of One’s Own everywhere; it is spacious and light, outfitted with a wide desk and a comfortable armchair and a basket of books and magazines. On the door, she even has a sign that reads, “The Falls Lake Center for Social Justice.”

In my own life, I have experienced the deep necessity of a Room of One’s Own. This opportunity came, quite appropriately, when I was thick in my thesis. During my senior year, I moved into a big house on a lovely street with six other girls. Yes, six. I shared a detached shed in the back with Caroline. The Shoebox, as we came to call it, was a gross, mostly dilapidated, and occasionally stressful place to live (construction at ALL hours of the day, not kidding. The dump trucks arrived at 4:30 a.m.).

My sanity was a bit wobbly my senior year, but the one thing that saved it was my closet in the main house. There was a white walk-in closet on the second floor of the house. Some of the other girls offered it to Caroline and me, since we definitely got the shaft as far as living arrangements were concerned. Caroline said she primarily studied in her room and so I was only too happy to take up residence there. I borrowed a tiny desk from my then future-in-laws and outfitted the room with books, stationery, pretty photographs, and an orchid. I did all of my best writing from that little room and I daresay I spent more time there than I did anywhere else. It absolutely saved my senior year and gave me unparalleled peace of mind. I took to calling it “ARMO” (A Room of My Own) and the moniker stuck.

Hard at work on my thesis. My tiny little desk in ARMO, October 15, 2009. Sigh. I miss that place.

Our current apartment is too small to accommodate my having another ARMO. We do have a small room with a desk in it, but this space has become Guion’s, since it is primarily occupied with his musical instruments, tools, and beer supplies. I keep my stationery and calligraphy supplies in there, but I don’t use the space that often, since I don’t have sole possession of it. But one day, one day, I keep telling myself, I’ll have an ARMO again. And then, perhaps, I will have a dog’s chance of writing poetry…

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